Catch and release

The following information on catch and release is primarily for New Zealand fresh water trout fisheries, however it appropriately applies to all angling, both freshwater and saltwater New Zealand and world wide.

What is catch and release?

Catch and release is the act of returning a fish back to the water after being captured, and returning it in an unharmed condition ensuring its survival.

A beautiful brown being released and able to fight another day

Why catch and release in New Zealand?

Catch and release is highly encouraged to all New Zealand anglers (including all overseas tourist anglers) to avoid over-harvests of fish stocks. With the growing population, increase of anglers, more effective tackle and techniques, easier access to what were once remote places and habitat degradation, an ever increasing number of great fisheries are under threat and now desperately require catch and release to remain sustainable.

Who practices catch and release?

You will find most anglers serious about the sport will adopt the method of catch and release, and do so with pride.  Overseas tourist anglers normally have impeccable conservation ethics often releasing 100% of their catch, this should be commended. Newcomers to the sport unaware of the importance of catch and release can often be guilty of killing the maximum number of fish allocated per angler per day, it is the hope that these anglers will soon learn the importance of catch and release and adopt the method themselves.

The rewards of catch and release

Serious anglers not only understand the importance of catch and release, but know well and truly that a quality photograph of their fish before a gentle release is far more rewarding than having it mounted on the wall.  A fish mounted on the wall will never fight a battle with any angler again, however a fish gently released will live to battle many an angler for years to come. Releasing your first fish will install you with a feeling of satisfaction that can only be fully understood and appreciated by doing it. Those that catch and release should take great pride in knowing they are doing their part for fish conservation, and enjoying the sport of angling to the fullest extent.

An absolute beauty of a brown quickly lifted for a pic and sent on his way

Catch and release all fish?

Although many anglers release all fish caught, there is a well known saying that goes "take one for a feed, leave the rest to breed".  When catch and release is being promoted it does not necessarily rule out that the occasional fish can’t be taken home for the table, what catch and release is really about is preserving fish stocks, and understanding where and when the occasional table fish can be taken without jeopardising the future sustainability of the water body being fished. If you do take home a fish for the table, try to select a small to medium sized fish, large mature fish should be left to ensure future offspring are derived from a quality gene line.

What about weigh-in fishing competitions?

In weigh-in fishing competitions all fish must be taken to a weigh station to be eligible.  The problem with this is that there is no chance of catch and release, and the fish is killed.  The main dilemma with these types of competitions is that the biggest fish will win, thereby, targeting the large mature fish that we want to survive to ensure procreation from strong healthy genes.  Fishing competitions are often run by fishing retail outlets, or other such establishments who aim to benefit financially or gain exposure from the organising of such competitions, for this reason you will often find seasoned anglers boycotting such events as these competitions do not encourage or promote catch and release fishing practices. Catch and release is what we need to introduce newcomers to the sport of fishing, not a competition slaughterhouse.

Techniques for catch and release

There is a method to a successful catch and release, this avoids releasing an exhausted or damaged fish that will inevitably die therefore making the whole release process pointless. The following are a few key points to successful catch and release practices.

Barbless hooks
Using barbless hooks significantly reduces injury and handling time therefore naturally increasing survival rates.  A common theory is that more fish are lost using barbless hooks, however many seasoned anglers will disagree with some anglers claiming that using barbless hooks increases their success. While barbed hooks can sometimes only penetrate as far as the barb itself due to the increased diameter, barbless hooks easily penetrate fully to the hook's shank bend providing a solid attachment almost impossible to shake as long as the line is kept tight.

Barbless hooks are becoming more popular, however you may find that some of your favourite fly patterns are not available on barbless hooks.  This is not a problem as barbed hooks can have their barbs pinched reducing the damage caused to that of a barbless hook.

Pinched hooks
A pinched hook is simply a standard hook that has had its barb pinched (squashed) usually by a pair of small needle-nose pliers, forceps, or a fly tying vice. Keeping your line tight at all times will make a pinched hook equally successful (and debatably more so) as a barbless hook.

Treble hooks
In most New Zealand fishing shops nearly every single fishing lure has a barbed treble hook. These hooks are vicious, they easily damage and make mess of a fish's mouth, jaw or gills greatly reducing survival rates.  These hooks are no good for high survival rates on catch and release. It is highly recommended to pinch all barbs on treble hooks but even better still, replace treble hooks with single pinched or barbless hooks.

Catching and releasing

Avoiding exhaustion
A fish will exert every ounce of energy it has to avoid capture. A fish softly played in a long drawn out battle causes excess stress and exhaustion resulting in oxygen deficiency in the tissues forcing the fish to use its muscles anaerobically (without oxygen) causing lactic acid build up in muscle tissue. This lactic acid later disperses into the blood resulting in the pH dropping and causes a major disruption to the metabolic process. If a fish is fought hard and brought in quickly, the stress is limited and the fish has a sufficient level of oxygen and energy to safely swim off and survive with minimal pH change if any change at all. However, a softly played long drawn out battle may result in the fish appearing to swim off to survive after release, but the severe acidic drop in blood pH and the effect this has on the body chemistry can kill the fish as much as up to three days later.

Plan ahead for your landing technique

This will vary based on the gear you are using and the location you are fishing.  Some instances will allow for easy catching and releasing of the fish, other times you may have to work the battle to a certain section of water to allow easy access to the water’s edge at a suitable place to catch and release. Working in tandem with someone will often greatly simplify the task, but whatever the case planning ahead will limit handling time and reduce stress to the fish.

Removing the hook

When using barbless hooks the simple act of putting slack into the line often results in the hook coming free, if not, a gentle push will easily pop it out. If a barbed hook is being used and requires forceps to remove it, carefully cradle the fish and work it out as gently as possible.  If the fish starts thrashing around while being cradled, this is a good sign it is not exhausted and has plenty of energy left, however care needs to be taken so that it doesn't cause damage to itself by thrashing around close to shore.  If the fish is intent on thrashing try cradling the fish upside down as this often calms the fish.

If the hook is embedded in the gills or throat

There are two main options in this case:

  1. if the fish is profusely bleeding from the gills or the throat is extensively damaged, survival is bleak and this fish should be killed humanely and kept as a table fish (where legal)
  2. if the hook can be removed without bleeding or damage, the fish can be released with a good chance of survival. Small injuries heal quickly with good survival rates

If the hook has been fully swallowed and cannot be removed

There are two main options in this case:

  1. keep as a table fish (where legal)
  2. cut the line as far down as possible in the case of either:
  • a barbless hook that will be worked out naturally by the fish
  • a hook made of a material that will dissolve in the fish's stomach acid

In no situation should you try and pull a gill/throat/gut hook free by the line, this will undoubtedly lead to internal injury causing death.

Protect the mucous coating

The trout's mucus coat is important to survival as it protects the fish from bacteria and pathogens. When handling a fish it is important to:

  • avoid handling with dry hands, always wet your hands first
  • avoid placing the fish on any dry surface
  • avoid placing the fish on rough foreign objects (dry or wet) likely to scrape or scratch
  • avoid old natural twine or coarse nylon nets as they can be extremely rough on the fish. Modern fish friendly nets are far better

Minimise the out of water time

Just imagine running 100 metres flat out then holding your breath, that’s what it is like for a fish that has just put up a valiant battle to avoid being caught and then is lifted out of the water. Whenever possible, releasing the fish without removing it from the water is the best method and reduces stress, but this is not possible in every case. If the fish is removed from the water to release the hook or photograph, keep the time out of water to a minimum.

Photographing your catch

A photograph with your catch before release is truly rewarding. Flicking through a fishing photo album brings back floods of exhilarating battle memories from fishing trips gone by, and provides indisputable evidence to those who query your wild fishing adventure stories!  When posing for your photo keep in mind to :

  • never suspend a fish by the hook
  • never suspend a fish by the jaw
  • never suspend a fish by the gills
  • never suspend a fish by any of its fins

The fish is designed to live in the water and be supported by its entire body, not just one section. The best method is to keep the fish submerged until the last seconds before the photo is to be taken to minimise the out-of-water time. Carefully and slowly lift the fish while cradling it with both hands focusing on using as much of your hands and fingers to support the greatest area possible. Having a fishing partner take the photograph is the best option, but if you are solo fishing and still want that trophy photograph, here are some tips to minimise stress on the fish and make the process as quick as possible.

Camera equipment set up

  • Use a camera that can be attached to a tripod
  • use a camera that has a wireless remote or a manual delay feature with 10 or so seconds giving you enough time to click the button and walk back to the net and get ready
  • use a camera that can take a sequence frames (photographs), 10 photographs with small delays between each frame is good. This avoids taking multiple single photographs that extends handling time. Out of 10 photographs you are bound to get at least one photo where you look supremely handsome, and at an angle where the fish looks nice and big!
  • use a small gorilla grip tripod (or similar).  These things are great, they click onto the camera like a normal tripod but have flexible legs to wrap around any terrain like rocks, trees, fence posts, etc
  • have your camera in a quickly accessible place, a pocket of a fishing vest or a camera case on a belt is ideal
  • have your tripod in a quickly accessible place also, I carry mine in the side pouch of my daypack

Photograph process

  • when the battle is drawing to an end, multitask and start getting your camera and tripod ready. 
  • carefully bring the fish to the net and leave the fish and net submerged in water. (Fish sitting in a net normally stay very still)
  • use the fish in the net as the focus point when positioning the camera on the tripod
  • manually start the delay or use the remote to start the delay
  • prepare to lift and cradle the fish
  • when the 10 second delay is nearly up, carefully lift the fish
  • pull out a big smile and wait for the multiple frames are taken
  • gently release the fish

Following the above process from netting to release only takes about 60 seconds, then the fish is safely on its way. Nearly all cameras nowadays have attachments for a tripod, and the multiple frame feature is common on many small adventure digital cameras, and standard on most Digital SLR cameras.

This photo was taken with the method above however I used a camera setting of best frame continuous shot. It fires off 16 frames in under 2 seconds so it increases the chances of getting a great shot plus allows you to get the fish back on its way very quickly

Releasing your fish


Moving water releases

A fish pushed into a fast flowing current too soon can be a sure way to kill it, it may not have recovered enough and have the energy reserves to compete against the current. In this situation the best method is to face the fish upstream in an area of low flow (normally close in to the bank), and cradle the fish fully submerged upright until it forcefully swims off on its own accord. This may take as little as 1 second or up to 20 seconds.

Still water releases
Still water doesn't have the same threat as fast flowing rivers however it is still vital to release the fish properly. Face the fish towards deep water and cradle the fish fully submerged upright until it forcefully swims off on its own accord. This may take as little as 1 second or up to 20 seconds.

There’s nothing better than watching your fish glide away able to fight another day with another fellow angler, or maybe even you!

Author of this article: ADVGD(366)