Thoughts from Ken Kastorff and the Fly Line

A concern among fishermen is that if a fish is handled, it will die – if not that day, in less than a month.  The good news is that seasoned guides will assure you that, over time, they often see a particular fish that they know has been previously caught and released. Guides will have different guests actually catch the same fish over the years!  Brown trout, for example, have individual markings that are just like finger prints.  But if a fish is not handled and released properly, its chance of survival is very slim.   A skill that is often overlooked in becoming a good fisherman is proper fish handling and fish releasing.  It is one of the most important technical skills to learn as it provides a way to catch and release fish to the stream unharmed.

Why even consider releasing a fish back after all the work of catching it?

Even if you are keeping some fish for dinner, it is still important to release larger fish back to the stream where their genes can continue to produce quality offspring.  Most streams have limits on how many fish an angler can take home with them.  On a good day of fishing many anglers can catch more fish than their limit.  Being able to release fish back to the stream allows you to continue fishing even after catching the daily limit.  In addition, our area of North Carolina offers a variety of delayed harvest streams.  All of the trout caught must be released back into the stream. This makes it critical that a fisherman knows how to handle fish, and release them back into the river with as little impact as possible.  Following are some tips on proper fish handling.

Bring along the right equipment

First and foremost, if you are planning to release fish, debarb your hook. Many seasoned anglers feel it should be a requirement for fishing delayed harvest streams.  The concern for barbless hooks for less-experienced anglers is that it will make it harder to catch fish.  Truth be known, it usually makes it easier as you get a better hook set on the fish.  It also makes it easier to release the fish without touching it if possible.

A good rule of thumb is that when possible, it is always better to release fish without removing them from the water. This can easily be done with a pair of forceps while the trout is still in the net.  If you have to touch the fish, make sure to get your hands wet.  Handling a fish with dry hands is basically a death sentence for the fish, no matter how well your intentions might be, In using a net, try to use one that has more of a plastic type of material.  Cloth style nets will oft times rub the slim off of the fishes body.  This body slim is what protects the fish from bacterial diseases.  It is also important to make sure and get the entire net well soaked before netting the fish. If you have to handle your catch, handle it with care.

Photos of a beautiful trophy catch are a much better memory

Take a photo to memorialize your trophy catch rather than taking it home.  Return it to the stream so that it will be there for another day.  While setting up the photo, leave the fish in the water.  One trick that works well is to hold the net under the fish when holding it for a picture.  That way if the fish does decide to do a flip it will land softly into the net rather than bouncing off  the floor of the boat or the ground. Another trick is to hold your breath for the duration of time that the fish is out of the water.  This will give you a ballpark idea of how long the fish has been without its source of oxygen and makes you more aware of getting it back into its environment as soon as possible.

It is important to handle the fish carefully.  Do not squeeze it while holding it and be gentle while releasing it.  Anticipate taking the time to revive the fish by gently holding it in the water, allowing water to pass by its gills.  This is where your net can come into play again.  Put the fish back in the net and move to a place where the current is not so strong and revive and release the fish there.  Hold the fish gently and wait for it to swim out of your hands/net. It can take up to 15 minutes or more to revive a large trout.  Many times these fish will swim a ways and then rest.  Always try to watch until you know for sure they will be okay.

What does not work is to rip the hook out of a fish’s mouth and just toss it back in the river.  Many of those fish will not survive.  Treat a fish as if it is in shock – because it most likely is.  And remember, a little TLC goes a long way to making sure that the beautiful trophy fish you just took a picture of survives to fight another day.