How to fish for food, fun and future fisherman

CATCH RELEASE: Liam Curtis shows how to safely support a 92cm flathead from Lake Conjola.
CATCH RELEASE: Liam Curtis shows how to safely support a 92cm flathead from Lake Conjola.

Are you into catch-and-release fishing? Or do you prefer catching a nice bag of fish to feed your family and friends? 

Whatever gets you out of bed to go fishing, you are bound to let some fish go, whether it’s because they’re too small, too large (in the case of a ‘slot’ limit), caught during closed season or an undesirable species.

A big fish will spawn a new generation for next year and an undersized fish will grow up to be a big fish, so it’s in our interest as anglers to ensure they are healthy after release.  According to NSW DPI Fisheries more than 90% of fish released will survive — if we follow a few simple steps.

Deep hooking

If you remember nothing else from this article, remember this: deep hooking is the number one reason fish die after capture. When a fish swallows the hook past the mouth and towards the stomach, don’t try and remove it. Instead, simply cut the line as close to the mouth as possible. The chance of survival improves from just 12–29% to more than 70%. Research with bream shows the hook is typically shed within three weeks.  Of course, prevention is always better than a cure.  Artificial lures rarely cause deep hooking; if you use bait, circle hooks are best. 


Fishing with barbless hooks and using single hooks instead of trebles are two tricks to reduce mouth damage and to speed up release time. Rob Paxevanos assures us that barbless hooks require four times less pressure to enter the fish, converting more bites to hook-ups, so they’re a win for anglers too.  From first-hand (and first aid) experience, we can testify that barbless hooks are a lot safer for everyone.

Landing nets

Ok, so you’ve got a fish on the hook and you wind it in towards your feet.  You reach for the landing net and scoop it up.  Is it one of those knotted string nets?  Unfortunately these nets easily cut through the webbing between the fins, damage scales and remove protective slime.  The new designs of closed plastic and rubber nets are much kinder.

Give us a hand

The best way to release a fish is to leave it in the water so its weight is supported.  Hanging a fish by the hook, from the gills or a set of weight scales puts a lot of stress on it, especially fish over a kilogram.  If you need to bring it aboard to take a photo or to measure, leave it in the net or support its belly with your second hand. NSW Fisheries have released plastic measuring mats with length to weight conversions so you can tell your mates how heavy your fish was by simply measuring its length – how clever!

What about lip grips?

Research into the use of lip grips on barramundi and bonefish has shown that they can cause significant damage to the mouth and neck vertebrae.  This mirrors our local experience where flathead and tailor often hurt themselves while trying to shake free.  While lip grips may have a role when a fish is otherwise restrained and supported, in a net for example, consider using a wet rag or glove to hold the fish instead.

A fish out of water

Everyone loves a good photo but research suggests that a fish kept out of water for one minute will generally be ok, but after three minutes it’s far less likely to survive. This means one minute is the maximum time you should take to get a photo. Place the fish back in the water or live well between each shot if you need to play around with camera settings (or your hair style).

Final release

When releasing any fish, gently place it in the water and support it upright for a moment until it gathers its bearings and disappears back into the depths. 

Following these simple steps will ensure more fish survive and will improve the fishery for everyone – fish included!

For more information, check out the new NSW catch and release page and handbook, available from:

Until next time, see you on the flats!

Graham Fifield & Hamish Webb