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Conservation • Updated Thu, Mar 7, 2024

Catch and Release Best Practices

Catch and release is not just a technique; it's an ethical approach to fishing that prioritizes the well-being of fish and their habitats. By respecting size limits, handling fish with care, and using appropriate gear, anglers can ensure that released fish survive and thrive. In this guide, we'll delve into best practices for catch and release, sharing insights into the refinement and standardization of these practices.

Wet release of a tarpon. Courtesy of 239 Flies.

Wet release of a tarpon. Courtesy of 239 Flies.

This article covers:

History of Catch and Release in Fisheries Conservation

As we marvel at the thrill of muskie management or fly fishing for snook, it's crucial to remember that our actions have a direct impact on these aquatic ecosystems. Catch and release aligns with fishing conservation efforts — allowing us to enjoy fishing while also supporting healthy, thriving fish populations for generations to come. 

Catch and release began gaining momentum as early as the late 19th century, but it wasn’t until 1952 that the government got involved. In an attempt to reduce costs involved with stocking hatchery-raised trout, the state of Michigan implemented “no-kill” zones that anglers willingly abided by. The evolution of catch and release was not an overnight process, but rather a gradual shift in angling ethics.

Advancements in Fishing Gear

From using simple hand lines and rods, advancements in fishing gear paved the way for more humane techniques. The introduction of barbless hooks and rubber nets significantly reduced post-release mortality rates among fish. Similarly, guidelines were developed over time to educate anglers on best practices, such as minimizing handling time and avoiding the removal of fish from the water.

Global Popularity

The popularity of catch and release caught on as anglers globally began appreciating the balance between sport and conservation. Today, it is not uncommon to find dedicated catch-and-release lakes or rivers where the thrill of the catch is intertwined with the joy of watching a healthy fish swim away.

Ongoing Evolution

While this practice has come a long way since its inception, it continues to evolve. Be it through innovative gear or education initiatives, the ethos behind catch and release remains firm — sustaining our precious aquatic resources for future generations.

Preparing for a Successful Catch and Release

When it comes to catch and release, being prepared means more than just having a good time fishing. It means taking care of the fish and their home.

Using the Right Gear and Tackle

One of the most important things when it comes to catch and release is using the right gear and tackle. You don’t want to overstress the fish and potentially kill it by using the wrong rod and reel pairing — forcing the fish to put up a greater and unnecessary fight. Utilizing the right pound-test line will help to reduce stress on the fish and ensure an exciting and safe catch. Hooks and hook removal are another essential element of catch and release that we’ll dive into greater depth here:

Catch and Release Hooks: These hooks are designed to be less harmful to fish. Regular hooks with barbs can cause serious damage, making it harder for fish to recover after they're released. Using barbless hooks or flattening the barbs on your existing hooks can make it easier to remove them.

Hook Removal Tools: Having needle-nose pliers or a hook remover nearby can help you safely take out the hook from the fish's mouth.

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Successful employment of a net in catch and release. Courtesy of Wesley Hodges Fly Fishing.

Understanding Regulations and Size Limits

Wherever you’re fishing, there are regulations in place to protect and sustain those fisheries. Here are some things to keep in mind when it comes to staying on top of your local regulations:

Fishing Regulations: Make sure you know what the local catch limits are, as well as any size restrictions or seasonal guidelines. These rules are in place to help maintain healthy fish populations and keep our ecosystems balanced. Before you go fishing, look up regulations in the area you’re fishing to ensure you stay within the state or local limitations. 

Size Limits: Understanding which fish you should keep and which ones you should release is crucial. Letting small or young fish go gives them a chance to grow and reproduce, which helps keep the population strong — and gives future anglers a chance for an even bigger fish.

Proper Techniques for Handling Fish with Care

In the world of catch and release, knowing how to handle your catch is crucial. Think of it as a dance, where every move counts towards a successful release. Equipped with a sense of preparation and respect, you can ensure that the fish live to swim another day.

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Wet hand catch and release of bonefish in Key Largo, Florida. Courtesy of Bone Collector Kayak Fishing.

Minimize Handling Time

One of the best practices when it comes to catch and release is to minimize handling time. The less time a fish spends out of water, the higher its chances of survival. Just imagine holding your breath underwater - that's what a fish goes through when it's out of its natural habitat. Here are some tips to minimize handling time:

Use wet hands or gloves: Wetting your hands before touching the fish reduces the removal of their protective slime coating which wards off disease and infection.

Handle with care: Be gentle when handling the fish, avoiding any unnecessary squeezing or gripping.

Proper Support for the Fish's Body

Always hold the fish horizontally rather than vertically. The internal organs of fish are not adapted to withstand gravity in our world above water. Holding them vertically can cause undue stress and potential injury.

For larger species, like barracudas or tarpon, extra care should be taken while handling due to their size and weight.

On the other hand, if you're fortunate enough to encounter the fastest swimmers in the ocean such as marlins or sailfish, you'll need different techniques due to their unique body structure. For these larger species, leave them in the water to prevent their body from collapsing or suffering internal damage due to gravity. 

Utilizing a Net

A well-designed landing net can reduce the risk of injury for bigger fish. The soft, knotless mesh minimizes harm to the fish's skin, scales, and fins. Landing nets specifically designed for catch and release have flat bottoms and are made with rubber or rubber-coated nylon. However, improper use of landing nets can lead to harm. To prevent harm, avoid lifting the fish out of the water using the net alone as this can cause unnecessary stress and potential damage. Instead, cradle the fish in your other hand while using the net for support.

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Proper handling and use of net in catch and release of smallmouth bass. Courtesy of Blue Ridge Musky.

Keeping Fish in the Water

When it comes to releasing fish, ensuring their survival is paramount. One effective method for ensuring survival after catching is by performing wet releases, where the fish is kept submerged in water during the release process. This approach is favored by many anglers because it reduces stress and potential damage to the fish, allowing them to recover more quickly. 

Performing a wet release involves carefully removing the hook while the fish remains underwater. This technique requires skill and experience to execute properly, but it greatly benefits the fish's well-being. While some may argue that struggling fish underwater could cause harm, proper handling techniques can mitigate this risk.

Ultimately, the goal of catch and release fishing is to minimize harm and stress to the fish. While wet releases may not always be feasible or necessary, understanding their benefits and practicing proper techniques can greatly improve the survival rates of released fish. 

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Keeping a tarpon in the waters of Bonita Springs, Florida. Courtesy of 239 Flies.

Adapting to Different Species and Environments

When you practice catch and release on your next angling adventure, it's important to understand that there isn't a single approach that works for all fish. Each fish species is unique, and they live in different habitats, which means you need to adjust your fish-releasing methods accordingly.

Understanding Different Fish Species

Let's take striped bass as an example. These strong fighters require a specific way of handling them to ensure they survive after being released. When you hold a striped bass, make sure to support its weight horizontally instead of vertically. This prevents any unnecessary pressure on its internal organs, increasing its chances of survival.

Considering the Habitat

The environment where you catch a fish also affects how you should release it back into the water. In shallow waters, be careful when releasing fish to avoid shocking them with sudden changes in water pressure or temperature. In colder waters, you might need to spend extra time reviving a fish before releasing it by gently moving water over its gills.

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Releasing smallmouth bass in shallow water. Courtesy of Blue Ridge Musky.

The Role of Technology in Enhancing Catch and Release Survival

New advancements in gear and equipment can greatly improve the chances of survival for fish that are released back into the water. It's important to understand these tools, how they should be used when handling fish, and how they can be incorporated into your fishing routine.

Catch and Release Hooks

One example of innovative technology in catch and release fishing is the development of special hooks designed to minimize harm to fish and make hook removal easier. There are two types of hooks that are commonly used for this purpose:

Barbless Hooks: These hooks do not have the small barb at the end that traditional hooks have. This makes it easier to remove the hook from a fish's mouth without causing further injury.

Circle Hooks: These hooks are shaped in a way that makes it less likely for a fish to swallow them deeply. When a fish bites on a circle hook, it is more likely to get caught in the corner of its mouth, which reduces the risk of internal damage.

Livewell Oxygenation Devices

Livewell oxygenation devices are another technological tool that can be beneficial for catch and release fishing. These devices help regulate the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water where you temporarily keep your catch. Maintaining proper oxygen levels in the livewell reduces stress on the fish, which in turn increases their chances of surviving once they are released back into the wild.

Digital Fish Scales with Built-In Lip Gripper

While not specifically designed for catch and release fishing, digital fish scales with a built-in lip gripper can still be useful in minimizing harm to fish. These scales allow you to securely hold the fish while weighing it, which reduces the likelihood of dropping or mishandling it.

By embracing these technological advancements, you can improve your catch and release practices. Not only will these tools increase your effectiveness as an angler, but they will also support our shared goal of sustainable fishing conservation.

Spreading the Message: Ethical Angling and Conservation Ethics

Embracing ethical angling and conservation ethics is vital to ensure healthy fish populations for generations to come. Education plays a pivotal role in promoting catch and release best practices. Workshops, tutorials, or informative platforms can effectively help anglers understand the significance of these practices.

In parallel, community outreach efforts amplify the impact of this education. Sharing personal experiences, organizing community fishing events, or even posting about your responsible fishing adventures on social media can inspire more anglers to follow suit.

Local fishing clubs and organizations can be instrumental in these outreach efforts. They can host seminars or create learning resources that highlight the importance of ethical angling and conservation.

To learn more about local organizations working to preserve our nation’s fisheries, check out AnyCreek’s “Conserve on 7” initiative.

The Future of Catch and Release Conservation

Catch and release fishing involves more than just releasing fish; it encompasses various conservation practices that anglers are encouraged to consider when on the water:

Habitat Protection

By safeguarding the waters where fish thrive, we can ensure that their habitats remain undisturbed for future generations.

Selective Harvest

Balancing the catch for consumption with species health and ecosystem stability is crucial in maintaining a sustainable fishing environment.

Restocking Programs

Collaborating with fisheries to replenish populations that are under threat helps in restoring the balance of aquatic life.

Research Participation

Contributing to scientific studies that aim to understand and better manage fish populations is an essential part of sustainable fishing.

By following the best practices outlined throughout this guide—such as using appropriate gear, handling fish with care, understanding species-specific needs, and using technology responsibly—anglers can significantly improve the chances of released fish surviving.

Catch and Release FAQ

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