An angler dehooking a fish with a dehooker during catch and release fishingCatch and release is an essential part of learning how to fish.  In most cases anglers can keep their catch as a trophy or for their table.  But there are cases when fish are released by state fishing rules and regulations or by choice.  In the case of fishing rules and regulations, the fish may be under-sized, or the species may be regulated, or the waters themselves may be regulated.  In other cases, it may be the intent of the angler from the outset.  In all cases, every effort should be made to release fish quickly and unharmed.

The benefits of proper catch and release have proved vital to the future of a number of important fisheries around the country as it is a means of preserving and enhancing fish populations.  It is yet another way that anglers contribute to fishing's long-standing commitment to conservation and preservation of our natural resources.

Catch & Release Best Practices  

  • Plan ahead.  Always expect to catch and release some fish on any given trip and come prepared. Keep release tools in your tacklebox at all times. 
  • Develop skills as you learn how to fish to target the size and specific fish species you wish to catch.  If you are catching fish that you cannot, or do not want to keep, try changing the depth that you are fishing, moving to a different area, or using different bait to avoiding unwanted catches.
  • Use appropriate tackle.  Fighting a fish too long will exhaust and unduly stress the fish.  Using tackle that's matched to the species you're fishing allows you to land them quickly.  The quicker you release a fish unharmed, the better.
  • A circle hook, best used when practicing catch and release
    Use barbless hooks.  Fish are most easily unhooked from barbless fishing hooks.  Some fisheries require anglers to use barbless hooks, while in other situations anglers might opt to use these hooks if they are planning to practice catch and release fishing.  Hooks can be purchased as barbless or the barb can be pinched down rendering them barbless.  Depending on the size of the hook, you can pinch down the barb using either needle nose pliers or hemostats.  To verify the hook is barbless run it through fabric or a cotton ball.  If it shows any fabric or cotton on the barb or gets caught on the materials, the hook is not yet barbless and requires further work to pinch the barb down.
  • Use circle hooks.  Another hook type that can be used in catch and release is the circle hook.  Rarely resulting in deep hooking, fish caught on circle hooks are generally hooked in the mouth, and can be easily and effectively released.  In-line circle hooks are generally preferred.
  • Minimize handling. The less you handle, touch or hold the fish the better.  Ideally, it's best to leave the fish in the water and not to handle it at all, but sometimes you will need to handle a fish.  There are a number of tools listed below that allow you to catch, hold and release fish with minimal handling.
  • Wet your hands first.  If you must handle a fish, wet your hands first before touching it to help maintain the fishes' protective slime coat.  You can also use wet rubberized gloves, or if necessary, use a wet cloth to cover the fish's eyes and calm them.  Do not use a cloth to hold the fish unless absolutely necessary-this may remove the protective slime layer.  Avoid the use of terry cloth.
  • Watch the gills and eyes. Gills are fishes' means of breathing.  Be particularly mindful of preventing any contact with the gills to assure the successful release of the fish you catch.
  • Hold the fish horizontally, rather than vertically, if you do first want to take a photo of your catch.  Support its midsection from the bottom with one hand, while using the other hand to gently yet firmly grip its lip or hold its head from the bottom.
  • Avoid dropping the fish or setting the fish down onto a boat deck, dirt or ground as this can bruise or cause internal damage to fish as well as remove the fish's protective coat.
  • Use a dehooking device for releasing fish. These tools minimize handling by properly removing the hook quickly and safely. Below are recommended release tools that are available for dehooking and releasing fish.  In the absence of a dehooker, needle nose pliers will allow you to properly remove a hook.  That's done by simply backing the hook out the opposite way it entered.
  • Deep hooked fish.  Occasionally, especially when using bait, fish are hooked so deep that hook removal will damage the fish. In these instances, the fish may be best served by cutting the line as close to the mouth as possible.  Most hooks will dissolve or dislodge enabling successful release.
  • An angler holds a fish gently in the water before releasing it during catch and release fishing
    Revive the fish if it appears exhausted or lethargic before fully releasing it. Generally, exhaustion is the result of a long fight, but not always.  If the fish appears lethargic or is having difficulty swimming it will need to be revived.  In a stream you'll want to point the fish into the current which should be running at a slow to moderate speed, not fast.  Allow the fish to resuscitate in the current by cradling it gently with both hands along its belly.  Bigger fish may require you to gently hold their tail and use your other hand under the fish to cradle it.  In an area without current it's best to cradle the fish gently and slowly move the fish forward and backward to force water across the gills. Release the fish when it's able to swim away under its own power.

Release Tools

A release tool is any device that improves the survival of released fish by making it easier to get the hook out of a fish, or minimizes your contact with the fish, reducing as much stress as possible on the fish.  For catch and release fishing, these tools come in several varieties, from lip grippers, to dedicated dehookers, or just a rubberized-mesh net and a pair of pliers.  Some states have fishing rules that require dehookers be used to release fish.  Check with your state agency on their specific fishing rules and regulations.

The basic idea behind a release tool is to get the hook out of the fish and get it back into the water without you having to handle it more than necessary.  Touching a fish removes some of its protective slime coat, which can lead to an infection for the fish. In addition, tools such as lip grippers help you control the fish, so you can either keep it in the water at the side of the boat while you unhook it, or if it's small enough to hold out of the water, unhook it without risk of dropping the fish, which can cause great harm.  In addition, these tools also help keep your fingers away from the mouths of sharp toothed species such as bluefish, wahoo, mackerel and the like.

There's no right release tool for every situation.  Many anglers prefer one over the other depending on the species or situation. Here are the broad categories:

  • A lip gripping tool for catch and release fishing
    Rubberized-mesh Net: The difference between this type of net and a nylon mesh net is that the rubberized-mesh protects the fish, and keeps its slime coat intact.
  • A dehooker to help you release a fish during catch and release
    Lip Gripping Tools: There are several brands of these popular tools, many feature spring-loaded "jaws" that open when you retract tabs on the handle. These are designed to be used easily with one hand so you can unhook the fish with the other.  Pop one arm of the open jaws into the fish's mouth and release the tabs to close the jaws so that the fish can't get away.  Many also include a tension-spring scale so you can weigh your catch at the same time.
  • Dehookers: Dehookers are made to let you unhook a fish while it is still in the water, or to help unhook deep hooked fish.  The precise technique varies by brand, but generally the end of the dehooker goes around the line or leader, you push it into the fish's mouth until you contact the hook, and a quick downward jab pops the hook free.
  • Household pliers which can be used to practice catch and release
    Gloves: Rubberized gloves help protect the slime coat of the fish and improve your grip so you don't drop the fish as well.  They can also offer some protection from sharp dorsal spines or gill plates.
  • Long-handled Pliers: If you are just learning how to fish or don't have the other tools, a simple release tool is a pair of needle-nosed pliers, either bent at the end or straight.  Great for gripping the shank of a hook, they make unhooking a fish easier and keeps your fingers away from sharp teeth.

Fish caught in deep water may require special handling and tools for catch and release fishing.  For specific release tools and other tips on how to release deep sea fish species check the FishSmart page.

 

Release tool photos courtesy of our partner Florida Sea Grant.