Catch and Release for Trout

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Let me say from the start that I do not have a problem with killing the odd fish here and there for the table. It's a natural thing to do. I bring trout home now and again, and you can't beat the taste of a freshly caught trout. But for the most part I release the trout I catch. The reasons for this are several: I don't want to eat trout all the time, and keeping fish in the freezer and then chucking them out seems a waste to me; I don't fish solely for food; and most importantly, the waters I fish won't sustain a continued catch and kill policy for big, wild brown trout. Evidently my reasons for practising Catch and Release (C&R) are in part personally practical, part aesthetic, and mainly ecological. Your reasons may be different, and that's ok with me.

So, assuming we are going to return some of the trout we catch, how should we go about it? How can we maximise the chances of fish surviving the experience? And how can we get nice photos of these fish, and still release them safely? In thinking about C&R we need to consider the following:

1) The tackle you use to catch the fish
2) Getting the fish in without exhausting it
3) Minimising Handling and the time taken to remove the hook
4) Making sure the fish is ok before letting in swim off

1) Tackle

This has a major influence on the other three areas. Choosing the right rod, tippet, and hook strength means you have can apply enough power to get the fish in quickly. Choosing single barbless hooks means you can get the hook out quickly and minimise damage to the fish. Having a good-sized knotless landing net means handling big fish is easier and you can rest the fish in the water to make sure they're OK before allowing it to swim off.

The right kitSo what do I mean by the right rod, tippet, and hook strength? Well here's a rough guide:

Size of fish Minimum Ideal

1lb - 2lb
Rod weight
Tippet strength
Hook size




1.5lb - 5lb
Rod weight
Tippet strength
Hook size




Rod weight
Tippet strength
Hook size





You can see here that's there is no hard and fast rule - fish vary in size in wild fisheries, so you are looking for an outfit that suits the majority of the fish you are going to catch with the reserves of power to deal with the odd out-size trophy.

It's important to stress that the table is giving minimums that would be suitable for open waters, with no snags, and calm/slow currents. If you have snaggy waters, or fast roily currents, then you need to increase the tackle strength considerably.


2) Getting the fish in without exhausting it.

Maximising pulling powerThis is about the way you play the fish. The way you use the kit is at least as important as the kit itself. I am always appalled when I hear or read of people taking 25 minutes or more to land trout. Most of the trout I catch are in the net inside 2 minutes. I've not timed this, but I reckon the longest fight I've had with a trout lasted 5 minutes at the most. That includes fish into double figures, and fish that have run me into my backing.

You can guess from this that I put a lot of pressure on fish to get them in. Yep, sure the odd fish will get off through the hook-hold pulling, but that happens anyway - and who's to say it wouldn't pull out after 25 minutes of faffing about?

Assuming you've already realised that you need to keep a tight line when playing a fish (!) there are some key principles to efficient fish-fighting:

Only two things should happen when playing a fish - either the fish is taking line under pressure, or you are gaining line. Standing there with the rod gently nodding and the fish sulking means that the fish is resting, and you are prolonging the fight. Keep the fish moving!

High rods protect tippets - low rods maximise pulling power. - Lifting the rod high in the air puts all the pressure on the tip of the rod - good for protecting light tippets against the lunges of the fish, but useless for applying maximum power to stop or move stubborn fish. If you need to put maximum pressure on you need to lower the rod to transfer the load on to the bottom half of the rod. You need sensitive hands for this though; be ready to give with the rod to protect against sudden lunges. You will need to use a variety of rod positions when playing big fish - if you are unsure then try to aim for a mid-point of having the rod butt at an angle of 90 degrees to the line running from the rod tip to the fish.

Practise this stuff at home. Tie your tippet to a chair leg or something similar, and see how much pressure you can put on it with various rod positions.

Pulling fish from the side/below keeps them off balance. - Fish are quite good at resisting a pull from straight above - they get their head down and can maintain that posture for a long time. However they are not so good at resisting a pull from the side, and absolutely rubbish at dealing with a pull from below! So… when playing a big fish, I spend a lot of time with the rod over on its side (pulling away from the fish's direction of travel), and also with a good length of the rod under water (pulling from the side and underneath the fish).

The pull from below flips the fish head-over-heels, and seems to help disorient the fish - shortening the fight considerably. It's a brilliant technique!

If a fish builds up momentum, let it run. - Once a fish gets some speed up, trying to stop it dead can lead to breakages. Letting it run under medium pressure tires the fish and protects tippets. If you need to stop it, increase pressure progressively and, if possible, from the side/below (see above). As soon as the fish stops - get it moving towards you again (see first principle!).

All of this does take practise and gets easier with experience. But you should always be aiming to get the fight over in the minimum of time. If it's taking you more than a couple of minutes regularly, then look at your technique.


3) Minimising Handling

This is the critical bit folks. You've got the fish in, and how you behave in the next few seconds will decide how well the fish goes back.

The safest thing you can do is this:

Don't touch the fish at all; don't remove it from the water. Ease the fish towards you, grab the leader with your free hand, tuck your rod under your arm pit; then using either forceps, your fingers, or another unhooking tool, reach down to the fly, slip it out (it's barbless remember?), and watch contentedly as the fish suddenly realises it's free and swims strongly away. Perfect!

I use this method for nearly all of the fish I catch and it works like a dream.

So why bother writing anything else? Well consider the following situations:

  • You are fishing from a high bank and can't reach the fish with your hand
  • It's a big fish - grabbing the tippet may risk breaking it.
  • The hook is out of sight, or in a position that's difficult to grip. You can't reach it without handling the fish in some way.
  • It's a big fish and you'd like a photo.

a Large, knotless, micromeshIn all of these situations my preference is to use a large, knotless, micro-meshed landing net. It allows you to reach fish you can't reach with your hand. It means you don't have to risk grabbing the tippet. A net allows you to keep control of the fish without having to grip it. It allows you to keep the fish safely in the water whilst sorting your camera out.


Fishing from high banks

This isn't ideal as it means taking the fish completely out of the water, but it is something we may have to deal with from time to time. The key here is to find somewhere soft to lay the fish down. Avoid gravel and rocks and look for soft wet grass, or puddles. Gently lay the net down and unhook the fish. Don't take the fish out of the net. If the fish starts to thrash or jump, lift the net and fish off the ground to stop any injury occurring. The fish will quickly quieten down and you can then unhook it.

To get the fish back in the water, leave it in the net and place the net in the water, allowing it to swim back out. Do not drop the fish back in from a high bank.

Dealing with hooks that are difficult to grip, or out of sight.

It does happen: sometimes the hook is inside the mouth; sometimes it's visible but somehow difficult to get a purchase on to be able to slip it out. With the fish in the net, the first thing you must do is wet your hands. This stops you removing any of the fish's protective coating and is essential. Never handle a fish with dry hands, a cloth, or anything else.

With a wet hand, gently lift the fish, enabling you to either open its mouth or grab the hook properly with the other hand. Don't grip the fish tightly. Don't lift it out of the net, or even completely out of the water. If it flips or struggles, gently release your grip and let it sink back into the submerged net. Once the hook is out, sink the net completely and allow the fish to swim free. Easy. This should take no more than few seconds.

If the hook is very deep in the throat, and out of reach don't try to pull it into view. Cut the line as far down as possible and let the fish go. It is well documented that fish can survive with hooks in their throats. In many cases the hook will corrode and find its way out of the fish. A deep hook is not an excuse to hit the fish on the head.

Which brings us on to fish that bleed. This is a difficult one. Fish don't have much blood, and so can't afford to lose much. However a little blood goes a long way in the water, and fish blood does clot - so it may not be as bad as it looks. Fish can survive heavy injury from otters, cormorants, herons, pike and what not, so a bleeding fish isn't necessarily a dead fish.

I'm inclined to give the fish the benefit of the doubt and keep the fish resting in the submerged net for a while to see if the bleeding stops and the fish recovers. If all looks ok I'll let it go. If not, then ultimately I guess I'll get the priest out (oh yes, you should still carry one!), and take the fish home for tea. I've only had to do this twice in the last ten years.

Photographing Big Fish

in the net, in the water...Be honest, we all like having pictures of our big fish. Pictures probably are sops to our egos; they are definitely memory enhancers, and often a record of something extraordinary. Whatever they are we all like having them and that's ok as long as we get the pictures without jeopardising the fish.

This is perfectly possible, and here's how it works.

  • Keep your camera handy around your neck - not in the bottom of a rucksack, or back in the car!
  • Keep the fish in the net, in the water, until you are ready to press the button
  • Fish photo's should be either in the water, or held just above the water with wet hands - not on gravel or sand, or held five feet off the ground.Take a couple of quick photos and then release the fish - don't spend ages refocusing or messing around with exposures and angles.
  • If it's a picture of you with the fish, keep the fish in the net, in the water until the last moment; lift it up briefly for the picture and then put it back in the water. The fish should be out of the water for no more than 15 seconds. Hold the fish with one hand around the wrist of its tail, and the other supporting its weight around the pectoral fins.

This is much easier if there are two of you, but it's still easy if you are on your own.

4) Making sure the fish is ok before letting in swim off

Finally...Finally, try and make sure that the fish is ok to swim off on its own. A healthy fish can hold itself upright in the water, and swim against the current. You can check this while the fish is still in the net. If it's ok, then let the fish go and watch it swim away.

Very occasionally you get a fish that looks ok until it's out of the net and then it turns over. If you can, re-net it, and hold it upright, facing into in a steady current until it has the strength to kick out of your gentle grip and swim off.

If the fish doesn't look right in the net follow the same procedure, keep it upright and facing into a steady clean current (i.e. not muddy).

5) Summary

an important subject...I've gone into quite a lot of detail here because I think it's an important subject.

In practise this is all much easier than it sounds.

Stick to the big principles

  • Use the right tackle for the fish you're after
  • Get the fish in quickly
  • Minimise handling and the time taken to remove the hook
  • Make sure the fish is ok before letting it swim off

If you apply these principles then you'll cope with any circumstances, and 99 times out of 100, the fish you catch will go back ready to fight another day.

And if one out of 100 doesn't make it, well, feel a little sad, but don't forget to enjoy the meal!

Will Shaw
March 2009

Post Script - how to kill fish.

This didn't really fit into the above article, but I think it's important. If you are fishing to take fish home, then kill the fish as soon as it's in the net, with a couple of sharp blows between the eyes with a heavy priest. Don't, please, faff around admiring the fish, showing off to your mates, taking pictures, weighing it etc. Kill it straight away, before you unhook it, before you take it out of the net.

© William Shaw