Conservation should be first and foremost on any American’s mind when it comes to the outdoors. Without normal, everyday people taking conservation to the front lines, the wonderful national forests and resources would not be as they are today. While most states impose bag limits on wildlife, they still advise that fisherman and hunters practice responsible harvest. In some states the ideology for trout fishing is catch and keep and many people view what the state stocks as a “free” grocery store – ripe for the taking. In other areas where trout can survive and thrive, there is a predominance of catch and release fisherman. Whether you are a stern conservationist or a catch and keep fly fisherman, there will be a time where you want to safely release a trout. In this article I will give you some tips on proper handling of trout to ensure their survival after the release.
I know, this goes against what many fishermen can even fathom when it comes to fishing. The barb helps keep the fish on the hook. I am not going to lie; there is a learning curve to keeping a trout on the line when using barbless hooks. You cannot give the trout slack in the line and you must keep constant pressure on the trout throughout the duration of the fight. Initially, you will lose some fish; however, once you get the hang of it, you will find that you will lose more fish by popping the hook out of the trout’s mouth applying too much pressure or at the wrong angles than because of the barbless hooks. When it comes to catching and releasing fish, the barbless hooks are much easier to get out and you do not pull chunks of the fish out. More importantly, if you gill hook a trout or it swallows the hook, it reduces the chance of injuring the fish while removing the hook. In the event you cannot safely get the hook out, you can just cut your line and know that eventually the hook will fall out on its own. Additionally, the barbless hooks are just quicker and easier to remove. The less you have to handle the fish and the less time it’s out of the water the higher its chance is of surviving.
Old-school, rope nets harm trout. First, the fine rope nets greatly increase the odds of getting into the trout’s gills and inflicting damage that could kill the trout even after being released. The second issue with rope/mesh nets is when your flies get tangled in the finer mesh of the net, it increases the amount of time a fish is out of the water. The third issue is probably the biggest concern with using rope nets. Trout do not have scales; instead they have a protective slime coating that protects the fish from disease. A rope/mesh net will remove this slime where’s a rubber net will not.
After you land that MONSTER trout
You just fought the fish of a lifetime and wore him out. You used a rubber net, now it is time to discuss proper handling of trout. After a fight with a large trout, my first step is to get the hooks out. If the trout has taken the fly too deep, don’t be afraid to cut bait. It is better for the fish to eventually work the hook out than for you to stress the fish trying to pry it out. Likewise, if the fish gets to flopping in the net and gets himself all tangled in your flies – cut them off. It doesn’t take much time to re-tie. However, the time you save in not trying to untangle the fish can be the difference in that fish living or dying.
Once I get the fish unhooked, I leave it in my net and give it a chance to breath. Keep the fish wet. I leave the fish in the net facing up river with the current of the water hitting the trout in the face.
So, you caught the fish of a lifetime. No one is going to believe you without some pictures, so let’s talk about picking the fish up out of the net. First, DO NOT lip the trout like you would a bass. Trout are very delicate fish. When you grab a trout by its lower jaw (lipping) risk dislocating or breaking its jaw and forcing its organs down rupturing them. Wet your hands and gently grasp the fish, but don’t squeeze it. Yes, they are slimy and hard to hold onto. However, this is a skill you can master with some practice..
If you’ve been able to get the fish in the net without too much stress and you were able to unhook the fish quickly, you can attempt a few quick pictures. If the fish is bleeding or there is any risk that you’ve stressed the fish, skip the photo and wait for the next one. If you are taking pictures, keep your picture taking to a minimum and get the fish back into the water.
Releasing a trout does not mean just tossing it back into the water. If you just drop a trout and it hits its head on a rock it will have the same effect on the fish as if you had just fallen and hit your head on a rock You want to focus on a gentle release. Gently take the fish and place him in the water with his head facing upstream. Just barely hold onto him enough to support him while he breathes but allow him enough wiggle room to kick off when he’s ready. When the trout is ready to go, it will kick off. Do not keep holding onto it. Let the trout go when it is ready. Some fish will take the opportunity to hold and breathe for quite some time before they kick off. Others will kick the moment you put them in the water. Each fish is different, so just be patient.
Continue to watch the trout to make sure that he swims off and does not turn belly-up. If the fish does turn belly-up, attempt to re-net him. Give him a chance to breathe in your net and then re-attempt the release. Be patient.
As always, be safe on the water and catch lot’s of fish!
Joe with Monthly Fly