Catch and Release Fishing Tips for Beginners
Feb 28, 2020 | 5 minute read Comments
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Reading Time: 5 minutes

Catch and release fishing is something that all anglers can get behind. Whether you’re a full-on environmentalist or just don’t want to waste food, releasing fish properly is an important part of every fishing trip. But it’s easy, right? You just drop it back in the water. Not exactly – safe release is easy, but there are a few things you need to know first.

A man in a blue shirt and a cap releasing a Redfish off the side of a boat into the sea

Catch and release starts before you even hit the water. You need the right equipment and the right gameplan. Most importantly, you need the right mentality. In this short guide, you can learn how to make sure your fish lives to fight another day.

Why Catch and Release Fish?

With so many tons of fish caught commercially each year, it may seem like a drop in the ocean to release your catch. But every little bit helps, as they say. Catch and release fishing is key to maintaining fish populations. This is especially the case for the apex predators we all love to fight.

Catch and release fishing: A man in a white shirt and cap releasing a blue marlin from the side of a boat

But forget the “eco” arguments for a second. There are only so many fish you can keep, anyway. When the cooler’s full and you’ve hit your limits, you either have to call it a day or put the fish back. You may as well make sure they head off healthy.

How to Prepare for Catch and Release Fishing

You don’t have to buy a load of expensive equipment to practice catch and release. The most important things are probably in your tackle box already. The main tools are a dehooking device for removing hooks safely and a non-knotted rubber net or fish sling to bring the fish in without damaging its skin.

A man in a blue shirt holding a Muskellunge in a catch and release fishing sling before safely releasing it into the water

There is one small change that will make all the difference: circle hooks. Circle hooks are designed to catch in the corner of the mouth instead of deep-hooking a fish. This makes it much more likely to survive.

Circle hooks take a little getting used to, but once you get the hang of them, they can be even more effective than traditional J or treble hooks. Avoid offset circle hooks, though – they’re a lot more harmful and not much more effective.

Finally, one of the best ways to avoid over-tiring fish is to use appropriate tackle. We all like a challenge, but fighting fish on super-light tackle often leaves them too exhausted to fend off predators.

How to Unhook a Fish

Rule number one of catch and release fishing: don’t take them out of the water unless you need to. Removing a fish from the water is incredibly stressful for them. On top of this, larger fish often can’t handle the weight of their own bodies out of the water. As you can imagine, this isn’t great for their chance of survival.

An angler in a blue shirt and a cap with a fly fishing rod next to him. The angler is leaning over the side of a boat to release a Tarpon

If dehooking the fish in the water isn’t an option or you want to tag it for scientific study, get everything ready before you bring it aboard. This makes things as quick as possible. Try holding your breath as you take the fish out – it gives you an idea of how fast you need to be. Use a dehooking device or a pair of needle-nosed pliers to carefully remove the hook, and check for any old hooks from previous battles. Once you’re done, return the fish to the water immediately.

How to Handle Fish Properly

Forgive us for stating the obvious, but never use a gaff on a fish you want to release. If it’s small, use a net or a sling. If it’s big, use a tail rope. Contrary to what you may have heard, you shouldn’t handle fish with a towel. In fact, you should touch them as little as possible, as their skin can get scratched and infected easily. When you have to, clean and wet your hands thoroughly first.

A Mangrove Snapper being held with a pair of lip grips before being safely released back into the water

Lip grips are a useful way to handle smaller fish. They make it much easier to remove hooks. Holding a big fish by the mouth can dislocate its jaw, though. Instead, use the lip grips to hold the mouth steady and support the fish below with your hand. Finally, never touch a fish’s gills or hold them by their gill covers. If their gills get damaged, they’re done for.

How to Release a Fish Safely

So you’ve removed the hook. Now it’s time to let your prize get away. This is where keeping the fish in the water makes things a lot simpler. Most of the time, all you need to do is gently let go of the fish and it will swim off. If the fish has come out of the water, you’ll need to help it on its way to maximize its chances.

A Trout held just out of the water by an angler before being released back into the water

First things first, make sure the little guy has caught his breath. Lower the fish into the water, using the movement of the boat or the currents to draw water through its gills. The fish should perk up as you do this, and once it seems to have recovered, you can let it go. If you’re fishing around structure, releasing it near cover will reduce the chances of it getting picked off by predators after you let it go.

Deep-water fish are more complicated. The water pressure on the surface is way lower than it is in the depths. This causes all kinds of problems for the fish and makes it unlikely to survive at surface level. You’ll need to deal with that if your catch is going to survive.

You can vent the fish by poking a hole an inch or two behind the pectoral fin at a 45-degree angle. This normalizes the pressure but obviously harms the fish in the process. The safest thing to do is descend the fish, dropping it back to its normal depth with a cage or break-off weight. Whatever you do, don’t just release a deep-water fish on the surface – it’s basically Shark bait if you do.

Practice Makes Perfect

Getting the hang of releasing fish properly takes a while. If you’re new to it, start releasing fish before you hit your limits. That way, if the fish looks like they’re not going to make it, you can always keep it and learn from your mistakes on the next one. Don’t see it as a failure – no one wins all the time.

A Redfish being lowered into the water during a catch and release fishing trip

Catch and release fishing is an essential part of preserving your favorite fishing spots. Whether it’s your local lake or your favorite reef, releasing fish will let future generations enjoy it, too.

What are your top tips for catch and release fishing? Do you have questions about releasing a specific species? Let us know your thoughts below!

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Comments (11)
  • Sohaya

    Jan 8, 2019

    That’s right. we should make sure the fish will continue to live in safety.

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  • Victor Swanson

    Oct 17, 2019

    For the past several years I’ve been using the Kahle hooks in various sizes. They catch the fish in the corner of the mouth 99% of the time. They work especially good on croaker because they don’t swallow the hook as opposed to J-hooks.

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      Albert

      Oct 18, 2019

      Hi Victor,

      You’re right, Kahle hooks are another good option. I think they’re slightly more likely to deep-hook fish than circle hooks because the point doesn’t bend in as much. They’re still much better J hooks, though.

      Tight lines!

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  • Sabrina Addams

    Mar 24, 2020

    My cousins are planning a fishing trip for early fall and invited me to come with them. I’ve only been fishing once, so it helped me to learn that you should use a circle hook when catching and releasing since they’re less harmful. I’ll look into this, as well as some catfish bait to be prepared.

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      Albert

      Mar 25, 2020

      Si Sabrina,

      I’m glad you found it helpful.

      Check out our catfishing article for more tips on catching big Catfish.

      Tight lines!

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  • Tyler Johnson

    May 4, 2020

    That’s good to know that you shouldn’t touch the fish if it can be avoided. I wouldn’t want to make it get an infection and die if I was just doing catch and release, so that’s good to know. I’ll have to keep that in mind if I decide to get try out fly fishing with my dad.

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      Albert

      May 5, 2020

      Hi Tyler,

      Thanks for getting in touch. I’m glad you found the article helpful.

      Tight lines!

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  • Griff Jacobson

    May 27, 2020

    The only hooks that I have are J-hooks. I’m planning on going fishing soon, and I don’t want to head to the store to buy some circle hooks. I’m just going to be going to a small pond, that es he’s around 15-20 feet deep. What should I do?

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      Albert

      May 28, 2020

      Hi Griff,

      Circle hooks are the best case scenario, but there’s plenty more you can do to help fish swim off safely.

      If you only have J hooks, the first thing I’d recommend is to break off and file down any barbs on them.

      Using appropriate equipment is an important factor. Super-light tackle can overtire fish, leaving them weak and exhausted after release.

      Bait is another big one. Fish are more likely to swallow live baits than lures. This means that the hook will be deeper inside the fish, and more likely to gut-hook it.

      Lastly, handle the fish as little as possible and return it to the water as quickly as you can.

      I hope this helps. Be sure to let us know how you get on.

      Tight lines!

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  • Adam Golightly

    Jul 21, 2020

    My sons have been begging to go fishing with me so that I can teach them and they can catch a lot of fish and just have the experience. It could be really useful for us to go with a professional so that it can be a really nice trip and we can go deep-sea fishing. I really liked what you said about how deep-water fish shouldn’t be released on the surface because the water pressure is different and can cause a lot of problems.

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      Albert

      Jul 22, 2020

      Hi Adam,

      Thanks for getting in touch.

      Yeah, it’s definitely a great idea to go out with a professional to begin with, in order to learn how to release fish safely.

      I’m glad you found the article helpful.

      Tight lines!

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