Confronting the Catch and Release Dilemma

A little over a week ago I was stopped outside a deli in Ennis, MT waiting for a couple clients to grab lunch. While I waited, I picked up the Spring issue of Outside Bozeman, the cover article of which read: Catch & Release – An Ethic Investigated. Naturally, my interest was piqued and I thumbed my way to the article in the back of the issue. The article, which was framed by a photo of a hooked trout being pulled through the water, presented the idea that catch-and-release, as it is practiced today, has far more negative impacts upon fish populations than most fly fishermen would like to admit. Without going into too much detail (Because I think every angler should read the full piece), the article cited extensive research by Montana’s Department of Wildlife and Parks detailing the impacts of poor catch and release practices upon Southwestern Montana’s trout population. Perhaps the most staggering figure in the entire article was the ‘conservative’ estimate that in SW Montana, a minimum of 100,000 fish die annually after being released, a number which excludes fish caught by outfitters and guiding services. The article then went on to explain further downsides of catch-and-release including debilitating hook injuries, warming water trends, and the idea of ‘delayed’ mortality, but that number just stuck in my head. 100,000 seemed like A LOT!

catch and release

To be fair, I’d never really put much thought into catch and release. It’s something that I’ve been taught to do, just another aspect of the sport that I love. With rare exception, I’ve always assumed that my released fish live on to fight another day and I sleep easy knowing that I’m doing my part for the conservation of the species. However, this article opened my eyes, bringing upon me a degree of guilt which made me uncomfortable. I wondered to myself: What if I’ve been killing fish this whole time? What if I’m part of the problem?

After some self examination and conversation with my wife, who also read the article, I came to terms with myself by examining my own catch-and-release practices. In general, I feel pretty good about the way I release fish. I use a fish friendly net, usually de-barb my hooks, wet my hands before handling a fish, keep the fish in the water as much as possible, and revive the fish thoroughly before letting it go. That, however, is not to say that I don’t have my own faults, and I know that there’ve been times when I have not adhered as strictly to good catch-and-release practices as I should. On those occasions, I wish I could go back in time and kick myself for not releasing a fish sooner, or for holding a fish out of water too long just to get the right picture.


Anyways, with the article read, and a lesson learned, I went back to fishing. Just the next day, my wife, Alina, and I were driving up to the Upper Madison on our day off. We were both moved by the article, and so spent a good deal of the car ride discussing just how we could improve our own catch-and-release practices, especially with regards to taking pictures of fish. We ended up having a great day on the river, catching many fish on nymphs whilst maintaining our new and improved release practices. We left the river that day feeling pretty good about all of the fish we let go, and over the next week of work, the article and its contents slowly left my thinking.


Fast forward one week: Alina and I are back out on the Madison again, this time just above Three Dollar Bridge. We are having a fantastic day on the water, fishing the bank with small ants for hungry browns. After working about a half mile upstream we come across another angler fishing the opposite bank much like us. He too was fishing upstream, and we fished within visual proximity of each other for some time. Before long the angler had a fish on his line. Alina and I proceeded to watch as he held the fish out of the water at waist height to remove the hook, handled the fish with dry hands, snapped a few photos, and then dumped the fish back into the river before moving up to the next good spot, the whole process taking a good 40 to 50 seconds.

The article and the 100,000 dead fish came flashing back into my mind, and I was convinced that I had just witnessed trout murder. Alina and I were both frustrated, but we continued fishing and taking care to release our fish as safely as possible. It wasn’t long though, before the other angler had another fish on, and then another. We watched in horror as each fish fell victim to poor catch-and-release practices. Alina and I vented our frustrations to each other and even entertained the idea of saying something to the other angler, but ultimately decided against it. Eventually we moved on and the other angler left. Overall, We had a fantastic day on the water, but the image of those fish being dumped thoughtlessly back into the river was seared into my mind.


“Anyone who fly-fishes is, by nature, a conservationist.”, this is something my wife’s grandfather, an avid fisherman in his own right, once said. And for most of us who enjoy the sport, I think his saying holds true. We all enjoy beautiful places, pristine rivers, cold and gin-clear waters, and most important of all, we enjoy the fish. Therefore, by our nature and the desire to prolong and improve our sport, we want to protect and conserve these very things which we so enjoy. Doesn’t it follow, that if we are going to release a fish from our net, that we should ensure it has the best chance possible at recovering completely? The answer seems clear to me, but I fear that ignorance and laziness obscures the answer for many anglers who either don’t know better, or who are too eager to get their line back into the water for the next fish.

The last thing that I want to do in writing this is to offend or come across as judgemental. I think that there are few anglers (and I am certainly not among them) who practice perfect catch-and-release all the time. If you are new to the sport, or think that you could stand to learn how to properly land and release a fish, then ask someone more experienced or do some research. Likewise, if you know what you’re doing, don’t be afraid to gently educate others on proper catch-and-release methods. Ultimately, safe catch-and-release is not only our responsibility, but also a responsibility to other anglers, and more importantly, to the fish. Learning to do so may seem a hassle at first, but will ultimately provide a more satisfying experience on the water. To finish, I’d like to offer my own top tips for safe catch-and-release.

keep em wet

  1. Fish Barbless: Take an extra second to remove the barb from your fly. It will allow for smooth and quick hook removal and will decrease the chance of a debilitating hook injury to the fish which might otherwise prove fatal.

  2. Wet Your Hands Before Handling a Fish: Wetting your hands will prevent you from removing the fish’s protective layer of slime. This slime is essential for protection and gas transport, and without it, a fish’s chance at recovery is greatly diminished.

  3. Carry a Fish-Friendly Net: If possible, acquire a rubber-meshed net. The rubber material will preserve more of the fish’s protective slime layer.

  4. Keep the Fish Wet At All Times: Everyone wants a picture of the fish they catch, but it is important to keep the fish in mind during this process. If you are going to remove the fish from the water ensure that you only do so for a few seconds at a time. If the fish is no longer dripping water then it’s time to put the fish back before trying again.

  5. Revive the Fish Before Release: Before you let the fish go, keep the fish in the water facing upstream such that the fish’s gill slits are moving in and out. Like your lungs, the fish’s gills supply oxygen to the fish allowing it to recover from the exhaustion of fighting and being handled by you. I make a point of only letting a fish go once it can swim away on its own.

  6. Carry Forceps: This is a given for most anglers, but can prove essential for safe catch and release. Forceps allow for quick hook removal especially if a fly is hooked deep or awkwardly.

Tight lines!

This piece was written by Alex Garner, a fly fisherman based in Sheridan, Montana. Check out his weekly fishing reports on Amberjack and give him a follow!