How to Release a Fish

When learning how to release fish, there are conservation-minded steps that should be followed to help ensure higher survival rates for your catches. These specific actions, starting with tackle selection and continuing through resuscitation, will contribute to sustainable fishing efforts.

Learning how to fish involves more than catching and storing fish. At some point, all anglers will be faced with the need to return fish they are not allowed to keep to the water, due to size, season, creel limits, or local catch-and-release fishing regulations.  

Mastering the task of fish release by following the steps in this section will give you confidence that you know how to release fish in a way to protect fish populations for future generations of anglers.

How to Release a Fish: Steps

You might be asking yourself, "What’s the best way to handle fish to ensure they survive release?" Whether or not they do largely depends on the angler. Learning how to release fish from a hook takes practice in general. Understanding how to handle fish and how to release fish in a conservation-friendly manner are the first few steps you can take to help promote fishing conservation.

  1. Use wet hands when handling a fish or a knotless rubberized landing nets (and rubberized - not cotton- gloves if you must wear gloves). This helps maintain the slime coat on the fish, which protects it from infection and aids in swimming. Anglers that know how to practice proper catch and release never use a towel of any kind when handling fish since a towel can remove this slime coat.
  2. Hold the fish horizontally whenever possible since this is the way fish naturally swim through the water. Do not drop the fish onto hard surfaces!
  3. Keep your fingers away from the gills and eyes of the fish.
  4. If needed, use a release tool (dehookers, recompression tools) to minimize handling.
  5. Time is of the essence! Release fish as soon as practical and do not keep them out of the water longer than necessary. Try to release your fish gently head first into the water, which helps push water through the mouth and over the gills, and helps to resuscitate the fish. Revive exhausted fish by placing the fish in the water, facing the current if possible, with one hand underneath the belly and the other hand holding the bottom lip or tail.
  6. Know the current fishing regulations that apply to the state where you are fishing and learn how to accurately measure fish in order to abide by the regulations. By following fishing regulations you are building and conserving our state fish populations for future generations of anglers.

Keep up with your current state regulations by learning to properly measure your fish. Watch how Capt. Diego Toiran properly catches and releases a fish.


FishSmart is a fish release program developed by anglers, sport fishing companies, and fisheries managers to help improve the survival of released fish. Follow these simple FishSmart fish release guidelines to do your part in making fishing better for tomorrow through your actions today.

Choose the Right Tackle: One of the first things you can do in learning how to release fish is select tackle that matches the size of the targeted species. To minimize stress on the fish, large species should be landed or brought alongside the boat within 20 minutes of being hooked. If you are landing fish that are exhausted or that require extensive efforts to resuscitate, try switching to heavier tackle to reduce the amount of time it takes to catch and subsequently release the fish. Products recognized as FishSmart Tackle may help you release your catch with greater success.

In addition to using the right tackle, you should also use catch and release fishing hooks, like circle hooks, whenever possible. In fact, circle hooks are recommended if fishing with live bait. Just be aware when using these hooks that fishing techniques  differ from those used with “J” style hooks.

Plan Ahead: Expect to release fish on any given trip and prepare the equipment necessary to do so.

Avoid: Develop skills to target the size and species you desire so the need for releasing fish is reduced.


Be responsible on the water and learn best practices for safe fish release. This video includes tips on proper tackle, gear, barotrauma and other fishing techniques.

Deep Water Release

Saltwater fish caught in deep water may be suffering from “barotrauma,” a buildup of swim bladder gases that makes it difficult for them to go back down. Generally, fish caught deeper than 30 feet will suffer some effects. Follow these basic tips:

Assess condition while reeling in fish. Signs of barotrauma include: Sluggish swimming, eyes bulging (“pop eye”), stomach protruding from mouth, bloated mid-section.

If the fish appears normal release it without removing it from the water:

Recompression: Rapidly returning fish to depth is the method of choice for returning barotrauma affected fish.   A variety of tools are on the market, including descender devices, release weights & baskets, etc.

Return to Depth: Return fish to the depth of capture. If catching fish at very deep depths, returning them as deep as possible will dramatically improve survival.

Venting: If rapid descent is not possible, venting is another option. Use established guidelines for venting such as found at Catch and Release. Note that the fish’s stomach may protrude from its mouth. Do NOT puncture the stomach.

Now that you know how to release fish using conservation-friendly practices, be sure to apply these steps on your next fishing trip Download the Best Practices Flyer to Take With You!