Safe fish handling is an essential part of ethical angling, and of protecting the resource for current and future Albertans.
Safe fish handling is especially important in a catch-and-release fishery. Catch and release regulations are in place to help fish populations grow when they have been overharvested, or when the water body needs time to establish health and productivity.
Releasing a fish doesn’t guarantee its survival, but careful handling can reduce the stress on fish and gives it a better chance to live and reproduce.
Follow the regulations
A number of sportfishing regulations are designed to increase the survival chances for fish that are caught and released:
- Bait bans are in place to prevent fish that are normally caught using bait from being overharvested
- Seasonal closures are set to protect fish when they’re at they’re most vulnerable, such as during spawning season
Learn the regulations for the water body where you’ll be fishing:
Avoid fishing in warm waters
Warm water can hold less oxygen than cool water. When the temperature of the water rises, the lowered oxygen levels increases stress on the fish (optimum temperature for many trout species is 15ºc). Fish that are already experiencing elevated stress often do not survive the additional stress of being captured and handled.
During warm weather, anglers are asked to carry a thermometer to take the temperature of the water. On days when the water temperature is 22ºc or higher, anglers should:
- Find another, cooler water body to fish
- Only fish in the early mornings or late evenings, when the water is cooler
- Minimize the handling of the fish by reducing the playing time
- Refrain from photographing the fish, and release it as quickly as possible
Consider water depths when fishing for walleye or perch
Walleye and perch have a reduced chance of survival if they are caught in water deeper than seven metres, brought to the surface, and then released. When walleye or perch are caught in deep water, their swim bladders can’t adapt quickly enough to the change in atmospheric pressure. This causes the fish equivalent of ‘the bends’. The internal damage that results will likely kill the fish.
If you are fishing deep water, and catch a prohibited fish, it must be put back, even if it dies. The sportfishing regulations state that you must release every fish that cannot be legally kept because of species, catch limit, size limit, or other regulations, without exception, even if the fish is injured or dead.
Walleye and perch should be fished in relatively shallow water, where there are great angling opportunities.
Do Not “Fizz” Fish
A fish with a swollen swim bladder will have sides that are hard where they should be fleshy, or will have the swim bladder protruding from its mouth. If you wish to release a fish with a swollen swim bladder, do not fizz it (poke a hole in the swim bladder so the fish sinks). Fizzing does not increase survival, but causes injury, stress, and almost certain mortality.
Fish with swollen swim bladders should be released gently into the water. With enough time, a swollen swim bladder can correct itself. The fish may float belly up on the water, but it has a better chance of survival if left on its own.
Measuring the fish
When fishing where there is a size limit, carry a measuring stick. Leave the fish in the water and hold the stick beside it to determine if it’s legal length. If it is legal length and you are keeping it, hold the fish in a rubber mesh net or a holding cradle to measure it again to ensure it is legal. If it’s not legal length, gently remove the hook with needle-nose pliers and release the fish.
Barbless hooks can help
Although studies show that overall fish mortality rates are the same regardless of whether they are caught with barbed or barbless hooks, some anglers prefer to use barbless hooks in order to reduce fish handling times. Note that the use of barbless hooks is not a requirement in Alberta.
Handle with care
Tools for safe fish-handling
- Jaw spreaders
- Needle-nose pliers
- Fish-holding crate
- Small-mesh rubber landing net
- Wool or cotton gloves
- Remember the 'fair chase' principle: minimize the time that you handle the fish once it is on the hook. Handling a fish to exhaustion may cause it to die later.
- Keep fish in the water while handling and releasing them. If you must handle fish, completely wet your hands or wear soft cotton or wool gloves that have been soaked in water. This prevents damage to the fish's protective mucous surface.
- Act quickly by having your measuring board or camera ready if you must measure or photograph your catch. Minimize the time the fish is out of the water.
- Prepare in advance to release your fish by choosing a hook that can be removed from the fish's mouth easily or use landing nets when they help quick release. Use needle-nose pliers to remove hooks and never tear a hook from a fish. If the hook is deeply embedded in the fish's throat, snip the line and release the fish, leaving the hook in place. The hook will eventually dissolve.
- When handling a fish that is to be released, be gentle. Don’t squeeze the fish or put your fingers in its eyes or gills since this increases mortality. Limit the time the fish is out of the water, and whenever possible, unhook the fish without removing it from the water.
- When releasing a fish, never just throw it into the water. If you have to handle a fish, release it gently and headfirst. A fish will often swim away on its own. If it doesn’t, hold the fish gently in front of its tail and slowly move it back and forth to push fresh water over its gills. Release it when it begins to swim away.
- If the fish will be used for food, dispatch it quickly and keep it on ice.
Fish Handling Techniques - Slideshow
Don’t cull your catch
Holding fish in a livewell or on a stringer with the intention of releasing them once a larger fish is caught reduces survival rates after release. Studies show that mortality of released fish significantly increases if they are held in rough and/or warm waters. If you plan on keeping a fish, you should dispatch it quickly and keep it cool, preferably on ice.
If you have any questions about safe fish handling, please contact Fisheries Management staff.
Updated: Jul 2, 2015