** 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.
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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.
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.
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?
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:
— 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.
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.
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.
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.
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