“Pop! A fish!”
It startled me. He waded only a few yards ahead. The river barely reached his tiny shins. We had fished this stretch most of the morning because of it. I was focused on the bend in the river and working out my plan to set him up where the shallow riffle reached a ledge and faster water from the outside flowed in to make a place trout would hold.
“Look! Pop, a fish!”
I expected a splash or ripple.
“Where son?” I wanted him to cast to it.
“There.” He pointed and veered towards the bank, wading faster so that his steps became wider and slower and forced more water that splashed his pants and wet his lower shirt.
The white belly of a brown trout braced against a stone and folded back so each lap of the soft current moved the head and tail with the water.
“Leave it son.”
He stopped and looked at me. In his expression I saw a reminder. Teach him.
“C’mere son. Leave it be. That’s a dead fish.”
Make it Count.
Unless the law requires it, catch and release is usually a choice. I have grown into a catch and release fly fisher over the years, but respect people that want to keep a fish.
Selfishly, I would like to see a good fish set back. If more folks put trout back in the river, I would be a much better fly fisherman.
Not every trout that is released will live to fight another day depending on the method in which it was caught and handled. If you choose to practice catch and release, certain practices can help ensure the fish you bring to hand survive. These are some of those techniques. They are not inclusive but are a good start.
1. Fight Them Fast.
The longer you fight a trout, the more exhausted it will become and the less chance it stands of recovery. Usually, smaller trout are easier to land than larger. My experience has been that a hard fighting, large trout that takes longer to net usually takes longer to swim away. The more practice you have fighting big fish the better you become at landing them. Larger tippet helps too.
Why do some trout die after fighting too hard for too long? A 1983 scientific study from McMaster University in Ontario Canada claims the cause is possibly intracellular acidosis, “The hypothesis that post-exercise mortality is due to excessive ‘lactic acid’ accumulation in the blood is discounted. It is suggested that intracellular acidosis may be the proximate cause of death.”
(p 189, Why Do Fish Die After Severe Exercise? C. M. WOOD, J. D. TURNER AND M. S. GRAHAM. Department of Biology, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada L8S 4K1 (Received 1 March 1982, Accepted 22 June 1982) https://www.zoology.ubc.ca/~woodcm/Woodblog/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Wood-et-al-1983-JFB.pdf
The study goes on to present the data as to why it asserts this claim. While the study only suggests at the possible cause of death, factual results showed, “Six minutes of severe exercise in the rainbow trout caused a delayed mortality of about 40% over the next 12 h, the majority of which occurred between 4 and 8 h post-exercise.” (p 192)
The severe exercise killed trout that would have otherwise lived. This data combined with my own experience makes me believe that the quicker you land and release a trout the better chance it has of living.
2. Handle with Care.
Once you land a trout, how it is handled is an important factor in survival. Wetting your hands before handling a fish prevents you from rubbing off the slime. The slime on a trout’s body helps prevent fungus and bacteria causing infection. The slime is removed by laying a fish on the ground as well. Use caution to not squeeze the fish too tightly as this can cause damage to the internal organs. A trout’s gills are extremely sensitive and handling with the gills causes damage. Finally, if you are having trouble removing the hook, you can always cut the tippet and let the fly rust out on its own.
3. Keep ‘Em Wet.
Keeping the fish in the water prevents overstress by maintaining the supply of oxygen. Having a wide, deep net makes it easier for the fish to linger in the water while you remove the hook or wait to release it while the fish revives. This is especially important when the water is warm, as warmer water contains less oxygen.
4. Don’t Rush the Release.
Land the fish quickly if you can but release it when it is ready. Releasing the trout when it is ready allows it to comfortably manage the currents and obstacles in the river. Face the fish upstream in water with mild current so that water flows into the gills bringing oxygen more easily. I try to avoid shallow areas where the fish will have to navigate through rocks and vegetation or there is dirt and silt in the water. With a cradling hand on the fish, you can rock it side to side gently to help bring it back into the motion of swimming. It will swim off on its on when it is ready.
5. Watch the Temps.
Because warm water contains less oxygen than cold, trout become more vulnerable to all of the above as they will already have a hard time getting oxygen. For this reason, use extra caution in warm water temps as you plan your release. In some states if water temperatures get hot enough, there may be restriction on how late in the day you can fish. These are often called “Hoot Owl Laws.” Check with Fish and Game or the local fly shop to see if these rules apply, especially if fishing new waters.
The Photo Opportunity.
I love capturing the beauty of a trout I have caught with a photograph, but not at the expense of killing the fish. A tip for practicing catch and release while taking photos is to prepare for the picture while the fish is still in the water to the maximum extent. This is another time having a wide net is useful. The more quickly you can raise the fish, snap the pic, and lower it back to the river, the better. This makes for good pictures as well, as the longer the fish is out of the water, the more likely it is to start flopping around.
Enjoy the Release.
I have begun to appreciate the release as much as the hook set. The moment you release a trout back to the river can be exhilarating if you take the time to enjoy it. Being that close to something that impressive and feeling it leave your world and return to its home is special. Let the release be part of the whole process of catching a fish and it may become one of your favorite aspects of fly fishing.
You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know.
I crouched down in the stream and softly held his wrist. His eyes went to the dead brown trout and I waited until they settled back on mine.
“That’s why we wet our hands son. We have to be careful with the fish we catch so we can catch them again.”
“Do we squeeze them hard?”
“Nope.” A slight and sharp shake of the head. Focused for a moment, then back to the river. I stood and unhooked the blue winged olive from the rod and pulled out line for him to cast. He reached up and I held his hand as we waded to the spot I had picked out.
The finest gift you can give to any fisherman is to put a good fish back, and who knows if the fish you caught isn’t someone else’s gift to you. -Lee Wulff
I believe knowledge is the key to preserving the resources we have as fly fishers. Most beginners will do the right thing if given the chance. How do they get that chance? They need the knowledge. It is up to the ones with knowledge to share it.
I have made all these catch and release mistakes in my life. Was I trying to hurt the trout I caught? Of course not. I simply did not know at the time.
The more time I spent on the river, the more questions I asked, the more I observed, and the more I learned. Sharing what I have learned with my son and with you is important to me because I believe it leaves us with better fisheries.
And because maybe one day he will put a good fish back, that you might catch. Wadeoutthere.