By Brad Wiegmann

You just caught the biggest fish of your life! You’ve got to admire it, show it off, get a picture or three, but be aware that for the healthiest “throw back” fish, you need to get it back into the water as quickly as possible.

“How long should you keep a fish out of water? I get that question a lot,” said Gene Gilliland, B.A.S.S. National Conservation Director. “A good general rule-of-thumb to follow is to only keep a fish out of water for the amount of time that you can hold your breath.”

Extended exposure to air can cause undue stress and physiological complications in fish. The gill layers can collapse, resulting in the filaments sticking together and causing breathing problems once released. Here are five steps to quickly releasing fish:

1.    Have a plan and keep the net, a pair of needle nose pliers and the camera handy.
2.    If possible, keep the fish in the water while removing the hook.
3.    Use a soft, wet cloth to lay the fish on while removing the hook.
4.    Land the fish as quickly as possible to reduce stress and fatigue.
5.    Try barbless hooks for quicker removal and release.

The survival rate for fish increases exponentially the less time it’s kept out of the water. One trick, if you’re fishing out of a boat, is to immediately place the fish in the live well with the water treated with a chemical formula that rejuvenates the fish. Then after a few minutes, remove the fish from the ‘well, snap a few pictures and release it.

If the fish is somewhat sluggish when you place it back into the water, grip it by the tail under water and push the fish forward and pull it back to force water across the gills. When the fish is recuperated and ready to say goodbye, it will shake free and swim off to be caught another day.