If You Have to Revive a Trout, It’s Probably Too Late

by | Aug 29, 2021 | 18 comments

 

** NOTE ** This article is part of the Troutbitten category, Catch and Release Safely.

Modern catch and release has changed the game for trout fishing. Putting them back is the new standard. But understanding how to care for and handle a trout is critical if we are to put them back healthy and ready to fight another day.

Here’s a link to the full collection in this Troutbitten category:

READ: Troutbitten | Category | Catch and Release Safely

— — — — — —

I grew up keeping my catch. My family and I fished over stocked trout in put-and-take fisheries where no trout made it past the warm-water heat of summer or the acid mine drainage of poorly managed bituminous coal mines. We kept trout and filleted them with what seemed to my young eyes the refined artistic skill of a sculptor. Then we fried them in butter. It’s still a favorite family meal.

So, reviving a trout after the catch wasn’t really a topic. It wasn’t a skill that we developed. Instead, dispatching them quickly with a wrap on the skull or swiftly snapping a trout’s neck was the method. Yes, even then, I was taught to treat the animal with respect. We did not allow it to suffocate to death over long minutes in a creel or die on a stringer.

I picked up the fly rod in my late teens, because I was intrigued by the late season mayfly hatches. I was surrounded by rising trout that wanted nothing to do with my strung minnows on a double hook. Curiosity for those flies led me to seek out more waters with wild trout. Armed with a fly rod, a newly acquired driver’s license and the family sedan, I began my first real exploration of wild trout rivers.

Catch and release went right along with it. Not only because it was mandated by the state on some of the rivers that I fished, but because it just made sense to return wild trout to their homes. These were resident fish, animals that lived in the river, year after year, for as long as they could make it through whatever curve balls Mother Nature would throw at them. Why should I disrupt that, I figured? Because, if I did want to keep trout, I could fish the put-and-take waters and keep a limit of fish for the table.

Early on, putting a trout back was easy. Catch and release — just how it’s supposed to go. But sooner than later, the odds caught up with me, and I hooked a trout larger than expected. I had no idea how to fight him fast. I just understood that the 5X nylon tippet attached to my Adams dry fly was said to be pretty delicate. So I babied that first big fish for fear of losing him. I remember that I let the freight train take me all the way around a wooded bend on a small river, as I ran through the water after him. When I finally bent the rod hard enough to bring the fish to net, the biggest wild trout I’d ever seen (eighteen inches at that time) was purely exhausted.

READ: Troutbitten | Fly Fishing for Big Trout — How Strong Are Your Tools?

I easily plucked the Adams from his lip. I admired my catch for a moment and released him into the current. Then he promptly turned belly up and floated downriver a few feet before I sheepishly recaptured him in my wooden net.

Now what do I do? I thought. I’d read a thing or two about reviving a trout, so I tried it. Because back in the nineteen-nineties, this was common wisdom. Hook, play and land your trout. Then revive them and put them back. Revival was part of the routine.

So I knelt and cradled the trout in a soft riffle, allowing water to flow through its mouth and over its gills. I supported the big wild fish as it tilted from side to side. It would have gone belly up multiple times without my hands beneath it. And after what seemed a very long time — at least as long as I’d played the trout to such an exhausted state — the fish returned to something more lively. It regained strength, and I could feel its muscles flex and tighten again as I cradled it in cold water. What had seemed like a trout asleep was now a trout waking up. So I let him go.

He swam upstream and turned into stronger currents that pushed him sideways a bit. He faltered, and I saw the white of his belly one last time. Then he righted himself and swam off downstream, out of sight.

At the time, I assumed that my trout made it through that event and swam away to live a good long life. These days, I doubt the truth in that assumption.

Reviving a trout was once taught as part of the routine. But we don’t hear that so much anymore. Because the idea of playing a trout to the point of exhaustion, so much that you have to help him regain balance and breath, is mostly a thing of the past. And that’s a good thing.

Why?

Because if you have to revive a trout, it’s probably too late.

Science and Reason

I’m not going to make a long and detailed argument about this. No, I don’t have a scientific study to back my claim in full. And I don’t really know that any have been done. But there’s enough science out there about lactic acid build up in trout to think hard about. (Go HERE.)

Has anyone tracked trout that go belly up the first time you release them to see if they make it very long after a revival and a second release? I doubt it. But do we really need that study? Doesn’t it make sense to play the trout hard and fast in the first place? Shouldn’t we choose water that’s cold enough for trout to make it through the process of catch and release? And can’t we limit the unhooking and handling time to a minimum?

Yes. We can do all of that. And if we do, we will rarely push a trout to the kind of exhausted state that threatens its life.

** Fish cold water, Fight ’em fast. Handle gently. Release quickly **

But what’s all this about a trout revival anyway?

Photo by Bill Dell

Reviving a Trout

There’s a lot of nuance to a topic like this. So here’s what I mean by reviving a trout . . .

If a fish released back to the water cannot support itself upright, then reviving it might be necessary. If it falters from side to side or cannot swim properly, then it needs more recovery time before heading back to the kinds of currents that most river trout live in.

First, I’m making the argument that we should avoid exhausting a trout to the point where they need such a recovery time.

But when bad things happen, here’s how to revive a trout:

— Keep the trout in the net (a good one), or cradle the fish under the water. Never squeeze a fish.

— Hold the trout with its nose facing upstream, in clean, cold water with some flow.

— Watch for the trout’s gills to work. Don’t allow the net to block the gills or place your hands over those gills.

— Support the trout gently, so it doesn’t tilt and falter side to side or go belly up. This is really your main job — to help the trout hold a position long enough to recover.

— Watch and feel for signs of the trout recovering. And when it attempts to swim away, let it go.

After that, all you can do is hope for the best.

Do not push, pull or pump the trout through the water during revival. Trout don’t need water going backward through their gills. They just need clean, cold water going into their mouth and past their gills to extract the needed oxygen.

Exhausting Them?

Remember this: You do not have to exhaust a trout to land it.

Sure, the bigger ones may need to tire a bit, before they cooperate enough to guide them into the net (especially on lighter tackle.)

But the experienced anglers that I know routinely land top tier fish (Whiskeys and Namers) in well under a minute — often under half a minute. No I’m not exaggerating. It’s really all about fighting fish fast. It’s a mindset.

The survival of a trout after you put them back has everything to do with the speed that it’s landed and released. Speed is the critical factor. Minimize your time with the trout.

READ: Troutbitten | Category | Fighting Big Fish

Photo by Bill Dell

What Exhausts a Trout in the First Place?

If we wish to avoid the need for revival, then let’s avoid the following things that push a trout too far.

Fishing in water that is too warm. As water temps rise, so does a trout’s demand for oxygen. And yet, there’s less dissolved oxygen in warm water. Keep that in mind.

Overplaying the trout. Don’t have it strung out on a line too long. Extended fights exhaust trout. So fight ‘em fast.

Poor handling. Squeezing is always bad. And I’ve written previously about the inexperienced angler’s bad habit of squeezing the heart. (It’s extremely common in photos.)

Unhooking troubles. A lot of over-exhaustion happens while removing the hook. We simply must be ready to quickly dispatch the hook from the trout. Keep it barbless. Have hemostats at the ready, and get that hook out efficiently. (Try inverting the trout to keep it calm.)

Too much air time. Limit the trout’s time out of the water. Try for hook removal under the water when possible. If you opt for a picture, aim for just five seconds out of the water. Again, I’m not exaggerating here. Keep the trout in the net with its gills moving in cold water, while you prepare the camera. Get set, lift the trout for five seconds and put it back.

** Fish cold water, Fight em fast. Handle gently. Release quickly **

Given that all of these principles are followed, there is nothing wrong with a five second photo shoot.

Furthermore, trout landed within these guidelines have no need for revival. Instead, they swim away quickly upon release.

READ: Troutbitten | Are We Taking the Safety of Trout Too Far?
READ: Troutbitten | Their Heart in Your Hands

Lastly . . .

When trout come to the net exhausted, there’s every reason to believe that these fish don’t make it — yes, even after we spend time reviving the trout and watch them swim off. (Look up the lactic acid factor again.)

Of course we will revive a trout in the unfortunate circumstances where it’s necessary. Bad luck happens. But we should avoid any need for revival.

I’d much rather fight a fish fast and hard, even risking break-off, than risk the health of a top tier fish.

I’m not saying don’t revive a trout. I’m saying that if reviving a trout is part of your regular process, you’re probably doing something wrong.

Fish hard, friends.

 

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Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky
T R O U T B I T T E N
domenick@troutbitten.com

 

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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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18 Comments

  1. Fighting trout hard and fast was made much easier for me when I decided to fish almost exclusively with a minimum tippet size of 4X. On very rare occasions I will drop down to 5X but only in low flows and cool/cold water. I’m a DFO angler and I have no trouble avoiding drag by simply going with long a (14′ – 18′) leader/tippet. Combine long and strong with side pressure and the numerous other fish fighting tips found here and even a large trout is in the net in no time. Speaking of nets, the right choice can really help speed up the fight as well by opting for larger hoop size and a longer handle.

    Reply
  2. With the caveat that we each have different factors concerning watershed and species to consider, here in Oregon on the Deschutes I go almost exclusively to 5x for tippet strength at the end of my mono rod setup. I can net most fish within the same timeframe as with 4x and when I hook the occasional larger fish, I can more easily deliberately break it off if the fight is becoming too lengthy. Also makes it easier to quickly break off when I nymph up the occasional steelhead. (Not like I ever really have a choice.)
    Keep up the good work, Dom! Loving the dialogue lately.

    Reply
      • In my opinion the biggest detriment to fish survival is the photo op. When it becomes more important to ensure the survival of the fish, instead of bragging to one’s friends on Facebook, the chances of fish making it through will be greatly improved. Keep Em Wet!!

        Reply
        • Hi Sal.

          I respectfully disagree. I’ve written about this a good bit, so I won’t go into it much in this comment section.

          https://troutbitten.com/2021/08/22/are-we-taking-the-safety-of-trout-too-far/

          Not everyone is taking a pic just to brag on Facebook. Fish photos are the grand compromise of catch and release. People want to document their catch, for many reasons, and there’s nothing wrong with that at ALL, as long as it’s done carefully.

          Fish cold water. Fight ’em fast. Handle gently. Release quickly.

          Cheers.
          Dom

          Reply
          • ” . . . as long as it’s done carefully.”

            And therein lies the problem. If even 25% of fish captured in grip and grins are out of the water too long, that amounts to astounding potential harm to the resource. Fish pics with no water in the frame suggest that “time out of water” was not a consideration.

          • Rick, I know that you think the average angler cannot be trusted to take a photo. I disagree, and I’ve already been through this in the other article:

            Are We Taking the Safety of Trout Too Far?
            https://troutbitten.com/2021/08/22/are-we-taking-the-safety-of-trout-too-far/

            The key is education, not moving the goalposts further and further. Because if you’re telling people they can’t take photos, the next thing is that they shouldn’t be dragging a fish around through the water on a hook in the first place.

            Enjoy the day.
            Dom

          • I think the vast majority of anglers try to handle, photograph, and release trout responsibly and safely. Its not a matter of not trusting people, just that it requires a lot of experience to safely and quickly pose with a slippery, strong, wiggling/writhing fish desperate to get away; and even with experience, things can go south fast. I’d like a nickel for every trout that spent time flopping around the bottom of a drift boat or has been squeezed into submission bankside. (Hook removal may be a more critical piece than picture taking). I would never suggest that we prohibit anglers from taking fish pictures, it just makes a lot of sense to make the ‘in the water’ shot the norm. The recent September-20 Orvis photography contest will not accept pictures of fish that are held out of the water. Now I know you think that this is going overboard, but I happen to think that its the right message at a critical time. This is all part of the positive evolution of the sport, and certainly would help to eliminate the overstressing of fish that might otherwise need reviving. Your influence over the sport is significant and your message is properly nuanced, but its a sound bite crowd out there with many who simply hear what they want.

            I don’t mean to belabor this point but I really feel that the current combination of environmental and recreational stressors on our trout rivers require more protection then ever. And the positive PR that comes with type of fish handling protections being discussed here should not be underestimated. Better optics help our image and the practices that form them will certainly help the trout.

            Cheers!

          • That’s a fine summary of your point, Rick. I appreciated your perspective.

            As you know, I disagree with it very much. We’ve gone far enough in the safety of trout, and I won’t support any steps further.

            You say it’s not a matter of trusting people, but I think it is. You don’t trust that the average angler can handle a trout. I believe they can. And I’ll choose education over more restrictions.

            Lastly, if angler handling has been so bad through the years in pressured waters, where’s the data that shows how the trout population is suffering because of it? I believe there is none. And around here, our trout population is doing better than ever, according to fish commission stats, despite having more angling pressure than ever. I’m tired of seeing anglers, especially beginners, painted as the villain, based on speculation and upon the whims of the been there done that crowd.

            Cheers.
            Dom

  3. I agree with this article and very much agree a good scientific study needs to be done. That said, I do think reviving can work, but I am not convinced it works as often as we think.

    This past season, I caught a larger trout (16-17 inches or so) after a longer fight than I would have liked. I released it and it went belly up. I ran down stream and netted it again. Then I “revived” it just as the article outlined. The fish swam off but did get taken downstream in the faster current until it came to rest under a fallen tree. I could still see the fish and it stayed there all day, I checked on it before I leaving leaving for home. At the end of the day I saw it swimming in and out of the current, so it survived at least a few hours after being caught. With that, I appears reviving can work but who knows what happened after those few hours.

    Nice article and thoughts. I look forward to seeing a study.

    Reply
    • I think reviving works too. No doubt, it works sometimes. Maybe a lot of times.

      Cheers.
      Dom

      Reply
  4. Just as we changed modern thinking to Catch & Release from Catch & Kill we need to now change our thinking of what counts as a caught fish. As a guide I get too many clients who think they have to get the fish in the net for it to count towards the days total. I try to teach them that they “don’t have to pet every fish” and that the best fish is the one that comes off the hook at your feet, just as you are about to net it (you don’t have to touch that slimy thing).

    The fun in fly fishing is in fooling the fish to eat and then fighting the fish (the tug is the drug). Handling the fish is one step that we can do away with for all the average size fish we catch in a season. When we catch a trophy fish and want a photo, great – – – keep it wet and take one of the new stylish photographs releasing the fish. No more grip and grins.

    Wild fish are a valuable resource that we should work very hard to protect.

    FlyFish970

    Reply
  5. i’ve been a hardcore coldwater fly fisher for 60+ years and worked in the fish and wildlife conservation profession for 43 years in five westerns states and in Alaska for the the last 26 years. I’ve handled, ate and released alot of trout, steelhead and salmon in wild rivers and trout hatcheries. You are EXACTLY correct about landing protocol for fish that you intend to release. End of story. Personally I rarely take time anymore to photo or count coup. I don’t touch fish, never remove fish from the water after netting and release them with forceps, pliers or quick release devices. Thanks for publishing this. Fish now … sleep next winter.

    Reply
  6. Your mantra….** Fish cold water, Fight ’em fast. Handle gently. Release quickly **…. is pretty much it in a nutshell. Of course each one of those dictums can be expounded upon, as you do in this and other articles. I myself add (mentally) a couple more notes. Those are “handle gently (with WET hands)”, and “release quickly” (with whatever tool/technique you are PRACTICED with to do so efficiently and reliably). On that last note, I’m a big fan/user of the Ketchum Release tool. They are stupidly pricey for what they are, but I can dehook most of my fish super fast and clean, and most times I never have to touch the fish at all (and yes, I only use barbless hooks if I don’t intend to keep or eat).

    Reply
  7. Really good points on fighting to exhaustion. Agree completely.

    One of the old time Missouri River guides taught me another technique for the open Mo with hot big fish. For the big ones, after their initial run, he suggested a steady calm retrieve allowing the fish to stay near the bottom as it’s being landed. It’s amazing that they will allow themselves to be reeled in without being spent and fighting to exhaustion. An idea for another way to avoid exhausting the fish…. Thanks for your coverage of important topics.

    Reply

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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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