How to Catch and Release Fish (Safe Fish Handling Guide)

We aim to help you understand how to properly land, handle, catch and release fish safely so that it's better for you and better for the fish.

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In this article, we’ll look at the important catch and release principles to keep in mind while you’re out for a day’s fishing. I think one of the things I enjoy the most about fellow fly anglers is that they all have a deep respect and love for fish.

Taking care of these fish for future generations are what it’s all about, so read on if you’d like to learn more. Although I’ve been fishing for more than 20 years, I must be honest and say that it’s only been in the last five years or so that I’ve really paid attention to good catch and release principles.

what is catch and release

I grew up fishing for stocked trout and our indigenous yellowfish. As a kid figuring things out for yourself, you don’t really pay much attention to the wellbeing of the fish.

It was only after I started traveling a bit more and seeing what impact we have on ecosystems that I paid more attention to it. The biggest learning curve for me, from a fish conservation point of view, was when I was a guide on Alphonse Island in Seychelles.

My fellow guides, conservationists, and researchers showed me how to look after fish in the best way possible. I owe a great deal of who I am today to these passionate people.

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What Is Catch and Release?

A question that I get asked a lot, by non-fly anglers and beginners, is what is catch and release? This is a relatively new concept in the history of mankind, as traditionally fishing is a means of putting food on the table.

We as fly anglers are in the fortunate position to fish as a recreational pastime. In other words, we do it because we love it.

Therefore, we don’t need to keep the fish we catch. Instead, we release them from the waters from which they came so that they can live another day. The better care we take during this catch and release process, the better chance the fish have of survival. This is what this article is about.

Catch And Release Principles

I’d also like to say that I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with keeping a fish for the pot. Please just keep what you need and let the others go.

Catch and Release Tips – Before You Make a Cast

Catch and release is about a lot more than just how to hold a fish and keeping your hands wet, although these are vitally important. Good catch and release principles are an ethos that influences the way you approach fishing as a whole.

Hook Selection

As I’ve mentioned in so many articles and videos, the primary connection between the fish and you as an angler is the hook. Buy the best hooks you can afford, since this is one area you don’t want to skimp on.

Traditionally, all hooks had barbs because it helps to keep the fish on the end of your line after hooking them. These barbs also make a mess of a fish’s mouth.

If you want to start looking after fish a lot better, use barbless hooks. If you can’t find any for the specific species you’re looking to target, make sure you crimp those barbs down with a pair of pliers or in your tying vise.

Barbless hooks also penetrate a lot easier into a fish’s mouth, which helps keep them from coming out. (This is only true if your hooks are sharp and you keep tension.) It’s also a lot quicker and easier to remove your fly from the fish’s mouth or your guide’s ear.

Tippet Selection

Fish the appropriate tippet diameter to land the fish as quickly as possible. I know this is easier said than done, and in some cases you really need to step down your tippet or leader material or the fish will simply refuse the fly. But keep it in mind.

The stronger the tippet, the harder you can pull, which will ultimately shorten the duration of the fight. This shortened tussle ensures that the fish has enough energy to swim away strong.

Rig Selection

Your rig selection must be appropriate for the water and fish size you’re targeting. The reason for this ties in with tippet selection, and I’ve seen anglers fish the correct tippet size but with a seriously under-gunned rod and reel.

This practice extends fights immensely and is not necessary. Don’t go to a gunfight with a water pistol.

Water Temperature

I live close to Cape Town and have access to some incredible small trout streams. The area these rivers are located in gets notoriously hot during the peak summer season. During February the mercury hits 105 degrees Fahrenheit (43 degrees Celsius) on a regular basis, which warms the rivers up.

I made a personal decision not to fish these streams during these warm weeks, as the trout have a poor chance of survival.

Do some research on the fish species you’re targeting and what their temperature threshold is and hold off when the water temps exceed this.

Fishing Net

A good net is the one item that makes it so much easier to look after a fish after you’ve hooked it. A net keeps the fish in the water while you reorganize everything after landing it.

catch and release fishing

A silicone or rubber-coated net is by far the best, as they don’t have knots and rough fibers that can remove the delicate mucous layer that protects a fish. Another type of net that recently came on the market that makes it even easier is a floating net. It’ll change your life.


If you can’t tie knots, tie lots. Practice your knots until you become confident and well-versed in tying them. The last thing you want to see on the water is a trout swimming past with a Woolly Bugger stuck in its top jaw. Obviously mistakes happen, and some of my knots still break, but in an ideal world, they shouldn’t.

Pliers, Forceps and Hemostat

Sometimes a fish completely engulfs your fly and the hook is set right in the back of its jaw. Either the fish is too small or they have huge teeth, so you can’t really go in there with your fingers. It’s a great idea to carry a pair of pliers or forceps with you.

Watch the Video How to Catch and Release Fish

YouTube video

Catch and Release Tips – A Complete Rundown

Now that we have our rig ready, we can go and catch some fish. Remember what I said earlier, good catch and release principles aren’t only about fighting and releasing a fish, but rather the entire way you approach and plan everything.

So, imagine you spot a trout freely rising and you’re going to try and catch it. What should you keep in mind?

Plan the Fight

I saw a video the other day on one of my favorite Youtube channels, Trippin on Trout. In this specific video, Alex saw a massive brown trout but decided against casting to it because there was absolutely no way that he could land it if he hooked it. There was a huge muddy bank that he had to navigate, and the pool was full of dead trees.

catch and release

Obviously Alex has caught his fair share of trout so he knows what the likelihood is of the fish busting him off around these dead branches. The reason I’m mentioning it here is that the call to let the fish be is what good catch and release principles are all about.

This doesn’t mean that if you spot a trout in a tricky spot you shouldn’t cast at it, though. In many cases, it’s absolutely worth it. The only thing you need to do is plan the fight properly. Planning a fight with a fish comes with experience as you get to know how a fish will respond to you hooking it.

Before even making the cast, try to answer these basic questions:

  • In what direction should I set the hook to prevent the line from wrapping around anything and to immediately apply pressure on the fish in the correct direction?
  • Where will I land the fish?
  • What obstacles should I keep the fish and my line from, and do I have the correct tippet on to prevent that from happening?

Move Around During the Fight

As some of you might know, I have a small guiding business, so I spend a lot of time on the water with clients. One of the main reasons I see a lot of people lose good fish is that they’re unwilling to move after they’ve hooked the fish.

When you hook a small trout, you can easily pull it back to you, even with a 7X tippet. However, if you get stuck into a thick and broad fish, you’re not in control for the first part of the fight. It’s in this crucial part of the fight that you need to make quick decisions and be able to move around.

There are no hard and fast rules, so it’s difficult to say exactly what to do. The more you spend time on the water and the more fish you catch, the better you’ll be at summing up the situation.

Having said that, if you’re fishing that 7X tippet and hook into a really decent fish, go after it or it’ll break you off.

Lift the Fish’s Head into the Net

Second to hooking into a fish, the most nerve-racking moment in a fight is landing it. Now I know that different fish species react differently, and these thoughts aren’t applicable to big saltwater species. We’re talking about trout here, and even most other freshwater species follow the same rule.

what is catch and release fishing

When a fish’s head is still underwater it’s very hard to net. Firstly, the net itself has a lot of drag to it, so it’s hard to respond quickly if the fish changes direction. Secondly, the fish has the ability to still dictate the direction and can easily dodge your landing net.

In my experience, the best way to net a fish is to lift the fish’s head into the net. What I mean by this is that once the fish’s head breaks the surface of the water, keep pulling to keep it on the surface.

In this state, the fish can’t really dictate where it’s going, as you have the upper hand and can simply slide the net underneath it. This does take some practice, but it’s a lot easier than trying to net it underwater.

Keep ’em Wet

“Keep ’em wet” isn’t just another new hipster fly angler’s hashtag on Instagram. It’s a saying, or motto if you will, that’s probably the most important of all catch and release principles. You can do all of the above correctly, but if you don’t keep fish wet while handling them, they’ll still succumb to the fight.

Catch And Release Fish

Always handle fish with wet hands and keep their skin wet. Their gills should be submerged underwater for as long as possible, only taken out for a lightning-fast photo.


I hope that this article on catch and release principles has shed some new light on this often misunderstood topic. I urge you to give thought to my recommendations above and make it part of your everyday fly fishing routine.

Every fish we catch is a gift to us, and not something we earn or deserve. If we look after it, cherish it, and understand it, we can ensure that fly fishing can be enjoyed for many more generations.

I also encourage you to teach other anglers the correct way to approach catch and release. And, if you do see others doing it the “wrong way,” don’t approach them with aggression, but rather go over to them with an open mind and help them see the right way.

Let me know what you think about the article. If you have any other questions or thoughts on the topic, please let me know in the comment section down below. Also, be sure to check out the video we did on catch and release principles.

Until next time.

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Pierre is a fly fishing guide and professional photographer who has guided and hosted trips for top fly fishing outfitters. Since being introduced to fly fishing over 21 years ago, he has travelled, fished and guided across the globe. He has extensive knowledge on specific gear and tackle selection for various salt- and freshwater species. Some of his writing work includes blogposts for Alphonse Fishing Company and African Waters.

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