An Expert Guide to Catch and Release Fly Fishing: Gear and Techniques for Successful Outings

Fly Fishing Expert Alex Ontkos shares some simple tips to increase your catch and release success and minimize mortality in the fish you handle.

Someone kneels in the water in waders and holds a rainbow trout above a fishing net.

Photo by Sticker Mule

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For most avid fly anglers, being outside and enjoying a day on the water provides a profound sense of freedom and tranquility. Whether your home water is a babbling mountain stream in Montana or the sweltering mangrove-lined backcountry of the Florida Everglades, you are inherently united with your fly fishing comrades by something ingrained deeply in the human spirit: the desire to be in nature. That is what draws a lot of us to the fly fishing lifestyle—a reprieve from the monotony of daily life and some nature-induced stress relief.

Unfortunately, while a successful day of fly fishing can be therapeutic for us, it can be incredibly stressful for our fishy counterparts.

From the second a fish is hooked, it experiences physical injury and physiological changes that may put its life in jeopardy after it is released. While the direct impact of physical trauma is obvious, long-term injuries and physiological disturbances could reduce breeding success, impact the fish’s ability to evade predators and feed, or leave it susceptible to disease. It is important to keep in mind that these impacts are not immediately obvious, so even if a fish swims away ‘strong,’ it may still be in peril.

If catch and release fishing is your modus operandi, then minimizing stress using proper fish handling techniques should be your top priority. After all, how effective is the act of ‘catch and release’ if the fish dies after releasing it?

Catch and release fishing has become increasingly popular and is widely embraced by the fly fishing community as a valuable conservation tool. It allows fish to be caught and be released back into the wild, where they can continue to contribute to the fishery and be caught again...when they are even bigger.

The author kneels in shallow water while wearing shorts, and he holds a large orange fish partly out of the water with two hands.

Photo courtesy of Alex Ontkos

This article serves to provide some simple tips to increase your catch and release success and minimize mortality in the fish you handle. First, we will outline some gear choices that will allow you to handle and release fish more efficiently. Then, we will discuss some tactics and practices that will greatly increase the chance of survival for the fish you release.

Gear

If you are interested in fly fishing, searching for fly outfits and obtaining the proper gear for your fishing style is an exciting experience. After all, having the right tools for the job is critical for a successful outing. If catch and release fishing is your goal, you should not forget to purchase the proper gear to successfully land, handle, and release a fish. This gear segment is just as important as choosing the right reel, rod, and line!

Landing Nets

For most fly anglers, a landing net is a vital piece of equipment that turns a ‘hooked’ fish into a ‘caught’ fish. Nets effectively extend your reach, allowing you to capture an exhausted fish with minimal effort on your part. They also allow a captured fish to remain in the water for dehooking and taking pictures, which is ideal if releasing a fish alive is your priority.

Someone kneels in the water in waders and holds a rainbow trout above a fishing net.

Photo by Sticker Mule

There is no shortage of landing net options on the market today; the ideal landing net for you depends largely on your fishing style and the size of your target species. For instance, if you prefer to hike into smaller remote streams, then you will likely prefer a lightweight net that is relatively compact, such as the 22” Orvis Broden Eco-Clear net. In contrast, if you are routinely targeting larger fish or are fishing from a drift boat, then the Fishpond Nomad Mid-Length net may be a more appealing option.

Regardless of what size net works best for you, focus on nets that use knotless rubber mesh. Rubber mesh is less likely to damage the more delicate parts of a fish, such as its gills or fins, and removes less of its protective slime coating than traditional materials. Rubber nets are also less likely to get snagged by your hook, which can be a huge hassle when you are on the river.

Hook Removal Tools

Hook removal tools, such as pliers and forceps, are an essential part of your fly fishing gear kit. These tools will allow you to remove hooks with ease, which helps to reduce handling time and keeps your fingers away from the danger zone. While forceps are adequate for smaller species (such as trout and panfish), pliers may be a better option for larger species including largemouth bass, redfish, and tarpon. Just remember to keep these devices accessible so you are not scrambling to find them when the time comes!

There are countless options for pliers, forceps, and hemostats. The Rapala Fisherman’s Pliers are a good budget-friendly option for larger freshwater species, including largemouth bass and musky. The Orvis Comfy Grip Forceps are a solid choice for trout and species with small, delicate mouths.

If you regularly target saltwater species, keep in mind that corrosion resistance plays an important role in the durability of your tools! The Simms Guide Plier is made with stainless steel and lightweight aluminum, so this pair of pliers is a worthy investment.

Barbless Hooks

Barbless hooks cause less damage to a fish’s mouth and expedite the dehooking process. Also, if a fish breaks you off, barbless hooks are more likely to be shed from the fish faster than a barbed hook. If possible, try to purchase flies with barbless hooks. If you prefer to tie your own flies, barbless hooks are available from most reputable hook manufacturers.

If neither of these options are practical, then you can easily pinch the barb of your hook using pliers or file it down to create a barbless hook. You might also appreciate having barbless hooks in your quiver if you get a little careless while you’re on the water...or if you have a negligent fishing buddy with a dangerous backcast! If you also spend time using conventional tackle, try swapping out your treble hooks with inline single hooks. These hooks cause far less damage than traditional treble hooks and usually do not sacrifice your ability to hook fish, which is a huge concern for a lot of folks.

Practices and Techniques

Having the right gear for a catch and release outing will greatly enhance your ability to handle fish safely. However, there are also simple actions you can take that will reduce stress in the fish you release and increase their survival rates. Some of these techniques will take practice, but the benefits will pay off for the fish, yourself, and your fellow anglers.

Fish Handling

The author kneels in shallow water and holds up a large silver fish. He holds it with one hand in its mouth and the other hand supporting its belly.

Photo courtesy of Alex Ontkos

Improper fish handling can be a death sentence, even if fish are released and seem to be in good condition. As a catch and release angler, it is your responsibility to handle fish correctly and ensure they are released in the best condition possible. You should always avoid touching fish with gloves or a rag; fish should only be touched with wet hands! Gloves and rags can remove a fish’s protective slime coat and damage delicate scales, which may leave a fish susceptible to disease. For the same reason, avoid removing fish from the water and placing them on dry surfaces.

Lip gripping devices may be useful for particularly unruly and toothy fish that are dangerous to handle, but they can also cause unnecessary damage to fish with more delicate mouths. Use them wisely or not at all!

We all love to have a photo-op with memorable fish (I am definitely guilty of it), so be mindful of a few things when preparing to snap a picture. You should always have your camera handy so you are not scrambling to find it after you land a fish; time is of the essence! With a little creativity, you can get awesome pictures of fish while they remain in the water. Keep in mind that a fish needs to be in the water for respiration; wet gills facilitate gas exchange and allow the fish to obtain oxygen while expelling carbon dioxide.

If you choose to remove a fish from its aquatic abode for a photograph, then make sure to support the fish properly and make it snappy. Avoid holding fish vertically and do not hold a fish using its operculum (gill cover) or dangle it by only grabbing its lower jaw.

You can avoid damaging a fish’s internal organs by supporting it completely. If a fish is too large to fit in your hand, use two hands to properly support its stomach. For many species, such as common snook, particularly large fish may be breeding females, so avoiding damage to reproductive organs is crucial.

Reviving Fish

A close-up image of a fish that is partially submerged in the water, sitting in the author's hand.

Photo by Alex Ontkos

For most avid fly anglers, convincing a fish to eat an expertly crafted clump of feathers and fur is a thrilling experience. Memories of watching a fish eat your fly and the fight that follows are what keeps us daydreaming when the workweek hits hard. It is easy to forget that each fish you catch is unexpectedly fighting for its life after consuming what seemed to be an easy meal. The fish you land are overwhelmed with exhaustion after a marathon fight with your tackle and skill, so treat them kindly. Use tackle that is appropriate for the fish you are targeting to limit fight times. Extended fight times can lead to physiological stress and lactic acid buildup within muscles, which can impact a fish’s behavior and survival post-release.

When the time to release comes, if a fish is ready to swim off, let it! If a fish seems weak or has lost equilibrium, fully support it in the water and allow water to flow over its gills. If predators are in the area, consider releasing the fish close to cover or in deep water.

Environmental Conditions

As a responsible angler, you should research your target species and the environmental conditions they prefer. This is particularly important during temperature extremes since each fish species has unique environmental tolerances you should be aware of. For instance, it is wise to avoid fishing for trout if water temperatures are 65°F or higher. Warmer temperatures and low flows can be stressful for trout, which may increase the risk of post-release mortality. Warmer water generally holds less dissolved oxygen, which makes it more difficult for fish to recover after being released. Alternatively, if you target tropical species, low water temperatures can have negative effects. If your area is experiencing extreme temperatures, it may be best to avoid fishing until things return to normal.

Local Regulations

You should be cognizant of local fishing regulations, even if you intend to practice catch and release. Individual bodies of water may have area-specific regulations, such as tackle restrictions and requiring the use of barbless hooks. In Washington, knotless nets are required in streams with a fly fishing-only gear restriction. Also in Washington, it is unlawful to remove salmon, steelhead, and bull trout from the water if they cannot be harvested. It is often helpful to review your local regulations before each season to ensure your plans are within the bounds of the law.

Keep in mind that the ethos surrounding some local regulations can be widespread within the fishing community. For instance, in the state of Florida, it is illegal to remove tarpon from the water if they are over 40” in length. While regulations in other states and countries may be less stringent, these rules are usually based on practices to ensure the healthy release of sensitive species, so be mindful of them when you are on the water and sharing pictures of your catches.

Summary

Catch and release fishing has become increasingly popular and is widely embraced by the fly fishing community. When practiced properly, catch and release allows anglers to enjoy time on the water with minimal impact on sensitive fisheries. As outdoor recreation continues to boom, fisheries are likely to experience additional pressure, increasing the need for education, proper fish handling, and scientifically proven practices. The proper gear and a little practice can greatly enhance your success with releasing fish alive and well, which will provide positive benefits for the fish you catch, your fellow anglers, and the fisheries you rely on.

For more detailed information and peer-reviewed articles, check out www.keepfishwet.org. If you want to find the right gear for responsible catch and relsease fishing or if you have any questions, reach out to a Fly Fishing Expert here on Curated.

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Written By
Alex Ontkos
Alex Ontkos
Fly Fishing Expert
For my day job, I am an experienced fisheries biologist and ecologist. But first and foremost, I am an avid outdoorsman and fly fisherman. I have years of technical and personal experience to help guide you to gear choices that are a perfect fit for your goals and desires. ​ My fishing experience sp...
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