Catch & Release Fish Handling Techniques

Proper fish handling techniques are simple and can be applied across species. The more techniques you employ increases the likelihood that released fish will survive to spawn (or be caught again). Keeping sportfish populations strong begins with individual fish.

  1. Minimize fight time. Exhausted fish have a difficult time recovering from being caught and are more susceptible to predation and swift currents than fish quickly brought to hand. Exhausted fish may be unable to fulfill their parenting responsibilities, hurting the next generation of fish.
  2. Use low-impact equipment and lures. Using artificial lures has been proven to reduce fish mortality relative to bait; flies and single-hooked lures have the lowest associated impact. Equipment manufacturers are constantly developing new products to help minimize our impact on caught fish. Employing small-mesh rubber nets, barbless single hooks, and adequately-rated rods and lines all help get released fish back at it.
  3. Avoid air exposure. Most sport fish are unable to respire unless their gills are submerged. Keeping a fish above water prevents the fish from ‘breathing’ and further adds to angling-induced stress. We understand some fish are more resilient than others in this regard; especially those that live in warm water environments. But we believe in keeping all fish in the water and will only display photos of fish in the water (as demonstrated on this page here).
  4. Handle fish gently. It’s common to see anglers beaching their catch in many of our fisheries. While a simple way to bring a fish to hand, dragging a live fish cross rocks and sand can cause damage to gills, eyes, and the protective mucus barrier (slime). Learn to ‘tail’ a caught fish by grasping it by the wrist, found just north of a fish’s tail. Tailing restricts a fish’s ability to move, easing control and minimizing mucus loss from unnecessary contact. Wet hands help keep fish slimy and parasite-free.
  5. Watch the water temperature. Warm water contains less available dissolved oxygen than cool water, making recovery that much more difficult on caught fish. Salmonids, in particular, are sensitive to water temperature; fishing in water temperatures exceeding the mid-60s can be detrimental to caught salmonids. In those dog days of summer, it’s often better to swim with the fishes than trying to bring one to hand.
  6. Manage barotrauma. Deep-dwelling fish may experience injury if brought to the surface quickly. Barotrauma can cause bulging eyes, distended organs, and marked behavioral changes. Fish caught in more than 30 feet of water should be brought to the surface slowly (contrary to tactics for surface fish) and examined for signs of barotrauma. Released fish exhibiting signs of barotrauma should be lowered back to depth with a specialty or DIY descending device as soon as the fish is brought to hand. “Fizzing” or “venting” helps with immediate decompression but often leads to organ damage and should be avoided.

Written by @Evan B for
About author
Evan B
Evan is one of the original co-founding members of PNW Fly Fishing. He was working full time in the fly fishing industry since 2010, moving on in 2023 to other things. He helped build and grow some of the most recognized brands in the fly fishing world.


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Evan Burck
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