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Three Ways to Help Catch-and-Release Trout Survive

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July 08, 2013

Three Ways to Help Catch-and-Release Trout Survive

By Kirk Deeter

Being a "catch-and-release" trout angler doesn't necessarily mean you aren't having an impact on the resources. In fact, if you look at some scientific data, you'll learn that a significant percentage of caught-and-released fish (as much as 10 percent or more) die anyway. Which begs the question, who is causing more stress on the fish population, the angler who catches and releases 50 fish in a day, or the one who pops two or three in the creel for dinner? Simple math suggests the former.

There are many important factors that influence whether a trout survives after being caught or not. I'll focus on three of them.

1. How long do you play the fish before landing it? The longer the fight, the more exhausted a fish becomes, and the more lactic acid builds up in its body. This can cause the fish to die some time later, even after you watch it swim away, seemingly no worse for the wear. Fact: the sooner you are able to release a fish after hooking it, the better its survival odds. So why we like to use feather-light tackle sometimes, I think we need to "tippet-up" when we can. A two-minute fight on 4X is better (for the fish) than the 10-minute fight on 6X. And to be totally honest, I think a good drift and presentation with heavier tippet trumps a sloppy presentation with light tippet almost every time. We like to hear the reel scream, but maybe cranking down on the drag and learning to steer fish to a reasonable landing zone quickly isn't a bad idea.

2. Nets... ah this is a tricky one. We know that when a trout rubs around in a net, it can deplete the slime layer on its scales that help protect it from disease. But alas, I have seen many fights take substantially longer when anglers are fumbling around trying to cradle a fish or grab it by its tail. So having said what I just did about landing fish sooner, I see the value of a good net in many cases. But rubberized mesh nets are far less of a problem for trout than uncoated surfaces, or fine nets that get caught in their gills. We need to use good judgment, and ultimately leave the net attached to our back when we catch fish that can easily be brought to hand and released by plucking the fly from its mouth.

3. Air time is bad. One study by R.A. Ferguson and B.L. Tufts looked at the amount of time a fish is exposed to air after caught, and discovered that every second literally counts. Fish that were exercised but released without being held out of the water had a survival rate of 88 percent. But with 30 seconds air exposure, that dropped to 62 percent, and at one minute, it was a mere 28 percent. Makes sense. Imagine running a few laps around the track, and then dunking your head in a bucket of water. Think about those numbers when you go to take that photograph of the big trout you just landed. Try to keep those shots to 10 seconds or less, if at all possible.

I'm not suggesting by any means that catch-and-release fishing is bad. I am a catch-and-release trout angler, at least most of the time. I think the practice—done right—can ensure that the trout fishing is optimized, and great fish can be shared by many anglers. But it is more than an ethical soap box, and done poorly, it actually gives us a false sense of helping the resource, when we are really hurting it. And that can be a problem.

So long as we all fish within the regulations, whether we are catch-and-release anglers or catch-and-keep anglers, that's just fine. But I hope more of us start thinking more in terms of quality than quantity. Maybe catching 10 trout on dry flies is better than pounding 50 fish in a day by running a synthetic worm and egg with a nymph rig beneath a strike indicator. I know that we always have, and probably always will, measured angling success with the simple "how many did you catch" question. That's fine. But if you want to be an effective catch-and-release angler, maybe the more appropriate question should be "how many did you really let survive?"

That's just a thought. I'm interested to hear yours.

Comments (9)

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from vtbluegrass wrote 41 weeks 3 days ago

This is something I see in saltwater too much in my opinion. Speckled trout and red drum anglers that get real preachy about C&R, absolutely lambast a commercial fisherman and then will let every fish flop on the floor of the boat and stick their booger fingers in gill plates to take a pic of every catch. I try my best to make sure it doesn't happen in my boat but you can't convince some people that just because they swim away that they will survive. I like the dehooker tools and never bring fish in the boat if its not going in the cooler or is a truly photo worthy fish. Its better for the fish, keeps the boat clean, and lets me get back to fishing quicker.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from tkbone wrote 41 weeks 3 days ago

Great topic. As much as I like the convenience of a readily available digital camera on cell phones and other devices, I think it's been bad news for fish. Any fishing message board has tons of photos of good "caught and released" fish held with a 2 hand death grip out of the water that the angler probably should have just kept for dinner. It's not that hard to have the camera ready to go the second fish comes out of water and send it immediately back in. Keeping yourself out of the picture saves fish too!

Anyone who feels the need to catch 50 trout in one day either needs to fish more often or has other insecurities. Try a different technique or try to catch a trophy if it's that easy!

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from nuclear_fisher wrote 41 weeks 2 days ago

First let me say I mainly "spinfish" for bass, but this is a great post and I think it's quite relevant to anyone out there C&Ring, or not. Anyway, I just started using a rubber net a few years ago and I use that thing religiously now. Even if its just a baby bass, I pop it in the net. I think it really speeds the whole process up. Also, I don't know if this is how it works or not, but I always try to not have the fish out of the water for more than a few seconds at a time. If for some reason I need to take it out of water to get my lure out, I'll do it, return it, get my camera ready and take it out quickly again, back to the net for a moment and then away... Probably not exactly how it works, but I know I'd rather hold my breath for 10 seconds twice than 20 seconds once. Lastly, like a lot of others on here, I am trying (so far unsuccessfully) to just use my gopro camera. That way there's nothing to get ready, its already rolling.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from kirkdeeter wrote 41 weeks 2 days ago

Thank you for these three very thoughtful comments. Great stuff.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from Island_Time wrote 41 weeks 2 days ago

Great topic and very valid points. Most of my catch and release for trout is done in trophy management areas. We use any measure necessary to keep them alive. Love the stats for time out of the water. Newer fisheries management leans towards using a rubber net and unhooking in the net. Holding them with the net in the water reduces stress and helps to prevent removal of the protective layer their scales.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from buckhunter wrote 41 weeks 2 days ago

Net etiquette and camera etiquette should go hand and hand with talk of catch and release. The picture above shows one of the strong points of wooden nets, they float. After netting this will free up both hands for a more kinder gentler release. I always trade cameras with my fishing buddy. At the end of the day my camera has pictures of me and his has pictures of him. Also comes in handy when a quick hero shot is needed.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from buckhunter wrote 41 weeks 2 days ago

I will also add, and I have said this before. Nets should be required on certain waters.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from pennscreek wrote 41 weeks 23 hours ago

Footnote: This post assumes you believe in catch and release fishing, and practice it unless keeping a fish for a meal, in accordance with prevailing regulations.

One of the great things about fishing, and fly fishing for that matter, is the sharing of information, knowledge, and techniques among friends and even those you might meet on the stream, in a fly shop, or at a lodge. Looking back I would have loved it had someone pulled me aside (guide or otherwise) years ago and showed me - above all else - how to play a fish quickly and safely. But all it took was one overplayed fish to realize how easily trout (esp. when the water creeps into the 60s) can be pushed to the limit. I am truly baffled by those who yank every darn fish out of the water for a picture. If you are that passionate about it and must document each fish with a photo, then invest in a camera that can take underwater photos. While more difficult to get right, these are far more interesting than the standard grip & grin. I would even offer to take the practice one step further. This might be another topic (or sub-topic) of this issue, but next time you go fishing, try going barb-less, tighten that drag more than you normally would, and don't take the trout out of the water. See how it changes the experience. I would say for the better.

Now, I know the barb-less things can be a hot topic but I really think there is a case to consider making this part of the catch and release doctrine / practices.

Pardon if I have jumped around a lot, but this subject really gets me going.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Dangle wrote 40 weeks 6 days ago

Absolutely! I just saw a fly angler yesterday that hasn't been able to get out all season long. He only fishes lakes. I told him I just caught the state record number of trout in one day's flyfishing, 63!!!! I said this because a friend of his told me they headed to a high mountain lake, (above 9,000 ft) that had just been planted, and this guy caught 62 rainbows!! It was 57 degrees up there that day, and over 90 degrees at the bottom floor. The other guy quit at 28 caught, and took a walk around the lake that has a beautiful view. I thought of how many fish survived out of the 62 landed. The key is to get out enough that one gets out of the numbers game.

0 Good Comment? | | Report

Post a Comment

from vtbluegrass wrote 41 weeks 3 days ago

This is something I see in saltwater too much in my opinion. Speckled trout and red drum anglers that get real preachy about C&R, absolutely lambast a commercial fisherman and then will let every fish flop on the floor of the boat and stick their booger fingers in gill plates to take a pic of every catch. I try my best to make sure it doesn't happen in my boat but you can't convince some people that just because they swim away that they will survive. I like the dehooker tools and never bring fish in the boat if its not going in the cooler or is a truly photo worthy fish. Its better for the fish, keeps the boat clean, and lets me get back to fishing quicker.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from tkbone wrote 41 weeks 3 days ago

Great topic. As much as I like the convenience of a readily available digital camera on cell phones and other devices, I think it's been bad news for fish. Any fishing message board has tons of photos of good "caught and released" fish held with a 2 hand death grip out of the water that the angler probably should have just kept for dinner. It's not that hard to have the camera ready to go the second fish comes out of water and send it immediately back in. Keeping yourself out of the picture saves fish too!

Anyone who feels the need to catch 50 trout in one day either needs to fish more often or has other insecurities. Try a different technique or try to catch a trophy if it's that easy!

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from nuclear_fisher wrote 41 weeks 2 days ago

First let me say I mainly "spinfish" for bass, but this is a great post and I think it's quite relevant to anyone out there C&Ring, or not. Anyway, I just started using a rubber net a few years ago and I use that thing religiously now. Even if its just a baby bass, I pop it in the net. I think it really speeds the whole process up. Also, I don't know if this is how it works or not, but I always try to not have the fish out of the water for more than a few seconds at a time. If for some reason I need to take it out of water to get my lure out, I'll do it, return it, get my camera ready and take it out quickly again, back to the net for a moment and then away... Probably not exactly how it works, but I know I'd rather hold my breath for 10 seconds twice than 20 seconds once. Lastly, like a lot of others on here, I am trying (so far unsuccessfully) to just use my gopro camera. That way there's nothing to get ready, its already rolling.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from kirkdeeter wrote 41 weeks 2 days ago

Thank you for these three very thoughtful comments. Great stuff.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from Island_Time wrote 41 weeks 2 days ago

Great topic and very valid points. Most of my catch and release for trout is done in trophy management areas. We use any measure necessary to keep them alive. Love the stats for time out of the water. Newer fisheries management leans towards using a rubber net and unhooking in the net. Holding them with the net in the water reduces stress and helps to prevent removal of the protective layer their scales.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from buckhunter wrote 41 weeks 2 days ago

Net etiquette and camera etiquette should go hand and hand with talk of catch and release. The picture above shows one of the strong points of wooden nets, they float. After netting this will free up both hands for a more kinder gentler release. I always trade cameras with my fishing buddy. At the end of the day my camera has pictures of me and his has pictures of him. Also comes in handy when a quick hero shot is needed.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from buckhunter wrote 41 weeks 2 days ago

I will also add, and I have said this before. Nets should be required on certain waters.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from pennscreek wrote 41 weeks 23 hours ago

Footnote: This post assumes you believe in catch and release fishing, and practice it unless keeping a fish for a meal, in accordance with prevailing regulations.

One of the great things about fishing, and fly fishing for that matter, is the sharing of information, knowledge, and techniques among friends and even those you might meet on the stream, in a fly shop, or at a lodge. Looking back I would have loved it had someone pulled me aside (guide or otherwise) years ago and showed me - above all else - how to play a fish quickly and safely. But all it took was one overplayed fish to realize how easily trout (esp. when the water creeps into the 60s) can be pushed to the limit. I am truly baffled by those who yank every darn fish out of the water for a picture. If you are that passionate about it and must document each fish with a photo, then invest in a camera that can take underwater photos. While more difficult to get right, these are far more interesting than the standard grip & grin. I would even offer to take the practice one step further. This might be another topic (or sub-topic) of this issue, but next time you go fishing, try going barb-less, tighten that drag more than you normally would, and don't take the trout out of the water. See how it changes the experience. I would say for the better.

Now, I know the barb-less things can be a hot topic but I really think there is a case to consider making this part of the catch and release doctrine / practices.

Pardon if I have jumped around a lot, but this subject really gets me going.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Dangle wrote 40 weeks 6 days ago

Absolutely! I just saw a fly angler yesterday that hasn't been able to get out all season long. He only fishes lakes. I told him I just caught the state record number of trout in one day's flyfishing, 63!!!! I said this because a friend of his told me they headed to a high mountain lake, (above 9,000 ft) that had just been planted, and this guy caught 62 rainbows!! It was 57 degrees up there that day, and over 90 degrees at the bottom floor. The other guy quit at 28 caught, and took a walk around the lake that has a beautiful view. I thought of how many fish survived out of the 62 landed. The key is to get out enough that one gets out of the numbers game.

0 Good Comment? | | Report

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