How to Release Fish

Once you have practiced how to catch and release fish using these steps, you can have the confidence that you are helping to protect fish populations for future generations of anglers.

It’s ok to keep fish that you are allowed to retain under fishing regulations. However, at some point all anglers will be faced with returning fish to the water that they are not allowed to keep – due to size, season, or creel limits – or if they are voluntarily practicing catch-and-release.


One of the first things you can do is select tackle that matches the size of the targeted species in order to minimize stress on the fish. Large species should be landed or brought alongside the boat within 20 minutes of being hooked. If you notice that you are landing fish that are exhausted or that require extensive efforts to resuscitate, try switching to heavier tackle in order to reduce the amount of time it takes to catch and release the fish.  

In addition to using the right tackle, you should also use circle hooks whenever possible and recommended if you are fishing with live bait. Be aware that fishing techniques are different from “J” style hooks. 


Expect to release fish on any given trip and prepare the equipment necessary to do so.


Develop skills to target the size and species you desire so the need for releasing fish is reduced.


You might be asking yourself, "How do fish survive catch and release after being handled?" Whether or not they do largely depends on if the angler understands how to handle fish and how to release fish in a conservation-friendly manner. Below are the steps you can take when handling a fish to help promote fishing conservation. 

  1.  Use wet hands when handling a fish or a knotless rubberized landing nets and rubberized gloves. This helps maintain the slime coat on the fish, which protects it from infection and aids in swimming. Anglers that know how to practice proper catch and release never use a towel of any kind when handling fish since a towel can remove this slime coat.
  2.  Hold the fish horizontally whenever possible since this is the way fish naturally swim through the water. Do not drop the fish onto hard surfaces!
  3.  Keep your fingers away from the gills and eyes of the fish.
  4.  If needed, use a release tool (dehookers, recompression tools) to minimize handling.
  5.  Time is of the essence! Release fish as soon as practical and do not keep them out of the water longer than necessary. Always release your fish head first into the water. When you release a fish head first into the water, it forces water through the mouth and over the gills, which helps to resuscitate the fish. Revive exhausted fish by placing the fish in the water, facing the current if possible, with one hand underneath the belly and the other hand holding the bottom lip or tail.
  6.  Know the current fishing regulations that apply to the state where you are fishing and learn how to accurately measure fish in order to abide by the regulations. By following fishing regulations you are building and conserving our state fish populations for future generations of anglers.


Saltwater fish caught in deep water may be suffering from “barotrauma,” a buildup of swim bladder gases that makes it difficult for them to go back down. Generally, fish caught deeper than 30 feet will suffer some effects. Follow these basic tips:

Assess condition while reeling in fish. Signs of barotrauma include: 

  • Sluggish swimming.
  • Eyes bulging (“pop eye”).
  • Stomach protruding from mouth.
  • Bloated mid-section.

If the fish appears normal release it without removing it from the water:

Recompression - Rapidly returning fish to depth is the method of choice for returning barotrauma affected fish.   A variety of tools are on the market, including descender devices, release weights & baskets, etc. 

Return to Depth - Return fish to the depth of capture. If catching fish at very deep depths, returning them as deep as possible will dramatically improve survival. 

Venting - If rapid descent is not possible, venting is another option. Use established guidelines for venting such as found at Note that the fish’s stomach may protrude from its mouth. Do NOT puncture the stomach. 

Now that you know how to catch and release fish using conservation-friendly practices, be sure to apply these steps on your next fishing trip. 

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