With the growing popularity of fishing in America, more and more people are out there to catch a few fish. If everyone kept every fish caught, pretty soon we wouldn’t have any fish left. The population of humans has far outpaced the ability of nature to produce enough fish for all of us. We must therefore share our fish. A well handled fish can be revived and released to fight another day. Many guides know the fish in their streams personally, and can catch the same fish over and over through the years, if the fish are well cared for. Careless handling will kill a fish just as surely as a pan of hot oil. There are few basic principles that are easy to follow that will maximize the fishes’ chances of living a long healthy life. Scientific studies have shown that properly handled fish have an excellent chance of surviving, and the angling mortality can be as low as 2 or 3 percent.
Always handle fish gently. They have evolved to live in water, which supports their weight. Fish have bones to support their tissues, but their bones are pretty small and thin, because water normally helps to support them. If you squeeze a fish you will break his bones and crush his internal organs.
The slime coating protects fish from disease and parasites. If you wipe it off, he will get a variety of skin diseases and will probably die. If you see a fish with big white blotches, that is a fungal infection he acquired from being handled too roughly. If it covers enough of his body, he will die. Try not to touch the fish if you can avoid it. Use a soft-meshed landing net, not one of the cheap coarse nylon nets. Coarse meshed nets will damage the fishes’ skin. If you must touch the fish to get the hook out, always wet your hands first. Dry hands will take off the slime. Never drag the fish up onto the bank and let him flop around. He will injure himself and rub off all the slime. Even grass does some damage, but not as much as gravel and rocks. If a fish is hooked deeply, so that you cannot get the hook out easily, just cut the leader. The hook will work its way out or rust away eventually, and the fish will have a better chance of surviving than if you have to dig around in his gullet with your pliers.
Try to keep the fish in the water if you can. He breathes water, not air, and every moment out of the water he is suffocating. Try to hold your breath for as long as you are holding his head out of the water. If you need to breathe, so does he.
Fighting against a fisherman’s rod is exhausting work. When you get a fish to your net, he will be very tired, and will have built up lactic acid in his tissues. He needs to rest a bit before going back to fighting the currents. It is a good idea to hold the fish upright in the water, facing into the current for a few minutes. Some people recommend reviving the fish for as long as you played him. In any event, hold him there with the water flowing over his gills until he is strong enough to swim away from your hands. If he falters and starts to drift again, net him and revive him a while longer. If you are in still water, a lake or pond with no current, move the fish back and forth to force water over his gills. Do not stick your thumb in his mouth like a bass fisherman, it will block the flow of water to his gills. For that matter, never try to pick up a trout by the lower jaw, like a bass, because his jaw is not strong enough to handle the weight. His jaw will break, and you have killed him.
Trout are wild creatures not designed for interacting with fishermen, so we have to take care of them if they are to survive our encounters. If you treat them with respect and handle them as gently as a fine southern maiden, they will have the best chance of living to fight again another day.