Catch and Release is the practice of catching and quickly and safely releasing the trout to live another day. Many fly fishermen practice this religiously to preserve this sport and this privilege we've been given. In this section, we'll walk through hooking, fighting, landing and releasing the trout.
Hooking a Trout
When discussing how to set the hook, there are basically two different situations to address…surface flies and subsurface flies.
Hands down, surface flies are the easiest to fish. This is simply because with dry flies you can see your fly floating on the surface so you can actually see the trout rise to your fly. But even so, it is easy for an excited angler to overreact to a strike and attempt to set the hook too quickly. When you see the trout rise, wait for the fly to disappear in the trout’s mouth before you set the hook. Be careful not to set the hook too forcefully or you may pull it right out of the trout’s mouth. On the other hand, if you don’t set it hard enough you may not firmly lodge it and the fish could throw the hook while maneuvering to set itself free. It is a “feel” that you will acquire with practice.
Fishing a subsurface fly, such as a nymph, is a different story. In this situation, by the time the angler feels the strike, the fish has probably already had the fly in its mouth long enough to determine whether it is a meal or whether to spit it out so you must set the hook immediately. Many fly fishermen lose opportunities because they don’t know if a ”bump” in the line is a strike or the fly bouncing off the stream bed. A strike indicator may help, but you must pay close attention to it. The moment the indicator pauses or bobs, you must set the hook. You will experience many false sets with this method but again, you will get the feel in time.
Fighting a Trout
The goal in fighting a trout is to land it as quickly as possible so as not to exhaust the fish so much that it cannot be revived and returned to the water. You want to control the fish and land it quickly. The trout’s goal is to free itself and it will do everything in its power to attempt this. When you hook a fish, chances are good that it is going to run. The main thing you need to do at this point is to keep the line taught at all times and do not allow any slack in the line. Control the line with either the index or middle finger (or both) of your rod hand by holding it against the grip. Keep the line tight between you and the fish but let it run. You don’t want to prevent the run or you may snap your leader.
With your reel you can help with line control by either adjusting the drag on your reel and/or using a technique called “palming”. Palming is simply placing your palm against the rim of the reel to apply additional pressure on a hooked fish. Palming is a simple technique but you must be careful of the reel's handle as the fish tears line off the reel. The spool can spin at a very fast rate and the handle can bruise your hand.
As you are fighting the fish, make sure to pump the rod and try to keep the fish off guard by working the rod from side to side. Lift the rod tip to pull the fish closer. Then quickly reel in the line you have gained as you lower the rod tip toward the fish again. Lift the rod tip again to bring the fish closer, and continue the pumping action all along reeling in the extra line. If the fish jumps, lower the rod tip toward it to give it some momentary slack for its jump.
Landing a Trout
When you have the fish under control and you can see the fish is tiring, reel in enough line so you can reach out to the fish or get your net under it (this will depend on the size of the trout). Keep the rod tip high. To subdue larger fish that you plan to release, use a net made of soft material that will not hurt the fish, and keep it in the water if you can. Today’s better quality nets are made of a thicker rubber that will not only minimize the harm to the trout but also will minimize your chances of getting your hook caught in the mesh.
Releasing a Trout
I’m a big fan of catch and release. Many people ask why I fish so much when I never keep any of the trout. They’ll just never understand until they experience it for themselves. I fish for the thrill of the hunt. Period.
When releasing a trout, please avoid touching it as much as possible. Trout have a natural body slime that protects it from disease, etc. Each time you handle a fish, you will remove a portion of this protective coating which is detrimental to its health. If you must handle the fish, please wet your hands thoroughly first to remove or minimize any oils, lotions, insect repellent, etc that may be on your hands. If at all possible, please do not remove it from the water. If you want to photograph the fish (as many of us do), please make sure the photographer is ready to snap the picture the instant you lift it from the water and return it back to the water promptly.
To release the trout from your hook, slide your hand down the leader, grab the hook (preferably barbless) with your forceps and twist it free. If your fly is deep in the fish's mouth, you will definitely need to use a pair of forceps to retrieve it. Be careful not to rip and tear at the hook or spend too much time in trying to dislodge it. The longer you try, the more trauma you will cause to the fish. In this situation, it is probably more prudent to snip the leader near the fish's mouth and let it swim free; the hook will most likely corrode away in time.
Practicing catch and release will allow the fish to live another day and will provide the opportunity for other fellow anglers to continue to enjoy fly fishing for years to come.