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Handle With Care Fish Survival


It’s a topic written about quite often, but probably can’t be written about too much:  proper ways to release the fish and increase its chance of survival.  Josh Nehring, aquatic biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, took a few minutes at the Colorado Springs Fly Fishing Show on Saturday, to share some crucial tips with me.


Don’t overplay the fish:  We love a good fight — the fish runs, we turn it, it runs again … we finally bring it to the net.  But if we can cut down the length of that fight, the fish stands a better chance to survive and fight again in the future.  Playing a fish to exhaustion is a huge factor in fish mortality. Think like Muhammad Ali — instead of going the distance, end the fight by the third round!  



The mouth.  Josh emphasized mouth care.  If you can, remove the hook from the fish’s mouth while he is still in the water. Of course, barbless hooks, or hooks with the barbs crimped down, protect the fish from damage. The hooks can be backed out of the soft, fleshy mouth with minimal impact to the fish.  To minimize the fish flopping around as you remove the hook, hold the fish belly-side up.  If the fish swallows the hook too far, and you cannot get the hook out with your fingers or with your forceps, the next best option is to cut the line as close to the eye of the hook as possible.  The hook will callous over.  Do not pull the hook out and risk damage to the mouth, tongue, gills, or any internal tissue.  That damage or any bleeding to the fish’s mouth decreases the chances of survival.


Handling the fish:  A lot has been written about the “how’s and why’s” of handling fish.  Even Ernest Hemingway wrote about it in his short story “Big Two-Hearted River.”  In 1925, he wrote “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.”  


Breaking up that mucous covering threatens the fish’s healthy life — and it is easily preventable by simply wetting your hands before you handle the fish. 


In addition to wetting your hand before handling the fish, pay attention to where you grip the fish. The image below shows the anatomy of a fish.  Squeezing or tightly gripping the fish behind the gills puts pressure on the internal organs. Grip in front of the tail with one hand and with your other hand, gently cradle the fish with a light grip behind the pectoral fin.


fish anatomy




blessingAnd about photos. You might be tempted to take and retake multiple photos with your nice rainbow or brown trout.  If possible, avoid posing and reposing the fish.  Professional photographers will snap off a handful of successive shots rather than reposing the fish for different pictures.  Another option is to put your camera in video mode and then capture still photos from the video. Regardless of the strategy you use, do not keep the fish out of the water for long.  Some folks recommend no longer than 5 seconds.  


When you return the fish to the water, point it upstream in relatively gentle flow allowing it to catch its breath and get its gills going, hold it gently until it revives, and watch it as it heads off under its own power in a matter of seconds.  If your camera allows for underwater photos or videos, the release makes for great action shots!  


Preservation.  As Lee Wulff said, “Game fish are too valuable to only be caught once.”  We talk a lot about preserving our fisheries — and usually mean protecting the water.  But, likewise, we want to preserve the fish in those waters.  As fly fishing gains popularity and the numbers of anglers increases on our favorite waters, we need to take all the steps that we can to protect those game fish.  


Wulff said it best: “The finest gift you can give to any fisherman is to put a good fish back, and who knows if the fish that you caught isn’t someone else’s gift to you?”


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