8 Tips for Keeping Fish Healthy

Obviously, fishing is in no way good for the fish. For starters, we impale the mouths of these delicate creatures with metal hooks for enjoyment. Not only that, we force them to hold their breaths for seconds or even minutes at a time while we fuss around with cameras, backgrounds, and lighting. To top it all off, we quickly toss them back into ripping current after exhausting them during the fight not too long before.

These things can add up quickly and become a death sentence for an innocent fish, but it doesn’t have to be that way. There are some things we can do to ensure the safety of these animals and allow them to swim another day. Besides, who wouldn’t want to catch that fish again after it has put on a few pounds?

Here are some tips to help you become a more responsible angler, as well as play your part in the conservation of some of the nation’s most precious fisheries. Whether its fishing a local farm pond for bluegill and bass, or traveling to a remote mountain lake for wild brook trout and arctic charr, these methods will play a huge role in sustaining the species in these watersheds for generations to come.

The tips will go in chronological order, going from before you step foot in the water to after the fight has happened. You don’t need to follow all of these religiously, but adopting just a few of these practices will do wonders to protect the fish you love.

1. Use the heaviest rod, leader, and tippet you can get away with. While it can be fun to play an 18 inch fish on a two-weight rod, it truly isn’t good for the fish, and in some cases, the rod. We often consider the best anglers to be those who can use the lightest rod and line for the largest fish; however, this is in no way true. There are certain scenarios which require delicate presentations from light tippet and light rods *cough, cough, Swift River*. That being said, seven inch wild brookies do not care if you use 4x tippet and a five-weight rod. In fact, having an obnoxious presentation can sometimes even entice them.

The reason for using heavier gear is that you can finish the fight quicker, and in turn, reduce the amount of energy the fish expends. Occasionally, when a fish struggles to get away for too long, it can become over exhausted and quickly die. It may not be as fun for you, but if you really care about the fish, you should try to keep fight times to a minimum.

2. Go barbless! Everyone has probably heard of the trend that has slowly started to take over the fly fishing (and even parts of the spin fishing) community. Before I go any further, I will point out that you will lose more fish than you will with barbed hooks. Some people claim you catch the same number of fish, no matter the hook type you’re using; from personal experience, as well as the experiences of others, though, I acknowledge that your hook-up to fish-landed ratio will be worse by using hooks without barbs. But like I said earlier, if you are an advocate for the health of fish, this shouldn’t matter to you. The best advice I can offer to maximize your fish caught when going barbless is to always keep the line tight. This way the fish won’t have slack in the line to use to spit or throw the hook.

Barbless hooks reduce the damage done on a fish’s mouth (or wherever you hook it, for that matter) because they have a smaller footprint. When you think about a barbed hook, the area from the point to the tip of the barb to the part of the hook (I suppose that’s still the bend) just below the barb form a triangle. This leaves a much larger hole in the fish (and in you, if you manage to snag yourself) than the simple straight path their barbless equivalents would leave. Furthermore, the barb can occasionally catch on a piece of flesh and tear it, resulting in a large wound that could take days or weeks to heal.

The triangle formed on a barbed hook can be rough on fish and fishermen alike.

In addition, barbless hooks also reduce the handling time of a fish significantly. The time between when the fish is landed and released back in the water is usually the most important factor in determining a fish’s future health. Most of this time is spent getting the hook out of the fish, which, when using barbed hooks, can take a while, especially when the fish is hooked deep. People often notice that the hook will pop out immediately as soon as the pressure is released on the line. This often occurs in the net, leading to a very quick release in which touching the fish isn’t even necessary.

3. Watch where you step. This tip mostly applies to spawning periods, when fish are tightly glued to their beds. The common saying goes, “Don’t tread the redd.” When wading to your spot, look carefully at the stream bottom for any saucer-shaped impressions in the sand or gravel that could indicate fish activity. Although you may not see them, it is likely there are some fish on the bed doing their business, and it would be very rude to interrupt. Plus, even if the fish aren’t actively spawning, there could be eggs at the site. Stepping on these eggs could ruin an entire fish population, and leave you feeling guilty for years. In short, get yourself a good pair of polarized sunglasses, and be cautious of where you put your feet.

4. Set the hook as soon as you notice a strike. This should go without saying, but some anglers are inattentive of their rods, allowing fish to take the lure/bait/fly deep, occasionally into their gullet. As soon as you feel a bite, set the hook! This means holding the rod you are currently fishing, or else carefully watch the other rods you can’t hold. When using an indicator or tight-line nymphing, watch the bobber or sighter and strike quickly when it dips underwater. If ice-fishing with tip-ups, keep a careful watch for flags, and regularly check the traps to make sure there aren’t any with fish on that didn’t trigger the flag.

5. Use a combination of side pressure and a raised rod tip to get the fish in quickly. This goes along with the first tip, to use heavy gear. When you guide the fish in a number of different angles, it makes it work harder, quickly tiring it out and shortening the length of the fight. Even though it may be tired at first, it will be much healthier in the long run. I would compare this to the difference between running a 40-meter dash and running a 5k. At the end of both races, you will be tired, but you will recover much quicker from the dash than you will from the 5k. The goal when fighting the fish is to lead it in the opposite direction it is swimming. Not only will this help the fish swim away strong, but it will also prevent the line from going slack, increasing the number of fish you catch using barbless hooks.

6. Use a rubber net. As nets with rubber baskets become more widely available, as well as more affordable, there is no reason not to get one. Rubber nets protect the slime coating on fish, an important defense against parasites, diseases, and infections. Studies have been done in which the slime coating is removed from an area of the fish’s body, and the results can be horrifying. Black spots, deterioration of flesh, and infections are not unheard of. Another huge benefit of these types of nets is a large reduction in tangles because there are no rope fibers for the hooks to get caught it.

This rubber net is protecting the slime coat on my personal best salmon. Photo credit: David Belson

When using the net, keep it in the water while unhooking the fish. This reduces the fish’s time out of the water, as well as keeping its stress level to a minimum and increasing its chance of survival.

7. If the fish is small, don’t use a net. When you catch a small fish, it’s often easier to simply grab it with your hands, quickly remove the hook, and send it back than it is to bring a net into the process. Obviously, wet your hands before holding the fish, and try to keep it in the water if possible. If you don’t feel comfortable using your hands, use a net with the smallest openings you can find, and try to be as quick as you can.

8. Properly release the fish. There are generally two ways to release the fish, but time and time again, I see people messing this crucial part up. Some people are careless, and simply toss their fish back in the water without a second thought. Others think it’s funny to release the fish tail-first and watch it struggle to right itself in the current (or the ice hole). Others still care a little too much, and over do the release just a little. Whatever the case, if you use these two releasing techniques for the rest of your fishing career, you’ll be set.

The first method is used after a short fight when the fish still has a good deal of spunk left in it. It is important to release fish this way only if the time spent handling the fish was very brief; otherwise, the fish could get disorientated and over exhausted after being let go. To release fish in this manner simply let them slide gently from your hands and back into the water. Your hand should be resting just in or on the surface of the water. This is by far the easiest method of letting fish go, and when done correctly, it can be the healthiest for the fish as well.

The second method should be utilized after a longer fight, or after longer periods of handling (such as when pictures have been taken, or if the fish had been hooked deeply). This is the technique most people know to use when letting fish go, but it can easily be done wrong. In order to release fish this way, gently support the fish with both hands, one near the hand, and one under the belly. When releasing bass, it is okay to hold them by their mouths with one hand and support them under their belly with the other. Grasp the fish lightly, but not so tightly that it will be squeezed. Ease the fish into the water while holding it, facing it into the current if fishing in a river or stream. Slowly move it back and forth, allowing it to fully recuperate. This could take anywhere from a few seconds to ten minutes. Once the fish’s fins are thoroughly kicking back and forth, it’s time to let go and allow the fish to be on its merry way. I commonly see people mess this method up by moving the fish back and forth too hard in the water. It’s a very calm motion, not a rough one. Oxygen will naturally make its way to the lungs of the fish, so there is no need to move it back and forth forcefully.

That’s about it! If you care about the fish you target like I do, then you should seriously consider going through the effort to take care of them. If you plan on keeping the fish you are catching, then by all means, do what you think will help you land the most fish (but still be careful of redds). Otherwise, there is no excuse for letting a fish you plan on releasing die. These tips aren’t foolproof, but they will certainly help protect the wild for generations to come.

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