The other day after reading an article posted, I noticed a comment where a gentleman said, “There is nothing about fish handling or how to release a fish”. What a great comment I thought. We always discuss things dealing with catching trout but, and he is right, we rarely actually talk about catch and release. I have been releasing fish since, well, way back before it was ever popular, so I guess it is due time to address how you should handle and release trout.
How You Should Handle and Release Trout?
- Use barbless hooks
- Wet your hands and landing net
- Fight the trout quickly
- Stay away from the gills
- If the hook is deep cut the line
- Don’t squeeze the trout too tight
Trout are actually a relatively fragile fish. They can’t be handled too roughly and if the battle to bring them in last too long they will have a very difficult time recovering from the exhausting experience. Their physical makeup and delicate nature are why they need to be handled and released with care. You may already know how to release a trout but the few minutes it takes to read this post is worth the time in the event you should learn something new, right?
The Practice Of Stocking Trout
Pennsylvania is a state that relies heavily on stocking trout every year and has two opening days for trout season. This “put and take” approach to trout fishing has been around since I was a little kid, so we’re talking more than several decades of a practice that seems to be “the way it is”. Along with this was the attitude that if you caught your limit you were a good fisherman and the parade of trout-filled stringers and creels was a testament to your trout catching ability. As for the trout being considered a natural resource to our streams that was the last thing on anyone’s minds.
Over the years the Fish commission has implemented various ways to try and balance the stocking costs to available monies from license fees, like lowering the daily limit from 8 to 5, or issuing a trout stamp (permit) for an additional fee, for example. Their manpower for stocking has dwindled as well and the practice now is to dump a bunch of fish at the bridges or convenient access points and hope the trout will disperse.
The argument between those that believe keeping trout and those that practice releasing trout continues with each having a valid position. But the simple truth is there isn’t enough to go around and not finding a balance between releasing and keeping means the depletion would be inevitable. If you choose to release then learning how you should handle and release trout becomes important so released trout will survive.
The Rise in Popularity of Releasing Fish
Throughout my trout fishing lifetime, I have witnessed a change in attitude towards releasing trout. In general, releasing fish has gained popularity and overall it’s a good thing. I remember the day I realized I was going to practice catch release. That was the day I opened my freezer to add some freshly caught trout and as I looked in to find a spot to put them it suddenly it hit me, I had more than enough trout already. Simply catching and keeping for some bragging rights and a packed freezer was no longer going to be my style.
To its credit, the Fish Commission many years ago began adding special regulation streams that required releasing trout and today is promoting catch and release more on their website and in their regulations booklet. Personally I wish the concept of Special Regulation Streams were reversed. Instead of two or three miles of catch release sections on a stream, make the entire stream catch release. But provide a large section or several sections where you are able to take trout. In other words a “Put and Take” section.
Overall with the general public becoming more sensitive to environmental concerns today and conserving natural resources, more and more anglers are beginning to practice catch release. The popularity of “Blue lining” has pushed protecting wild trout habitat to the forefront and releasing these treasured wild and native trout is at the heart of this form of trout fishing.
As the trend continues to practice catch and release it becomes even more important to understand more about trout themselves and how you should handle and release trout.
Why Are Trout Considered So Fragile?
Trout have paper-thin fins and a light, fine bone structure. Their ideal temperature range and dissolved oxygen thresholds are relatively narrow. For protection in the water, they are covered with a thin, fine slime. If trout are touched with dry hands or contact other substances, like a creek bank, dry rocks, or grass, these items can remove the slime causing a dry spot. Dry spots on trout render them susceptible to deadly infections.
One other thing to consider is when a trout leaves the water he is heavier than he was in the water. Water, as we all have experienced, makes us a little more buoyant. For a trout, he experiences the opposite when he leaves the water by having internal organs suddenly exposed to gravity. This heaviness also adds additional stress to a trout.
Also, when a trout leaves the water it’s like us going into the water over our head. I don’t know about you but I was never good at holding my breath. Dunk me for too long and I’m a dead man. Similarly, a trout out of water can’t breathe. Every second he is exposed he is fighting for breath and lack of oxygen causes brain damage. It will take a trout longer to recover the longer he is out of the water. Even though he seemed to swim away ok, most mortality happens much later after a release than it does right away.
Fly Fishing Is Kinder To Trout
I realized as I wrote the above statement that I was setting myself up for a lot of criticism from my fellow trout fishermen who enjoy fishing with lures or even bait. But the truth of the matter comes down to this. Most of the trout caught using bait will not survive the rough handling usually applied when trying to retrieve the hook. Many of the trout swallow the hook as well when using bait. You’re better off taking it home for a meal.
I used to fish spinners and sometimes still do. I have written articles on spinner fishing and think it is a fun way to catch trout. Lures, though, generally come with treble hooks, some with two sets of treble hooks. These hooks can tear a trout’s mouth to pieces when trying to get the hook out of the trout’s mouth. There’s a tendency to squeeze the trout in order to get a better grip and this can cause internal damage to the trout. I found a long time ago to cut the hooks down to one. You’ll still catch trout on one hook and yes, you will lose a few. But if you were going to release the fish anyway, so what.
Fly fishing uses barbless hooks more than not. These barbless hooks can be removed more easily than barbed hooks. Also, most trout caught on a fly are hooked in the lip area or front roof of the mouth. Most of the time there is no need to take the trout out of the water to release it. Barbless hooks can be dislodged more easily.
What Is The Importance Of Catch Release?
Seriously, in a state like Pennsylvania, that supplies trout for your catching enjoyment and spends millions of dollars doing so, why on earth would you want to learn “how you should handle and release trout”? I mean they’re stocked trout, food for the taking right? Your license fee indeed goes to the purchase of the resource and on streams where keeping fish is legal, it is your right to take it if you choose to do so.
I am also aware that many streams that are stocked in Pa cannot hold trout year-round because summer temperatures can raise water temperatures to unlivable heights for a trout. These temperatures deplete oxygen and trout can literally suffocate. Harvesting these stocked fish makes sense in many cases.
But, it is fishing native or naturally producing trout streams with a “release” mentality that is more important. These trout are precious resources and not easily replaced. In streams that have a natural population of trout and are also stocked, it becomes really critical to know a “stocker” from a “native or wild trout”. My feeling is if it’s stocked and you wish to keep, fine. But if it’s wild or native, it should be released. It should go without saying if you don’t know the difference then release it.
I mentioned earlier that finding a balance between keeping and releasing fish will go a long way to helping our fishing environments sustain populations. Future generations depend on us making the right decisions and teaching them about conservation and caring for our environment. This is why knowing how you should handle and release trout comes into play and should be taught the same as any other skill.
Finally, The Catch And Release Technique
I mentioned earlier the use of barbless hooks is best. The reason is barbed hooks make a bigger puncture wound, tearing more skin when they are removed. These wounds don’t heal as quickly and can impair the trout’s ability to feed. Of course, barbless hook aid in releasing because they can be removed more easily and do less damage.
Land The Trout Quickly
Playing a fish quickly will help reduce the stress of the workout. The longer you play the trout the more lactic acid builds up in his muscles. This build-up causes them to struggle more to recover from exhaustion. They can actually suffocate from exhaustion. So do your best to play the fish quickly. Keeping side pressure on them while bringing them to the net helps. A general rule, if you can reduce the fight to under 2 minutes it really helps swing the tide in favor of the trout.
Go Heavier With Your Tippet
How you should handle and release trout sometimes means changing up ways you do things. When possible, fishing a heavier tippet is a good idea. It provides you with more line strength which helps get the trout to the net faster. As I say this I realize that “line shyness” is a factor in fishing some streams. A lighter tippet will help hook up more fish. But this isn’t the “always” case. Most of the time trout won’t care about your line. Many tippets today like fluorocarbon is almost invisible to trout. (More about tippets)
Landing A Trout
This is the most vulnerable time for the trout. Like I mentioned prior, trout have a slime covering their bodies and a dry hand does a lot of damage, so wet hands are a must. If you can remove the hook without touching the fish even better. If you are using a net, make sure it has been dunked into the water and is also wet.
Use A Rubber Net
Many of the trout I catch can be easily released without taking them from the water. Once I have them close I grab my fly and with a simple little twist off goes Mr. Trout. But sometimes I get lucky and catch a sizable trout. Using a net keeps the trout in the water while removing the hook and helps keep the trout a bit more relaxed. Try to avoid lifting the net out of the water, but instead use it to corral the fish.
Rubber nets are idea unlike nets of twine or string which have knots. These knots can damage a trout. Be cautious too when using a net not to get it caught in the gills. Gills are very sensitive and the slightest damage to the gill will kill the trout.
Keep Them In The Water
I see a lot of fishermen who pull the fish up onto the bank where the trout flops around while the angler tries to grab it. Trout can’t handle this rough treatment. Damage to their head, gills, and internal organs are deadly to the trout. Remember gravity to a trout is a real problem due to added stress to the internal organs. Also, trout can’t breathe out of water. Every second that they are out of the water is a breath they can’t have and they are suffocating.
Again, please remember they have a slime covering their bodies for protection. Contact with anything out of the water such as rocks, grass, creek bank, dry hands can remove the slime from the spot of contact. This causes them to be susceptible to diseases and infections.
If Handling A Trout Is Necessary – Don’t Squeeze
A trout out of water has its entire body compressing on itself. When a trout is in water it’s like being weightless. Suddenly when it comes out of the water everything compresses. Holding a trout adds even more pressure to the trout’s internal organs. It doesn’t take much to damage those organs.
With larger fish, I often turn them over if I have to hold them. This puts the meatier or muscle part of their body in my hand rather than their soft stomach area. This often calms them quickly letting me remove the hook and get them back to water quickly.
Be Comfortable Cutting The Line
Because I tie my own flies I live under the delusion that losing a fly isn’t a big deal. But like all of us, I don’t want to lose any flies and I have been known to cross treacherous waters to retrieve a fly stuck to a log. Sometimes when a trout hits a fly, he takes it pretty deep or near the gills. If this is the case, cut the line. He will survive much better than if you try and get the fly out.
Water Temperatures Are Noteworthy
Trout live in a marginal world with survival limits all around them. They need clean oxygenated water and in a temperature range that is pretty narrow. In spring water temperatures are usually in a range which is good for trout but come summer these temperatures rise, it’s a stressful time for trout. Keep this in mind when trout fishing. Imagine running a mile and trying to recover from the run with half the normal oxygen level available when you finish. Man, you are going to struggle. When the water temperature reaches the high sixties or creeps into the seventies, you might want to consider not fishing that day and giving the trout a break.
If I had my way I would like all fishing to be catch release. How you should handle and release trout would be of even more importance. But as I say that I know that it is impossible and impractical for all fishing to be catch release. It will be up to the individual angler to decide for him or herself whether today’s catch, all or impart, should go home with them. I fish with a friend regularly who enjoys a meal of trout. We look at each other all the time wondering why “do you do that?”. He doesn’t fully understand why I release and I always shake my head when he places his catch in his pocket. But, that’s what makes us friends, our ability to disagree with each other with respect.
But with that said, there is a careful and safe way to go about how you should handle and release trout when you practice catch and release. Trout are delicate creatures and returning them safely and unharmed back to the wild from where they came has its rewards. The one thing about trout fishing is whatever you do turns into a memory. Catching that trout and watching him swim away, well, that memory will always stay with you. You won’t need a picture or a stuffed trout on the wall to remind you of that fish. It will always be there for you as clear as the day you caught it…… in your mind. Fish on!
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Can Fish Feel Pain When Hooked? A study found that fish do not feel pain. Researchers determined that a fish does not have the nervous system structure and therefore is impervious to pain.
What Are the Benefits of Catch and Release fishing? Native fish contribute to nutrient recycling and help maintain natural ecosystem processes when they live out their entire lifecycle, from spawning to death, in the aquatic system. Catch and release fishing improves native fish populations by allowing more fish to remain and reproduce in the ecosystem.