Catch and release is an important conservation tool to protect the quality of our wild fisheries. If all anglers, were to keep all that they catch the quality of some fisheries will quickly collapse. Rainbow trout streams are especially vulnerable to overfishing.
Below, I share my opinion on what I consider are the best spinners, lures, and flies to use for catch and release trout fishing. This opinion is based on my personal experience, numerous discussions with other anglers and heavily influenced by several scientific studies I have read over the years.
Many factors contribute to fatalities in released trout. Under certain conditions and presentations, the lethality of different lures can change. So this is my educated guess on what represents the best lures to use for catch and release.
Best trout lures for catch and release fishing
These are the lures I feel have the lowest trout mortality.
I have never had a trout swallow a nymph. I suspect they quickly realize their mistake and go to spit them out. Because the Nymphs are so small and light, they are unlikely to penetrate until the hook pushes against the wall of the trout’s mouth. This results in most Nymph caught trout getting caught in the jaws or forward in the mouth.
Now, I mostly have experience fishing nymphs with a fly line. But I can not see why fishing a nymph beneath a float will have any higher mortality rates.
Dry flies and nymphs have a lot in common, the small ones are so tiny and lightweight that they are less likely to penetrate a trouts mouth until they get jammed against something solid like the jaws.
Larger Dryflies. Say, #6 and bigger in my experience are more likely to be hook deeper. But due to being single hooks, they are still unlikely to do serious damage unless it penetrates the gills.
Rapala / Jerkbait
I know this is going to be controversial. But there is enough evidence out there that Rapala’s and other jerkbaits have a very low mortality rate. This happens for several reasons, the main one being the side to side wobble makes it very likely for the lure to hook into the jaws before the trout has time to swallow it.
Having multiple treble hooks also reduces the likelihood of the lure getting deep enough to cause serious damage. For this reason, unless regulations dedicate, I do not suggest changing the hooks to singles.
While, Jerkbaits have a very low mortality rate, they can cause more damage to a trouts mouth. Especially if multiple points end up penetrating. For this reason alone, they are slightly less suitable for catch and release than the above flies.
In this category, I also include the erratically dancing Flatfish and the Australian lures such as the Tasmanian Devil or the Trillian Cobra. The tiny jerkbaits with a single treble hook tend to be taken deeper, and more resemble an inline spinner or spoon.
For advice and recommendations on fishing jerk baits for trout check my guide here.
Inline Spinner / Spoon single hook
These are classic lures for catching trout. But both styles tend to swim straight and trout often take them deep. The weight of the lures is sufficient to hook the trout deep. For this reason, for catch and release fishing it is essential to fish these with single hooks.
In lakes and still water environment, the lures are even more likely to be take deep because they do not have the force of the water influencing the swimming action.
Follow the link for advice and recommendations on fishing in-line spinners for trout.
Streamers and wet flies
In my experience, streamers have the highest mortality rate of any fly. Now, how you fish them can have an influence on how and where trout get hooked. If you retrieve them in a straight line, trout are more likely to swallow them deeply. This can result in higher numbers of trout getting caught in the gills.
If you fish them erratically, they trout are less prone to taking them deep. Streamers are soft, and lifelike so it is not surprising that trout are more likely to try and swallow them.
Moderate – Avoid in fragile fisheries
These lures are likely to lethally injure around 10% of all trout caught. Although, there are many variables that can influence this.
Inline Spinner / Spoon treble hook
Treble hooks result in a lot more deep hooking of trout. This greatly increases the chance of a trout getting caught in the gills.
Trebles are particularly lethal when fished in Stillwater.
Soft Plastic lures
These lures are extremely lifelike, and soft. With the addition of artificial scents, trout are likely to eat them. Even fishing with single hooks can cause high mortality rates.
Unscented lures, kill fewer trout than scented ones. That is something to keep in mind when heading to that backcountry fishery.
Poor – Do not use for catch-and-release trout fishing
The classic night crawler beneath a float is a very deadly bait for trout. Bait is real trout food, so it is no surprise that trout will try to swallow it. Removing a swallowed hook, nearly always kills the fish. If you are fishing bait, and have to release a trout, then cut the line. The trout is much more likely to survive. But releasing a trout with a hook still inside them is far from ideal.
This category also includes live fishing minnows, and basically any other form of fishing with real bait.
Soft Plastic – Lifelike baits
These baits do not resemble small fish, but usually resemble tiny insects, eggs, and other sorts of bugs. The combination of lifelike appearance, softness, and scent makes them comparable to real bait. Only fish this style of bait with the intention of keeping a few for the pot.
Other factors contribute to trout mortality when catch and release fishing.
There are many variables that can increase trout mortality of trout which we release. I am going to quickly summarise a few below.
Barbed vs Barbless
There is no controversy here. Barbless hooks kill fewer trout. It is always worthwhile to pinch down the barbs. Doing so reduces the amount of tearing when removing the hook, and it also makes the hook much faster to remove.
Adding artificial scent to any type of lure increases the chance of a trout trying to swallow it. The deeper a hook gets the greater the chance of it penetrating somewhere delicate.
Larger trout have bigger mouths, and they are more capable of swallowing lures than smaller trout.
A small lure is more likely to be swallowed deep. While a big lure, covered in hooks, is less likely to be swallowed.
Lures which swim with a wide wobble, are more likely to hook a trout in the mouth. Lures which swim straight are more likely to be taken deeper.
The size of the hook can also influence how early it penetrates a trout, and how much damage it does. Smaller hooks are more likely to be swallowed deeper, but at the same time they do less damage during removal and require more pressure to set which increases the chance of a jaw hooking. I can not recommend what the optimal hook size is.