Good Catch, Better Release

By John Page Williams

What do you do when you catch an out-of-season, undersized or oversized fish?

In a world increasingly full of seasons and slot limits, it's important that anglers learn to release at least some of our catch quickly and with minimal harm — to both the fish and ourselves. It's also important that we fish in ways that respect these natural resources upon which our sport depends.

Thanks to the new Careful Catch partnership between the Maryland chapter of Coastal Conservation Association, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and the BoatUS Foundation for Boating Safety and Clean Water, there's good information readily available to anglers that can answer their questions, and maybe even teach some new skills to increase your hook-ups.

To practice Careful Catch, decide ahead of time which fish you plan to harvest for food and which you'll release (assuming the fishing gods smile on you that day). Then consider the four major stressors that fish face when they're hooked, fought to the boat, handled, and released: exhaustion, loss of slime, time out of water, and wounds.


An exhausted fish is similar to a fatigued athlete. As it burns more and more energy, bodily chemical changes take place, including the buildup of harmful lactic acid. The longer the fight lasts, the more likely it will permanently affect the fish's health. To avoid over-fatiguing fish, use appropriate tackle to reduce fight time to a reasonable level, ideally no more than five to 10 minutes under stressful conditions like hot weather. Large species may require a bit more time.

Loss Of Slime

Any body of water holds bacteria and fungi that can get under scales and infect a fish's skin. This kind of infection can cause special problems when fish are crowded together between hot surface water and cooler but oxygen-depleted deeper water. The slime coating that most fish have is their primary defense against infection, so it's vital to maintain it.

If possible, release fish in the water without touching them. Dehooking tools make this process much easier — and faster. If you must handle a fish, do so with wet hands, supporting its body horizontally with both hands. If you use a net, choose one with soft nylon or rubber mesh (or a combination) and a flat floor that will support the fish well. One good option for large fish is a cradle with mesh between two poles, like those used for Midwestern muskies.

Time Out Of The Water

Fish are built to be supported by water. Their gills are designed to stay wet, to allow dissolved oxygen to diffuse into blood vessels in the gill filaments while wastes diffuse out. A fish out of water without proper body support can suffer severe — but not immediately obvious — internal organ damage. And when out of the water, fish get very little oxygen — they are essentially holding their breath. The gill filaments collapse in the air, greatly reducing surface area for oxygen diffusion. Abrupt temperature change causes great additional stress, especially if the air temperature is in the 90s (a sure killer).

Again, keep the fish in the water if you intend to release it, especially in the summer. Consider stopping catch-and-release fishing in the summer, or fish early and late in the day, when air temperatures tend to be lower. Use a net or cradle to suspend the fish in the water while you unhook, measure, photograph, and release it. Have release tools —net/cradle, ruler, and camera — ready ahead of time. An easy tip to remember: Don't keep a fish out of the water longer than you can hold your breath.

Photo of Lenny Rudow landing a rockfishThe author and BoatUS Magazine's electronics editor Lenny Rudow land another rockfish on the Chesapeake Bay.


Hook wounds and other damages that cause external bleeding leave fish vulnerable to infection as well as physiological shock from blood loss. You can prevent unnecessary hook wounds to the body of the fish by avoiding or modifying treble hooks. At a minimum, convert them to doubles by clipping a tine off each. Fish with crushed barbs and keep hooks sharp. The combination not only aids release, it also hooks fish better. If you're bait fishing, use non-offset circle hooks or tend lines carefully to avoid deep hooking. When using bait on a hook with a crushed barb, clip off a short section from an old plastic worm and slip it over what's left of the barb to keep the bait from sliding off.

Modify treble-hook plugs by cutting the rear tine off the front; then cut the lower tine off the rear hook. If either hook faces the wrong way, remove it from its split ring, turn it over, and reattach it; good split-ring pliers make this job much easier. The combination of forward-facing front hooks and upward-facing rear hooks is very effective. It reduces hook injuries and makes release much easier, especially with pliers or a J-hook dehooker.

If you're concerned about throwing off the weight and balance of the lure, switch the hook to one size larger before modifying it, or consider adding flashing or hair to bring it back up to spec.

Winter Workshop

The off-season is a perfect time to spend tweaking your tackle as you dream about opening day. And if you find you're missing a vital piece of gear, the holidays are just around the corner. 

John Page Williams is the long-time Senior Naturalist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Maryland. He writes about fishing and environmental issues for Chesapeake Bay Magazine, and is the author of Chesapeake: Exploring The Water Trail Of Captain John Smith.

— Published: December 2011

Careful Catch Equipment Resources

To buy dehooking tools, visit your local tackle shop or browse the websites of:

  • Bass Pro Shops
  • Cabela's
  • West Marine
  • You can make your own J-dehookers with a variety of inexpensive materials.
  • For deep-hooked fish, consider an ARC (Aquatic Release Conservation, Inc.) dehooker. The company's website ( features information and instructional videos.

For release-friendly nets and cradles, visit websites for:


Safety Sponsorship

BoatUS is the official sponsor of the Vessel Safety Check Program, managed by the US Coast Guard Auxillary. Vessels that pass a voluntary inspection can display the VSC sticker, donated by BoatUS. More than 250,000 vessels participate annually.


BoatUS Magazine Is A Benefit Of BoatUS Membership

Membership Also Provides:

  • Subscription to the print version of BoatUS Magazine
  • 4% back on purchases from West Marine stores or online at
  • Discounts on fuel, transient slips, repairs and more at over 1,000 businesses
  • Deals on cruises, charters, car rentals, hotel stays and more ...
  • All For Only $24 A Year!

Join Today!