Catch and release fishing has grown greatly in popularity as people grow to understand the importance of maintaining fishing stocks and creating sustainable fish populations.
Thanks to the efforts of pioneering fishing writers and personalities Roderick Haig-Brown and Lee Wulff, catch and release began to take off in the 1930s and is not part of many anglers’ fishing ethos.
A 2020 study found that 66 percent of that country’s 50 million recreational anglers released some or all of their catch.
To be clear, I am not against people taking fish for the table in a sustainable way in line with regulations, but I do want to provide some reasons in this article to embrace catch and release fishing for those yet to adopt these practices.
1. It Helps Conserve Fish Populations for Fellow Anglers
The most obvious benefit of catch and release fishing is that it decreases the number of fish being killed and therefore helps maintain stocks of fish.
There are knock-on benefits to this, too – the more fish left swimming around, the more fish there are to spawn and reproduce, which in turn leads to higher fish stocks.
Higher fish density in a waterway means you are more likely you are to successfully catch fish the next time you go out and try, and there will be more fish available for future generations.
2. Catch and Release Prevents Waste
Many of the fish anglers take end up just sitting in a freezer until they go off. Too many anglers take more than they need, and then these extra fish go uneaten and are wasted.
If you choose not to fish catch and release – and that’s fine with fish where there is a strong and sustainable population – remember to take only what you need limiting harvest to what is reasonable.
3. Releasing Fish Teaches Children a Good Lesson
Releasing fish and handling fish correctly prior to release (keeping them wet, avoiding touching them with your hands, and supporting their belly when you pick them up) encourages children to respect fish as animals and treat them with dignity. This instills the right values in the next generation of anglers.
Similarly, if you are going to kill a fish doing it swiftly and humanely, either via the ikejime method or a blow to the head, putting them in an ice slurry sends a similar message to children. If we are going to take an animal’s life to feed ourselves, we will do it in the least cruel way we can.
4. It Helps the Esteem in Which Anglers Are Held
In today’s world, pastimes such as fishing and hunting have to be considered to be under threat. Significant numbers of people are opposed to our sport and aren’t afraid to tell their local representatives.
To maintain our social license, the angling community needs to be as responsible as it can be to avoid providing reasons for politicians to curtain access to recreational fishing opportunities. That means never leaving rubbish riverside, joining in with your angling club on habitat restoration days, and fishing responsibly.
Sometimes that means fishing catch and release if you are targeting a fish species that has a declining population or the regulations state you need to release it. Be the best angler you can be, and we won’t give our enemies the opportunity to put our sport in jeopardy.
5. It Encourages a Sustainable Fishing Industry
Certain fish populations in the US are in decline (think bluefin tuna and Atlantic cod), and some fish species are just very slow growing. Most of the time, fisheries authorities will mandate catch and release fishing for species or individual populations that are under threat.
But don’t be afraid to seek out your own knowledge as it sometimes takes government agencies too long to realize a fish population is in decline – and if you decide a fish population is fragile enough to warrant a catch and release approach, then do it and encourage others to do the same.
6. Some Fish Just Aren’t Great to Eat
This is a matter of taste. Fish that some people swear by for eating are the same species that others won’t touch. As a rule of thumb, if you catch a fish that you aren’t that keen on eating, consider throwing it back, especially if it is a good sport fish or if it is part of a population that is not necessarily that robust.
7. It Is the Law (Often)!
Since the early days of catch and release taking off in the 1930s, fisheries managers have incorporated the concept into regulations making certain waterways or species catch-and-release only or covered by stringent bag limits or possession limits. Always obey these limits as it helps to conserve fish stocks, and it is the law.
Do Catch and Release the Right Way
Committing to catch and release fishing when appropriate is only half of the matter. Once we decide to release a fish, we need to pay extra care and respect to how we handle the fish to maximize the benefits of catch and release fishing and ensure the fish survive and thrive after we let them go.
Survival rates (the percent of fish released that survive) of 82 to 89% are possible with catch and release if it is done correctly.
Here are some suggestions on humane fish handling for catch and release that are designed to lower the fish’s stress and lower the mortality rate:
- Avoid playing fish for too long. The faster a fish is brought to the bank or boat and into the net, the higher the survival rate. Tired fish and fish suffering when they are released are less likely to survive. Within reason, choose tackle (including line or leader strength), which means you can quickly land it, and you don’t have to fight the fish for more than a few minutes, ideally. Obviously, there are exceptions – sometimes we need to fish light line to get the bite, and I am not suggesting you jeopardize landing a trophy fish with haste, but apply common sense and try not to tire fish out too much during the fight.
- Keep ’em wet. As the popular campaign suggests, keep fish in the water when you are preparing to release them, and if you do have to lift them out of the water for a picture, then support their middle section to protect their internal organs and take the shot quickly before returning the fish to the water. Reduce handling time for any period when the fish is out of the water.
- Avoid touching the fish with your bare hands. Try to avoid touching fish as much as possible, as contact with your hands will remove much of the fish’s protective mucus coating. This can leave it weakened and more vulnerable to disease. Human hands are also hot in comparison to a fish’s body, so it is better to wrap your hands in a chamois or soft towel to grab a fish. If you have to use bare hands, it is better to have wet hands.
- Use a silicon rubber landing net. All this is much easier with a good quality fishing net. The important thing with a landing net is to choose the ones with silicon or rubber mesh. This knotless mesh material is much gentler on the fish’s skin and doesn’t catch on lures as much as fabric mesh, and if they good catch, they are easily removed.
- Consider using barbless hooks. Barbless hooks are far easier to remove than hooks with a barb. You don’t need any kind of fish hook removal tool with a barbless hook, as it will just pop right out. It is also better to use non-stainless steel hooks as if you get busted off the hook will rust out of the fish’s mouth in quick time.
- Don’t fish in high water temperatures. For cold water fish such as trout, sometimes, during hot spells, the water temperature will get dangerously high for them. Consider not fishing during these periods as the hot water makes it easier for fish to get stressed and harder for them to re-oxygenate.