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Proper Catch and Release Tactics for steelhead

How to release Steelhead properly

Although catch and release fishing is a valuable conservation tool in Haida Gwaii that can lead to more and bigger steelhead in the fishery, just because a fish swims away doesn't mean that it lives to be caught another day.  I have worked in Alaska for over 10 years and when I found out that this year for the first time the guides and lodges in Bristol Bay Alaska met to discuss and teach about proper catch and release tactics, so I think it is worth addressing here.  I have seen guides do some horrible things to huge trophy fish.  Keeping fish out of the water too long for photos, holding fish up in a boat only to have them jump and land on the floor.  Touching gills, pulling hooks out of deeply hooked fish, all of this needs to be addressed.

Studies have showed that barbed and barbless hooks didn’t differ when it came to the fish getting rid of the hook if the line broke or the angler cut the line, leaving the hook in the fish. Where it does matter, however, A LOT, is in handling time. Using barbless hooks reduces handling time required by the angler to remove the hook versus using barbed hooks. And previous research showed that handling time is a big factor influencing the survival of steelhead after release – less handling time = higher survival.  BC is strictly barbless and this is for good reason.  Make sure all your flies are de-barbed and remember the conservation officers will check for this. 

Handling Time: Minimize handling – slime and scales can be removed or damaged with excessive handling, thereby greatly increasing the risks of infection.


  • If you have to handle a steelhead, use clean, wet hands and gently support the fish from beneath the head and belly. Nets, mechanical lip-gripping devices, and wet cloths can cause injury to steelhead.  We like cradles or if you must use a net a rubber mesh.
  • Use hemostats, pliers, or a hook-removal tool to quickly remove the hook while keeping the fish in the water, and have your pliers ready and available to facilitate a quick release.
  • Avoid exposing steelhead to air for long periods, even when taking a photo. If you must remove the steelhead from the water, limit it to a maximum of 15 seconds.
  • If you want a photo of your fish (and who doesn’t want a photo of their first  steelhead?), get the camera ready, set up the shot, and then quickly remove the fish from the water, take the photo, and release the fish. If the fish isn’t still dripping water in the photo, it’s been out of the water too long.
  • Touching the gills is extremely dangerous for the fish and can cause damage and impair the ability of a steelhead to breathe. Keep your fingers out of the gills!


Fight Time: Shorter fight times increase survival because a fish fought to exhaustion is more vulnerable to predators. Conversely, a steelhead reeled in too quickly may thrash about, increasing its chances of injury. 


  • Tackle should match conditions and the size of the fish so that the fish can be landed quickly, but not until their head can be lifted slightly above the water surface and their movements controlled. 
  • Always land a steelhead before it is exhausted and loses equilibrium when released (cannot swim, nose dives, or rolls over).
  •  If a steelhead loses equilibrium after you land it, revive it until it can swim upright, then shorten the fight time on future fish.
  • High water temperatures may negatively impact steelhead survival after release; in warmer water, reduce fight time and handling time.