How to Handle Fish the Right Way

Catch-and-release fishing has a lot of value in the outdoor recreation world. Releasing fish keeps populations strong, and money from license sales to fishing hobbyists goes toward conservation. If practicing catch-and-release, a family can fish all day without having to stop after a few fish.

Despite its many benefits, there’s a dark side of catch-and-release that many people don’t know. Many fish that are released back into the water don’t make it. Studies have shown an average of around 4% mortality for fly-caught rainbow trout. These numbers do depend a lot on other factors like water temperature and how the fish were hooked, but at the end of the day, any fish that dies post-release isn’t good.

I do want to be clear that I have no issue with catching and keeping within regulations. Fish are a tasty source of protein, and it’s rewarding to provide your own food. Keeping a reasonable number of fish can also help the remaining population to grow stronger and healthier, as they won’t need to compete as much for the same resources.

With that being said, if you’re going to release a fish, you obviously intend for it to live. And, if you already have your limit for the day and you accidentally kill another, you just broke the law.

What’s hard is that many people are completely unaware that some trout die after release. A fish may swim away and look fine, only to die later from blood loss, exhaustion, or something else. While we’ll probably never be able to completely eliminate unintended trout death, there are plenty of steps you can take to give your released fish the best chance at survival.

Know how to revive a fish

Reviving a fish is one of the first things people learn to do when they are taught to fish catch-and-release. Not everyone learns it correctly, though.

Some people think dragging the fish back and forth is the way to go. Others think letting it sit still in nonmoving water will give it the best chance at recovery.

The truth is somewhere in between these ideas.

Fish need water to move over their gills in order to pull out oxygen. This means that in still water, the fish should be moved through it. Instead of back and forth though, only move the fish forward. Gills are designed to have water flow over them from the front. Dragging the fish back through the water does not give them an efficient supply of oxygen. You can keep the trout moving forward by moving it in a figure-8 through still water.

If you’re stream fishing, it’s a little easier. You don’t want to try to revive the fish in a strong current, as it’ll already be exhausted. Odds are, you probably landed the fish somewhat close to shore. This is perfect, because you can find a pocket of water that is calm but still moving. Cradle the trout in your hands underwater and face it upstream. Your support will keep it from sinking or going belly-up, and the current will do the work of moving water over its gills.

Sometimes you’ll need to give the fish a little encouragement to get going once it’s ready, but ideally if it’s revived, it will swim right out of your hands when it’s ready to go.

Two brook trout in a net.

Don’t play your fish to exhaustion

Playing a fish is a ton of fun. Many would argue that fighting the fish is more exciting than landing it. Playing a fish too much, however, isn’t good. Overplaying a fish may be one of the worst things you can do when trying to successfully release it after. Exhausted fish may swim away in calm water and look fine, only to get into faster current and go belly-up a few minutes later.

Obviously, making sure you give the fish ample time to recover is also crucial, but being diligent about playing the fish properly is the first step.

There are a couple things you can do to be an effective fish fighter.

Use the right rod

Using the right rod for the job is vital. Fly rods come in lots of different weights to accommodate a variety of waters and species. Trying to catch 20″ trout on a 3 weight rod can sure be fun, but in reality, a 4 or 5 weight is probably better cut out for the job. Using too light of a rod means that it will take you longer to bring in the fish. You could land a lunker on a 2 weight if you really tried, but making the fish fight for 30 minutes could be a death sentence.

Fighting a fish in fast water can also be a concern. It’s much easier to bring in a large trout when there’s no current working against you. Ever had a big fish turn into dead weight when it goes downstream? If you’re fishing rougher water, consider that when you choose your rod weight.

For most trout situations, a 4 or 5 weight rod should be just right. These rods will provide enough of a backbone for you to confidently play the fish, without being too stiff to make it a snooze fest.

Use the right tippet

I’ll be brief in this section, because it’s the exact same argument as using the right rod. Although you’ll want to use a thin enough tippet to work your fly properly and get fish to bite (Check out my Guide to Leaders and Tippet), you don’t want to go thinner than necessary. Using the thickest tippet appropriate for your situation will give you the ability to bring the fish in faster.

If you’re constantly trying to let the fish run in order to keep the tippet from breaking, consider trying one size up. For most scenarios, 5X-6X tippet will be fine, and it’s rare that you’ll need to drop to 7X.

Know how to use side pressure

Side pressure is a skill most often used by intermediate or advanced fly fishermen, but it’s important to know if you want to be good at playing fish. Most beginners follow the “keep your rod tip up!” rule, which will get the job done, but not efficiently. The reality is that there are times when your rod should not be up. If a fish darts downstream and you lift your rod, you can kiss that fish goodbye.

Instead, side pressure will allow you to guide the fish where you want it to go. Instead of pulling against the current and the fish, move your rod left and right to match the fish’s direction of travel and work perpendicular to the current. Using side pressure to maneuver the fish toward your shoreline will cut back on the time needed to land it, making it easier to revive it later. Check out this article on How to Use Side Pressure to Catch More Fish.

Wet your hands

This is one of the easiest things you can do to give your trout a good chance of survival. At this point, it seems like common knowledge, but I still meet people all the time who don’t understand why you’re supposed to wet your hands.

Trout have a protective layer of slime on their bodies that keeps them safe from fungal and bacterial infections. It also allows them to slip efficiently through the water.

When you handle a fish with dry hands, the slime sticks to you and rubs off the fish. Not only is this gross for you, but it can be potentially deadly for the trout. Even though it will appear to be just fine upon release, gaps in the protective slime layer leave the trout vulnerable to infections down the road.

The simple solution is to just wet your hands before grabbing a fish. Wet hands will slide along the slime instead of rubbing it off. For the same reason, avoid using gloves when handling fish, as these can be abrasive and act like dry hands.

Instead of trying to lift the fish up by the line, simply reaching down in the water to pick it up will take care of the work for you. This easy step can be the difference between a healthy trout and a dead trout.

Use the right net

Using the right net can also make a big difference for the slime layer on fish. Just like dry hands and gloves, mesh or string nets can be extremely abrasive on slimy fish skin.

Instead, opt for a rubber net. The smooth rubber netting will glide along the trout’s skin instead of scraping it, making it much less stressful on the fish.

The other upside to rubber nets (if you need another one) is that you won’t get snagged on it nearly as much. Mesh nets are magnets for flying hooks, and getting them unstuck can be a nightmare. Rubber nets rarely get caught up with flies, and if they do, are super easy to undo.

Rubber nets can be a little pricier than mesh, but if you get a good quality net, it will last you years and be well worth the price, especially if it protects the fish you’re targeting.

Keep the fish wet

In addition to keeping your hands wet, keeping the fish wet is important, too. This means limiting the time you spend taking photos, showing your friends your fish, etc.

This is pretty logical really. If someone held you under water for two minutes, would you be in tip-top shape and ready to take on the world afterward? Probably not. But we do this to fish all the time. Keeping the fish in the water as much as possible will give it the greatest chance at survival.

This doesn’t mean you can’t hold the fish up for a few seconds to get a snapshot, but instead of holding the fish in the air while you get situated, try keeping the fish submerged until you are ready to actually take the picture. This can easily be done in your net.

If for some reason you have the fish out of the water for an extended period of time (say, a stubborn hook), make sure you give it ample time to recover in calm water before sending it out into a faster current.

More and more people these days are also taking an even better proactive approach to keeping their fish wet and still getting photos. Actually taking photos of the fish partially or fully in the water is quickly becoming popular, giving the traditional grip-n-grin a run for its money. Don’t think aquatic photos can be appealing? Take a look at some of these if you’re still not convinced.

Use barbless hooks

There’s been a lot of debate about whether using barbless hooks actually matters when it comes to reviving fish. At the end of the day, I think it does matter, but not because the barb itself is somehow damaging to the fish.

You just spent several minutes hauling a fish in by the mouth and snatching it up for a photo. A tiny extra piece of metal on the hook probably isn’t going to be the tipping point.

This is especially true for fly fishing. Compared to baitfishing, where the hook and bait are often half way down the trout’s throat, fly fishing is relatively non-intrusive. Flies are almost always lodged right where you want them, in the corner or top of the mouth. I could see barbs being a bigger issue if you were trying to dig a hook out of a fish’s gullet, but a little barb in the lip isn’t going to kill a fish.

However, I do think fishing barbless hooks is beneficial for another reason: they significantly decrease the time and handling needed to remove the hook. With barbed hooks, you’ll often spend 30 seconds or more holding the trout every which way to get the hook out. Even though the hook itself isn’t that damaging, you could be doing harm to the fish yourself.

Barbless hooks often slip out with one pull, and sometimes come dislodged on their own in the net before you even have to do anything.

For this reason alone, I think it’s a good idea to use barbless hooks when you can, even if it’s not one of the more major points on this list.

Hold your fish the right way

This is a rule I see beginners break all the time. Plenty of people want to learn how to cast, play, and land a fish, but then stop learning once they have it in the net. Your job isn’t done when you have the fish. You still need to take care of it until it’s back in the water.

Holding a trout the right way isn’t hard, but many bass fishermen apply their techniques to trout, which doesn’t translate well.

Holding a trout the right way takes stress off its body, and also reduces the risk of dropping it. Lots of people think you should hold a trout by the lip or gills. Both of these are terrible techniques if you’re trying to practice catch and release.

Instead, support the trout’s entire body.

Fishes’ entire bodies are designed to constantly be supported by water. To be supported by only a portion at a time puts stress on the rest of the body. Using two hands, one near the tail and the other near the pectoral fins, will adequately support the trout and keep it strong.

In addition to the benefits on the body, keeping your hands out of the gills and mouth is helpful in itself. Gills are fragile, and if they become damaged, it can be fatal for the fish. Damaging a trout’s jaw by holding its entire body weight by the lip can be extremely detrimental, too.

Holding a fish properly also reduces the risk of dropping it on rocks or a boat deck. Trout have fragile bodies, and slamming down on hard surfaces can do irreparable damage to them. Not to mention, it’s really annoying to be chasing a slippery trout around as it flops on the ground.

Using the grip I mentioned above will give you control over a squirming fish, and you should be able to prevent most “fish flops” before they actually make it out of your hands and onto the ground.

Next time you’re on the water, try a couple (or all) of these pointers, and sleep well knowing that the fish you released will probably live to be caught again someday.

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This is a list I made and use for my own trips, and I think any backcountry angler will find it handy.