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Catch-and-Release A Brief History and Ethical Practices

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “catch-and-release” fishing.  Part of my interest was sparked by a comment from a friend on the Angler’s Covey Facebook page who was wondering about the toll on fish in a “catch and release” (C&R) environment.  We’ve probably all caught fish scarred from being caught several times.  So what is the history of “catch and release” – what was the original intent and what are the guiding principles and behaviors we should adopt when we “catch and release”?


“Catch and release” actually has its beginnings back to 19th century Britain with the purpose being to maintain healthy fish habitats.  In more recent times, the same rationale holds true.  Around the 1950’s, this same conservation philosophy guided the practices of “catch and release.”  Today, the National Park Service advocates C&R practices:  ““catch and release” fishing improves native fish populations by allowing more fish to remain and reproduce in the ecosystem. This practice provides an opportunity for increasing numbers of anglers to enjoy fishing and to successfully catch fish. Releasing all native fish caught while in a national park will ensure that enjoyment of this recreation opportunity will last for generations to come.”


Lefty Kreh is probably one of the most prominent modern-day advocates of “catch and release” as a conservation practice.  In addition, Lee Wulff, another well-known voice for fly fishers, says “Game fish are too valuable to only be caught once.”  “Sport fishing,” rather than fishing for meat, has increased in popularity with many waters in Colorado having designated “catch-and-release” stretches or C&R rules for fish of a certain length.  Be sure to check the regulations of the areas you will fish.


Trout Unlimited “encourages trout and salmon anglers to voluntarily practice catch and release because of its proven benefits to trout and salmon populations. TU, and its local chapters and state councils, often do advocate catch and release regulations where they are appropriate.  Typically, catch and release regulations are most useful on streams and rivers where there are highly valuable populations that are facing heavy fishing pressure. Curtailing harvest in these situations can help increase and sustain trout and salmon populations, and has done so in most situations where catch and release has been used.”


But not all voices are advocates for “catch and release” tactics.  In fact, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) is quite vocal in denouncing “catch and release.”  They argue that there is no such thing as “sport fishing” due to the repeated “trauma” and injury that fish experience.  PETA cites research that argues that fish do, indeed, experience pain from being hooked. 


Any advocate and practitioner of “catch and release” has to consider both sides of this issue.  The practice is well-intentioned – yet it also has a contradictory perspective.  If I concede to the idea that fish experience trauma between the time they take the fly and the moment they are released, what can I do to reduce the trauma?


As a sport fisher who will continue to fly fish and catch and release, I need to commit to the healthiest and most ethical “do’s and don’ts” of C&R: 

  1. Use Barbless Hooks.  This is a no-brainer for me.  I crimp every fly that I use.  Since I am not a bait fisherman, I do not usually need to worry about a fish swallowing the fly, so I turn my attention to the safest means to carefully remove the fly from the fish’s mouth. 
  2. Minimize Playing the Fish:  The goal is to land the fish.  Quickly.  The longer it takes, the more energy the fish exerts which results in build-up of lactic acid.  A fish played to exhaustion has less chance of survival – even if it swims off immediately after being released.
  3. Minimize photoops:  Who doesn’t like his or her picture taken with a nice fish?  Be prepared for the photo before you take the fish out of the water and then snap the photo quickly.  Take the picture with the fish still in the net.  Or hold the fish only slightly out of the water for that photo.  If the picture can’t be captured within 30 seconds, release the fish and get a picture the next time.
  4. Dip your net and wet your hands:  Before handling the fish, dip your net in the water and wet your hands.  Dry surfaces damage the “slimy” mucus cover of the fish.  Even Hemingway wrote about this in his short-story “Big Two-Hearted River”:  “He had wet his hand before he touched the trout, so he would not disturb the delicate mucus that covered him.  If a trout was touched with a dry hand, a white fungus attacked the unprotected spot. Years before when he had fished crowded streams, with fly fishermen ahead of him and behind him, Nick had again and again come on dead trout furry with white fungus, drilled against a rock, or floating belly up in some pool.”
  5. Revive the fish:  Put the fish back in slower current in the water and face it upstream.  Allow the water to flow through the fish’s gills until he is revived and moves quickly out of your hand. 
  6. Releasing the Fish video:  The Colorado Parks and Wildlife has a video on how to release fish safely.  Check out the video here.

I want to ensure that when I enjoy the sport of fly fishing that I demonstrate the most ethical ways that 1) promote the sport, 2) that preserve and conserve the fish and their habitat, and 3) that foster good will among all who share the sport.  “Catch and release,” when practiced with the approaches above, seems to satisfy those three criteria. 

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