As any true angler will tell you, releasing a fish unharmed is as satisfying as catching it in the first place. Not only is it usually a legal requirement in England and Wales, it means that fish can go on to thrive and reproduce. It might also give another angler the same enjoyment, especially if it grows bigger.
Releasing fish in perfect condition takes a little care and practice, however. This is why it’s so important we share knowledge. All of us can assist, whether it’s improving our own skills or helping a newcomer.
Here are 16 great tips to benefit any angler and their catch!
“The finest gift you can give to any fisherman is to put a good fish back, and who knows if the fish that you caught isn’t someone else’s gift to you?”
- Be prepared!
How well organised are you as an angler? The way you treat your catch starts before it is even hooked, with you being ready! Do you have a suitable unhooking tool? Have you somewhere safe to lay the fish down? Try to think the process through before you catch your next fish, so you are completely ready.
- Locate your essentials in an instant
Talking of being prepared, one great fishing tip is to always keep your unhooking and fish care equipment in the same, safe place. It’s important that your forceps or disgorger, plus scales or measuring equipment are always close at hand. Get into the habit of storing and returning them to the exact same place every time.
- Avoid harsh hooks, or go barbless
Another must for fish care is to use safe, sensible rigs and tackle. There is some debate about barbed vs barbless hooks, but for the majority of pleasure fishing, barbless hooks are far easier to remove and do less damage. If you do use barbed, avoid hooks with large, crude barbs or even squash these down a little with pliers. If you are lure fishing, especially for smaller species like trout or perch, consider swapping treble hooks for singles.
- Always carry spares!
Items like disgorgers and forceps are very easy to lose or mislay. This is especially true when you’ve just unhooked a fish and forgotten where you put things, amidst all the excitement. So, do always carry a spare unhooking tool. And given a choice, yellow or red are easiest to find when dropped (why some companies still make these items green is beyond us!).
- Keep the fight short and sweet
When we play fish, we should not do so to the point of totally exhausting them. It’s far better to get them in fairly quickly, so they still have some strength to swim away again. Using sensible, balanced tackle helps here. If the fish has fought very long or hard, do leave it submerged in the landing net for a few seconds to “get its breath back” rather than immediately hoisting it out of the water.
- Be optimistic with your net size!
It happens every season- the fish of an angler’s lifetime is lost because they don’t have the right net! Either the head is too small, or they have a handle that’s too short to cope. Why not be optimistic and get a slightly larger net with a longer handle for awkward spots? A small fish will fit in a big net, but the reverse isn’t true!
- Always use wet hands to handle fish
Fish should always be handled with wet hands. Why exactly? Well, fish come from a place that is cold and wet; your hands are the total opposite, hot and dry! Not only do you risk removing protective slime from a fish with dry hands, they will wriggle more and be harder to handle. The easiest way to wet your hands is on the landing net. Please never, ever use a towel, rag or piece of cloth of any kind to hold a fish, because this will take the slime off it and leave it stressed and vulnerable to infection.
- Keep them calm
Before even thinking about getting a picture or weighing a fish, you need to keep it calm and under control. Wet hands will help. So will a little knowhow. If a fish is really flapping about, try covering its eyes with the landing net mesh. It often works a treat!
- Carry an unhooking mat…
Regardless of whether rules insist on it (and many fisheries do), carry an unhooking mat. These are great for protecting your catch on the bank. Do remember to wet it before use! If you’re super keen to protect your catch you could even invest in some antiseptic liquid to treat any lifted scales and the spot where the hook went into the mouth of the fish. These days specimen and carp anglers will carry some of this as part of their fish care kit. For a closer look at unhooking mats, Rob Hughes explains further on this Get Fishing video:
- …or simply keep your catch in the water!
Of course, perhaps the best way of all to keep a fish safe is to keep it in the drink from start to finish! If you fish a river or lake with shallow margins and it’s safe to do so, you might be able to keep the fish in the net or simply slip the hook out and release it without ever having to take it out of the water.
- Kneel, never stand
Always kneel when holding a fish, where possible, especially when holding for a picture. If you drop a fish when kneeling over an unhooking mat, it’s unlikely to come to any harm. But if you are standing up it will fall much further and harder if dropped, especially if it’s a big one.
- Practise makes perfect
When it comes to knowing how to use a disgorger or forceps to unhook a fish, practise makes perfect! This is where an experienced friend can help (or indeed various excellent videos and sources like the Get Fishing site!). But you don’t even need a fish on the bank to test your skills. For example, you can simply hook a towel to get the hang of using a disgorger. If you’re new to the sport, you’ll find barbless hooks much easier to remove. To see how to use a disgorger and learn how to unhook a fish, here’s a handy little guide with Rob Hughes:
- Handle with care (cradle, don’t squeeze!)
These days, it’s common to see anglers from around the world using all manner of lip grips, or even doing macho poses with fish. These are not always good news for catch and release! Instead, treat that fish like a baby. It is meant to be supported by water, not held vertically or thrust into an unnatural position, so please cradle it with care.
Remember, most of the vital organs of a fish are below the gills and towards the front. Avoid squeezing this area! Instead, see if you can use a careful, cupped hand. Holding the “wrist” of the tail with your other hand will help keep your fish under control. Experience is the best teacher though- when a fish is about to flip or try to thrash you will feel it tense, so be ready and have a mat or damp net underneath in case you need to put it down briefly.
Here are some additional notes different species:
How to handle and release salmon
How to handle and release barbel (from the Barbel Society)
- If you need more than a few seconds, give it a dunk
Time is of the essence when a fish is out of the water, for obvious reasons. Sometimes you might want to retain a fish a bit longer for a picture and to weigh or measure it; if that’s the case, be extra careful! Rather than keeping it out for minutes on end, give the fish a “bath” to avoid stressing it. A submerged landing net head is perfect for this (and another good reason to have a generous-sized net as per tip number 6!). Remember, these are living things, not social media trophies. Be sparing with the number of pictures you take and the seconds you take it out of water.
- Many happy returns
A fish that has fought hard might be too tired to swim off strongly right away. So, the caring angler must always be sure his catch is ready to be released. He or she will never “throw it back” but hold it in the water, and check it’s all set to swim off. This might happen immediately. But if the fight was hard or the water is warm, it can take a few seconds.
So how is it best to revive a fish that is struggling a little? Start by holding the fish upright, submerged in the water. If possible, face it into the current. Some species need more care than others. Grayling, trout and pike, for example, may need a minute or two, so be patient and let the fish tell you when it’s ready- you’ll usually feel its fins start rippling and it attempts to swim off with a kick.
- Spread the word
Last but not least, be one of the good guys when out fishing and share what you know. Sure, other anglers and especially beginners might sometimes struggle with a fish. It’s easy to judge, but we’re all learners in this life and everyone has to start somewhere. And we’re all familiar with the “unhooking mat police” on social media!
So, be helpful and ready to assist, rather than criticising others harshly. If you are tactful and willing to help, the chances are that a less skilled angler will be far more willing to listen and learn. Everyone is then better off, especially the fish!
Good ideas spread quickly. Why not share this blog with your mates or add your own fish care tips in the comments section?