How to Fish Without Hurting the Fish: An Essential Guide

Catch and release fishing is one of the most misunderstood fishing techniques that cause countless of hurt fish species every year – both in saltwater and freshwater fishing. As an angler, you must catch fish species without hurting them most, especially if you plan on releasing them afterward. So, here is your essential guide on angling correctly without harming the fish.

A proper and responsible way of fishing is the best way to catch fish without harming it. From choosing the right hook, removing it, and even the correct way of handling a beautiful trophy fish intended for release. Some anglers hold tight on the gills of the fish, which is the most sensitive area on their body – and that’s what you should avoid the most.

Responsible fishing is about doing the proper technique while having the appropriate set of attitudes. Fish species are also living beings that deserve our respect, too. So, allow us to enlighten you about the proper way of doing the catch and release fishing. We will also include some myths, facts, and tips in doing this fishing technique right. Consider this as your complete guide towards safe catch and release fishing.

The Basics of Catch and Release Fishing – 15 Things that You Have to Know

As a beginner, you need to understand the arts and science of catch and release fishing. Put your focus to different areas like the selection of the right gear, proper fishing of the fish, correct hook removal, and handling to ensure the lowest mortality rate of the fish whenever you catch. For you to understand how to do catch and release fishing, let’s start with its basics.

  1. Select the Right Gear. When we say fishing gear, we primarily mean the hooks that you’re going to use. They will cause the most significant damage to your caught fish. Look for a hook that promotes shallow hooking. Also, make sure that they are tough, but smooth so that you can remove it quickly without causing any damage to the fish. Then, make sure that you’re also using the appropriate rods, reel, and fishing line suitable to the size of your target fish. Finally, check the local laws about the use of right lures, baits, or gear.
  2. Check the Water Temperature. More often, the water temperature is 68° F and above can cause stress on fish species, especially on trouts. It means that there’s a higher chance that they will get over-exhausted or may die after you release it. During summer, you may want to avoid fishing in streams because it is not ideal to do. Plus, your fish are also less willing to eat during this period. 
  3. Avoid Treble Hooks. As much as possible, avoid using treble hooks at all costs. This type comes with most hard baits from fishing stores, but you can always replace them with J-hooks. It helps in increasing your bait’s performance in the water. 
  4. Barbless Fishing Hooks Help. Barb Fishing Hooks increase the size of the puncture through the fish’s mouth. So, it can tear more of its skin once you remove the hook. The problem is that these wounds and scars don’t heal as quickly as possible, which may affect the ability of the fish to feed and survive on its own. These are the reasons why it is better to use barbless fishing hooks instead. 
  5. The Right Way of Fighting the Fish. Once a fish bite on your hook, you may want to land it as quickly as possible. Then, use a fish-friendly rubber net so that the fish doesn’t get hurt. Remember, it is a stressful event for the fish to get hooked. As a result, lactate levels start to rise, through its blood, which is almost the same as intense physical exercise the humans feel. This event links to the mortality of the fish, which may cause them to perish hours after release. Therefore, you want to oversize your fishing line and gear so that you can land the fish as quickly as possible. 
  6. Remove the Hooks Properly. Hook removal will always be painful even for fish, but at least do it right. Use the right hook-removal tools like surgical forceps and special pliers. However, avoid using the “through the gill” removal method because it is the most sensitive part of the fish. The best way to do it is to cut the line close to the hook. You can choose to pull the hook out of the fish’s mouth if it is not too deep, or you can release it afterward because the hook will rust anyway. Either way, always remember that you should not mess with their gills or reach deep down the fish’s throat.
    • How to Remove Hooks Properly? First, make sure to put the fish in the water while removing the hook. Then, use pliers, hemostats, or other unhooking devices to remove the hook gently. If you see that the hook went too deep, just cut the fishing line closest to the fishing hook and release the fish. Better yet, just don’t release the fish because the hook may take some time dissolving, which may cause some conflict. Finally, limit your time in taking photos and admiration to avoid non-air exposure for the fish.
  7. Don’t Hold the Fish Vertically on its Jaw Or Gills. Whether you’re posing or landing your caught fish, never hold it vertically because it may cause further injury. Never touch the fish’s jaw or gills to at least minimize the stress and damage implied, which may lead to a cause of death. Whether you’re planning to release the fish or keep it for dinner, make it a habit to support the fish on its stomach and body weight.
    • What Happens to Fish When You Hang it Vertically? It may cause vertebrae, which separate the spine. As a result, it causes the fish’s organs to move down to the stomach cavity. It may result in a potential tear. As a rule of thumb, always hold and keep the fish in a horizontal position. 
  8. Never Squeeze the Fish Too Hard. The entire body of the fish compresses once it is out of the water, and you don’t want to add pressure anymore into it. Right? So, make sure not to squeeze the fish too hard, especially around its vital organs. Hold the fish over the water at all times in case it falls or squirms.
  9. Hold on the Fish’s Tail. In the case that the fish is too slippery to hold, try grabbing it firmly to its tails. It will act as a paralyzer to the fish so that it can calm down. Again, you don’t have to squeeze the rear part, grip it tightly like you’re holding a steering wheel. 
  10. Don’t Remove the Fish’s Slime. Some anglers find it dirty to hold the slime of the fish, so they hold it with a towel instead. However, you should never keep the fish that way because it will remove the mire.
  11. Revival and Release. There are some instances that the fish will still appear lazy during the release, even after a quick fish fight. When it happens, you should circulate the water through the gills of the fish. You can also hold the fish in a fast-moving water current with the fish’s nose facing upstream, especially if you are in steam. Look out for any predators that may take advantage of the exhausted fish. Then, only release the fish when it can vigorously swim away.
  12. Never Take the Fish Out of the Water for Too Long. Both anglers and non-anglers should know this rule. If you want to take a photo of it, it’s better to stockpile of water in your boat. 
  13. Keep the Fish Away from Rocks, Lands, and Banks. Putting the fish on rocks and other rough structures will, without a doubt, harm it. First, placing them on rocks, lands, and banks will remove their protective slime. As a result. It increases the risks of producing any disease or infection. Plus, exposure to these structures can damage the fish beyond recovery. Lastly, fish will not be able to breathe. Take note that every second that the fish is out of the water reduces its chance of survival by 10%. Imagine a person covered with a pillow on his face; that’s what would happen to fish.
  14. Leave No Trace After Fishing. Never leave your fishing line, lead weights, bait containers, and other plastics nor throw them on the water. These materials will cause severe problems for the environment. A study showed that there are approximately 44.9 feet of fishing lines each year in different bodies of water. So, retrieve all lost fishing lines, sinkers, and lures as much as possible. Dispose of any materials that you don’t need correctly after every fishing trip – not throw them in the water. More importantly, recycle your plastic containers and don’t just leave them behind. Good fishing starts with being responsible.
  15. Follow the Law. In most countries, some rules say you must immediately return a fish to the water if it is too small. You must also return the fish, regardless of its size, if you catch it off-season and if you exceed your daily catch limit. Therefore, it is essential to research the size and quantity limits for your area. The local Department of Fish and Game may have a specific restriction in a particular area to protect the fish. Failure to abide by these rules will put you at risk of destabilizing the ecosystem, exhausting the local fish population, and putting you behind bars.

 How to Responsibly Catch & Release Fish?

After releasing the fish, not all of them will survive. In a study about hooking mortality, biologists confirm that some caught fish species would experience trauma and injury from the hook. This event usually happens because of irresponsible catch and release fishing, which will eventually lead to death. Biologists also confirmed that those fish species that got hooked in the gills or the gut have a lower rate of survival.

Once you rupture the gill of the fish with a hook, there would be bleeding that bleeds the fish to death. It means that if a gut fish survives, it will suffer bleeding, infection, impaired feeding ability, or even disease. Therefore, the use of the right fishing hooks to various fish species is critical. You can also improve the survival of the fish you release the fishing line when they bite. Aside from that, here are some steps that you can follow for responsible fishing.

  • STEP 1: Pinch Your Hook. If you’re using barb hooks, pinch its barb part so that you can remove it easily later. It is better if you can use the right hook that would exactly fit the mouth of the fish. More often, circle hooks are the best choice for catch and release fishing.
  • STEP 2: Land the Fish. Once a fish bites your hook, bring it on your boat as soon as possible. It reduces the potential risk of extreme exhaustion. Also, avoid using ultra-light sets of gear for catch and release.
  • STEP 3: Never Let the Fish Out of Water. Whether you’re fishing for your evening meal, or just for fun – it’s best if you can keep the fish in the water to restore it. Use a pair of wet gloves to hold the fish gently, but firmly. If you have to put it on the net, use a release net made of soft knotless fabric and keep the fish on the water. Never squeeze the fish nor lift it in the air for an Instagram-worthy photo op.
  • STEP 4: Examine Your Fish. If you have plans of keeping your fish to serve on your table, make sure to decide what you will kill. Follow what most commercial fishermen call “high-grading,” wherein they sort out the small fish. They would look for bigger fish to die. For catch and release fishing, let the fish go if the hook is in the lip. However, it’s better to keep the fish if you catch a smaller one that is bleeding.
  • STEP 5: Have the Right Tools Nearby. Plan all your tools, and you should know how to use each of them. Make each device ready and easy to grab while fishing, along with a high-quality pair of fishing gloves.
  • STEP 6: Think Quick. In fishing, you have to be alert and think quickly. Once the fish bites your hook, you should be ready with your next step. The key is to think ahead and decide how to approach your caught fish.
  • STEP 7: Fish Responsibly. At all times, you should alter your method and your gear to eliminate or at least reduce hooking mortality. It means that you can only use circle hooks and set the hook a little sooner. If you’ll be a responsible angler, it only means that there would be more fish to catch for you, other anglers, and even for the next generations.

How to Unhook the Fish?

Unhooking and deciding what to do with the fish is essential to catch and release fishing because it significantly affects whether the species will get hurt or not. Some instances will make you choose whether you have let go of the fish, or just kill it because of the injury it attained. Therefore, mastering how to unhook the fish very carefully is an integral part of the catch and release fishing to keep the fish alive.

  • Step 1 – Start Reeling in the Fish. Reel in the fish as quickly as possible towards you until you can grab it with your hand. Then, keep it in the water, and never bring it on any hard surface where it can flow wildly. 
    • Pro Tip! Reel in quickly to lessen the exhaustion of the fish, and increase its chances of surviving after you release it. Some experts say that the fish can recover within 24 hours if you can do the catch and release methods correctly, and without inflicting any undue stress to the species.
  • Step 2 – Hold the Fish Firmly but Carefully. Using your one hand, hold the fish around its pectoral fins or the fins just underneath the gills. Then, put your index finger under the chin of the fish and just let it flop around. This stable position will give the fish much better support to its body. Aside from avoiding the sensitive parts of the fish, here are some tips when holding it.
    • Never hold your fish by its jaw because it will just flip around in the air, which can inflict further injuries. Plus, it will be more difficult for you to grab the fish again.
    • It would be better to place the fish into a fine-meshed net with water to lessen the flipping of the fish. So, it would be easier for you to remove the hook because the fish stays relatively calm. 
  • Step 3 – Pull the Hook. If the hook landed on the fish’s lip or along its mouth, carefully pull it out. Take your time sliding the fishing hook in the same way that it went it to avoid tearing the lips of the fish.
  • Step 4 – Remove a Hook that Got Swallowed. The approach, in this case, depends on how you want to do with the fish – do you want to release it or keep the fish alive?
  • Step 5 – Decide What You Want to Do with the Fish. 
    • If it’s too complicated to remove the hook before it went far too deep, it would be better to keep it. You can bring it at home, and cook it. This way, you can remove the hook when you gut the fish. You still have to remove the hook before cooking the fish because of the layer of lead that coats it will melt into the fish. It only means that anyone who eats it is at risk of lead poisoning.
    • If you plan on keeping the fish alive, but it’s complicated to remove the hook, you can cut the fishing line that is closest to the hook and the mouth of the fish. Then, slide your bait on the shaft of the hook so that fish can still feed.
  • Step 6 – Release the Fish Carefully into the Water. Never throw the fish into the water because it may get stunned or killed by the impact. Instead, hold the fish firmly with your both hands. Bring it close to the edge of the water, and slip the fish carefully. 

The Rules for Catch and Release Fishing

The rules for catch and release fishing may vary depending on the location. The local department for fishing for a specific country established a particular set of rules and regulations for some regions of fishing to take care and control the marine life and ecosystem. What we’re about to discuss are the general rules for catch and release fishing. Wherever you may be fishing, here are the best practices that you have to keep in mind.

  1. When it comes to catch and release fishing, it’s better to use single and more extensive hooks only.
  2. Barbless hooks are much better to use because they can hold the fish firmly, and you can unhook it a lot easier.
  3. Match the size of your reel, rod, tippet, and hook size according to your target fish. Fishing with a too light tool may prolong fish fights, which may leave a broken off fish with hooks in them. On the other hand, fishing with too heavy equipment may overpower the fish.
  4. Perfect timing, fast-thinking, and quick actions are essential to catch and release fishing.
  5. Unhook your caught fish in the water if possible.
  6. Make photo ops and measure sessions short.
  7. If you want to keep the fish, it’s better if you kill it as soon as possible. 
  8. Make sure that the fish can swim readily and vigorously before release.
  9. Common sense, empathy, and consideration are all essential ingredients in catch and release fishing.
  10. Obey and follow all local laws for catch and release fishing.

The Common Myths of Catch and Release – You Should Never Believe These

Catch and release is a simple way of fishing, but can be dangerous for the fish once done incorrectly. Throughout the years, there have been various techniques and styles on how to do catch and release fishing correctly. However, some of those are myths and just a product of pure imagination. So, when you hear an angler say one of these myths, answer them with the truth based on facts.

  • Myth #1 – The Fish Can Swim, So it Should Be Fine. Did you know that almost 90% of fish mortality happens after releasing and swims off? There have been many cases that those fish species released by people upstream ended up downstream on the river bottom with their bellies up after about 2 hours. It just goes to show that every angler needs to practice the best and most effective technique when it comes to catch and release fishing. Remember, the chances of survival of the fish gets thin after releasing them improperly.
  • Myth #2 – Setting the Fish on the Rocks is a Good Idea. This myth is a lie. Most anglers would usually set the fish on the rocks. However, it will only worsen their condition. If you set the fish out of the water and place it on any terrible object reduces their chance of surviving when they get back to the sea. Therefore, as mentioned, never put any fish species on rocks, grass, or anything out of the water. The fish’s lack of oxygen and loss of slime will cut their survival rate drastically.
  • Myth #3 – Catch and Release Fishing are Only For Elitist Jerks. One thing is for sure – anyone can do catch and release fishing for as long as you follow the rules, guidelines, and procedures. Catch and release fishing is not illegal, but every angler should do his or her part to conserve, preserve, and protect each precious resource under the water.


How Do You Properly Kill a Fish?

If you’re fishing for food, it requires Humane fishing. It involves stunning the fish or rendered instantaneously insensible before bleeding it out. Keep the fish in the water before stunning. You can use either percussive anesthetizing or spiking methods to stun the fish.

Do Fish Die After Catch and Release?

It depends on how long you expose the fish to the air. The fish’s gill collapses once it is out of the water. Also, the swim bladders of fish may experience rupture because of the sudden pressure change. Believe it or not, it will only take seconds to minutes to kill a fish when it’s not in the water.

Do Fish Remember Getting Catch?

Fish only have a 3-second memory. It means that they would forget it sooner than later. Even if fish can remember, they have no idea what they got caught because they don’t have any idea what it means. 

Final Words

Catch and release require knowledge and understanding about every fish species. You can’t just throw your bait, take a picture of your caught fish, and release. There are specific rules and guidelines that everyone must follow to protect marine life. Do your part in reducing the cause of hurting fish.

Be a responsible angler who cares for all fish species. In the end, you wouldn’t be able to throw your rod without them. The best way that you can do when catch and release fishing is to choose the right hook, know how to remove the hook correctly, and identify the sensitive parts of the fish.

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