10 Tips for Releasing a Fish

An exhausted fish often needs to be revived prior to release. Photo Tom Richardson

With virtually every species of food and game fish regulated by size and bag limits, knowing how to release a fish has never been more important. Conservation-minded anglers who don’t wish to keep their fish also need to know how release a fish properly. So whether you fish for cod or striped bass, here are some “best practice” tips for improving a fish’s chance of post-release survival.


Fast Fight

The longer a fish is fought, the less chance it has of surviving after being released due to stress and exhaustion. If you’re serious about catch and release, try to land the fish as quickly as possible.

Shed Light

This goes hand-in-glove with tip Number One. Using tackle that’s too light for the species you’re targeting leads to prolonged fights and exhausted fish that are either unable to recover from the fight or end up as easy targets for predators. Also, light line is more likely to break during the fight, leaving the fish with a plug or hook in its mouth that may hamper its ability to survive.

Keep ‘Em Wet

Keeping a fish in the water while you remove the hook will improve its chances of survival. Not only does the water keep the fish’s skin moist and allow the fish to obtain oxygen through its gills, it reduces excess handling and provides support for the fish’s internal organs, which can be damaged when a fish (especially a big one) is hefted onboard or accidentally dropped.

Minimize Handling Time

If you must bring a fish onboard to measure it or remove the hook, do so quickly and return it to the water. The longer you keep a fish out of water, the more stress it endures due to lack of oxygen and exhaustion. Also, handling a fish can remove its mucous coating, which protects the fish from parasites and disease.

Temperature Matters

When the water temperature climbs above the normal comfort level of a particular species, that fish will have a harder time recovering from a fight, especially a prolonged one. Warm water also contains less oxygen. In midsummer, this makes it even more important to land and release your fish quickly.

Circle of Life

It’s now widely recognized that circle hooks can reduce fish mortality when used with natural bait. Circle hooks feature a clever design that allows the hook to slide out of the fish’s throat and “lock” around the jaw hinge as the line tightens. Other hook styles tend to lodge more frequently in the fish’s stomach, throat or gills, especially if the fish is allowed to run with the bait for a long time. Circle hooks aren’t a guarantee against deep-hooking, of course, and some anglers feel that using them reduces the number of fish they catch; however, circles do, on average, cause less damage to the fish. In fact, some states now mandate the use of circle hooks when fishing bait for certain species.

Go Single

Rigging your artificial lures with single hooks also improves the odds of the fish recovering after release. Plugs armed with 2 or even 3 treble hooks often cause a lot of damage, especially if the dangling hooks lodge in the fish’s eyes or gills. And cuts on the fish’s body caused by the hooks can lead to infection. Using single hooks not only causes less damage to the fish, it also makes them easier to release, thus reducing the amount of time it spends out of the water. Crushing or removing the barbs on your hooks will also facilitate a fast release.

Net Neutrality

As mentioned, handling a fish can remove its protective mucous coating, as can a net. Nets made of stiff, scratchy material can also remove scales and tangle with the lure or line, further prolonging the amount of time the fish spends out of water. If you do use a net, buy one made especially for catch-and-release. These nets feature a shallower bag and smooth, plastic-coated mesh that causes less damage to the fish and makes it harder for hooks to get caught in the material.

Tailoring to Species

Not every fish should be released in the same way. For example, an exhausted striped bass or bluefish may need to be revived by holding it by the mouth or tail and gently “swimming” it back and forth to push oxygenated water across its gills until it has time to recover and swim off under its own power. False albacore, bonito and similar tuna-type fish, on the other hand, should be released by dropping them headfirst into the water, giving them a sort of jumpstart. As for tautog, scup and sea bass, these remarkably hardy species seem to have little trouble returning to the bottom, even after being kept out of the water for long periods. Deep-water species such as cod and haddock that suffer “barotrauma” (extended swim bladders) often must be released by “venting” their swim bladders with a needle or by lowering them back to the bottom with a special weighted device, so that the gas inside their bodies can decompress.

Know When to Quit

Don’t spend too much time trying to remove a hook that is hopelessly lodged in the throat or stomach of a fish. While an attempt should be made to remove the hook with special tools, it’s sometimes best to cut the line as close to the hook as possible and let the fish go, rather than stressing it further. It’s a gamble, of course, but fish have been known to survive with deeply embedded hooks.