Want to learn how to release healthy fish? Follow these easy steps

Practicing catch-and-release is a great way to promote sustainable fish populations—especially if you handle your catches with care and make sure they swim away healthy.
Practicing catch-and-release is a great way to promote sustainable fish populations—especially if you handle your catches with care and make sure they swim away healthy. Courtesy of Jordan Rodriguez

“Grumpy Old Men” has long been one of my favorite movies. There are great fishing moments throughout, but one of the best happens when Max takes new neighbor Ariel on an ice fishing date.

After the newcomer helps Max land an enormous walleye, she sums up the experience.

“It’s beautiful!” Ariel exclaims. “The catch … the fight … the release!”

“Release?” Max cries. “There’s no release. That monster belongs stuffed on my wall!”

Much to Max’s dismay, it’s too late. Ariel has already sent the fish off to swim another day.

Sooner or later, every angler experiences the one that got away. But what about the fish we release on purpose? Fish — especially big ones — are a precious natural resource. If they aren’t legal to keep, or if we want to release them to promote sustainability, how do we do it in a way that ensures a maximum survival rate?

Here are some handy tips for a healthy release:

Handle with Care: The biggest key to releasing healthy fish is handling them gently and efficiently. For species like bass, crappie and perch, simply grab the fish by the lip and remove the hook. Toothy species like trout, salmon and walleye are tougher — the trick is to hold them tightly by the tail rather than the head or midsection. No matter the species, avoid touching the fish’s gills and wet your hands to avoid removing their slimy, protective layer.

Picture Perfect: If you’re releasing a big fish, you’ll probably want a picture first. And rightfully so! But remember that holding a fish out of water is like holding a person under it. To limit the stress on the fish, keep it in the water using a net or live well while you or your cameraperson gets ready. Then, hold the fish up horizontally, making sure to support its weight while you snap your photos.

Give an Assist: Sometimes, fish will become exhausted during a fight — especially if you land them on light tackle like an ice or fly rod. You always want fish to swim away on their own. I like to lower them into the water using both hands — usually, they will take off right away. If not, slowly move the fish back and forth to pass water through its gills and aid recovery. Keep the fish’s head pointed upstream and, when they are ready, they will swim off under their own power.

Soda Pop Triage: Occasionally, a fish gets hooked too deeply to safely remove the hook. If you cut the line, the hook will rust out eventually. Still, there will be times when bleeding fish seems doomed. If this happens, a little-known trick could be a lifesaver — try pouring soda into the fish’s mouth.

There is debate over the scientific merits of the soda trick. Believers say the carbonation and acids restrict capillaries and aid clotting, which stops the bleeding. I’m not a scientist, but I can tell you this: I have used the soda trick several times, and it absolutely works. The bleeding stops instantly and the fish survive. Who knew a bottle of Coke could save a fish’s life?

Grumpy Old Max didn’t want to release that trophy walleye, but in a way, I’m glad to know it’s still swimming somewhere near Wabasha, Minnesota. Hopefully, these tips help ensure the fish we catch and release will be there for the next angler to enjoy.

Tight lines!