By Bob Jensen

Fishing, in many places and for many species, is better today than it was in the past. We’re catching more fish, and we’re catching bigger fish. This is due partly to more information and better equipment, but also to the fact that we’ve been releasing more fish. If we keep a 16-incher, that’s where the story ends. But if we release it, there’s no telling how big it will get. In order to keep fish lively and growing, we’ve got to release them properly.

Keep these simple ideas in mind to increase the odds of survival of that fish you just caught—and to continue the trend of catching bigger fish.

1. Net Your fish. By netting your catch, you reduce the time it struggles as you fight it. Net it, then get it off the hook and back in the water quickly. Many nets today, such as the Beckman nets, are constructed with materials that are very fish-friendly.

2. Handle Your Fish Properly. To start with, don’t let the fish flop on the floor of the boat. Handle it as little as possible, and don’t put your fingers in its gills. Hold it across the back above the gill plates if the fish has teeth. Never touch the fish’s eyes. If you’re holding the fish by the jaw, as we would a bass, hold it vertically. Or if you hold it horizontally, support it with a hand on its belly. Never put the full weight of the fish on its jaw.

3. Be Mindful of How You Put Fish Back in the Water. Fish are probably tougher than we think, but we want to be as gentle with them as possible. Lower them slowly into the water. Fish from deep water, in particular, can be difficult to release. They typically don’t adjust to the change in water pressure very well. If you’re catching fish in deep water, move shallower for the release.

There’s nothing wrong with keeping a few fish. Many species of fish make outstanding table-fare, and when prepared properly they’re good for us. However, if we want to continue to catch more and bigger fish, we have to release some. Handle them carefully and get them back in the water quickly. By doing so, you’ve done your part to perpetuate and improve the fishing experience for all.