One of the more interesting and spirited topics in fly-fishing circles is whether to fish during the spawns. But the ethical debate is a subject for another time. Regardless of what anyone thinks about it, people are going to fish the spawns because it provides one of the better opportunities at catching a trophy fish.

Colorado has two spawning seasons for trout: cutthroats and rainbows migrate to spawn in spring while browns spawn in fall.

The real reason I’m addressing this is that I believe that education is as important as state regulations in preserving our public fisheries, and I wanted to share some pointers on safely handling trout.

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There are several mistakes that I often see on catch and release rivers.

The first – and probably the biggest mistake – occurs during the landing: Holding a fish in the air while letting it bounce around in the net is a big no-no.

Most people don’t realize how fragile trout are, especially during the spawn. The fish has been fighting you to the point of exhaustion and now is left bouncing around in a net. The best way to reduce mortality rates when practicing catch and release is to keep your net and the fish in the water immediately after the landing.

The next step is handling fish. The first thing anglers should do before picking up a fish is to wet their hands. The quickest way to kill a trout is to strip off the slimy coat that covers its skin, and wetting your hands will help protect against that.

What if you land the fish of a lifetime and want to take a photo to capture the memory?

First, make sure your photographer has the camera ready and shot framed. Then, with one hand holding the tail and the other cradling the belly just behind the pectoral fins, lift the fish without squeezing and take a photo before quickly returning the fish to the water.

Patti Donner and her Catch and Release Cutthroat Trout - OutThere Colorado
Patti Donner of Colorado Springs catches a cutthroat trout on Mason Reservoir on the South Slope of Pikes Peak. Donner released the fish. Photo Credit: Christian Murdock

In most cases, all that’s left to do is release the fish and let it swim off under its own power.

If the fish is showing signs of fatigue and wanting to go belly up, do not rock it back and forth. Water coming back through the gills is an improper entry and makes it harder for the fish to breathe. Rocking it back and forth also does more damage because you’re handling the fish and stripping more of the protective slime off.

Instead, face the trout upstream so that the water is entering the gills through the mouth, and hold it there until it has the strength to swim off.

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For many people, catch and release fishing is a strange concept.

I can’t count the times I’ve received weird looks after I’ve told people that I haven’t kept a fish since I was a teenager. I’m also not about to pass judgment if someone wants to keep a fish for dinner, so long as they are following the rules and regulations.

Either way, catch and release fisheries are important to Colorado, and the more we can do to reduce fish mortality rates the better.

Practice these techniques and pass this knowledge to a friend, and we’ll have more fish to name in our Gold Medal Waters.

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