No matter what your opinion is on the ethics of catch and release fishing, if you choose to chase fish with a fly rod here in Colorado you will have to comply with Colorado Parks and Wildlife catch and release policy. Since a majority of our rivers here in Colorado are catch and release fisheries knowing how to handle fish properly is in your best interest. Understanding how to handle fish and how to release a fish properly takes practice but, if you follow the steps below you can be assured you have the knowledge necessary to allow the fish to swim another day. In no particular order, let's go over tips for proper catch and release fishing.
The term "Keep Them Wet" that has been thrown around numerous times and has been the name of campaigns throughout the fly fishing industry. And, for good reason. Keeping a fish wet is probably one of the most important things you can do when handling a netted fish. You can do this by wetting your hands before handling the fish. Fish of all types have a slime coating that protects them from infection, and aids in their ability to swim through the water. You never want to use a towel or cotton material when handling a fish as these materials will wipe away the slime that coats the fish's entire body and can potentially result in the death of the fish.
Whenever possible, it is best to hold your fish horizontal in and out of the water. If you are holding a fish upside down in or out of the water you will be negatively impacting the swim bladder in the fish. What is a swim bladder? In short, a swim bladder is an internal air sack found in every fish that controls its ability to raise and lower itself in the water.
It is very easy to get caught up in the moment and want to immediately hold your catch, however, it is best practice to remember to always keep your hands and fingers away from a fish's eye and gill plates. By holding or touching these parts of the fish you are placing abnormal pressure on the fish's organs and skeleton structure and can cause long-term damage to the body of the fish. Another thing worth mentioning is never ever touching a fish's gill plate. These delicate red grills make up the fish's respiratory system and if touched or harmed can result in the death of the fish.
The best way to ensure a fish will swim off and live another day is by minimizing the amount of time you spend handling the fish. And, a way to ensure this is the case is by proper hook removal. It is always best to use a pair of forceps when dealing with the hook removal of a fish. By using forceps you are minimizing the amount of stress you place on the fish and you also minimize any of the improper squeezings of the fish. If possible it is even better if you can do this in a rubber landing net. Rubber landing nets come in all types and varieties nowadays and are a great way to ensure your catch is safe and secure without you ever touching it.
After you have done all of the steps mentioned above, you are ready to release your catch. The best way to release a trout or generally any fish is to place them gently headfirst into the current. This will allow fresh, clean, and cold water to enter through their mouth and over their gills. This will make sure the fish is provided with ample oxygen to swim away to live another day. Another note that is worth mentioning is water temperature, during the summer months here in the west it can get pretty warm and that warm weather directly impacts our ability to fish and the survival of fish in a river system. As a general rule, trout are happiest when water temperatures are below 65ºF. Anytime water temperatures in moving water hit 67ºF, STOP FISHING. When water temperatures in moving water are between 65-66ºF we recommend getting out early in the morning and not fishing through the heat of the day. In order to know what the water temperature is it is best to carry with you a thermometer, they are cheap and easy to use. It is one of those things you never want to be caught without during the summer months.
At the end of the day, proper catch and release tactics take practice. However, if you practice each one of these steps you can ensure that the next time you release a fish, that fish will have the best chance at living another day. Another piece of information that is worth adding is keeping up with local and state fishing regulations. As always if you have any lingering questions regarding catch and release regulations either come into the shop or head over to Colorado Parks and Wildlife website.