Catch-and-release fishing is not exactly my normal cup of tea; anyone who’s watched an episode of our fishing series, Got Bait? has seen me slam the fishbox shut on plenty of victims. But when I’ve caught my share, hooked into a sub-legal fish, or encountered an inappropriate species, I’m very careful about how I get them off the hook and back into the water. Those fish—especially the babies—are the future of our fishery, and we need to treat them right. So this Friday, let’s spend a moment focusing on proper catch-and-release techniques.

releasing a baby tuna

Here's an example of releasing a fish the right way: the baby tuna is being controled by not squeezed, the angler's hands are wet, and he's dropping it into the water head-first.

First off, before you ever touch a fish, get your hands wet. Dry hands—or worse, towels and gloves—remove the fish’s protective coating of slime. Yeah, the slime may feel icky, but it serves an important purpose. Like our immune system, it protects the fish from disease and infection.

Now that your hands are good and damp, remember to handle the fish gently. The fish’s body is used to being supported by water, and in our gaseous atmosphere, it is already physically stressed before you even touch it. If possible, remove the hook while the fish is still in the water. If that’s not an option, make the release as fast as possible. Squeezing or dropping the fish obviously can do some serious damage, too.

Just letting the fish flop around on a hard fiberglass deck is no good, either. The thrashing is enough to start internal bleeding and other damage you don’t see, so it’s important to control the fish as you get the hook out. If you’re catching a species that doesn’t have sharp teeth, like a bass, holding it by the lower jaw is usually your best bet.

When you send the fish over the side of your boat, drop it in head-first. This sends water rushing over its gills, giving it a blast of oxygen. Don’t throw the fish or drop it in on its side, which can send it into shock. And in some cases (billfish being the usual example) you can drag the fish through the water with its mouth open, to help oxygenate its blood and revive it.

Watch a little Got Bait?


Written by: Lenny Rudow
With over two decades of experience in marine journalism, Lenny Rudow has contributed to publications including YachtWorld,, Boating Magazine, Marlin Magazine, Boating World, Saltwater Sportsman, Texas Fish & Game, and many others. Lenny is a graduate of the Westlawn School of Yacht Design, and he has won numerous BWI and OWAA writing awards.