Featured Photo: Northern Lights in Tennessee

Featured Photo: Northern Lights in Tennessee

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Handling a Trout For Catch and Release

This is my busy season. Days off are rare and usually intentionally scheduled. Today, for example, I ended up with a late cancelation and decided to take advantage to get new tires on my truck. The yard will probably get mowed as well. Most days find me on the water taking others fishing. Talk about a great job! I know how blessed I am. As I was considering what to do with my day, I remembered a topic that I've been meaning to address for awhile. How do you properly handle a trout to guarantee a healthy release? Furthermore, how do you hold a fish to get that perfect fish photo?

Today, I'm going to address that first question. Hopefully I'll get around to the second one in the near future. In explaining good technique for holding trout, I'll address at least a few components of good picture taking as well. How to hold trout is a question we get every day. Everyone wants the picture of their catch to look awesome. Before worrying about that picture though, worry about keeping the trout healthy to swim another day.

Before I get to those tips on handling trout carefully, I do want to put in a plug for catch and release fishing. I know a lot of people get enjoyment and pleasure from keeping a few fish and cooking them later. That is a great tradition and a nice way to enjoy a good meal. That said, earth's population is exploding. I see far more anglers out on the water now than I did when I started fly fishing. With the crowded rivers and streams comes more stress on fish populations than ever. There are simply too many anglers and too few fish.

Last summer, I saw a couple of guys fishing on the bank as I drifted down the Caney Fork River. They were catching a few fish to eat. Again, that is fine as long as it is within the regulations. Unfortunately, in lawfully keeping a few trout every day, they soon cleared the majority of the fish out of the hole. Those guys were fishing that hole nearly every day for around two weeks. Late in the second week, as we drifted by, the guys asked how we were doing. When I returned the question, they complained that "A week ago we were catching our limit every day including some big ones, but now we can't find any trout." Even legally keeping fish hurts the fisheries.

Rivers like the Caney Fork and Clinch River can turn out many large trout. Those trout will only get big if you carefully release them to swim another day. If they can get a couple of years in our rivers, they quickly reach 18-20 inches or better. Imagine fishing a river full of big fish? It is possible, but we cannot wait for regulation to fix this problem. Voluntary catch and release is the only way we can see consistently better fishing on the Caney Fork River among others and it needs to be the vast majority of anglers. Also, if you do see someone poaching, please call the Tennessee Poacher's Hotline and report them.

The first and probably most important rule for handling trout is to minimize the time you have the fish out of the water. I've watched many people kill trout, whether intentionally or not, by having the fish out of the water for several minutes. This seems like a no brainer, but since fish breathe by gathering oxygen from water through their gills, they suffocate when out of the water. The #keepemwet is a reminder to treat fish respectfully and release them in the best condition possible. Check out the KeepEmWet.org website for more information.

If you want a picture of your catch, make sure to keep it in the water until the camera is ready. A net is the perfect way to keep a fish corralled and healthy until that moment when you lift it quickly out of the water. Besides, fish pictures are better when water is still dripping off of the glistening fish. Fish should realistically be out of the water for no more than 5-10 seconds, 15 seconds max. With modern cameras, fast shutters, and a good net, this is more than reasonable.

Next, use a rubber net bag if possible. Trout have a protective slime coating that is easily removed with things like dry net bags and dry hands. A rubber net bag is easy on the fish. Just make sure to get the net wet before sliding the fish in. I like to use an oversized net. That way the fish has room to be comfortable while you are getting ready for that picture.

Along with the above, always get your hands wet before handling a trout and any fish really. There has been some pushback against this idea in recent years, but ultimately it cannot hurt. As an angler, I'm all in favor of any practice that will reduce potential mortality to the trout I love to catch and release.

While handling trout, make sure to handle them very gently. DON'T squeeze them, DON'T hold them by the gills or lip them like a bass. DO cradle them gently, DO keep them in the water as much as possible, and only lift them up for that quick picture. Also, DON'T lay trout out on the ground for a picture. If you must beach a fish for some reason (forgot the net???), do it in shallow water and never on dry ground and get it back in deeper water as quickly as possible.

The next tip doesn't apply to everyone, but some people just don't realize there is a problem. If you plan on releasing some fish, avoid using live or scented bait. Fish deeply ingest things like worms, crickets, and yes, PowerBait. A fish that is gut hooked probably won't live, simple as that. Along with this, use only single hook lures and flies if you plan on releasing your catch. I wish that we could get those passed as regulations here in Tennessee on any stream or river with special regulations on size. If you have a protected length range, but people catching those fish are gut hooking them, it defeats the purpose.

If you are a fly angler and serious about catch and release, consider pinching down those barbs. Barbless hooks are much easier on trout. Yes, you might occasionally lose a fish because of a barbless hook, but if you do everything right, you shouldn't lose any more with barbless hooks for the most part.

Play fish quickly and avoid fishing in water that is too warm. I've watched people "battle" a 12 inch trout on the Caney Fork for 5 minutes. There is a good chance that the fish died from that experience even if they released it quickly. Even large trout can be landed quickly. Sometimes it helps to pressure some fish too much and break a few off so you learn the limitations of your gear. That way you will be prepared to pressure the fish just enough the next time you hook a big one.

If you do hook a fish deeply (and let's face it, that can happen even on flies), it is usually better to cut the line than to try to dig that hook out. If a fish is hooked in the gills, same thing. If a fish is bleeding badly and you want to harvest a fish, that would be the time to do it.

Remember, even with good technique, there is some mortality associated with catch and release fishing. If you follow these tips, it will help the fish to live and be in the best shape possible moving forward. The best gift that an angler can give to other anglers is a released fish. I have caught fish that I know for a fact have been caught before. For example, my big trout on Deep Creek recently was caught by my buddy about a year ago. That is proof that catch and release works. Good handling will ensure that many others can enjoy the same opportunities, and we will have healthy trout and other fish populations for years to come.

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