Catch and Release Fly Fishing Techniques

How To Do Catch and Release
Fly Fishing

Why practice catch and release fly fishing?  With the increase in numbers of fly fishermen, sophistication of fly fishing gear and fishing skill, the numbers of wild trout are declining.  It is not uncommon for a reasonably skilled fly fisherman to hook up with 20 to 30 trout a day.  If every one kept a full limit of fish every time they were out fishing, fishery stocks could be almost depleted even with stocking programs.

I am not saying you should not take a trout home or to the campfire to cook occasionally.  But don’t take a full limit home and put them in the freezer where eventually you throw them out after a year.

Whirling disease is present in Colorado and has taken its toll on the wild trout population. Whirling disease seems to infect rainbow and cutthroat more than other species but can infect most salmonid species. Whirling disease is a degenerative disease of the brain and spine in fingerling salmonid fish often leading to death of the infected fish.  The parasite that causes this disease is virtually indestructible and can survive in a stream for 20 to 30 years.  This disease is easily spread by humans, birds and animals. There is no known effects on humans.

Across the country, fish and game departments and in some countries, fishery stocks have been managed by size and bag limits to help prevent depletion of fishery stocks.  Working with fish and game department, we as individual fisherman can help insure future populations of wild trout by practicing catch and release fly fishing.

How do you practice Catch and Release fly fishing?

  1. Use Barbless Hooks
  2. Play the fish quickly
  3. Remove the hook and handle the fish gently
  4. Revive and release the fish

Use Barbless Hooks

Before you even get to the stream, you can start by using barbless hooks to tie your flies.  Or purchase flies tied on barbless hooks.  Most of the better fly shops follow the practice of using this type of hook today.

If you have barbed hooks, take a pair of forceps or needle nosed pliers and bend the barb flat to the hook.  If you keep line pressure on a hooked fish, you will land just as many fish as on barbed hooks.  Using barbless hooks or crimped hooks may take some practice at first but you will soon get the hang of it.

If you have trouble with barbless hooks, simply crimp the barb about half way down to a mini-barb status.  Although this method makes it easier to catch fish, it will make removing a hook from you harder than a full barb.  I say this from personal experience.  So stay with barbless hooks.

Play the Fish Quickly

You have hooked up with a nice fish.  You want to enjoy the fight but still land it quickly enough so the fish has energy to recover.  As a fish fights to get away, they build up an oxygen deficit just as humans do in physical activity.  This lack of oxygen stresses the fish.  Playing a fish too long may prevent it from recovering upon release.

Select the right rod, line and leader size for the fish you are going after.  Playing a large fish on a 7X tippet may take 30 to 40 minutes, if you can keep him on.  Try and pick a rod and leader size that gives the thrill of fighting a fish but still will allow you to land him quickly.  Err on the oversized rod rather than the undersized.

On most occasions, use medium sized tippets and leaders.  I use Rio taped leaders to 4X almost all year then add a 5X extension for a dropper fly early in the year.  If there is discoloration in the water, this combination will serve adequately almost any time.  It will allow you to play and land most fish quickly.

In gin clear water, I may go down to a 6X or a 7X tippet for fishing the smaller streams I prefer.  On a larger stream,  a 6X tippet will generally work even in late summer.  With a proper rod selection, this size tippet will allow you to land a reasonable sized fish quickly.  If you should hook up with a whopper of 8 to 10 pounds, well you may have short but thrilling fight.

Your choice should using a large enough leader to allow you to play the fish aggressively and land it quickly.

When the fish’s head comes out of the water and it no longer sprints off or makes a run, it is just fatigued enough to bring in and let it go.


Remove the hook and handle the fish gently

If possible, remove the hook without removing the fish from the water. Keeping the fish in the water will replenish some of the oxygen lost during the fight.

Generally a trout will be hooked in the upper or lower jaw or in the side of the jaw.  Occasionally a fish will become hooked near the eye or swallow the hook into its throat.  In such a case take a pair of clippers and cut the leader as close to the hook as possible.  Over time, the hook will rust out.  Bronzed or steel hooks rust out faster than stainless steel or gold plated ones.

If you know a fish has been hooked to so that it will probably die upon release, do the humane thing, kill it quickly and take it home to eat.  (Make sure you don’t violate any special regulations on that stretch of water by keeping a fish. Unfortunately some special regulations require you to return a species to the water immediately even if it will probably die.)

Keeping the fish’s head just out of the water, use a pair of forceps or needle nosed pliers try to grasp the hook at the bend.  Then back the hook out.  This is where barbless hooks facilitate removal.

Most fish have a protective “slime” coating.  This coating is a protective shield against parasitic and fungus attacks and is easily damaged by handling or netting.  Gills are another sensitive area.  The gills supply oxygen from the water.  Never grab a fish by the gill plates or gills unless you plan on killing it.

If you must remove a fish from the water to remove the hook, untangle a dropper fly or take a photo, handle the fish gently and return it to the water as soon as possible.

Wetting your hands before picking up a fish  will help to minimize damage to the fish’s slime coating.  If you are using a net, use one with a seamless soft mesh and a shallow bag that minimizes damage to the fish and the slime coating.  Such nets also facilitate revival and release of the fish.

Please don’t use some piece of junk net with that old large green hard knotted netting.

Smaller trout can often be immobilized by picking them up by the lower jaw.  Don’t try this with large trout, pike, musky or other toothy species unless you like the sight of your own blood.  Temporarily immobilize larger trout or other species by gently grasping them around the belly and turning them upside down.  Then use the other hand to remove the hook.

Never squeeze a fish, you may damage it’s internal organs.  Imagine a giant squeezing you and what would happen.  You may especially damage a fishes air bladder that it uses for buoyancy and to keep itself upright.


  • wetting your hands first
  • handling the fish gently
  • protecting the slime coat
  • using a net with a soft seamless or new rubberized bag for netting a fish
  • don’t squeeze a fish or grab by the gills or gill covering
  • grasp just in front of the tail and under the belly just behind the gill coverings.  NEVER insert your fingers into the gill coverings unless you plan on killing the fish.
  • removing the hook as gently as possible will improve the fish’s chances of surviving being caught.


Revive and release the fish

During a long fight, handling and hook removal, a fish can become exhausted and starved for oxygen.  This final stage of Catch and Release can mean the difference for the fish’s survival and death.

First, never throw a fish into the water, you may damage its internal organs.  If it is oxygen starved, you have just added to the stress level and the fish will likely die.  Remember on the “Fly Fishing Etiquette” page, we talked about respect for our quarry.  Throwing a fish into the water is not respectful.

  • Grasp the fish loosely in front of the tail and cradle the belly in your other hand
  • Place the fish in slow water with the head facing the current so it can regain equilibrium and re-oxygenate its self.
  • Do Not rock the fish forward and back so water passes over the gills backwards. Every time water passes over the gills backward, you are suffocating the fish.
  • The fish will tell you when it is ready to go by  swimming away on it’s own.
  • Often a fish may finish its recovery by hiding behind your boots or a nearby rock.

You don’t have to participate in Catch and Release.  But if every fly fisherman will practice some level of Catch and Release, they can help ensure a plentiful stock of fish for future generations to enjoy catching.

Please Do Your Part