Letting Go

Catch and Release
By Todd Hosman
  |  Gorp.com
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Using Debarbed Hooks

To debarb a hook, squeeze down on the barb with a forceps or pliers. Whatever the fly, always use barbless hooks. They have these advantages over the barbed kind:

Better penetration.

Debarbing increases hook efficiency because a barb is wedge-like and impedes a hook's ability to pierce.

Easier removal.

Removing a debarbed hook from a fish is quicker and minimizes injury.

More safety.

Extracting a debarbed hook from your hand, neck, or face is also easier (and less painful).

Legal compliance.

Not all Park areas require barbless hooks, but you may wander into one that does.


Playing a fish for too long exhausts it. The resulting chemical changes in its body can kill it, if not at the moment of landing, then minutes or hours later. Bring in any trout, big or small, as rapidly as you can. In addition, the longer a hooked fish is free in the water, the greater become your chances for problems.

To expedite landing a trout, use the largest and strongest tippet practical. The smallest you'll need is probably 6X, with 5X a better all-round choice. In relation to the trout's weight, the listed breaking strength of tippet might seem high (for example, 3.5 pounds), but it's quickly diminished by being knotted, tugged, and subjected to the force of currents. Whenever you can, use a landing net, one that's equipped with a cotton bag; nylon is too abrasive. A finely meshed bag won't snag or tear at fins or gills the way a widely meshed one will. A net of very fine mesh (with openings smaller than an eighth of an inch) can double as a seine for collecting bug samples from the water. Since most trout spook at the sight of a submerged net, wait until the trout is within reach before you plunge the net into the water to capture it. Once the fish is netted, you can leave it there until after you remove the hook.

Whether or not a net is used, wet your hands before handling a trout! Dry hands harm its delicate protective outer membrane. Handle a trout firmly but gently, preferably keeping it in the water and in the net. Use one hand (placed an inch or two behind the gills) to cradle and hold the fish. Do not squeeze the fish or get your fingers in its gills. Very often, holding a trout upside down calms it and so greatly eases getting the hook out.

The most familiar difficulty with hook removal comes from not first taking the time to see how the hook entered. Once that's done, back it out the way it went in. Use only barbless hooks. (A fish that bleeds as a result of being hooked usually survives.) When a trout is so deeply hooked as to make the process of hook removal too lengthy or injurious, clip off the tippet as near to the fly as possible. Eventually the hook will rust away or become dislodged.

All trout should be revived before release. Gently cradle the fish so that it's right side up and facing upstream. Rocking the fish from side to side in the current helps it get reoxygenated. Release it after it makes one or two strong efforts to escape. If the fish seems too weak, don't release it, but don't give up, either. Continue your revival efforts until they're successful.

The Importance of Re-Tying

After each fish caught, take the time to check the integrity of both fly and leader. Will the dry fly still float, or the nymph sink? Are there unwanted knots, nicks, or abrasions in the leader? This is the time to remedy any difficulties before the next trout. One more action is recommended: Take thirty seconds to cut off and re-tie the fly to the tippet. The tippet at its juncture with the hook eye has been stressed, as has the connecting knot itself. Granted, the hooktippet connection may still be good, but there's a fair chance it's been weakened, so why take the risk? The next trout might break off your fly in two seconds because you couldn't spare half a minute. For the same reasons, it's also good practice to re-tie the fly to the tippet after every thirty casts or so.

Humane Killing of Trout

It may seem odd, in an article that promotes catch-and-release fishing, to find part of it explaining how to kill a trout. But if you respect life, how life is taken becomes a matter of concern.

I once saw a man and child walking back to their car, the man carrying a good-sized brown trout that was still alive, a forked stick through its gills. He opened the car trunk, tossed the fish in a paper sack, and closed the trunk on both. It was a cruel act, and I told him so. He had planned to kill the trout (which was slowly suffocating) when he got home an hour later. I convinced him to kill it immediately, explained how, and he did.

Severing a trout's spinal column is the quickest and most humane way to kill it. Grip the fish, its belly side down in your palm, in one hand. With the other hand, bring a heavy dull-edged object down very fast and very hard at the base of the fish's skull where it connects to the spine. (A large retracted folding knife works, as does the narrow edge of a small steel pry bar.) If you've done it right the first time, the fish will convulse briefly and die; you'll see a pronounced depression (indicating a severance) where the backbone was attached to the head. if you did it wrong, do it again and get it right.

Better yet, don't kill the trout you catch, just let them go. Wild fisheries are growing more rare and environmentally significant, and catch-and-release fishing helps perpetuate them. In many fisheries that are not wild, catch-and-release practices can help restore them to a self-sustaining state. Returning fish to the water also gives that many more opportunities to other anglers, who in increasing numbers believe that catch-and-release makes the best sport.

© Article copyright Pruett Publishing.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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