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Catching and Releasing Trout

Today's anglers can take simple steps to improve the quality of future fishing. Some anglers practice catch-and-release fishing all or much of the time, while others release only sub-legal (undersize) trout. The guidelines below are intended to help anglers reduce mortality of trout that are released. How many of the measures are you using?

  • handle fish as little as possible and release them quickly - do not fight fish to exhaustion
  • minimize or eliminate the time fish are out of the water
  • consider using only artificial lures - their use is mandatory on some waters
  • when a fish is deeply hooked, do not try to remove the hook - clip the leader instead
  • during the warm summer months when stream temperatures are elevated, do not fish for trout if you plan to release them - these fish are already stressed and additional handling may kill them (For additional guidance, check out Help Trout & Salmon Beat the Summer Heat)
  • likewise, do not fish for trout in spring holes when water temperatures are in the mid 70s or higher (especially if you plan to release them)

Special Rules for Taking Trout and Salmon in Deep Water

A moderate steady retrieve will give the fish time to adjust to changes in water pressure. Trout and salmon caught in many cold water lakes are caught in very deep water. Bringing them to the surface is particularly stressful because the fish experiences a substantial reduction in water pressure. At 100 feet deep the pressure per inch is four times greater than at the surface. In this situation it is important not to "horse in" the fish but to bring it to the surface slowly but steadily.

Fish brought up from deep water may need "burping." Burping is a method of expelling excess air from the fish's swim bladder. The drop in pressure causes the swim bladder to expand, increasing the fish's buoyancy and causing it to float belly up. Left in this condition, many fish die as a result of the surface water's warm temperatures or attacks by predators. But in trout and salmon, the swim bladder is connected to the esophagus, making it possible to squeeze excess air out. To do so, hold the fish gently on its side and gently, but firmly, squeeze the belly from the vent toward the head. You will be able to hear the burp as air is expelled from the bladder. Do not squeeze the head and gill area, as that could damage vital organs.

Stimulate the fish to dive deeply. Once burped, the fish should be able to dive down to the deep cold water. But it may require further assistance. Two methods have proved useful in stimulating fish to dive. One is to vigorously thrust the fish, head first, into the water. The slap of the water, and the plunge downward usually stimulates the fish to swim down. Another technique is the "release when recovered" method. Hold the fish gently at the middle of its body with its head pointed downward at a 45 degree angle. In that position a gentle side-to-side motion (or slow speed of the boat if trolling) can be used to move water into the mouth and over the gills. As the fish recovers, it will begin to kick, and slide out of your hand. When its tail passes through your hand, give the tail a quick squeeze. This seems to stimulate the fish's swimming action, causing to dive with more vigor. Remember, the idea is not to catch the tail, but to compress it as it slides through your hand.

When is burping and additional handling needed? Let the fish tell you that. Start by handling the fish as little as possible, i.e., flip it off the hook with needle-nosed pliers. If it is able to recover and returns to the depths, you have avoid a lot of handling. If it is unable to dive, the head first plunge may be enough or burping and the "release when recovered" technique may be required.

Based on fisherman observations landlocked salmon taken from 30 feet deep can be flipped off the hook will do fine. Salmon from 60 feet deep may need some help to recover. Lake trout seem to be more sensitive than salmon. A lake trout brought up from 60 feet will probably need to be burped and given some help to dive back to deep water.

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