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By Brendan Wilson

A guide to Catch & Release Salmon

Fishing for salmon has been one of my greatest pleasures over many years, and it pains me to read reports of dwindling wild salmon stocks worldwide due to global climate changes, overfishing and loss of spawning habitat.  I believe catch and release has become a vital part of salmon management to help protect future stocks. Research has shown that an angler can return salmon safely, but it does require a responsible level of care to achieve this. Good technique means more salmon spawning and more salmon to enjoy fishing for in the future.

Fair to say it gives great pleasure to see a salmon swimming away safely and strongly after the having had the pleasure of hooking and landing the fish.

Handling the fish poorly may mean it dies later when you cannot see it, all because of poor technique. So, follow the simple guidelines below and like me you too will feel the smile on your face when that fish breaks for freedom after being nursed back to the water.

How to Guide


Use small, barbless hooks, singles, or doubles:

  • They do less damage
  • Unhooking is quicker
  • It may be illegal to use large hooks on some rivers
  • Use size 8, or preferably smaller.

Always use as strong a leader or line as possible. This will ensure the fish can be brought to the net quickly and safely.


Salmon often take Flying Cs deep and more than 10% die. Fitting a barbless single will help but it is also useful to use flying c’s and lures with hooks altered or pinched with pliers, or to fly fish.

Worm Fishing

Worm fishing often results in fish dying because of the delay generally employed in striking into the fish, especially when using a float.  Where worm fishing is allowed, use a circle hook (See picture) and strike early! This will reduce the chances of deep hooking.

Planning Ahead

Before fishing a pool, always identify where a fish can be safely landed without risk of damage on rocks or stones. If fishing alone, take a net. Traditional large mesh salmon nets can cause split fins and tails (See picture).

Have long-nosed forceps or a similar tool close to hand for prompt hook removal. If you want a photo of your salmon before release, have your camera ready, for example, on a neck lanyard.

Playing Fish

Fish should be played quickly and as firmly as possible so that they can be released before becoming too exhausted.

Landing Fish

It is important, where possible that you not to lift the fish out of the water by any means. At the very least, never lift your salmon from the water by its tail, or gill cover: you will cause internal damage. Avoid taking them onto the bank or dragging them over stones or gravel. Use a soft, knotless net with small mesh size and with a shallow wide bottom to allow the fish to lie flat. Knotless mesh may soon be a legal requirement. Suitable replacement nets are normally available from all good tackle Dealers.

Fishing from Boats

If fishing from a boat, where convenient, take the boat to the shore to land the fish. If the fish is landed in a boat, ensure that the fish is laid on a flat, wet surface for unhooking. A soaking wet towel or unhooking mat is ideal for this purpose. Laying the fish upside down will often calm it for unhooking. Fish produce most of their energy from their tails, and so holding down the tail on a flat surface will keep a fish still.

Unhooking & Recovery

When the fish is quiet, remove the hook carefully and promptly with forceps. If you rupture a blood vessel you would be best advised to kill the fish as it will not survive. Fish should be allowed to recover and returned in steady clean water, but not in a fast flow. Recovery may take some time. Hold the fish gently by the tail with one hand and support the underside of the fish using your other hand, generally around the middle of the fish. Keep its head raised and sitting straight in the water. You will want to see signs of the fish’s mouth and gills opening and closing as he takes in oxygen. You can help the flow of water and oxygen by very gently moving the fish a few centimeters back and forward in the water, do this very slowly. As the fish recovers it will start to kick its tail more, only when you are satisfied he is showing signs of wanting to swim away, release your grip on the tail still holding the underside and let the fish make the decision to go. Remember, if you remove your bottom hand and the head is dropping to the riverbed or if it falls on its side it is not ready or strong enough to swim away into the current.

If fish are deep-hooked, particularly in the gills, it may not be possible to remove the hook – snip the line close to the hook. This will cause less harm to the fish than removing it. As an additional precaution, it is wise not to fish at all during extended periods of hot weather.

Recording Your Catch

Only lift the fish from the water for the minimum time necessary.

Photography – Keep the fish in or briefly just above the water. Support the fish gently under the belly and loosely hold the wrist of the tail.

Weighing – If possible, use a weigh net, or scales hooked on to a conventional net. Measuring – Do it in the water. Take a tape measure or mark up your wading staff or the butt section of your rod as an easy indicator. Weight can be estimated from length – see the scale reproduced below or see the Salmon Atlas or www.letsflyfish.com websites for an online calculation. Fish should be measured from the nose to the fork of the tail.

Fish Length to weight guide
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Trophy Annual Prize for best C & R!

East Mayo Angling Association encourage catch and release. The Swinford 250 C&R Cup is a splendid trophy presented to the winner of the largest fish caught and released annually. There are also prizes for the largest 3 fish caught and released each season.

I hope that the pointers above about safe catch and release will help the new and enthusiastic generation of anglers to understand we can still enjoy our sport while not reducing salmon stocks.

Brendan Wilson
Swinford 2020

Featured Image by Cindey Creighton / Shutterstock.com

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