Guidelines for Releasing Undersized 

or ESA Protected Fish

This information will help show you how to effectively release undersized or non targeted (ESA protected) fish so that they survive.   Everyone who goes recreational fishing should have the knowledge how to release fish correctly.  
A Fish Out of Water - Biological Facts The body and gills of fish need to be supported by water.   Out of water, the gills collapse and stop working.   The internal organs are easily damaged by squeezing too hard or by the impact of the fish thrashing on hard surfaces.

Fish scales are covered by a mucous layer which helps prevent infections.   Rough handling, especially with dry hands, or a stiff nylon net bag damages the mucous layer and reduces the chances of the fish surviving after release.


Rules ;  The Washington State Department of Fish & Wildlife as put in their fishing regulations, and as stated in the 2005 WDFW some freshwater regulations states, "All salmon required to be released may not be totally removed from the water, except anglers fishing from boats 30 feet or longer as listed on either their state or Coast Guard registration are exempt" from this rule. 
 In some saltwater marine areas all it may say is "Handling rule in effect for wild CHINOOK, wild Coho, and Chum.   What this really means is "Handling Rule; In areas 5-13, it is illegal to bring a wild SALMON or a species of salmon aboard a vessel if it is unlawful to retain those SALMON.  "Aboard a vessel" is defined as inside the gunwale."   I guess the main thing to do is spend LOTS of time reading the regs. as it seems selective in that some areas are covered, while others next door are not.
The preferable method would be to not remove the undersize or non-targeted fish from water, or if you do, use a method least likely to damage the fish and ensure it's survival once returned to the water.

Getting the Hook Out ;  The Washington Dept. of Fish & Wildlife has come up with a simple combination measurement tool and  de-hooker.  This unit is a 22", 3/8" dowel with a screw in hook attached to one end.  The 22" was designed to be used as a minimum measurement length for Blackmouth. 

In use, with a barbless hook, the fish is in question should be left in the water, pulled alongside and measured with the 24" dowel.  If it is undersize, or a non-targeted specie, take ahold of the leader about 12-18" above the fish with one hand, the de-hooker hook is then hooked onto the leader about a foot in front of the fish, slide it down the leader to the bend of the hook in the fish's mouth.   (In the below illustrations since the plug is in the way, she had to lock onto the rear hook itself.)  Now with the  dowel in the one hand, and the leader in the other hand, quickly raise the dowel and at the same time you lower the leader hand to near the water.  The weight of the fish will usually pull the hook out.  If it does not on the first try then in this position shake the dowel.  With a barbless hook, this will usually unhook the fish without it leaving the water for more than a few seconds.

Here the de hooker is ready to pick up the lure Here the dehooker is onto the hook in the "fish"


Here raising the dehooker handle, while lowering the other hand, gains leverage Here a slight jerk or just the weight of the "fish" the hook becomes detached.


                                                                                                                                                      photos above compliments of Francis Estalillia 

If this does not work, and the fish are hooked in the mouth, you should extract the hook as carefully as possible.  The preferable situation is to leave the fish in the water, as it will  usually tend to be calmer and will struggle less.  The next ideal situation would be to remove the hook while the fish is still in the net, but the fish is laying on it's back in the water.  Try to push the hook back the way it came and try not to tear the mouth.   Hook removers or long-nosed pliers can help to get a secure grip on the hook.

Cut the Line For Gut-Hooked Fish ;  If when not using a solid lure (plastic or metal) and the fish has swallowed the hook, it is very likely to die if you try to remove it.   Do not pull hard on the line.  This is sure to cause internal damage.  Cut the leader as close as you can to the mouth.  If you lose a hook in the process of releasing a fish that would otherwise die, consider this as a small price to pay for the enjoyment you gain from fishing.  When using a solid lure, you will have to remove it, but they usually do not swallow these lures and are hooked in the jaws.
Barbless hooks make releasing mouth hooked fish easier.  You can make your old barbed hook barbless by either flattening the barb with pliers, or filing the barb off.
Having removed the hook, return the fish to the water head first, as gently as you can from the least possible height.   Hold onto the fish's body in front of the tail, and gently push the fish forward & then pull it back.  This forces water into the gills and gives the fish a head start on revival.  When the fish has revived it will swim away from you.
Handling Larger Fish ; Where possible, do not remove large fish from the water at all.  With a sturgeon that is just sub-legal, even a 41" will still be quite a big fish at around 20#.  Sturgeon are reasonably tolerant of handling, but are strong and active, and difficult to control in a small boat.   One way of controlling them is to leave the fish in the landing net held against the boat while you remove the hook, then return it to the water.  Most fish will trash around more when removed from the water.
Here the fisherman is removing the hooks prior to releasing a wild salmon


Handling Fish - Wear Gloves ;  Many professional fishers and marine biologists only handle live fish while wearing wet gloves.  Wet cotton gloves are the best, but cheap rubber gloves are almost as good.


For small undersize fish, you will probably only need to put on one glove.  You should also ensure that your other hand and the glove is wet.
Never hold a fish you intend to release by putting your fingers inside the gill covers or eye sockets.
If you need to handle a live rockfish, hold the back of its head in the gill cover area.  If you grip from below the jaw, you should avoid being spiked by the fish.
When holding a fish, hold it around the gill covers with one hand and support the body with the other hand.

 Size Limits ;  You should know the minimum legal size limits as there are large penalties for breaking the law. The size limits are set to allow fish to return and or breed therefore creating more and keeping a healthy population.

Most sport caught fish are measured from the shortest distance from the tip of the nose to end the tail. Size limits can vary from area to area.  For Washington State the size below is common.  
                        Minimum size for Coho salmon  is 16"
                        Minimum size for Chinook salmon is 24"   (some years the coastal size can be a minimum of 26")
                        Minimum size for Blackmouth Chinook salmon is 22"
                        Minimum size for Sturgeon is 42" with a maximum size of 60", with a mid year minimum of 45"

For Coho & Chinook any fish that is under this size is considered a "Jack".  This terminology  is referring to a fish that has gotten the urge to return a year early.  Most of these will be males, however you may on occasion catch a "Jill", but this ratio is very small.
There are some rivers that in the fall, will be open for retaining of mature salmon plus some jacks.  The jacks are a bonus, as they are not a viable breeding stock, and the WDFW would rather see them taken home.

Quantity Limits ;  Also for the year 2004 WDFW has imposed a limit of Zero retention of Yelloweye, (commonly called red snapper),  and Canary Rockfish in your bag limit.  This can pose a problem as these fish can be located in the same general deep water area as halibut.  When you bring one of these up from this deep water, it gets the "bends" while it's stomach will generally turn inside out popping out the fish's mouth.  If you throw them back, the protruding internal parts do not return into the fish.   Scavenger birds will then kill these fish.

There have been experiments as to what to do to alleviate the above problem.  One is venting by using a  large hypodermic needle & vent at the proper location in the body.   Another method would be to use a weighted hook system and send the fish back down.  For a link to a page of concern and possible methods of helping, CLICK HERE.   

Avoid Catching Undersize Fish ;  The best way to protect small fish is to not catch them at all.   Use a large hook and a bigger bait as these are less likely to be swallowed by small fish.   Move away from the area where most of the fish are small.

Remember to Do These Things ;
  DO remove fish from the water only if you have to.
  DO wear wet cotton or rubber gloves or at least wet your hands.
  DO lie fish on a soft wet surface & roll them over on their back if you need to handle them out of the water.
  DO change to a larger hook size if you are catching a lot of undersize fish.
  DO minimize the time fish are out of the water.
  DO remove the hook carefully from lip hooked fish.
  DO cut the line for gut hooked fish.
  DO return fish gently to the water.
Do not
  Don't hold fish by inserting your fingers inside the gill covers.
  Don't poke or touch the eyes, and never hold fish by the eye sockets.
  Don't squeeze the gill covers or gut area hard.
  Don't lift fish by the tail as this can dislocate the spine & harm internal organs.
  Don't drop or place fish on a hot dry deck or on rocks.
This information provides guidelines on how to release fish that are smaller than or larger than the legal size or are non-targeted species requiring their release.   Bag limits and size limits may vary from area to area, so check the regs.

Copyright 2001 - 2016 LeeRoy Wisner  All Rights Reserved

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Originated 7-08-2001, Last Updated 04-23-2016                               
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