These days the vast majority of sport anglers, certainly in the UK, seem to be catch and release supporters. The reasons are many and well justified: in an increasingly overpopulated world, fish stocks are vulnerable. It was Lee Wulf who perhaps summed it up best when he wrote that a fish is “too precious to be caught only once.” By protecting our waters and limiting fishing to a low impact, catch and release methods, we get more and bigger fish, not to mention the deep satisfaction of watching our quarry swim off safely.
Progressive fly anglers are very much leading the charge on catch and release. Unlike our ancestors, we no longer fish to live, but live to fish. Indeed, there are some huge advantages to fly fishing too. For one thing, because we’re not offering real food such as a worm, the fish seldom swallow the hook very deep. With good handling practise and flies that tend to be barbless, we also ensure that the vast majority of fish escape unharmed.
We are undoubtedly a lot kinder to our catch than our grandfathers were. We don’t need to catch to feed our families and a quick digital picture is the only trophy we need to take. So for the true angler, the sport is not just about how to catch fish, but how to release fish safely to fight another day. So without further ado, here are our own top catch and release fishing tips:
Tackle up wisely
If you are using the right tackle, breaking off should be a rarity when fishing. These days we have thinner, stronger leaders and lines than ever, so there is little excuse for fishing too light. Strong, well-balanced tackle also allows the angler to play fish quickly, rather than tiring them to exhaustion. So make that fight short and sweet. A few fish will always slip the hook, but do tackle up so you don’t get broken. Don’t give that fish a “sporting chance” and end up leaving it with an unwanted lip piercing.
Barbed vs Barbless Fish Hooks?
Many fly anglers are now fully barbless, which in most cases is sensible. They do less damage and, if anything, penetrate better on the strike. Provided you keep the tension on, you shouldn’t notice any significant increase in lost fish.
Strangely, barbless hooks cost more to produce than barbed. Nevertheless, at Turrall we always like to give fly fishers and fly tyers the choice, producing both barbless fly hooks and barbless flies (such as Chris Ogborne’s new Barbless River Flies selection).
You can also debarb flies easily with forceps or pliers however. With bigger fish, a “bumped” hook is also a better answer than a barbless hook too- crush the barb but leave just a little profile, and you have a hook that is fish friendly but won’t shift far during the fight.
Some like it wet
Whichever species you catch, another great catch and release must is to minimize handling, or at least to keep fish wet. Most damage to fish is done by dry hands and dry surfaces. If you can wade or actually get in the water to avoid putting the fish on dry land, this always helps. From the bank, keep the fish in a wet net where possible, and never handle with dry hands.
When you net a fish, often the first instinct is to lift it straight from the water. If the fight has been intense, this is tough on your catch, so it can be preferable to keep it into the water for a few seconds.
If you catch a fish you wish to photograph, one good catch and release tip is to remove the fly first, then give your fish some water. Retain it in the landing net head for a few moments and give it a breather while you compose yourself and get everything ready for a picture. Do carry a padded unhooking mat for larger species such as pike and carp, that you might have to bank to get a picture.
Preparation is key
A big part of looking after your catch begins before the fish is even hooked, by being organized and prepared. Be ready is the golden rule. Have your pair of forceps on a your fly vest and always to hand. Pack a generous sized net too. A small fish will fit in a big net, but the reverse just isn’t going to happen! If you’re a photographer, know your camera and be ready to use it in seconds, not minutes. Respect your catch by being well prepared.
Avoid the big squeeze
One particular area of concern with many fish, such as trout is that we tend to grip them underneath, with one hand just behind the head. The heart and other vital organs are here, so without even knowing it, we might be causing damage- especially if we grip or squeeze too hard. Do be conscious of this and support with a carefully cupped hand- don’t constrict behind the head! If a fish is very lively, a better area to grip is probably the “wrist” of the tail.
Fragile, bigger fish
Every one of us dreams of that big, once in a season or even a lifetime fish. But contrary to appearances big fish can be fragile. They could be many years old and deserve your respect. One of the best fish care tips is to support the weight of a big fish, such as a pike or salmon, rather than grabbing by the chin or thrusting it forward towards the camera. If it is a female, like the pike below, it might carry quite a weight- even more if it has eggs. Do support the fish and try to hold its weight evenly by getting one hand firmly under the belly.
Think Temperature, think species
Being cold-blooded creatures, fish can be highly susceptible to extremes of temperature. Generally speaking though, the warmer the water, the more fragile your catch will be. This is especially true of cold water species such as pike, which should not be fished for when waters get warm. Carp and other cyprinids, on the other hand, are more resilient and can be fished for safely year round.
Different species also vary hugely in their vulnerability. Grayling are a classic example, being short lived and fragile. The hardiness of fish can also be closely linked to their environment too. Stocked fish such as trout are almost always less tough than wild fish, which often have to live with strong currents and natural threats. Regardless of the species, keeping them wet and handling them as little as possible is key.
How to Release Fish
It might seem like stating the bleeding obvious, but the way you release fish can be the difference between life and death. Never “throw” a fish back; lower it into the water carefully. If the banks are ugly you can use your landing net. However, protecting your quarry isn’t just a case of saying “see you later.”
If the fight was strong, the fish may well need time to recover. Hold it so that it is upright and stable in the water if you can, until it is ready to swim off strongly. This could take quite a few seconds in some cases, so don’t hurry. If there is a current hold the fish so that it is facing into the flow as it recovers.
Protect your fishing
Each fish you catch is just a single stopping point for an angler. But if you really care about the places you fish, keep an eye on them, set a good example to others and play your part in the bigger scheme of things.
There are so many ways you can make sure that fisheries are healthy and anglers are responsible. Take a youngster fishing, and teach them how to handle their catch carefully. Volunteer for a project, support your local fishing club or, better still, join the Angling Trust, who are constantly standing up to protect the sport you love. And with that, we leave you with mad former US President George W Bush, who may not have been fully aware of the significance of his own words when he said: “I believe it is possible for man and fish to coexist peacefully.”
Amen to that.