Fish Handling Techniques

Safe fish handling is an essential part of ethical angling and protecting the resource for current and future Albertans.

Fish handling videos

Catch-and-release fishing

Safe fish handling is especially important in catch-and-release fishing. Catch-and-release (zero bag limit) regulations are in place to help fish populations recover when they have been overharvested, or when the population is being preserved because it is naturally limited or genetically distinct.

Releasing a fish doesn't guarantee its survival, but careful handling can reduce the stress on fish and gives it a better chance to live and reproduce.

Air exposure is a significant factor of release mortality. Reduce exposure to air as much as possible. The best practice is to keep the fish wet / keep fish in the water.

Follow the regulations

A number of sportfishing regulations are designed to support the management of easily caught and vulnerable species:

  • Bait bans are in place to reduce the anglers' chance of catching fish that are more easily caught using bait
  • Seasonal closures are set to protect fish when they are most vulnerable, such as during spawning season

Learn the regulations for the water body where you'll be fishing:

Avoid fishing in warm waters

Warm water holds less oxygen than cold water. When the temperature of the water rises, the lower oxygen levels increase stress on fish (optimum temperature for many trout species is 15 C). Fish that are experiencing elevated stress often do not survive the additional stress of being caught, handled, and released.

Anglers should:

  • Fish early in the morning or in the evening, or where the water is cooler.
  • Avoid using light angling gear and reel in your fish quickly to minimize their exertion.
  • Always keep fish wet and minimize their exposure to air (even while taking a photo!).

Consider water depths when fishing for walleye or perch

Walleye and yellow perch have a reduced chance of survival if they are caught in water deeper than seven metres, brought to the surface, and then released. When walleye or perch are caught in deep water, their swim bladders can't adapt quickly enough to the change in water pressure. This causes the fish the equivalent of 'the bends'. The internal damage that results will kill the fish.

If you are fishing deep water, and catch a prohibited fish, it must be put back, even if it dies. The sportfishing regulations state that you must release every fish that cannot be legally kept because of species, catch limit, size limit, or other regulations, without exception, even if the fish is injured or dead.

Walleye and perch should be fished in relatively shallow water, where there are great angling opportunities too.

Do not "fizz" fish

A fish with a 'swollen' swim bladder from decompression will have sides that are hard where they should be fleshy, or will have the swim bladder protruding from its mouth. When you release a fish with a swollen swim bladder, do not 'fizz' it (poke a hole in the swim bladder so the fish sinks). Fizzing does not increase survival, but causes harm, stress, and most certainly death.

As fizzing causes harm to released fish and can increase the mortality of released fish, fizzing can be considered illegal (Alberta Fishery Regulations, Sec. 7). The best practice is to not fish in deep water.

Fish with swollen swim bladders should be released gently into the water. With enough time, a swollen swim bladder can correct itself. The fish may float belly up on the water, but it has a better chance of survival if left on its own.

Measuring the fish

When fishing where there is a size limit, carry a measuring stick. Leave the fish in the water and hold the stick beside it to determine if it's legal length. If it is legal length and you are keeping it, hold the fish in a rubber mesh net or a holding cradle and measure the side of the fishing that is lying flat to ensure it is legal. If it's not legal length, gently remove the hook with needle-nose pliers and release the fish.

Barbless hooks can help

Although studies do not definitively show that barbless hooks reduce hooking related mortality of caught and released fish, barbless hooks often help anglers improve their fish handling.

Since barbless hooks are typically more easily removed, they:

  • Help prevent injury to fish (for example, damaged jaw or injury to gills)
  • Reduce how often a fish must be lifted from the water (keep fish wet!)
  • Reduce the length of time that fish are exposed to air (a critical factor supporting improved survival after a fish is released)
  • Reduce the overall length of time fish are handled

The use of barbless hooks is currently not a rule in Alberta, but anglers planning to release fish should consider using barbless hooks to minimize stress and reduce the chances of a released fish dying. The barb on most hooks can be easily pinched or crushed with pliers or a similar tool.

Handle with care

Tools for safe fish-handling

  • Fish-holding cradle
  • Hemostats or needle nose pliers
  • Measuring board or stick
  • Mesh rubber landing net
  • Wet wool or cotton gloves
  • Remember the 'fair chase' principle: minimize the time that you 'fight' the fish once it is on the hook. Fighting or 'playing' a fish to exhaustion dramatically increases the chances of dying.
  • Keep fish in the water while handling and releasing them. If you must handle fish, completely wet your hands or wear soft cotton or wool gloves that have been soaked in water. This prevents damage to the fish's protective mucous surface.
  • Act quickly by having your measuring board ready if you must measure your catch. Minimize the time the fish is out of the water.
  • Prepare in advance to release your fish by choosing a hook that can be removed from the fish's mouth easily and use a landing nets to ensure a quick release. Use needle-nose pliers to remove hooks and never tear a hook from a fish. If the hook is deep in the fish's throat, snip the line and release the fish, leaving the hook in place. The hook will fall out or eventually dissolve.
  • When handling a fish that is to be released, be gentle. Don't squeeze the fish or put your fingers in its eyes or gills; those increase mortality. Limit the time the fish is out of the water, and whenever possible, unhook the fish without removing it from the water.
  • When releasing a fish, never just throw it into the water. If you have to handle a fish, release it gently and headfirst. A fish will often swim away on its own. If it doesn't, hold the fish gently in front of its tail and slowly move it back and forth to push fresh water over its gills. Release it when it begins to swim away.
  • If the fish will be used for food, dispatch it quickly and keep it on ice.

Don't cull your catch

  • Holding fish in a live well or on a stringer with the intention of releasing them once a larger fish is caught reduces survival rates after release. Studies show that mortality of released fish significantly increases if they are held in live wells. If you plan on keeping a fish, you should dispatch it quickly and keep it cool, preferably on ice.
  • Culling is unlawful if the practice occurs beyond a person's legal bag limit.

Updated: May 12, 2022