How To: Safely Release a Fish

By MDC | July 1, 2023
From Xplor: July/August 2023

To keep the fish you free safe from harm, master the art of letting go.

Sometimes, fishing rules require you to release a fish because it’s the wrong size or the wrong species. And sometimes, you’d rather fish for fun than for food. Here’s how to release a fish the right way, so it has the best chance of living.

Take the Right Tackle

  • Choose artificial lures. Fish are more likely to swallow live bait and become deeply hooked, which can damage their organs.
  • Carry a pair of needle-nose pliers or hemostats to remove hooks from small-mouthed fish like bluegill.
  • Use a pair of pliers to pinch the barbs flat on your hooks. This makes removing them from a fish’s mouth (or your dad’s earlobe) much easier.

Land ‘Em Quickly

  • Set the hook as soon as you feel a bite. This makes it less likely the fish will swallow the hook.
  • Reel in your catch as quickly as you can — but don’t jerk the lips off the little fella. Fighting a fish longer than necessary wears it out and weakens its ability to survive.
  • Keep a fish in the water as much as possible when removing the hook or taking a photo. A fish’s odds of survival decrease the longer it’s kept out of the water.

Handle Carefully

  • Wet your hands before touching a fish. This protects its slimy skin, which guards the fish from germs.
  • Be gentle. Squeezing a fish too hard can damage its organs. And keep your fingers away from its gills and eyes. It needs those to breathe and to see!
  • If your catch is hooked deeply — in its gills or stomach — it’s best to simply leave the hook alone and cut the line. The fish will have a better chance of living than if you try to perform stream-side surgery to remove the hook.

Revive Tired Fish

  • If your fish doesn’t have enough energy to swim away, hold its tail with one hand and cradle its belly with the other.
  • Slowly move the fish back and forth below the surface so water flows over its gills.
  • When the fish’s energy returns, release your grip so it can swim away.

This Issue's Staff

Photographer – Noppadol Paothong
Photographer – David Stonner
Designer – Marci Porter
Designer – Les Fortenberry
Art Director – Cliff White
Editor – Matt Seek
Magazine Manager – Stephanie Thurber