Catch-and-Release Practices for Small Fish

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

By Louis Cahill

Handle the little guys with care if you want to catch them when they are big.

Catch-and-release practices among fly anglers are probably the best they have ever been. In part due to social media and the popularity of ideas like, “Keep ‘Em Wet.” More times than not, when you see a photo of someone holding a trophy size fish they have it cradled gently in the water. That’s great, but what about the little guys?

All of those trophy fish were small once and in order to get big they had to run a gauntlet of anglers and predators. Although there has certainly been improvement in the way the average angler handles fish, when I see one taking a beating, it’s usually a little guy. The thing is, these are the fish which are most vulnerable.

There are several common ways these small fish are mishandled.

The most common is time out of the water. While most anglers will net a big fish and let it rest in the net while they remove the hook, a net isn’t usually required for a small fish. Often they are simply snatched up to chest level by the leader. They are usually still pretty green so they squirm and make removing the hook a challenge and often spend way too much time out of the water.

edit-8162There are a couple of other things that can go wrong when handling a fish this way. Often anglers will grab the fish with dry hands, removing the protective slime and exposing the fish to disease. It is also common for the fish to struggle so violently that it’s jaw is damaged while the hook is being removed. In any case, it’s always best to keep the fish in the water.

One of the most dangerous threats to small fish is barbed hooks. The barb on even a small hook is huge to a small fish. The barb is so disruptive to the tissue that the fish may be deformed for life or even die. The barb also increases the difficulty of removing the hook, which can result in serious injury as the fish struggles. Pinched barbs might result in a lost fish once in a while but I think we are all tough enough to get over that.

Screen-Shot-2017-10-24-at-11.55.48-AMMy favorite tool is the Rising Crocodile tool. In addition to having pliers and cutters, it’s a great C&R tool. If you are fishing a barbless fly it’s super simple to lock the tool around your leader while the fish is still in the water, slide the tool down to the fly and pop it loose. There’s no need to even touch the fish.

Remember there are no big fish without little fish, so treat those little guys right and let them grow. The more of them that survive, the more hogs will be in the stream in a few years.

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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7 thoughts on “Catch-and-Release Practices for Small Fish

  1. I’m a serious angler and a retired fish culturist. Thanks for speaking up for the little guys. The only thing I would add that might be obvious is if you find yourself catching too many undersize fish …… move on. And some of the C&R research papers I read showed that large hook sizes can have a detrimental effect on small fish.

  2. Thanks for the tool link.

    Its not just salmonids- even warm water fishes have relatively high rates of mortality after release. Some saltwater fish are pretty delicate too, especially in the summer.

  3. “If” you are fishing a barbless fly . . .

    There is no good reason to fish a barbed fly. None.
    And there are a bunch of really good reason to go barbless:

    Less damage to mouth parts
    Much, much easier to extract the fly
    Much, much quicker to extract the fly =
    Much, much quicker back to fishing
    Much less damage to fly during extraction
    Much less stress on fish during extraction
    Much less time gills are out of the water
    Much less damage/pain to fly fisherman during extraction if accidentally hooked
    Much easier to extract fly rom snags in wood
    Peace of mind

    And, no! Going barbless will not result in more pull outs.
    Just one of the best practices for preserving the resource.

  4. Its not the fish i ran after.
    My friend mike used to say this a lot.

    It’s important to release small fish as they have full potential to be a big one.

    But the release part need to be quick and harmless, they may got a minor injury if you try to pull the hook hard. But their chance to survive fall dramatically if they are out of water for a longer time.

  5. Pingback: Tippets: Fly Fish Guanaja Student Program, C&R Techniques for Small Fish - Pesca y Bits

  6. While fish handling time is obviously the most important thing to minimize, there is little empirical evidence that going barb-less will reduce mortality (other than increased handling time by beginners).

    I guide on the Provo River in Utah and the typical fish gets caught and released 30 to 100+ times a year. Most anglers use size 18 and smaller hooks most of the time and barbs are allowed. I see few moralities despite the heavy use of this fishery.

    One college study on catch and release emphasized that large barb-less hooks do more damage to trout because of the “stiletto effect”, multiple deep penetrations from the same hole during the fight, where the barbed counterpart held the hook in place and most damage to the fish was superficial. The logical implication is that reducing hook size is more beneficial to trout than removing barbs.

    In the long run, “barbed vs barb-less” is largely a social argument rather than a scientific one. Beginners should probably go barb-less both to reduce handling time and to make getting hooks out of themselves and their companions easier. Experienced anglers need to make the decision themselves, as long as they always comply with local regulations.

  7. I tie all of my flies, other than “show” flies, with barbless hooks. They are readily available and are even a little smoother than pinched barbs. often the little guys even unhook themselves when the line goes slack near the net. It’s a win-win.

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