How to Release Steelhead (and other fish) Properly
By Nelson Karger
Catch and release fishing in BC in a valuable tool for conservation. However, releasing steelhead is only useful if proper procedures are taken. If a fish is mishandled before being released back into it’s habitat, there small chances of its continued survival.
Recently, I have seen many pictures and witnessed many people improperly handling wild fish. I think it is time to discuss and teach anglers about proper catch and release tactics. Keeping fish out of the water too long for photos, holding fish up in a boat and having them jump and land on the floor, touching gills, pulling hooks out of deeply hooked fish, wearing gloves for the hero shot, are all things that need to be addressed.
The first thing to address is handling time. Slime and scales can be removed or damaged with excessive handling, thereby greatly increasing the risks of infection. Using barbless hooks reduces handling time required by the angler to remove the hook versus using barbed hooks. Handling time is a big factor influencing the survival of fish after release. BC is strictly barbless and this is for good reason. Make sure all your lures/flies are de-barbed and remember the conservation officers will check for this.
If you are handling a steelhead here are somethings to be careful of. Use clean, wet hands (take off gloves – especially wool, because they will remove slime and cause damage which leads to infections), and gently support the fish from beneath the head and belly. Also, make sure that your net is catch and release friendly (cradles that keep fish in the water and rubber nets are best).
Use hemostats, pliers, or a hook-removal tool to quickly remove the hook while keeping the fish in the water, and have your pliers ready and available to facilitate a quick release.
Avoid exposing steelhead to air for long periods, even when taking a photo. If you must remove the steelhead from the water, limit it to a maximum of 15 seconds.
If you want a photo of your fish (and who doesn’t want a photo of their first steelhead?), get the camera ready, set up the shot, and then quickly remove the fish from the water, take the photo, and release the fish. If the fish isn’t still dripping water in the photo, it’s been out of the water too long. Another thing to avoid when handling wild steelhead is to not drag it up onto the bank. Keep your catch in at least a few inches of water and especially out of sand.
Touching the gills is extremely dangerous for the fish and can cause damage and impair the ability of a steelhead to breathe. Keep your fingers out of the gills!
Other things to note: Shorter fight times increase survival because a fish fought to exhaustion is more vulnerable to predators. If your fish is thrashing around and risking injury to itself, hover you hand above its eyes to calm it down.
Thanks for taking the time to read about proper release methods. If we all follow these tips, we can ensure more fish in the future.