Releasing a trout after you catch it is no guarantee that the fish will live to fight another day. In fact, research has shown that mortality rates can be more than five percent, and a lot of that is caused by improper handling of trout after they are caught.
So how do you release a trout quickly and unharmed?
Well, the right type of net is crucial to healthy catch-and-release fishing. Trout have a protective slime layer covering their skin, and when that coating is rubbed off, trout become susceptible to disease and infection. That’s why nets with rubber mesh are more trout-friendly than abrasive nylon materials. (It’s also why anglers should wet their hands before holding any trout.) I also like a net with a wide enough opening to scoop fish easily, but a shallow basket—sometimes a deep basket can twist and snag the fish after you land it.
You can tell when a trout is ready for the net simply by watching its body language. The moment the trout’s head shifts from being pointed toward the bottom of the lake or river to pointing up at the surface, it’s ready for the net. Once a trout’s head breaks the surface, it loses most of its fighting leverage. If you maintain constant, even pressure on the line, you can often skate the fish right across the surface and into the net. From there, you want to be sure to handle the fish as little as possible, and with bare wet hands, instead of a gloves or a towel, when you do.
Of course we like to photograph the big fish we catch, and there are tips for protecting the fish as you snap pictures. Get the camera ready when the fish is still in the water. Don’t hold the fish high, or over rocks (so if you drop it, the fish won’t be injured). And if you wonder how long it is okay to have the fish out of water, hold your own breath as you take the photo; when you feel uncomfortable, the fish does also.
You want to make sure not to touch the sensitive gills of a trout, and when you’re ready to release it, simply hold it in the water and wait for it to swim away. You don’t have to rock it back and forth in the water, in moving currents, but in calm water (like lakes) that can help them get on their way.
If we pay close attention to how we handle fish after we catch them, catch-and-release can have the effect we all desire—bigger fish, more fish, and more opportunities for anglers to share.