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Do Fish Die with Catch and Release or Do they Make it Most of the Time?

A trout with a line getting released in the river.

“Mortality can come about two ways in fish; naturally and through fishing.” – Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission

Yes, many fish die through catch and release, but there are ways to help them make it most of the time. As responsible anglers, we take many precautions to protect our sport, including catch and release fishing when and where necessary.

Answers That Protect Our Sport

A man picking out a hook out of a fish.

How much thought have you put into your C&R technique? Is letting that little fish go or venting a bloated fish having the effects you really want?

We’ve read the studies and reviewed much of the pro-wisdom out there to help you make the most informed choices the next time you question whether or not to keep the fish on your hook. The latest research may surprise you.

  • Why Do Anglers Catch And Release?
  • What Are The Benefits Of Catch And Release Fishing?
  • What Percent Of The Fish We Catch And Release Die?
  • What Percent Of Fish Survive After Being Released?
  • Factors That Increase Fish Mortality Rates
  • Best Practices For A Humane Catch And Release

Why Do Anglers Catch And Release?

Some of us have grown up letting the small fry go. So, C&R is a tradition. Maybe you release in accordance with the fisheries or parks and wildlife regulations where you live. Some fishermen also practice catch and release based on personal ethics.

When C&R Is The Law

A trout getting released in the river from fishing.

While some recreational areas require us to take only fish within a minimum and maximum size limits, have set bag limits or quotas, and practice seasonal C&R standards, others have “no-take” regulations allowing us to sport, but not keep or eat the fruits of our labors. Why is that?

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What Are The Benefits Of Catch And Release Fishing?

C&R laws and the reasoning behind these laws are put in place to promote sustainable fisheries and protect aquatic ecosystems. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, “Properly releasing fish to fight another day helps ensure high-quality angling opportunities today, tomorrow, and in the years to come.”

So, in short, we hope that by releasing certain sizes or species of fish, we are improving conservation efforts and protecting the quality of fish we have access to as anglers in the future.

What Percent Of The Fish We Catch And Release Die?

A person releasing a fish in the water.

Depending on the study, location of the study, and species studied, estimates can be as low as 5% and as high as 20% for catch and release deaths. A study of almost two decades of Marine Recreational Fishery Statistic Survey (MRFSS) data, puts the average post-catch mortality rate around 11%.

Factors That Increase Fish Mortality Rates

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, “After being caught and released by an angler, fish may die for a variety of reasons. The most common causes of death are the physiological stresses caused by the struggle during capture and injuries caused by the hook or the angler.” Even fish that seem perfectly healthy or only injured in very minor ways to our eyes can end up dying shortly thereafter.

For this reason, scientists studying the effectiveness of C&R, collect data on both instant deaths and fish that are released alive but found dead later.

  • Hook Locationhook wounds, even minor ones, can kill fish. These wounds are especially lethal in the gills, guts, or throat and in species like common snook, spotted sea trout, bluefin tuna, summer flounder, striped bass, and cutthroat trout.
  • Time Out Of Water: the longer your catch is out of the water, the higher the lower the chance of survival.
  • Fish Size: for some species being larger when caught decreases survival rates (striped bass). For others, like lake trout, being smaller was associated with higher death rates after release.
  • Fish Species: for example, although blue cod are more likely to be killed by a larger hook, mortality rates of striped bass don’t seem to be affected by hook size.
  • How Quickly You Catch The Fish: the longer your catch has to swallow your bait, the deeper they can swallow it – meaning damage to the gills and gut.
  • Capture Depth: if you’re a fan of red snapper, black sea bass, or red grouper it’s important to note that the deeper you fish, the higher the chance of trauma to the fish.
  • Water Temperature: the higher the temperature, the higher the stress level and the higher the mortality rate for species like walleye, rainbow trout, and Atlantic salmon.
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What Percent Of Fish Survive After Being Released?

A fish swimming underwater in the river.

There’s good news for those of us that practice C&R. An estimated 90% of released fish survive. The chance of survival increases with the proper equipment and handling. Let’s take a look at the factors that increase a catch’s chance to live after we watch it swim off.

Factors That Decrease Fish Mortality Rates

While the jury is still out on the real difference single vs treble hooks make in successful C&R rates, there are some proven factors that we can learn from and implement more thoughtfully.

  • Barbless Hooks: this one just makes sense. The whole purpose behind a barb is to take a tight hold and keep it. Barbless hooks are easier to remove and less likely to cause that deep, harmful trauma.
  • In-line Circle Hooks: compared to J-hooks, circle hooks are more likely to catch a hook in the mouth and more shallowly. That means an easier removal and a faster release.
  • Cutting The Line: when the hook is just buried in there, sometimes cutting the line is the best you can do. Many fish will be able to shed the embedded hook themselves, but not many will be able to repair the damage done when trying to remove it.
  • Venting: puncturing an inflated swim bladder can help a fish survive. Signs like bulging eyes, bloating, and lifted scales can all mean barotrauma. You can alternatively release the fish at depth with descenders, weights, or release baskets.
  • Active, Or Fast Captures: the quicker you go from initial nibble to released on their way, the more chance you give that fish to live.
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Best Practices For A Humane Catch And Release

A fisher man holding a fishing rod releasing a trout.

Now that we’ve gone over some of the factors that affect whether fish will die or survive after catch and release, here are a few more tips and tricks to up your C&R game. Some of these are simply common sense. The rest are just plain simple.

  • Keep ‘Em Wet: limit the time your fish spends out of the water. Make it 60 seconds max.
  • Use A Large, Rubber Landing Net: not only can you keep the fish in the water, but you can decrease how much it’s handled and give it a safe place to revive.
  • Match Your Tackle To Your Target: know what you are fishing and make sure your rod, leader, and tippet are right for the game you are going for.
  • Skip The Stainless Steel: according to NOAA, non-stainless steel hooks are more likely to corrode and fall out on their own.
  • Go For The Gentle Release: I remember literally tossing anything that wasn’t a “keeper” back into the water growing up. The better way is to gently keep the fish upright in the water, facing into the current, until it’s alert and strong enough to swim off on its own.