It's often argued about whether or not people who keep their limits of fish every time out are horrible monsters or not, and people who argue on both sides of that issue usually don't question their position very often. When it comes to catch and release fishing, however, many people view that practice as a near saintly exercise. And while I agree that catch and release fishing is fantastic (it's what I do 99% of the time), poor fish handling can actually be quite harmful to fish and may even lead to more dead fish than just taking a limit and heading home.
But if fish are handled properly, catch and release is easily the best way to minimize your impact when visiting a stream or lake. Here are the steps you can take to handle fish properly. And while they sound like a lot, they become second nature fairly quickly.
Use Barbless Hooks or Bend Down Your Barbs
Barbed hooks are actually counterproductive in fly fishing. A carryover from traditional gear where weighty lures, swimbaits, and crankbaits are used, barbs are meant to keep these heavier lures hooked when a fish shakes and rolls. The weight of these lures makes the barb necessary, but when using flies, there's simply not enough weight to cause the fly to need an extra anchor point. As long as you keep pressure on a fish, a barb is not needed. Bending down your barb or using barbless hooks makes releasing the fish MUCH easier, quicker, and does less harm to the fish's mouth. Some areas I fish require barbless hooks, and I've never noticed a higher rate of lost fish while using barbless hooks.
There are actually several advantages to using barbless hooks, and I'll cover those in a separate post. But note: if you are using lures, you will lose more fish with barbless hooks, it's just simply not true for fly fishing.
Don't Drag Your Fish Onto Land or Across Rocks
During the excitement of playing a hooked fish, we often focus on just getting the fish to hand so we can take that quick grip and grin photograph. It's common to "beach" a fish by dragging it up on the river bank or onto the lake shore, but this can be harmful to fish. The dragging on land can remove the fish's slime barrier, or a flopping fish can strike rocks and easily injure itself. Whenever possible, bring your fish to hand in the water or use a net.
Wet Your Hands and Use a Proper Net
Before picking the fish up, quickly wet your hands. This will make for a more gentle interaction and help the fish keep its slime barrier in place. If your net has been hanging from your back, give it a quick dip in the water ahead of netting the fish. The quick dip will cool the mesh and make it more slick.
Avoid nylon/rope knotted nets as they will harm a fish by removing scales along with the slime barrier. These nets are inexpensive, but they are brutal on fish. Look for a rubber mesh net for more gentle fish netting.
Keep Fish in the Water as Much as Possible
While removing the hook and getting the fish ready for a quick picture, try to keep the fish's head and gills in the water. Holding your fish in the net while cameras are readied is greatly beneficial to the fish. Pull the fish from the water only to quickly take a picture and a brief look.
Try your best to keep total out of water time to 10 seconds or less. Try to release a fish within 30 total seconds of landing it. Quicker releases are MUCH better. If a fish is particularly difficult, cut your losses and let it go. Don't sit and wait for it to calm down. That calming down might be a sign of exhaustion and distress from lack of oxygen.
Use a Light Grip and Cradle the Fish, Do Not Squeeze
When holding your fish, do your best to hold it as lightly as possible. Squeezing the fish is harmful and may actually cause it to struggle and flop more. Keep the fish calm with gentle handling, but if it flops, let it flop rather than squeezing it. To avoid squeezing out of reflex, try not to wrap your fingers or thumb around the fish. Hold the fish over water so that if it flops, it falls into the water and not on the ground or into the boat.
NEVER TOUCH THE FISH'S GILLS! Fish gills are literally the lifeblood of the fish, and touching them can easily damage them or introduce bacteria into them. Hooking a fish by the gill plate for a picture is highly dangerous for a fish. There's never a good reason to stick your fingers into the gills of a fish that you intend to release.
Tip: If you hold a fish on its side in the water, it will often quickly calm down.
Note: I wetted my gloves before lifting this fish. The impact of dry gloves on fish is still being debated, but cotton tailing gloves are showing potential signs of harm. More research on gloves needs to made, and I will act according to emerging data.
Wait for Fish to Revive Before Releasing
When releasing the fish, hold it gently in water until it is ready to swim away under its own power. If there is little current, slowly move the fish forward and backwards. When the fish is ready to leave under its own power, let it swim away and try to watch it go. If it turns sideways or upside down, see if you can get a hand back on it to steady it for a while longer. Never throw a fish back to the water as you won't have the ability to gauge its readiness to swim under its own power.
When it comes down to it, the faster and more gently you can release a fish, the better off it will be. Keep the fish in the water as much as possible, protect the fish's slime barrier, and avoid letting the fish fall on or strike hard surfaces. Everything listed above supports those three main points. Catch and release fishing is a great way to go about things, but it's only effective if practiced properly.