Guide and Angler “Best Practices” in Catch and Release of Rainbow Trout

When catching and releasing rainbow trout and steelhead the goal should be to send a fish away healthy with a strong kick. When catching and releasing rainbow trout and steelhead the goal should be to send a fish away healthy with a strong kick.

Catch and release

Most anglers who catch-and-release fish (C&R) believe in preserving the fishing resource. And to do so most successfully, there are certain release practices that anglers can implement to increase fish survival rates. If they don’t use these techniques, and they expose an exhausted fish to the air for as little as 30 seconds, that fish stands a good chance of dying. Which caught me by surprise when I devoured some data that Northwest-based fly fisher Heather Hodson recently sent me. Here are the findings from a 1992 study by R.A. Ferguson and B.L. Tufts. This data may surprise and make you consider how many fish we’re actually killing without even knowing it.

Guide and Angler “Best Practices”

After guiding for rainbow trout in a C&R fishery in Alaska, where every client wanted a photo of themselves with a fish, a few of us guides got together and swapped ideas about “best practices” for C&R. First, we decided it is very important to fight and land the fish as quickly as possible. This requires the appropriate gear, including the right size rod, reel, line, and hook. Another piece of gear, important in my mind, is a non-marking landing net. Rubber nets are best because they preserve the fish’s natural protective barrier (slime) better than nylon or knotted nets. Some people don’t carry nets when fishing for sea-run rainbows (steelhead), however I believe the decreased fight time provided by use of a net creates quicker recovery and improves survivability for exhausted fish. Once the fish is landed, most anglers want to get a picture right away. After taking thousands of fish/client pictures, we found that reviving the fish before posing it for the picture makes the fish easier to handle and results in, at release, quicker and stronger kick-offs. An effective technique for reviving the fish is to place it headfirst into the current with the net blocking the fish’s path. Rainbow trout don’t swim backwards, so a fish that is trying to get away simply swims forward into the net. Experience teaches that only a few seconds of this treatment is required to dramatically slow and stabilize a fish’s respiration. Consider this analogy: you run for your life from a grizzly bear, collapse from exhaustion, and then the bear shoves your head underwater; or, you run for your life from a grizzly bear, then the bear lets you catch your breath, and then the bear shoves your head underwater. Under which set of circumstances are your chances of survival best?

Once the fish has slowed and stabilized its breathing, there will be plenty of time for a picture. If possible the fish should be held in or over water (or a net in the water) so if it escapes it doesn’t injure itself by falling onto rocks, a boat deck, etc. Fish that we relaxed before photographing were much easier to handle, struggling less in the angler’s hands. After the photograph, the fish should be revived again and then released. This is worth doing. The harder the fish kicks off at release, the less chance there is of it turning belly up.

A net may help control a fish and prevent it from slamming itself against rocks or a boat. A net may help control a fish and prevent it from slamming itself against rocks or a boat.

Guide steps by the numbers:

  1. Land the fish as quickly as possible.
  2. Once landed, keep the fish in the water and upright.
  3. After the fish’s breathing slows and stabilizes, get the cameraman ready to take the photo.
  4. Tell the cameraman you are going to lift the fish on the count of “three.”
  5. Count “one….two…three...” lift the fish, take the photograph, and return the fish immediately to the water.
  6. Repeat step five if more photographs are required, always allowing the fish to revive between each set of pictures.
  7. Revive the fish again and wait for a strong kick-off before release. During a good release, the fish can’t be restrained by hand.

The Data

One of the most commonly held misconceptions of C&R angling is that after release, the fish will survive. Anglers who see the fish swim away think it will be fine. Studies show, however, that after exercise, mortality in rainbow trout occurs four-to 12-hours after release (R. A. Ferguson and B. L.Tufts, 1992). There is no way of knowing if the fish you released survived, of course, unless there are recognizable markings on the fish and the fish is caught again… but then the same vicious cycle of stress and handling starts over. The Ferguson and Tufts study shows that fish that have been exercised to the point of exhaustion and are held out of the water for 30 seconds have only a 62 percent chance of survival. Fish that are exercised to exhaustion and held out of the water for 60 seconds have a 28 percent chance of survival.

When releasing a fish, try to keep it in the water at all times. If a photograph is needed, the fish should not be lifted from the water for more than a few seconds. When releasing a fish, try to keep it in the water at all times. If a photograph is needed, the fish should not be lifted from the water for more than a few seconds.

These are disturbing findings for C&R fishermen. When I first read this article, I was honestly blown away. I had heard of several “studies” and published opinions of other anglers that suggested a figure of 10 percent; however, those studies and opinions have turned out to be based on hearsay and anecdotal evidence rather than research. These C&R considerations and issues of fish survivability become even more complex when fishing from a boat. When trying to identify “best practices” in those circumstances, I still think anglers can be more effective in fish-handling by putting their fish in the water immediately after landing them. Allowing fish to contact the bottom of a boat or placing them in an unfilled live well are not C&R best practices. By contrast, many trolling anglers on Lake Pend Oreille revive their fish in a live-well. This is easy and effective if the live-well has flowing water, if it is large enough for a fish to easily fit in, and if the fish doesn’t spend too much time in the live-well. Fish should go straight into a full live-well before pictures or remain in the water until the live-well is full.

Conclusions

“Best Practices” of C&R help preserve the fishing resource. When fishing specifically for rainbow trout, anglers should adopt these fish-handling practices to improve fish survival rates. The purpose of this article is to help anglers who value the resource to preserve and protect rainbow fisheries for future generations. I hope this helps all anglers, whether fly fishing on a river or trolling for rainbows in a lake, to better understand rainbow trout and to better conserve this resource.

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Assistant Manager at North 40 Outfitters
I grew up in eastern Washington fishing or hunting every chance I could. My hobbies quickly turned into addictions and I was constantly on the Columbia River swinging flies for steelhead. I headed to the westside to attend college and receive a degree in physics. This proved to be difficult due to the new addiction of spey casting to steelhead on the rivers of western Washington. After graduating, I moved to Sandpoint, ID where I married my college sweetheart. I opened my own fly shop and ran it successfully for 6 years until I merged with Big R Fly Shop. Now my days are spent loving the outdoors, with my wife and two boys, who certainly got bit by the fishing bug, and teaching anglers to enjoy the sport of fly fishing and spey casting.

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