Live and Let Live: Catch & Release Techniques by Nick Freeman

If Norman Mclean from A River Runs Through It saw you releasing a fish back into the river he would probably look at you a little weird. The idea of releasing fish back into the water is a relatively modern idea; but for fly fishermen, it’s become “the thing to do” especially in the more popular waters. In fact, most Gold Water fisheries in the state of Colorado are now designated catch and release only. I have nothing against keeping fish for a pan-fried supper. Growing up, my mom would get downright irate if we didn’t bring one back to her for dinner. But in heavily fished areas, it’s best practice to return the fish to be caught another day.

License-buying fishermen do more to keep waters clean and local fisheries healthy than any other group, bar none. Without your financial support, no amount of federal or state-run initiatives would make up for some of the environmental damage that humans have caused in the past. The Snake and Blue rivers are prime examples of fisheries revived after mining and other such activities. The state of Colorado can spend millions of dollars protecting these waters, all thanks to the law-abiding angler.

So, that’s fantastic. Without people like you, great mountain trout streams wouldn’t be possible. Go ahead and give yourself a pat on the back. But if we are to be honest as a group, we need to do more than that. If you intend on releasing a trout, you have a duty to do everything you can to give it the best chance to survive. Our hobby is inherently damaging to the fish whether we like it or not. Fishermen are on the front line when it comes to these issues, so it’s important to have a firm grasp of proper techniques, survival rates, and to be as responsible as possible.

The best way to do this is to educate yourself on some of the literature and the main cause of post-release fish mortality. A properly released fish has a 1%-3% chance of death, but improper technique all but guarantees that the fish will die – even if it swims away under its own power.  

Here are some of the more important factors to think about:

  • Water Temperature – Fish are already stressed when water temperature reaches 68 degrees. Be careful fishing in the middle of a hot day, and if coupled with low water, it may be a good idea to find another place to fish. Cutthroat Anglers sell high-quality river thermometers to make sure the water isn’t too warm.

  • Exhaustion – While it could be exciting to bring in a huge trout on a 3-weight rod and 7x tippet, the 30-minute battle could prove too much for the fish in the end. Drawn out fights build up lactic acids in the fish and the more of that, the worse it is for the fish.  Consider the size of trout you are after and have a rod and tippet to land that fish in a reasonable amount of time. The sooner the better.

  • Pinch the barb – Using flies is the safest way to hook a fish and the chances of “gut hooking” or “gill hooking” a fish are slim. If you wind up doing this, it may be better to keep the fish-- unfortunately, survival rates are very low when this happens.  Even if you don’t mortally hook the fish, the effort to remove a barbed hook from a sensitive area of the fish can be traumatic. Using pliers to pinch the barb can eliminate additional handling required to get the hook out and will do less damage on the way out. If you fight the fish well and keep good tension on the line you will not lose more fish than usual.

  • “Keep ‘em wet” – This motto is becoming more prevalent and is the most difficult to practice.  Having a rubber net is very effective for letting the trout recover in the water while you remove the hook, and it eliminates the need to drag the fish onto the bank our out of the water for too long.  In the heat of the moment, it’s very easy to forget how long you have the fish out of the water. Imagine not being able to breathe after a drawn-out boxing match-- that is what this fish is going through.  Prep for your “Grip and Grin” photos so that you have the fish out of the water just for a quick pic, and then back into the water. Talk to Cutthroat Anglers about rubber nets and magnet release clips – I highly recommend this set up next time you are on the river.

    catch and release
  • Recovery – Allow the fish time to gain its strength back before letting it into the swift current.  Loosely hold the fish facing upstream to allow water to filter through the gills stream in a gentle current. When the fish is ready to go it will let you know.  There is nothing more satisfying than the explosion of an unharmed trout splashing out of your hand back into the river.

“If you are going to do something, do it well.” I’m sure everyone has had someone say this to them at some point, and it’s never truer than when practicing catch and release techniques.  Sure, it may feel good to see that trout swim away, but it’s ultimately useless if it dies a few hours later. The next time you hook a fish, start planning your release strategy right away. Keep it at the front of your mind and feel great about doing your best to keep our local waters full of healthy trout. As anglers, we have the responsibility to educate and hold ourselves to a higher standard. If you have any questions, contact us here, or stop in and talk with your local guides at Cutthroat Anglers for more information.

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