5 Tips for Catch and Release Fly Fishing

Written by: Patrick BlackdaleTrident Fly Fishing

Protecting a trout after you’ve brought it to the next can help ensure that it survives to fight another day.
Photos by Patrick Blackdale

Few things are more exciting that catching a big fish, but it’s important that you keep your head at the point when that fish is most vulnerable. Keeping our fisheries healthy and thriving is a team effort that begins with anglers on the stream. Science has proven that catch-and-release fishing can produce high survival rates–but only if good C&R protocols are performed properly. Here are five tips to ensure healthy releases.

1. Beef up your tackle

Use tackle that is heavy enough to play a fish quickly without exhausting it. Extremely light tackle may seem sportier, but it usually isn’t necessary and ends up causing excessively long fights. Always try to bring the fish to net as quickly as you can.

Keep the fish in the net as much as possible–while you remove the hook and wait for your buddy to get the camera ready.

2. Go Barbless

Whether you buy flies or tie your own, pinching down the barb of the hooks before they make it into your fly box is a great habit. A barbless hook comes out of a fish in the net (or your shirt) with ease, eliminating time-consuming fly retrieval. This allows you to remove hooks quickly with a hemostat without even handling the fish.

3. Keep ’em wet

Imagine running a mile and then holding your breath immediately after crossing the finish line. This is what a trout goes through if you remove it from the water after netting the fish. Trout need to remain in the water to revive from the trauma of the fight.

4. Photos: make them quick! 

Keep the fish submerged in the net until the camera and photographer are in place and ready to snap the photo. Wet your hands gently, cradling the fish by the belly and the “wrist” of the tail. Do not squeeze the fish, and don’t touch the delicate gills, mouth, or eyes . Simply hold the fish up quickly for a photo and return it to the water. The fish should not be out of the water for more than five seconds.

The Keep ‘Em Wet ethos can help us maintain healthy fisheries into the future.

5. Revive the fish slowly

Gently hold the fish facing upstream in a mellow current. Wait for the fish to swim out of your hands under its own power. Don’t move the fish vigorously forward and back, as this does not allow the gills to function properly.

With more and more people fly fishing around the country, it is more imperative than ever to practice these techniques. Hopefully with these easy tips you will feel more confident in releasing healthy fish back into the river to be caught another day!

Patrick Blackdale is the Travel Program Director at Trident Fly Fishing, in Portland, Maine.

11 thoughts on “5 Tips for Catch and Release Fly Fishing”

  1. Would you please guide me to a scientific study that documents the difference in survival of released fish with barbed and barbless hooks.

      1. After going through the studies, it appears that there is little if any difference in mortality between barbed and barbless hooks. It seems to me if someone wishes to use barbless hooks there is nothing I’m aware of that would keep them from doing so. Imposing barbless regulations on those who choose to use barbed hooks seems unwarranted. Absent convincing scientific evidence of a significant difference there are vastly more important issues to which the barbed/barbless debate energy might directed.

        1. real outdoorsmen are self sufficient and do things on their own. Real fisherman don’t need barbs to catch fish.
          Once you get good you will be able to type “barbless hooks study” into Google. When you get good at fishing you can use barbless hooks. Practice makes perfect and we know you can do it!!

        2. Wayne, there are two differences I note in using barbless flies. First, the hook comes out of the fish easily every time. I have seen a friend release trout that were bleeding after his release with a barbed fly. Secondly, they come out of my skin much more easily and cleanly with a barb. Windy days can cause your fly and fly line to act in a non conventional manner.
          It only takes one trip to the emergency room to convince you of that fact.

  2. Barbed vs barbless is a debate that has less to do with fish mortality and more to do with why we fish, in my opinion. I don’t really care what the studies say about the fish mortality. I know that barbless hooks come out of me and out of my flybox easier. They also come out of the fish easier and that means more fishing time for me. I couldn’t care less about the differences in landing fish. The joy of fly fishing is the take and fight and if I lose a fish, it just means that I will remember the experience better. Fishing is what I love, Landing is a bonus. Just my opinion.

  3. The safety and survival of the fish is most important, so that the fish will be there for others to enjoy. These are wild animals that survive in difficult conditions. The joy of fishing is knowing they are there and watching their reaction to your fly. I have seen numerous times people struggling with removing the hook ripping off parts of its mouth or dropping the fish on rocks trying to remove the hook. It only makes sense to remove the barb as stated above to reduce injury to yourself and the fish.

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