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How to Fish Responsibly: 22 Tips for Minimizing Harm to Fish and their Habitats

By Alix Soliman, Operations Manager
January 27, 2021

I n December, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) adopted an emergency rule change to limit fishing opportunities in the Olympic Peninsula because wild steelhead are facing declining abundance trends in a majority of Washington's coastal rivers. Under the new rules, anglers are restricted from fishing from watercraft, using bait and barbed hooks (among other selective gear rules), and from keeping rainbow trout.

The expected impact of WDFW’s rule change is that Washington guides and anglers will be more inclined to fish on Oregon's North Coast. Further, ODFW saw an uptick in the number of fishing licenses sold in 2020 due to Covid-19, and the increased level of interest in fishing is likely to continue this year.

With this increased pressure on North Coast recreational fisheries, it’s critically important that anglers reduce their impact as much as possible so that more stringent rules aren’t put in place to limit fishing opportunities in the area.

Whether you’re keeping or releasing your catches, whether you’re in a drift boat or on the bank, whether you’re using a spinning or fly rod, it’s up to each and every angler to fish responsibly so we can keep access to North Coast fisheries open. Below are some simple steps you can take to ensure you’re fishing responsibly.

Tips for Responsible Fishing
Know before you go

1. Know and follow all state angling rules and regulations, and make sure you’re up-to-date with any changes. Check ODFW or WFDW fishing updates before you go out.
2. Make sure you’re well-informed about how to identify fish species and how to tell if they’re a wild or hatchery fish before you venture out. If you’re not confident in your knowledge, go with someone who is.

Location, location, location

3. Don’t fish or tread on the redds. Avoid actively spawning fish. This unethical behavior has been noticed happening on Nehalem and Salmonberry Rivers specifically.
4. Clean and dry angling equipment (especially wading boots) and boats between trips to prevent the spread of aquatic “hitchhikers.” This helps to prevent the inadvertent transport of invasive exotics that may threaten the integrity of an aquatic ecosystem.
5. When sharing the water, allow fellow anglers ample room so you do not disturb anyone's fishing experience or overfish one hole. When fishing from watercraft, do not crowd other anglers or craft. Do not block entrances to bays or otherwise impede others.
6. When we go through long periods of low water and then suddenly get a high water, make sure you’re not crowding popular holes (yes, even if the fish are biting).
7. Respect private property and always ask permission before entering or fishing private property. Understand and follow the local customs and practices associated with the fishery.

Minimize harm

8. The longer it takes you to fight and land a fish, the more lactic acid and stress hormones build up in its body. To minimize stress on the fish, use the proper weight-class tackle and land the fish quickly.
9. Only keep the fish you plan to eat, release all of the rest. After you’ve caught all you’ll keep, use pliers to pinch down barbs in an effort to minimize harm to the fish. Remove the hook quickly and gently while keeping the fish underwater.
10. Use barbless hooks if you plan to release. Barbless hooks cause less damage to the fish and make the de-hooking process easier, quicker, and more humane.
11. Keep fish submerged in water the whole time! Keep your hands wet when handling fish. Do not use a towel or gloves to handle the fish as they might wipe off their protective coating.
12. If you’re taking a photo, cradle the fish at water level and quickly take the picture. In Washington, it’s illegal to remove wild fish from the water.
13. When releasing, gently and slowly move the fish back and forth under the surface to get water running through its gills until it swims away.

Choose gear mindfully

14. Use proper weight-class tackle.
15. Use non-lead fishing weights whenever possible. Lead is toxic.
16. Use a cotton or rubber net — not nylon.

Keep it clean

17. Tread carefully. Use trails that are already established, avoid overhung sections of the bank, and don’t attempt to move log jams or boulders. Do not unnecessarily disturb the water by improperly lowering anchors or slapping the water with paddles or oars. Take precautions to keep your shadow from falling across the water (when walking a high bank)
18. Don’t throw trash in the water or along the shore. Every time you change locations, do a 360 check of the area to make sure you didn’t accidentally leave any trash. Carry a trash bag to pack out your trash.
19. If you see litter (old lures, snagged lines in trees, soda cans, etc.), remove it if possible and safe. If all anglers removed trash each time they went out, we’d have cleaner waterways.
20. Use fish cleaning stations. Keep a fold-out table or tray stored in your car or boat in case the site you’re fishing doesn’t have one. Clean fish as they are caught offshore, and toss fish waste only in open, unrestricted water or at sea if state regulations allow. Never toss fish waste in a marina basin.

Spread the word

21. Hold each other accountable. If you see someone fishing in an irresponsible or harmful manner, assume they’re new or just don’t know the right way, and respectfully offer to help. They will likely appreciate it (and the fish certainly will).
22. Share this information widely! We all grow smarter together.