Practicing Proper Catch-and-Release

written by staff

Many beginning (and even advanced) anglers do not know the proper way to release a fish. Some are doing it the right way, and most think they are. This quick article covers how to land and release a fish to ensure its survival.





Locating and coaxing fish is a challenge in itself, but after time spent trying to get the bite, the charge of a steelhead or salmon can catch you off guard. These are mini-freight trains in the river, stripping off 100 yards of line in a few seconds and then leaping 5 feet in the air. If you aren’t prepared, that fish will snap your line in a second. The first and most important step comes before you even cast – set your drag! These fish are going to run, and fights can last 10 minutes or more. Keep a low drag and plenty of patience once you hook up, and let that fish run. Despite your immediate natural reaction, DO NOT grab the reel or try to turn the fish around during a charge like this, or you will pay for it. Also, be prepared to have to run up or down a bank if that fish keeps going. When the fish grabs, keep your rod tip straight up in the air to handle the first charges of the fish. During leaps, drop that rod tip down in the water so that the tension doesn’t rip the line. The energy of the initial charges will eventually slow it down, and when you get the fish turned around, lower your rod to your side, so it is at a parallel angle with the ground. To quickly tire the fish out, keep gentle “pumping” pressure on the tip of the rod as it is at your side. Always keep your rod pressure coming from the tail end of the fish. Many times when a fish is coming in from upstream of where you are standing, and your rod is angled downstream, the angle of the pressure will pull the fly/lure right out of the fishes mouth. Always keep your rod tip pointed the opposite way of the face of the fish. Following this will keep that fish on your line, and will also help land it more quickly, which highly decreases mortality rates.




The fish on the line is fighting for its life, and putting all its energy into surviving. This fight leaves the fish physically drained. It is extremely important if you are releasing the fish to follow these simple instructions:


1.   First, if practicing catch-and-release, ALWAYS use barbless hooks.


2.   Keep the fish in the water to unhook and release it. Don’t drag it onto the shore or over rocks. The barbless hook will slide right out without any of the tearing or resistance of a barbed hook. If the hook is swallowed, do not attempt to remove the hook. Doing so will always kill the fish. If possible, use a pair of hook cutters to cut the hook, otherwise leave it in and cut the line as close to the hook as possible without harming the fish or moving the hook.


3.   Wet your hands before touching or handling the fish. Trout have a protective slime on their bodies that acts as an exo-immune system, blocking out bacteria and disease. DO NOT handle a trout with a rag, cloth or clothing, as it will remove the protective slime and potentially cause infection in the fish.


4.   Salmon and steelhead are incredibly strong, and can be impossible to hold sometimes, especially if they were landed with fight left in them. Firmly grab the fish by the tail with your stronger hand, and gently cradle the chest of the fish with the other hand to support its weight. Trout and salmon have delicate internal organs and soft stomachs, so be very careful not to damage those organs by squeezing or grabbing the belly of the fish. Finally, DO NOT hold the fish up vertically by the gills, as the weight of the fish can cause tremendous harm. Always hold the fish over water, so if it flips out of your hands it is not harmed from slamming onto hard ground or rocks. If you are getting a picture, be ready and do it quickly to keep the time the fish is out of the water to an absolute minimum. 


TheProperHold5.   YOU MUST REVIVE THE FISH!  Slowly and carefully walk the fish into the current, holding it in place with one hand around the tail and gently cradling the chest of the fish with the other, keeping its head facing into the current. The fish needs to get oxygen moving through its gills again in order to revive itself. If and only if there is no current in your area and the fish is not kicking off after holding it for a few minutes, SLOWLY rock the fish back and forth in river to get water and oxygen flowing through it’s gills. The fish will let you know when it is ready to go, it will kick its tail to swim off. When the fish is ready to go, you won’t be able to hold it anymore. Let the fish force you to know when it is ready, and just be patient. This process can take anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes. Releasing the fish before revival can cause it to go belly-up or simply drift away with the current, in which case it will not survive.


Follow this process, and that fish will be there to chase another day.




Catch-and-release is effective when done properly. The survival rates of released fish can consistently hover at or just under 100% with proper handling, barbless hooks, and restraining from fishing for temperature-sensitive fish like trout, when waters are too warm. If you do lose a fish, we encourage you to take the fish home for a meal. We believe that no living animal or fish should die in vain – if the fish lost its life in your hands, put that fish to good use and feed yourself and your family. We tend to forget that fish mortality occurs annually in nature, and there was a time when everyone who caught a fish, threw it in the frying pan. Our fisheries today are very well maintained thanks to state park departments and the practice of catch-and-release, it is ok to conservatively take the smaller fish home for a meal every now and then.



Special thanks to G.L. Britton and Corey Kruitbosch for contributing their beautiful photography to this article.


Visit G.L. Britton’s site: 


Visit Corey Kruitbosch’s site: