What Percentage Of Catch And Release Fish Die?

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Catch and release fishing is always a contentious subject among fishermen and also the general public. 

Certain non-anglers believe catching and releasing is cruel and is harmful to fish, anglers are likely to disagree. 

The reason I am inclined to write on this subject is the misinformation and incorrect opinions of some that are claiming up to 20% of caught and released fish will die.

What Percentage of Catch and Release Fish Die?

There are many types of fish in our rivers, lakes, and seas. Some fish are hardier than others and can survive with minimal losses. In my experience as a fisherman for the past 50 years, I can say that less than 1% die after catch and release.

I have also done a survey of fishermen (including my writers who are experienced fishermen in trout, salt, and freshwater fishing) and found the same high survival rate (above 99%) in fish after catch and release.

If even just one of the fish die that I catch after releasing back into the water, it’s always an unpleasant experience – big or small fish. 

If at the end of a fishing day 2 out of 10 were floating dead on the surface I would consider stopping fishing for good. The 20% numbers being quoted as dying is just not true!

Improving The Success Rate of Catch and Release Fishing

fish with hook in top lip
Trout hooked in the top lip – perfect for easy removal

There are several important factors anglers can do to help reduce fish mortality.

  1. Learn more about how to unhook a fish correctly. Never use a towel, even if it’s a wet one. Always, wet your hands and unhook the fish.
  2. Ensure that you are paying attention whilst fishing, leaving your baited hook in the water is likely to have the fish gorge the bait into its gullet. This is a prime reason for fish mortality as it is difficult to remove the hook safely.
  3. Always make sure you carry a disgorger and forceps to help unhook the fish safely and without damaging its mouth.
  4. Your fishing gear should include foam landing mats, fish cradles, and a bucket of water to douse onto the fish if it is large and requires placing on any hard surfaces.
  5. Reduce the amount of time the fish is out of the water as best as you can. If you plan to take photos, do it quickly and have everything ready beforehand.
  6. Wherever possible use barbless hooks. Whilst a fish will not die from unhooking – the faster you can unhook is better for the fish. Barbless hooks are easier to remove and also cause less damage to the fish’s mouth.
  7. Educate the youngsters and new anglers – many fish are mishandled and thrown back by inexperienced anglers. Teach them young what to do and what not to do!
  8. Use lighter fishing lines and gear where possible. Take your time landing the fish to avoid any stress or force being applied to them while on the hook.
  9. If any fish has any cuts or marks, make sure you apply appropriate fish medicine to their wounds. Every angler should always carry a carp care kit in their tackle box. 
  10. Make sure that the fish when returned to the water are held gently and allowed to swim off slowly at their pace, do not throw or push them. 
  11.  Use the right type of fishing nets, they should be made from soft materials and also have a knotless fine mesh.
  12. If you are fishing in very hot weather be even more diligent in getting fish back to the water quickly. Fish will tend to survive less if kept out of water during the hottest months of the year. 
  13. If a hook is buried deep in the fish, it is advisable to cut the line as close to the hook as possible and then release it. Hooks will corrode over time and the fish can still survive and eat as normal with a hook inside it. 
  14. When possible don’t touch the fish too often, any extra handling creates even more stress and can remove its protective slime layer.

Main Causes For Fish To Die In Catch And Release Fishing

Anglers’ Knowledge And Experience

This is by far the biggest reason why fish die when being caught by anglers. Unfortunately, many who go fishing are only on vacation or not well versed in fishing knowledge or the art of fish craft.

If you are not sure what you should do when planning a fishing trip, make sure that you learn the basics of looking after fish first and what are the correct things to do when you catch one.

Wrong Fishing Gear 

Today, beginner fishing tackle is sold everywhere, whilst it gets new people into the sport of fishing, much of this tackle is poorly made or just cheap rubbish.

Make sure you select the right gear you need, it doesn’t need to be expensive but must match the fish and the fishing style that you plan to use it for.

For example, some starter fishing kits include a 20lbs line for a small rod and reel! There is a major lack of responsibility in some companies selling this type of fishing gear, do your homework before you buy. There are many resources available to choose tackle correctly. Check out my article on the Best Fly Fishing Starter Kits here!


Fish do suffer stress during the catching process and while they are out of the water too long. It is correct to state, that stress is the most common cause of mortality in catch and release fish.

Time Exposed to the Air

The longer the fish is out of the water, the fewer chances it has to survive. Some studies show that fish held out of the water for more than 30 seconds have a 62% chance of survival, and fish held out of the water for greater than 60 seconds only have even less chance of survival.

However, if the right process is followed these times are grossly under-calculated. Keeping the fish cool and wet can increase these times far longer.

Location Of The Hook In The Fish

Any fish which gets hooked in the guts, gills, or very deep in the throat have a much lower chance of survival. Fish such as perch tend to swallow the bait and difficult to remove the hook safely. 

Leaving your rod alone without attention will make fish swallow more than often the bait, when you watch your bobber or bite indicator and strike at the right time, then this will lead to far less deep hooked fish. 

When you do find a deeply hooked fish, always use a hook disgorger. You can read my article here on how to use fishing disgorgers.

Do Fish Heal After Being Hooked?

Yes, fish always heal wounds fast after being hooked. However, any wound can get infected, and it is important that if you do see any wounds on the body or mouth, it’s treated with an antiseptic lotion or liquid before releasing back into the water.

Fish can reproduce the slime that is on their bodies, this slime protects the fish from bacteria, and is critical in reducing infections.

How To Safely Release Fish?

catch and release
Releasing a trout back to the water using two hands

Careful handling of fish of all sizes is of utmost importance whether we intend to keep or release the fish, especially in the latter case.

Always check the fish thoroughly for damage or diseases. Even remove any leeches that you find on the fish’s body.

Make sure that you fully support the weight of the fish with both hands, and never hold any fish by its jaw or head. Allow the fish to swim from your hands. If the fish is looking slow to swim away, just hold it till it has recovered its breath and is ready to go.

If it’s still reluctant to swim off, then gently moving the fish from side to side in the water can help regain its balance.

If you are releasing a fish back into a river, try to find a slower current area and avoid any fast currents.

Final Thoughts

Fishing has been around for hundreds of years. Catch and release practices are becoming far more popular over the past few years, and fishing equipment, tools, and techniques to help successful catch and release continue to improve. 

Experienced anglers truly care and respect all the fish they catch, it is important that every angler (young and old) gains better knowledge to reduce the mortality rates.

You can read more on catch and release fishing here! 

Steve Fitzjohn