Proper Handling Helps Fish Thrive after Catch and Release

Proper Handling Helps Fish Thrive after Catch and Release
Proper Handling Helps Fish Thrive after Catch and Release

Getting caught can be very stressful for fish; follow these helpful fish-care tips to improve health and survival rates

Summer is arguably the most popular time to fish as muggy, hot days push people to the water for relief and relaxation.

Many anglers, especially those who seek game fish such as black bass, trout or striped bass, release their catch.

“Catch and release works and is a good thing,” said Dave Dreves, assistant director of fisheries for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “But, if you don’t handle the fish properly, your good intentions can be reversed.”

Fish have a protective slime coat that acts as part of their immune system. Protecting this slime coat is of the utmost importance when handling fish.

“Fish are surrounded by pathogens all of their lives in the water they inhabit,” Dreves said. “The slime coat is their protection.”

A fish gripper is an essential tool for handling fish with ease and doesn’t harm them. They provide exceptional control of the fish by latching on to its lower lip. “They are a great thing, especially on toothy fish such as walleye, for getting hooks out of fish without touching them,” Dreves said. “They also keep people from squeezing a fish too hard which can damage internal organs.”

Some models with calibrated scales cost a pretty penny, but many on the market simply hold the fish and cost less than $20, with some less than $10.

“These devices keep people from handling a fish with a towel,” Dreves said. “I can’t imagine anything much worse you can do to a fish than using a towel to hold them. You must protect, not remove, the slime coat.”

If you must handle a fish with your hands, wet them first. Dry human skin strips off the fish’s slime coat. “Also, if you plan to measure its length, wet the measuring board before placing the fish on it,” Dreves said. “Make sure to keep the measuring board out of the sun. They can get really hot.”

Secure the fish when landing it. Do not allow the fish to flop around on the bank or in the bottom of a boat. This not only removes the protective slime coat, but may cause injuries.

Anglers who catch a big largemouth bass or hybrid striped bass usually want a photo to commemorate the event. “You see these anglers on fishing shows sometimes hold their fish out of the water for way too long when talking to the camera,” Dreves said. “If I am fumbling around for a fish scale or a camera, I either put the fish back in the water while I hold it or I drop it in the livewell. A fish out of water can’t breathe.”

Livewells work great for keeping fish alive, but in summer they can be a potentially lethal environment for fish if proper procedures are not followed.

“Warmer water holds less dissolved oxygen,” Dreves said. “Because of the heat and the lower levels of dissolved oxygen, summer is a highly stressful time on fish in a livewell.”

Dreves explained the most important thing is to cool the water first after pumping it in from the lake. Two frozen 1/2-gallon jugs of water will cool a 30-gallon livewell about 10 degrees for roughly three hours.

“Then, you need to recirculate the water in the livewell to avoid pulling hot lake water back into the livewell,” he said. “You also don’t want to cool it more than 10 degrees.”

Enter “Keeping Your Bass Alive” in the search box in the top right corner of the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife’s homepage at for complete details on proper livewell procedures for summer bass tournaments.

“Plus, if you plan to keep fish to eat, it is much better to place those fish in a cooler with ice right away than in a hot livewell,” Dreves said.

Light tackle is fun and produces a lot of fish. But, ultralight rods and 4-pound line are not the best choices for the stressful times of summer if you plan to release the fish. “Some say light tackle is more sporting, but getting the fish in hand as quickly as possible is best for the fish’s health in summer. Long battles are not good for them when it is hot.”

Employing catch and release helps ensure good fishing for future generations, but sloppy techniques can cancel out the benefit of this practice in summer.

Editor’s Note: Author Lee McClellan is a nationally award-winning associate editor for Kentucky Afield magazine, the official publication of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. He is a life-long hunter and angler, with a passion for smallmouth bass fishing.

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