Catch and Release

Bob Cottrell

Catch and release is a subject dear to my heart. I have been fishing for more than 55 years and I can assure you that it was never a subject talked about those many years ago.

In fact, fishing in my youth was more of a necessity than a sport. Every fish caught was utilized as food. Licences were unheard of, limits were large and muscle power rather than horsepower was the affordable way to move a boat. Most boats, called punts, were built in the backyard and every spring were taken to the river and sunk so the wood would expand and stop the leaks. Rods, reels, lines, lures and baits were not very sophisticated, but we did catch fish and lots of them. No one thought there would be an end to it.

During my early teens, we no longer caught limits every time we went fishing. There was also talk for the first time about pollution and that it might not be safe to eat fish from the river daily. The words pollution, habitat destruction, over-fishing, licensing, reduced limits, milfoil weed, zebra mussels, conservation and catch and release started to be bantered about.

In 35 years, since these words started to be used, we have still not moved far enough along the road of conservation and catch and release. The vast majority of us still think it is our God-given right to utilize our fishing resource to its maximum. Our excuse is that we pay a significant amount of money for fishing licences, rods, reels, lines, lures, boats, motors, insurance, fuel, camping fees, travel, etc., and we should receive something material for these expenses. And we should!

But first we must consider the generations that will follow us. We must teach them that the resource is not limitless. How best to do this? By setting an example. Is it okay to keep a feed of fish? Sure it is! But we don't need to keep several limits. We can no longer make the argument that sportfishing reduces our grocery bill. I'm not sure it did when I was a child. I know my father thought it did, and we threw a great deal of fish in the freezer. Today, I can purchase fish from the fish monger for far less than I can catch them for myself. So why do I continue to fish? It's exciting, it gets my mind off life's problems, it stimulates my brain as I think of ways to outwit the next fish, it keeps me physically active, it allows me to socialize with those of a like mind, it lifts my spirits, it energizes me, it gives me satisfaction and it satisfies my primal urges.

Do these reasons of mine sound like other sports or endeavors that give an individual a sense of contentment? I think so. So why don't we just admit it, fishing is a sport. Is it not time that we start treating it like one? If we are ready to concede that what we do is a sport, then how can we start changing our own fishing activities into a true sport? What follows are some thought provoking ideas on how we can accomplish the transition from harvesters to true sportsmen and women:

Catch and Release

What do we really know about catch and release? Do we know how to practice it? What are we trying to accomplish by doing it? First, let's define what catch and release is trying to accomplish. It is a method of handling fish that reduces trauma and shock caused by the injury sustained by the hook being physically touched by the fisherman, oxygen deprivation, fear, removal of its protective coating and removal from its environment. One of the latter can cause a fish to bleed out and all can cause a fish to go into shock and die. So how does a proper catch and release technique lower the risk of possible death to fish? All fish that are not going to be weighed and/or photographed must be kept in the water and they should never be touched. Those fish that you wish to weigh or photograph must be kept in the water for a period of time that is long enough for them to recover from oxygen deprivation. Also, the hook should be removed in the water.

A good analogy for oxygen deprivation would be: an olympic athlete runs the marathon and at the finish line someone chokes them. Very few of the olympians would survive. Removing a fish from the water at the end of a fight chokes them and very few can survive this trauma. A hoop net does not work well as it puts the fish in an unnatural position and it is much more difficult to extract a fish and not remove its protective coating. The best net is a fish cradle. It should be long enough so that the species being targeted fits entirely into the net. One end should be closed, the netting should be weighted so it sinks, the frame of the net should float, must have a weigh rope and be made of a material that does not easily remove the fish's protective coating.

Handling Fish

There is definitely a right and wrong way to handle fish. First and foremost, they should be touched as little as possible. I often watch in horror as fish are grabbed behind the head at the gill plate. The reason they are held there is the thumb and middle finger will slip under the gill plate and they can be held firmly. Have someone with large hands grab you behind the head at the neck and squeeze hard. Now, relate that to a struggling fish and ask yourself, how many will be injured or killed using this technique?

The next method, commonly used, is to gill a fish. This method requires an individual to slide his fingers along the bottom of the gill plate, pull the gill plate open and then slide the fingers up inside the plate, without putting their fingers in the gill rakers, and lifting the fish from the water. The gill rakers are very delicate and can easily be damaged. You can't avoid coming in contact with them when using this method. When the fish is removed from the water the gill plate supports its entire weight. When the fish thrashes you can hear the cartilage breaking. Not many fish can survive this kind of trauma. Get someone to stand on a chair and put his four fingers under the side of your jawbone and try to lift you.

The next method commonly used is called lipping the fish. New lipping devices have been developed so this can now be accomplished on fish with teeth. Have someone stand on a chair and put their thumb inside your mouth and their fingers under your jaw and attempt to lift you off the floor. Just imagine your entire weight being suspended from your jaw. To hang a fish by its gill plate or lip puts it in a very unnatural position with no buoyancy from the water. A fish's internal organs can be damaged as the fish thrashes and even though it swims away, when released, it will later die.

Next comes the most used method of handling fish of all netting. The vast majority of fishermen net their fish then drop them on the bottom of the boat. Without giving the fish a chance to recover, it is being strangled. Putting it on the bottom of the boat allows it to thrash in an environment that will cause it injuries and remove most of its protective slime. Very few fish will survive this type of handling. I've talked to many people about this subject and the majority of responses I receive are: Well, it's only a fish. Fish don't feel pain. There's lots of them, what if a few of them die. I don't care. Ah, you don't know what you're talking about. We've got enough problems to deal with.

Do you know anybody who cares? It seems, by these responses, that we have a long way to go to change the attitude of those who think this way. Does a fish feel pain? Honestly, I don't know. But I do know that when I have finished fighting a fish and I bring it to the boat, it looks at me with its eyes, it looks towards the water where freedom and life are, and it still continues to struggle with whatever energy it has remaining. This confirms in my mind that a fish is a living creature that deserves our respect and compassion. If it is to be utilized, dispatch it quickly. If it is to be released, handle it properly.


These are probably the biggest survival factor for a fish. Hooks cause more damage than any other item in your tackle box. We have lures with multiple treble hooks of various sizes. The larger the hook, the greater potential for serious damage. Multiple hooks are hard to remove, often hook a fish in more than one place, and seem to have an attraction for the fish's eyes. A badly injured fish will bleed out in two minutes or less. If you are into a good bite, keep the fish that are bleeding badly and release those that are not.

What can we do to reduce the carnage caused by hooks? Require that our legislators ban barbed hooks, treble hooks and multiple hooks. If we want our sport to be known as a true sport then we need to demand that single barbless hooks be made mandatory. Oh, I can hear the outcry already: I'll lose too many fish. It's too hard to hook up a fish. They cause just as much damage as treble hooks. My lure won't perform as well. If I have to use them I will quit fishing. It will cost the manufacturers too much money to change over. Believe me when I say, I have used every one of those excuses myself.

Then, I was put into a position of having to use single barbless and single treble barbless hooks. I guided fishermen for steelhead trout and salmon on the Stamp River on Vancouver Island, for several years. For the past two years I have been guiding on Lake Athabasca for giant lake trout and northern pike. The Stamp River was restricted to single barbless hooks only. At first it was a challenge to keep a hard-fighting, tail walking fish like a steelhead or Coho salmon on a barbless hook. But like anything new, it's a learned skill and after a few frustrating losses, I became proficient with the barbless hook and was bringing to the boat or shoreline as many as I would normally have caught using single or treble barbed hooks. The outfitter I work for on Lake Athabasca requires that their guides and clients use only single barbless and barbless treble hooks. Having used both for the past two seasons, my findings are as follows: four out of 10 lake trout and six out of 10 northern pike were seriously injured when using barbless treble hooks.

The damage was greater to the northern pike because they are so much more aggressive and virtually inhale the lures. The inhalation of the treble hook caused many to become hooked in the gill rakers. The mortality of these gill-raker hooked fish was nearly 100 per cent. In comparison, the single barbless hook seriously damaged just one in 20 lake trout and two in 20 northern pike. A big plus was the easy removal of the single barbless hooks.

Another study I conducted was reducing the size of hooks used. When single barbless hooks were reduced in size, the amount of hook-ups remained the same but serious injury was reduced to one in thirty-five. Therefore, I was able to conclude that there was a direct relationship between hook size and serious injury. To support the single barbless hook movement you must be willing to commit to learning a new skill.

Learning for many of us is frustrating particularly as we age and our eyesight begins to fail us, our motor skills start to diminish and our willingness to learn new tasks decreases. We want things to remain the same because change is not easy to accept. If we don't change, we can look forward to further size reductions in the fish we catch, greater restrictions on catch limits, higher costs, less opportunity to fish and all resulting in fewer people using the resource.

Now some would say, "Great!"to the last statement. But security of the resource is provided in numbers. Fewer fish, less revenue; less revenue, less government funding for the resource; less government funding, fewer stocking programs and enforcement; fewer stocking programs and enforcement, no fish; no fish, no fishermen and millions of kids deprived of a recreational activity that is second-to-none. As the responsible adults of our time, we have to make the right decision. Which one will you make?

Bob Cottrell is a guide for Laker's Unlimited ( Bob and his daughter also make custom-made fish cradles.

Contact Bob at or at
P.O. Box 105,
Ryley, AB., T0B 4A0.


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