Refine Your Catch and Release: Ideas on How to Land and Handle Fish Safely
Updated: Nov 4, 2021
I've always been a staunch catch and release angler.
In fact, I have only kept somewhere between 20–30 fish in my nearly 30 years of fishing, and most of those were somewhat "forced" because I was fishing on party boats. I don't like to kill anything besides mosquitoes and no-see-ums (Florida anglers will understand that one), so my enjoyment comes from the fight and documenting my experiences with pictures.
Being a no-kill angler means I take safe fish handling seriously. Unfortunately, some anglers just aren't that careful in this regard. You don't even have to be on the water to witness it — social media is awash in pictures blatantly showing sloppy fish handling. Whether those people don't really care or genuinely don't know any better, being rough on a fish can injure it or result in death — even if that fish swims off instantly upon release.
Proper fish handling isn't complicated but often requires a little more effort on the angler's part. Some of the following tips are probably super obvious, but others are hopefully concepts that are new to you.
At any rate, here's a quick list of some thoughtful ways to help care for your catch and get them back on their way in great condition...
Gills- The gills allow a fish to breathe. Not only are they important, but they are delicate as well. Keep your fingers out of them and never hold up a fish by the gills that you intend to release.
Keep 'em Wet- You may have noticed the #keepemwet hashtag being pretty popular on Instagram. Keeping your catch in the water during the entire process of landing, unhooking, and picture taking reduces stress and chance of injury. If and when it's possible, this is a great practice to ensure the health of your catch.
Watch Out Below- When holding your fish up for pictures or admiration, keep them over the water if possible. That way if the fish happens to flop loose, it's much better if they land in water than on hard earth or worse...rocks. Water with some depth is best, but even a few inches of H20 under a fish is better than nothing. If you're holding a fish over land or very shallow water, it's also good to keep the fish low — especially if you think the fish can break free of your hands at any second. That way, if you do lose grip, the fish isn't falling such a great distance.
Keep the Fight Short- When fish fight on the end of your line, it causes a buildup of lactic acid in the muscles. If this buildup is too great for the fish to overcome, the result can be death which may actually occur hours after release. Lactic acid builds up more the longer you fight a fish, so it's best to land a fish as quickly as possible while they're still relatively fresh and vibrant.
Save the Slime- Slime serves purposes ranging from protecting fish from bacteria and parasites to simply allowing them to more easily slip through the water. Keeping a fish in the water and not touching them is the best way to keep the slime coat intact, but if you must touch them, thoroughly wet your hands first. For those fans of using nets, try using a good catch and release net with soft rubber mesh which is gentler on the fish. As an added bonus, this type of mesh won't snag hooks like traditional mesh will. Finally, avoid laying fish on dry earth or grass which can also strip the slime from a fish.
Make it Quick- Holding a fish out of water begins to dry out the gills and prolongs stress. As everyone knows, fish can also die or be very tough to release successfully if held out of the water for too long. I try to keep fish out of water no more than 30 seconds, but typically less. A lot of anglers will hold fish in the open air for much longer citing that the bass or whatever they just caught is "tough" and can take it, but I give every species the same level of respect. Take your pictures quickly and get that fish back in.
Lip 'em Right- Holding fish like bass, stripers, or snook by just the lower lip puts them at greater risk for injury if done wrong. If holding a fish in this manner, keep the fish vertical or as close to vertical as possible. When a fish is held by the lower lip but is tilted so that the body starts angling more outwards, jaw strain steadily increases as angle increases and damage can occur. The last thing you want to do is injure a fish so it has trouble feeding or can't feed at all.
Whenever I see a bass held by the lip with the fishes' body tilted up towards horizontal, the unnatural angle and appearance of stress is pretty blatant. If you'd like a nice horizontal profile shot, hold the lip with one hand but gently support the fish's body with the other. This is especially crucial with bigger fish. It seems more widely-accepted to hold smaller fish by just the lip, but bigger specimens have lot more mass which puts all of that weight squarely on the jaw. Support that body!
Tail 'em Right- Similar to the jaw, lifting a fish up by just the tail puts a lot of stress on that specific area which can cause harm. Many careful anglers like to initially land big fish by first grabbing the tail to gain control, but then will use the other hand to support the rest of the body before lifting the fish up. This is a great way to do it. Also, when supporting the body, do it evenly to prevent the fish from "drooping" or taking on a curved appearance. Holding a fish horizontally by both the tail and lip is about the worst possible combo and doesn't support the body evenly.
Don't Squeeze- Ever seen someone with a literal death grip on the middle of a fish where one hand is so tightly compressed it makes a bulge on either side? Doing that can cause internal damage. For fish that can easily be gripped with just one hand, I prefer to use a looser, more open "cradle" grip which doesn't squeeze the fish at all but rather lets it just rest comfortably in hand.
Respect the Release- It's always nice to give the fish a little respect by releasing them carefully rather than just tossing them back in quickly. This is really important when a fish is worn out from a prolonged battle. Take a few extra seconds and gently lay the fish into the water with their head facing into any current or wave action. I prefer to cradle them, or have one hand on the tail and/or the other on the body which helps keep them pointed in the right direction. The fish will be tired to some degree so you don't want to release them into a fast current, but a nice gentle water flow is perfect for some added oxygen. When the fish starts trying to kick away, let go and watch them swim off. If I'm having trouble getting a fish to take off, I'll gently move the fish side to side (while holding just the tail if possible) which simulates a kind of swimming motion and can jump-start an exhausted fish.
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