Ideally, we will keep all trout in the water. But we all know this will never happen. We can not stop fishermen from wanting photos with their trout or from hauling them up onto the banks for a more convenient release. What we can do is educate each other on the most humane ways to catch, control and release the trout we praise so much.
I am the first to admit that I make mistakes. I have mishandled trout, kept them out of the water too long or use a little too much force to remove a stubborn hook.
But, importantly, I have learned from these errors and wherever possible I try to eliminate and never repeat them. I admire trout; I enjoy watching them feed, and I equally enjoy catching them. Sometimes they anger and frustrate me. Most important of all, I want them to swim away safely.
I am going to share my experiences and knowledge here on how best to handle and release fish I love most. Trout fishermen rarely agree on much, but one thing none of us want to see is a recently caught trout floating away belly up.
Avoid the Gills.
Never put your fingers in or anywhere near the gills of a trout. Trout have very sensitive gills, and the area is full of blood vessels. Even the slightest damage can prove to be fatal. When the water is warm, above 20c any bleeding from the gills is normally a death sentence.
If the hook is in a trouts gills, consider keeping it. If you must release the trout, then cut the line or shaft of the hook and leave it in place. Removing a hook from the gills nearly always kills a trout. Leaving it in, gives the trout a fighting chance.
Water is the trouts friend.
Trout love water, how we love air. A trout out of water suffocates how a person under water drowns. We must keep trout in the water as much as possible. Trout breathe through their gills, for them to survive they must have water flowing through them.
Before handling a trout, WET your hands. This helps protect the slimly mucus membrane which protects the trout’s skin. Without it they can suffer from fungal and other infections. Never handle a trout with dry hands and avoid tailing gloves.
Wither sun gloves damage trout is a topic of much controversy, at the minimum wet them before handling trout. But it is probably a good idea to remove them.
Rubber gloves, like the ones worn in the winter for warmth, are much gentler on the trout’s protective slime. Like all gloves, they should be wet before handling trout you plan on releasing.
Trout do not belong on the shore.
Try and not lay your freshly caught trout on the ground. Warm and dry sand, rocks, and vegetation all have the potential to remove a trout’s protective slime. Trout belong in the water, not on the beach. Nothing will damage a trout’s skin faster than flapping about on hot gravel.
Barbless hooks save trout
Barbless hooks, or simply pinching down the barb of existing hooks not only speeds up the time it takes to release a trout, it also greatly reduces hook damage. It does not matter the size, style or number of hooks. Barbless is the best option for catch and release.
Trout are not your squeeze tool, minimise handling.
It should go without saying, minimize touching and handling any trout you plan on releasing. Do not take it out of the water for extended photo sessions. Do not carry it up to the campsite to show your kids prior to release.
When handling trout, be gentle. Do not squeeze them, do not stab fingers into their guts. Most definitely do not give them a whack to stun them and stop the wiggling prior to release.
Rather than holding a trout tightly, use your hands just to support and guide it. There is no need to squeeze its last meal out.
Holding trout upside can calm them.
If your trout is still a bit feisty and full energy. One trick is to try and hold the trout upside down. In that position they become so passive and much less likely to damage themselves thrashing about. With the trout feeling calmer, it is much easier to remove the hook.
Take photos quickly
When photographing trout, do it quickly and keep them wet. If you must lift it out of the water, make sure your hands are wet and have the camera ready. Lift the trout out of the water, pose, then return the trout to the river. It should not be out of the water for more than five seconds.
For more details on how to photograph trout to minimise stress, check my guide here.
Use the correct tools to speed up the release.
There are many tools and accessories which can greatly speed up the time it takes to release a trout. The two most basic, and essential for all serious fishermen are a rubberized net and some forceps.
Rubberised nets are great, not only do nets allow you to catch and land fish much faster. The rubberized design is smooth, and the lack of knots protects the trout’s slimy membrane as much as possible. As added bonus, hooks are significantly less likely to tangle. While far from essential, nets with built in scales is the kindest and quickest way to weigh a fish.
Forceps, or a simple pair of pliers, make removing hooks much faster. I like long nose ones in case I have to reach deep into the trout’s mouth to remove a hook. Other useful features found on some pliers is a set of wire cutters. They make it possible to cut through a hook shank.
There are many other hook removal tools on the market I have used most over the years. They all work sometimes. But, the majority of the time, forceps are simply faster. This is a case of the simplest solution being the best one.
Do not prolong the fight
Try to fight and land the trout as quickly as possible. The longer the fight goes on the more stress and exhausted the trout will become. No matter how much fun, do not unnecessarily prolong a fight. This just tires the fish out and slows down its recovery.
Part of ending a fight quickly is by using as heavy a line and tackle you can get away with.
Revive and Release
With the hook removed, and photos taken, it is time to release the trout. Hopefully, the trout will be full of energy, and will dart away the moment it is free.
Gently place the trout into the water, with its head facing into the current. This allows the oxygen rich water to flow through its gill reviving it.
Gently stabilise the fish, until you feel it kick. Then release and watch him swim away. Sometimes trout, rest for a while nearby before darting away.
Also take one second to make sure there are no opportunistic predators lurking in the shallows. It will be a bad feeling to release your trout only for it to become the meal of a shag or bass lurking nearby.