Catch and Release Fishing
Not every fish is a “keeper.” You may catch a fish that’s under legal size or too big to fit in your cooler. You may land a magnificent trophy and decide to return it to the water so that you — or some other lucky angler — will have a chance to catch that fish again. Whatever your reasons for choosing live release, you want to give your fish the best possible chance of survival.
This page offers general guidelines for releasing fish in fresh or salt water. More detailed information for special situations can be found at the following links:
- Livewell management
- If released fish are unable to swim
How to Begin
- Set the hook quickly to reduce likelihood that fish will swallow the bait.
- Play and land fish as quickly as possible. Playing fish to exhaustion can harm the fish.
- When fishing in deep water, bring fish in slowly to help it adjust to changing pressure.
- Consider using barbless hooks.
- Keep your release tools close by.
Handling Your Catch
Proper handling protects both you and the fish. Some fishes have sharp fins or teeth that can cut you. See our Angler Education pages for tips on how to handle different species.
- Minimize the time fish is out of the water (no longer than you can hold your breath.)
- Leave fish in the water if you can and use a tool to remove the hook.
- If possible, keep the fish from thrashing without using a net. If a net is required, use a rubber-mesh landing net instead of abrasive nylon.
- Avoid removing the slime/mucus layer, which protects fish from parasites and infections.
- Try to keep fish off the ground or floor of a boat.
- Use a wet rag or glove, or wet hands before handling fish.
- Turn fish on its back and cover its eyes to calm it.
- Don’t put your fingers in the eyes or gills.
- Smaller fish (< 5 pounds) can be vertically held by the lower jaw, either by hand or with grippers. Hold larger fish horizontally and support with two hands.
Removing the Hook
- Use needle-nose pliers, hemostats, or a hook remover to remove the hook and protect your hands.
- Back the hook out the opposite way it went in.
- Watch this video to learn how to remove a hook embedded deep within the fish.
- For a larger fish in the water, slip a gaff around the leader and slide it to the hook. Lift the gaff upward while pulling downward on the leader.
- Do not jerk or pop a leader to break it. This can injure vital organs in the fish.
Letting it Go
- Place fish in the water, gently supporting the mid-section and tail until it swims away.
- Resuscitate an exhausted fish by moving it or facing it into the current, gently forcing water into the mouth and over the gills.
- Watch the fish when released. If it doesn’t swim away, recover it and try again.