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Grab a Big Net and Keep Your Hands Wet: Catch and Release Best Practices

By Alex McCrickard/DWR Aquatic Education Coordinator

Photos by Alex McCrickard/DWR

As anglers, it’s essential that we embrace and promote the conservation of our fisheries for the future. One initiative that has really been encouraged over the past few decades is catch and release. It’s a practice that can ensure the health of our fisheries if done properly. There is nothing wrong with the “pond to table” approach, and many anglers enjoy harvesting the fish that they catch. It’s often part of the experience, being able to take the fish that you caught home to eat with friends and family around the dinner table. Additionally, angler harvest is often an essential tool in the management of our fisheries. However, if you prefer to catch and release, there are a few key practices to consider in order to ensure the fish that you have just caught will swim off healthy and strong.

First, as anglers practicing catch and release, it’s essential to understand one of the key components of a fish’s immune system. Fish have a protective slime coating that is their first layer of defense and serves as the interface between the fish and its external surroundings. This protective slime coating acts as an impervious layer, preventing bacteria, parasites, and other pathogens from entering a fish. Therefore, when practicing catch and release, it’s of the utmost importance to always wet your hands before handling the fish you have caught. In addition to wetting your hands, the following list of best practices will help to ensure the health of a fish during catch and release.

Best Practices

  • Always wet your hands before handling a fish. Never handle a fish with dry hands. Handling a fish with dry hands can take the protective slime coating off of a fish.
  • Use a net when landing a fish. A large net will allow you to keep the fish wet while you prepare to remove the lure, fly, or hook. This also allows you to keep the fish wet if your preparing to take photos. A soft rubber net is preferable to knotted nylon nets. Cradle nets are best used for larger species of fish like musky.
  • When photographing a fish out of the water, keep it quick and get the fish back into the water as soon as you can.
  • Avoid having the fish make contact with boat surfaces such as carpet and metal when handling a fish.
  • Make sure you have a pair of long pliers, such as needlenose, for unhooking fish, especially for those fish that are hooked in hard to reach places. Heavy wire cutters and jaw spreaders are essential for toothy critters like musky.
  • If the hook is too deep, it is best to cut the line as close to the hook eye as you can. Most non-stainless hooks will rust out and dissolve over time, which will give the fish a much better chance of survival than the stress that comes with attempting to remove the hook with pliers.
  • When handling a fish out of the water, make sure to keep your hands and fingers away from the gills and gill arches. Don’t hold the fish too tightly and never hold a fish by the eyeball sockets
  • When releasing a fish, it’s important to let the fish recover on its own terms; the fish will swim out of your hands when it’s ready. To help revive the fish, it is best to hold the fish upright and move the fish gently forward so water runs over the gills. When fishing in rivers and moving water, always face a fish upstream during a release.
  • Make sure you have the correct size rod and reel for the species of fish you are targeting, and don’t fight a fish longer than you need to, which can cause additional stress.
  • Carry a thermometer with you and consider water temperatures when targeting cold-water oriented species like trout, musky, and striped bass during the summer months in Virginia. Plan to fish in the early morning hours as this is when the coolest water temperatures of the day will occur. Catching a trout in water temperatures of 70 degrees or warmer is often lethal to the fish. In the summer months, it can be beneficial to focus your efforts on fishing for trout in tailwaters and spring creeks that provide cooler and stable temperatures. Anglers are encouraged to be extra careful when handling trout, musky, and striped bass in the summer months to reduce delayed mortality.
  • If you are a tournament angler, make sure you have an aerator running to keep your livewell oxygenated for the fish. Having an inflow of freshwater into your livewell can prevent ammonia spikes. In the warmer summer months, consider adding a frozen water bottle to your livewell to keep temperatures cooler. Also consider using non-penetrating culling tags for the fish.
  • Anglers who enjoy mounting fish and reliving the memories of a trophy can consider fiberglass mounts. All you need is a good photo of the fish with a length and girth measurement. Fiberglass mounts last longer than traditional skin mounts and are often even more realistic.

Following these best practices will help to prevent unintended angler-induced mortality when practicing catch and release throughout the year. Even if you plan on harvesting your catch, it is often required to catch and release a fish if it doesn’t meet the required regulations on a certain waterbody. So grab a big net and keep your hands wet to help ensure the future of our fisheries in Virginia.

  • September 9, 2021