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Catch-And-Release: Caring for Trout Before, During, After the Catch

Angler Fly Fishing Tips

Aldo Leopold, in a way, is the father of the modern conservation movement, paving the way for a general mindset on how we perceive, support, and interact with nature. In his iconic work A Sand County Almanac, he presents one of the greatest conundrums we face in our time outdoors: “All conservation of wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish.”


This hits close to home for anglers. Our entire sport is defined by interacting with wildlife and dipping our toes in their world, which obviously has an impact on that wildlife, namely fish. We’re not fish watchers; we’re fish catchers. How can we appreciate those fish if we never see or interact with them? While we may not have an answer, it does present the fact that we have an extra responsibility to care for our catch because this paradox exists. 


We must interact with fish to appreciate them, which means we must protect them if we want to continue interacting with them.


Many anglers throughout history have approached catch and release from the human perspective. Legendary fly fisherman Lee Wulff thought of it this way: “The finest gift you can give to any fisherman is to put a good fish back, and who knows if the fish that you caught isn't someone else's gift to you?” And while his thinking isn’t wrong at all, we think it may be best to take it a step further—any fish has value, regardless of whether it'll be targeted by another angler at all. Each trout we catch is representative of countless more we’ll never see, and that’s a beautiful thing.


Ground zero for our daily conservation efforts happens each time we suit up for the river. If we can learn to protect the fish we target before, during, and after the catch, then we’ll be doing the best we can to keep them alive. It’s not a perfect model, but it’s what we’ve got. In this article, we’re going to offer up some tips for protecting your catch throughout the entire process. 


A quick note before diving in—we’re approaching this article from a trout perspective, but most (if not all) of these points apply to any fish, from largemouth bass to bonefish and everything in between. Ultimately, if you can follow these guidelines, then you’ll be setting your target up for the best-case scenario—another day in the water, with a community of anglers on their side. 

Before the Catch

It may be a morbid note to start with, but we all need to be honest about what we’re actually doing as anglers. It’s proven that catch-and-release fishing has a mortality rate. And, while it’s been debated by several outlets and in countless research projects, that rate generally falls between 2 percent and 6 percent. So, before you ever tie a fly on your line, we all need to recognize that even our best-intended pursuits have consequences. If you catch 20 trout in a single day, then the average tells us that we may kill one of them. 


Why is it helpful to know this? We’ll get to it specifically in a bit, but it should broadly tell you that following these steps is critical because with every mistake and oversight, that percentage increases. Let’s keep the odds in the fish’s favor.

Use the Right Tackle

Gear matters. Of course, to be an effective angler, you need to know how to use your tackle, but it also matters for the fish, too. For example, if you take your three-weight on a larger river that consistently holds 16- to 20-inch trout, then you’re under-gunned. If you do manage to land a large fish, it will most likely take you far too long and your catch will be past the point of exhaustion. 
When in doubt, select tackle for the largest fish you have the potential to catch. For example, if you’re fishing the Dream Stream, you’ll want a five- to six-weight rod (we’d recommend the Vesper or the Drifter). Or, if you’re in small, alpine streams targeting 6- to 12-inch brook trout, you can get away with a three-weight Revival, no problem.
And don’t forget about leaders and tippet. Even if you have the appropriate rod weight, you want the line to match. Landing a 20-inch rainbow on a 7x tippet is not an easy task. 
Lastly, and most importantly for trout, have a quality net with rubber or silicone netting. It will reduce the time needed to land a fish, decrease handling time, and help you get your catch back in the water more quickly.
 

Have Your Gear Ready

It doesn’t really matter what gear you have if you’re not ready to use it. Before you cast a fly, make sure you’ve got your setup dialed in—know how to retrieve your net quickly (we recommend a magnetic tether system), be well-practiced in landing fish, and if you’re wanting to take a photo, have a friend ready with a phone or camera so you’re not fumbling around with a fish in the net. Also, have a pair of hemostats ready for removing your fly.

Know Your Environment

It’s also a good idea to have an idea of where you’re fishing and the circumstances you’re fishing. From a broad perspective, know what type of fish and the general sizes you could encounter in the water. Know the water temperature (any reputable fly shop will know this), so you can call it quits if things heat up too quickly. We wrote an entire article on this, if you need a refresher, but under 65 degrees is good and under 60 degrees is optimal. And, on a ground level, know your footing. Are you near manageable water to land your catch or are you going to be tripping over submerged logs or wading through mud? These are all good things to know before setting the hook.
netting a trout on the south fork of the snake river

During the Catch

Now, if all things go to plan, you set the hook and you’re ready for a fight. If you selected the appropriate tackle, then you shouldn’t have too much to worry about here, but there are a few things to keep in mind. First, you want to make sure you’re playing the fish for the appropriate amount of time. Obviously, you don’t want to dilly-dally too much. The longer the fish is on the line, the more energy it’s using, and the more exhaustion it’ll be facing for the release. So, fight with the intention to net the fish, not to play with it in the water.


That being said, there is a world where fish come to the net a bit too quickly. Particularly, if you’re using a heavier rod and tippet where you can get away with strong-arming your catch, you can get even a large fish in the net in a matter of seconds. It’s best to let larger fish expend a bit of energy before they get to the net because, if they’re too lively, they run the risk of beating themselves up when they get to the net. With experience, you’ll find the sweet spot—get the fish to the net quickly and efficiently. If you’re forcing it or playing with it, you’re probably doing it wrong. 


Lastly, don’t drag your fish over shallow rocks to get it to the net. A thrashing trout is only concerned about one thing—getting off the hook—and will beat itself to a pulp without thinking twice. Do your best to manage the fish in at least 12 inches of water if you can.

After the Catch

Obviously, when you’re in contact with the fish is the most critical phase. Nothing signals an experienced angler more quickly than landing a fish quickly, gently, and efficiently so they can get it back in the river as quickly as possible. To get to that point, follow this steps:

Use a Net

We’ll say it again: you need a net. We’ve all tried to land trout with our bare hands and we all know what happens—we slip, drop it, it flops out of our hands, or we lose it before we even land it. And, nets with rubber or silicone netting are less abrasive than nylon or cotton nets, which will protect that slimy, protective layer that coats the fish.
As you’re fighting the fish, untether your net and keep it by your side. When you feel like the trout is ready to come in, raise your rod tip high over your head and scoop under the fish with a swift, deliberate motion. Once the fish is secure in the net, lower it partially in the water to keep the fish wet.

Hold it properly (or not at all)

Now that you have your catch, you need to get to work. If you’re not taking a photo or the fly is easily removable, the best case scenario is to not handle it at all. Take a mental photo, remove the hook with your hemostats, and send the fish on its way. But, sometimes handling the fish is unavoidable. If that’s the case, be sure to remove any gloves, wet your hands, and gently pick up your catch. One of the biggest mistakes anglers make is holding the fish too tightly, which can injure it and also cause it to thrash even more. Hold it with a light, gently grasp underneath and never grab it by the lip or the gills. Also, be sure to hold your fish close to the water above the net. If it does flop and you lose your grasp, you want it back in the net so you don’t have to fight it again, and you also want to avoid it hitting any shallow rocks or dry land.

Let It Go

The key to this whole process is calm efficiency. You don’t need to be in a mad rush, especially if the fish is wet and healthy, but you want to get it back in the water as quickly as possible. Once the fly is removed, gauge the fish’s overall condition. If the fight was short and the fish seems to be lively, simply turn it back into the water. If it was a more arduous fight and the fish seems a bit lethargic, you’ll need to be a bit more intentional.
If you can, find some water that’s moving, but not too swiftly. Moving water has more oxygen, but you also don’t want the fish to be swept downstream in an exhausted condition. Wet your hands, lift the fish out of the net, and hold it just below the surface of the water, gently moving it back and forth. In just a few seconds, you’ll notice the fish start to liven up a bit and, once it starts flopping, release it back into gently moving water.

 

“Ethical behavior is doing the right thing when no one else is watching—even when doing the wrong thing is legal.”

 

As anglers, we must hold to higher ethical standards because of the nature of our pursuits. We’re toeing the line between life and death with these fish, which means we need to take what we do seriously if we want to keep them alive—and oftentimes, this means even holding to a higher standard than what’s expected of us. 


Here’s another quote from Aldo Leopold: “Ethical behavior is doing the right thing when no one else is watching—even when doing the wrong thing is legal.”


In other words, let’s take pride in our ethical standards. Sure, it’s legal to catch 100 cutthroats in a day, but isn’t a dozen or so enough? It’s legal to fish in the same pool all day, but why not move down river and give those fish a break? It’s legal to head to the river on Labor Day Weekend, but can you make it to the water on a less-crowded day? All of these decisions have consequences and they shouldn’t seem like limitations—they should seem like a privilege. 


Every time we hook a trout, we get the opportunity to dance with a beautiful and ancient part of the natural world. As we all know, a trout in the net is a beautiful thing, but a healthy population of trout swimming freely is priceless. Let’s act accordingly.


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