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Leier: A few simple steps will increase the odds of successful catch-and-release fishing

Fish caught in deep water may not survive because of the extreme change in water pressure, which causes the swim bladder to expand.

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Proper catch-and-release technique is not just for summer fishing.
Contributed / North Dakota Game and Fish Department
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WEST FARGO — When we think about proper catch-and-release, we often think of stressed fish in warm water during the dog days of August.

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Doug Leier is an outreach biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Reach him at

Most anglers who choose to release fish they catch or must do so by law – for instance, undersized fish or fish with a protected slot limit on waters where length regulations exist – take great pride in not causing undue harm or delay so the fish is released safely.

One of the important points to consider for catch-and-release fishing, which is just as relevant during winter as it is in summer, is whether to release fish caught from deep water.

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department, no matter the time of year, recommends that anglers do not release fish caught in 30 feet or more of water, because fish reeled in from those depths have a greater chance of dying if released.

Fish caught in deep water may not survive because of the extreme change in water pressure, which causes the swim bladder to expand. When that happens, fish can no longer control their balance in the water column.


Other internal injuries, such as rupturing of organs and bleeding, are also possible for fish caught from deep waters.

"The week is designed to help raise public awareness for aquatic nuisance species and the steps we can take to prevent them from getting into our waterways," says Ben Holen, North Dakota Game and Fish Department ANS coordinator.
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Devils Lake ice anglers commonly catch yellow perch in 30 to 45 feet of water during the winter months. Game and Fish does not discourage anglers from fishing at those depths, but the agency does ask anglers who target fish in deeper water to make a commitment to keep what they catch. And once they reach their limit, anglers should stop fishing at that depth to avoid killing more than their limit of fish.

Here are a few pointers and tips for proper catch-and-release in general:

  • Land the fish quickly and don't play it to exhaustion.
  • Set the hook quickly to reduce the likelihood the fish will swallow the bait.
  • Don't put your fingers in the eyes or gills of the fish.
  • Avoid removing mucous or scales.
  • Get the fish back in the water as quickly as possible. In winter, subfreezing temperatures are an injury factor in addition to lack of oxygen intake when fish are out of the water.
  • If the hook is deep within the fish or can't be removed quickly, cut the line close to the fish's mouth.
  • Back the hook out the opposite way it went in.
  • Use needle-nose pliers, hemostats or a hook-out to remove the hook and protect your hands.
  • Try to resuscitate an exhausted fish by moving it back and forth to force water through its gills.

Anglers want to enjoy their fishing while at the same time implementing the best practices for efficient catch-and-release. Simply put, releasing a fish that will not likely survive defeats the purpose, and while there’s no 100% guarantee these practices will ensure survival, they will increase the odds.

Doug Leier is an outreach biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Reach him at
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