How you play the fish plays a crucial role in how well the fish recovers. The longer a fish is in “battle mode,” the higher its stress levels and the more taxed its body becomes. Also, the longer a fish is out of water for de-hooking, pictures or the decision of whether to keep it, the lower its chance for survival.

So if you want to release the fish you catch, it’s a good idea to develop a game plan before you make your first cast. Here are some tips:

  1. Be sure to use the appropriate tackle (see the Sustainable Tackle page) for the species you’re chasing.
  2. Keep some de-hooking device handy.
  3. Be cognizant of where you’re fishing. If you’re fishing from a bridge or a rock ledge that is 10 feet high, how do you plan to land a fish? Do not attempt to reel it up. You may lose the fish, but worse, dropping a fish from such a height can fatally damage internal organs and ultimately kill the fish. It’s best to choose spots where you can safely fight and release the fish without harming it.
  4. Also be aware of water temperatures. Warmer temperatures have less dissolved oxygen, and therefore, stress the fish more so that recovery time is longer. This is particularly true of cold water species like trout. If the water temps are too high, consider another location.
  5. Set the hook as soon as possible to prevent the fish from swallowing it.
  6. Make up your mind early in the battle if you’re going to release the fish. If so, fight the fish efficiently, with the goal of landing it as soon as practically possible. Don’t play the fish to exhaustion because the chances of survival decrease exponentially the longer the fish exerts itself.
  7. However, if you are deep-sea fishing and bringing up a grouper from the reefs 50 feet or more below the surface, the fish will actually need time to acclimate to the depth change. If not, gases can build up in the swim bladder, creating a dangerous situation for a fish. If you reel in the fish too quickly, you’ll need a venting tool to relieve the pressure so the fish can survive.
  8. When landing a fish, leave it in the water as much as possible. Use a de-hooking tool if necessary.
  9. If you must handle a fish, use a wet towel or glove to protect it (this is more important for larger fish). Avoid grabbing it near the gills or the eyes.
  10. Prevent it from banging against other objects like rocks or the side of the boat.
  11. Return the fish to the water as soon as possible.
  12. Use a net if it’s the only way to control the fish, and even then, keep the fish in the water.
  13. Back the hook out the way it came. Pinch the barb (if you haven’t already) to back the hook out. Cut the line if the hook is too embedded to extract. It will dissolve, and the fish will recover faster in the water.