Improve Your Catch and Release Efforts

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

By Justin Pickett

Catch and Release has become almost a standard of practice over the past several years, even more so, it seems, in the fly fishing culture.

The ever-changing culture within the fly fishing world has put the squeeze on those that choose to keep certain species or fish from certain fisheries. Sustainability. Preservation. Conservation. The words resonate through numerous articles, meetings, and video productions, and for good reason. If we want these precious resources to be around much longer, we’re going to have to start giving a damn and taking care of our streams, rivers, lakes, oceans, and estuaries. So yeah, I’m a big proponent of catch and release. With that said, I believe there is still room for improvement even amongst those anglers that do practice catch and release.


It’s summer time in the Deep South. You’ve just landed a big, gorgeous, female rainbow on one of your favorite north Georgia streams. You’ve played her hard for several minutes. She’s given her all trying to free herself from your fly and she’s worn out. You’re intentions are the usual quick photo and then an easy release to ensure that she “lives to fight another day.” But…. What if that’s not enough?

Come summer time, water temps are usually at the upper limits of a trout’s tolerance, especially in the lower elevation rivers and streams of the southeast, so making sure that a trout has been properly revived is of the upmost importance. In this situation, just making sure that you release the fish quickly may not be enough to ensure that it “lives to fight another day”. Bigger trout seem more susceptible to unrecoverable fatigue, to the point of going “belly up” if not allowed to recover before being released properly.

Just like in our own bodies, during extended periods of exertion, lactate levels spike resulting in an increase in the acidity levels within the muscles’ cells.

To keep things short, the crazy process that is responsible for the increased production of lactate (lactic acid) during extended periods of strenuous activity temporarily prevents the muscle cells from using oxygen as the fuel for muscle contractions and causes the fish to become fatigued during a long fight, if not completely exhausted. In order to correct this temporary acidotic state, two things need to happen; 1. Rest and 2. Oxygen! For humans, the oxygen is an afterthought. When we get tired we just rest and the oxygen just comes naturally. We breathe air, so it is readily available to our bodies. However, for a trout, the oxygen is found in the water. And not just any water, but cold, preferably moving water. The longer a fish is kept out of the water after a fight, the more it becomes difficult to recover that fish. The temporary damage that occurs during this spike in lactate levels can become too overwhelming to overcome, causing the fish to be too weak to return to a river or stream’s flows.

So, as responsible anglers, what can we do?

_DSC3842First thing’s first. Let’s do a better job of keeping the fish in the water. That includes you, me, myself, and I. Keep ‘em wet! From here on out I’m going to do an even better job of keeping the fish in the water while photographing and releasing my fish. I’m not saying “don’t take photos with your fish.” We all do it, or have done it. Let’s just be conscious of the amount of time the fish is out of the water. Keep them in the water as much as possible, only lifting them from the water for a second or two to shoot a quick photo. The next big thing that I really want to harp on is actually recovering the fish before it is released, especially larger trout. These guys and gals can be way harder to recover after a long fight, especially in warmer water that carries even less oxygen. Take the time to stay with that fish and recover them properly. Gently grasp the tail with one hand, and, with the other hand, cradle their belly just behind the gill plates. Stage them in some moving water to ensure that they have water running through their gills. Don’t put them in the fastest flows, you don’t want them, or you, to get overwhelmed by the current. You may even have to support them initially in keeping their head turned upstream, which is a sign that he/she is exhausted. Take cues from the fish to let you know that they are ready to go. Most of the time, trout will start to shake their head and kick their tail in an attempt to try to swim away from you, however, sometimes you may need to give them a little nudge upstream. If they’re able to do these things under their own power, then chances are they have had enough time to recover and won’t be found on the bank downstream. If you try to slide them upstream and they either can’t hold their head into the current, or just go belly up, then it’s going to require more time. There have been a handful of times that I’ve spent up to ten minutes, literally sitting on my butt in the water with a trout. In a way it sucks, because you want that fish to be healthy enough to not need that much recovery time, and of course you want to get back to fishing. On the other hand though, I’ve come to really enjoy that time as well. You get to really admire these beautiful creatures and take pride in knowing you did everything you needed to do in order to make sure they were able to tail slap your arm on their way back home.

Let’s all do a better job with our catch and release efforts! Let’s work on Catch, Revive, then Release!

Catch us on Instagram and tag your responsible release photos/videos with #CatchReviveRelease

Justin Pickett
Gink & Gasoline
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18 thoughts on “Improve Your Catch and Release Efforts

  1. Excellent! I cannot agree more with these words of wisdom and believe it should be practiced when targeting all fish species. I am currently working on a very controversial piece for Feathers and Fluoro which coincidentally highlights some of the text above – tigerfish for instance are extremely sensitive to increased blood lactate levels after the fight on fishing tackle; even fish that swim off strong when released may die unseen a few minutes later.

    • You’re absolutely right! It’s hard to truly know if a fish will survive sometimes, but you can at least make your best effort. I would have never guessed that Tigerfish were that susceptible to increased lactate levels. Would have assumed they were more tolerant, but that’s just me judging a book by its cover I suppose. Something new learned for me today! Thanks for the comment. Look forward to seeing your article!

    • Good point! Ive always wondered how many fish get released and die afterward, same with an injury from a snag or a poor job of removing the hook. Another factor to respect is to not drop the trout of allow it to flop on rocks or the boat, larger fish are more prone to damage this way.

      Good article as always

  2. I would argue than in many instances, such as the hypothetical in your article, it is better to simply not fish. During times of high temperatures here in north georgia, even the smallest amount of stress can be fatal to a fish that is already having a hard time in the warm water. In the summer I turn my sights to warm water species an d tailwaters. This not only gives the Trout in freestones a better mortality rate, but gives me a chance to do some types of fishing that I do not do as often. Trout in warm water are lethargic, warn out, and incredibly delicate- sometimes it is better to head to the lake.

    • You’re absolutely right Jackson. I didn’t touch on this in this article, but often in the summer it does heat up to the point that it’s just not reasonable to fish for trout. Even so, those that may not realize this, and those that are going to fish regardless, may as well practice some more careful C&R. You make a great point though. I often target other species as well during this time of year as well. thanks for sharing!

  3. Another practice to consider especially if taking a photo is giving the fish a chance to catch its breath in your net for a minute or so before you take photo.

  4. One action that really concerns me is when an angler hooks up near the middle of a river. The rower manages the boat for a while and when he/she feels the fish is fatigued enough to succumb they will anchor the boat and drag the fish up to the boat and net them. That has to be extremely hard on fish. Any thoughts on this? I see general public and guides to this quite often.

  5. Well, it looks like today is going to be my turn to be “that guy”. Before I write even one syllable of the upcoming rant, allow me to say that I am not passing judgement on anyone. I believe that people are – within certain boundaries – entitled to do as they wish. And, I confess that I participate in the same behaviors as most other fishers. Today’s post speaks to a couple of issues I wonder about frequently and prompts me to ponder them in writing with all of you.


    Do we really need to put fish at risk by photographing them? Is our experience really enhanced that much by taking pictures of fish? Is the reward worth the risk? I am not suggesting we begin leaving our cameras at home. With all due respect to Louis Cahill, have you ever seen the photography work of Tim Romano? I’m sure you have and I’m sure we could all agree that he is most excellent behind his lenses. But, have you ever noticed how few of his photographs are actually of fish? Not that many, really. He simply has a way of conveying the fishing experience without needing to depict the actual fish. It seems to me, there is a lesson for the rest of us in there somewhere.

    The other conundrum is the dual concern for fighting fish to the point of severe lactic acid build-up, which is frequently unavoidable, then compounding that difficult situation by lifting the fish out of the water — however briefly. How many fish do we kill, despite the best of intentions, that we are never aware of? Could we become accepting of the concept of somehow freeing our fish after only a short struggle? If, indeed, “The tug is the drug.”, can we not reduce the amount of tug that each fish is expected to provide? Must we require that our hooked fish give us their all before coming to hand, or otherwise regaining their independence? In hindsight, over the years, I feel I have been one of the worst offenders in this regard.

    I have been fly fishing for over 50 years (I’m 63) and I would consider my overall abilities to be somewhat less than average. I have been lucky enough to have traveled to many places and I have probably caught more than my share of fish, encompassing a great variety of species.

    As of right now, I make a solemn vow to make it the great exception, rather than the rule, to photograph the more fragile species of fresh water fish. In addition, if I can devise an effective method, I resolve to only fight my fish until I have caught a good look at them.

    Many thanks for indulging me. Best of angling to all.

    Jim Herman, an avid reader, Registered Pharmacist

    • In a similar vein, I make sure to ‘use enough gun’. I make an effort to use heavy enough equipment to bring the fish to hand quickly and release without a protracted battle. Obviously, you can’t fish tricos with 0x on an 8wt. But if I am fishing larger nymphs or streamers I tend to fish a heavier tippet and stick.

    • Jim, I appreciate your concern. We do not harm fish in the process of photographing them. This is my job and I’ve done it for many years. You will likely not believe me. It sounds like you have it all figured out. I will tell you this. I care enough about it that I will not sell my photographs to magazines who publish photos of fish who have been stressed.I have written articles on the subject of safely photographing fish. you should read them.

      Another part of my job is analyzing my traffic. I’m fairly good at it and I can tell you this, People want to see photos of fish. Good fish photos attract traffic like nothing else. As long as that is the case, you will continue to see them.The opinion that photographing fish is bad is becoming popular these days, especially among “that guy.” There are a great many folks who harm fish photographing them. Not because photographing them is bad but because they don’t know how to handle fish safely. I believe in education. You will continue to see more on that topic from me.

      We agree on one thing. Tim Romano, who is my good friend, is one of the most talented photographers I know.

  6. So far my angling has been on what are known as Delayed Harvest waters in my home state of NC. The streams I fish are managed by our state wildlife commission and stocked frequently with farm raised brook, rainbow and brown trout. The season opens for a few months each year and depending on what classification the water is, anglers can harvest the trout they catch (I don’t care to harvest the fish personally).

    On these managed waters, I have absolutely no problem with fish mortality as they are raised to be harvested anyway. I absolutely try to handle all caught fish with care and try my very best to release each fish with adequate care, but it is simply not possible to be 100% successful.

    What I DO object to is seeing these magnificent fish of various species photographed (beautifully in most cases) out of the water in what I have to assume are very stressful conditions for the fish. I will admit that I am very new to the “outdoor lifestyle” but my desire to conserve and protect the resources is as strong as anyone’s so I appreciate articles like this one that encourage all of us to practice better habits as we indulge our passion.

    • Rick, the delayed harvest period is strictly catch and release. There shouldn’t be anyone keeping trout during this time. Hopefully you don’t see too much of this, and if you do you should report it or at least educate those that are keeping fish during the delayed harvest. Thanks for commenting dude!

  7. Pingback: Tippets: Fishing Runoff Season, Profile of Ed Shenk, Improve Your C&R Technique | MidCurrent

  8. Justin, thanks for writing this and keeping this conversation going – the #keepemwet hashtag and movement has helped spread this good word.

    Love to get a discussion going around simple “best practices” around C&R. To me this means use artificials only, barbless single hooks and hemostats, use a rubber net, keep handling to a minimum, don’t land or put the fish on even damp rocks or ground for a picture, and do not touch gills ever. Use a Photarium (if you got one!) and oh yeah, support habitat restoration wherever possible.

    Some even go further to suggest the removal of non-native / invasive species and other more aggressive approaches – but each situation can call for a different approach so in my view “best practices” also means know the regs thoroughly and try to have a handle on the broader biology / ecology wherever possible.

    Hopefully this kind of thinking becomes as common as “match the hatch”!

    Any other simple guidelines people like and want to share?

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