Catch and Release Season

General guidelines for catching and releasing fish to minimize harm

By Rob Breeding

While it may seem hard to believe, fishing season is upon us. Boat ramps are still icy and access to many sites may still be blocked by frozen berms of plowed snow, but this will change soon enough as spring temperatures finally arrive.

Down south in the Bitterroot the skwala hatch has been delayed by the preponderance of solid water in the river. As the ice thaws,  and if that thawing doesn’t result in an early high-water event, Montana’s earliest dry fly hatch could be on at anytime.

This is still the whitefish season on the Bitterroot, however, so trout need to go back. That almost doesn’t need to be said, so complete is the adoption of catch-and-release by Montana anglers and guides. But this time of the year catch-and-release isn’t merely a suggestion. It’s the law.

Which makes this as good a time as any to remind ourselves of proper catch-and-release techniques. Executed properly, catch-and-release allows most trout to swim away with little harm. Too many fish, however, are mishandled to the point they swim away seemingly healthy, only to die hours later.

Here are some general guidelines for catching and releasing fish:

— Use barbless hooks. These hooks leave a smaller hole and since there’s no barb, will often back out when anglers simply release tension on the line. And since barbless hooks are easy to remove, the fish barely needs to be handled. If the fish isn’t photo worthy, leave the netted trout in the water and reach in with a hemostat to back out the hook. Which leads me to …

— Use a net. And not any old net. You need one with soft rubber mesh that is increasingly popular, albeit a little pricey. That soft rubber net is essential, however. It isn’t abrasive against the scales of the fish, and the clear types are less visible so they don’t as readily spook fish.

— Use two hands. By that I mean hold the fish with two hands when you’re posing for the grip-and-grin shot you’ll post on social media. I see far too many photos these days in which the angler is holding a fat trout with a single mitt. If it’s a fatty you’ll see the flanks of the trout fold around that single hand. One hand makes for a more dramatic Instagram post, but what you don’t see is the way this grip puts added pressure and strain on the fish’s internal organs. Two hands may require you do something awkward with your rod, like place the cork handle in your teeth, but the trout’s insides will appreciate your ingenuity.

— Use a quick trigger finger. That’s the trigger finger on your camera, by the way. Keep the fish in the net and in the water until your photographer is ready to shoot, then lift the leviathan with two hands for the photo. Lift, smile, then return your trophy to the drink as quickly as possible.

— Use heavier tippets. Sometimes the only leader fine enough to draw a strike is 7X, but such conditions are rare. I used to take pride in how light I could fish, but these days I get more of a rise when I go heavy instead, and still manage to fool fish. Once hooked, the heavier tippet allows you to play the fish more quickly, and shorter battles mean easier recoveries for released trout.

— Use wet hands. If you do have to handle a fish, wet your hands first. Dry hands remove the fish’s slime layer, and that leaves them more susceptible to infection.

— Use your head. The antis are coming for catch-and-release. Always remember you’re an ambassador for the angling community. Ugly displays of mishandling or disrespecting fish when there’s an audience nearby makes us all look bad, and lends ammunition to enemies of anglers and hunters.

Rob Breeding writes and teaches when he’s not fishing or hunting.