Is Fly-fishing Always Catch and Release? The Unwritten Code

Being a fishing guide that offers both fly-fishing and bait fishing charters, I have witnessed varying opinions on whether or not to harvest fish. It is fascinating to see the varying mindsets. From the person who only fishes to eat, to the die-hard conservationist that releases everything. One of the more common questions I receive is whether fly-fishing is always catch and release. 

catch and release red

Fly-fishing is not always catch and release. The majority of fly-fishermen target game fish for sport, but many will choose to harvest fish. However, most species targeted for fly-fishing carry very little table fare value. As a result, catch and release is practiced often, but it is not mandatory.

Below I will discuss when it makes sense to harvest fish while fly fishing and what species are my favorite to keep. More importantly, we will review why you should choose to release certain fish and the effects this has on your ability to continue to enjoy a sustainable fishery. 

When is fly-fishing catch and release?

Mandated catch and release requirements are set by state and federal agencies. Examples of such agencies are the NOAA, and your local fish and wildlife commissions. It is your responsibility as an angler to be familiar with and abide by all bag limits and closures in your region.

Outside of these laws, no one can force you to release a fish that is legal for harvest, but there are times where it will make sense to do so. 

release tarpon

Sport fishing over harvest fishing

The sport of fly-fishing is designed to test your skills as an angler and is considered one of the most technical types of fishing. The enjoyment stems from the ability to present a cast, trick the fish into eating feathers, and long hard fights.

Fly fishing isn’t about quantity

Fly-fishing is not an efficient way to catch great numbers of fish. As a result, it is rarely done in an effort to feed themselves or their families. To a fly-fisherman, the fight far exceeds the table fare quality of the fish. Therefore, it is very common for fly-fishermen to target game fish that are not edible.

fighting fish

What species are considered game fish?

Gamefish includes species such as tarpon, bonefish, permit, and jacks. These species offer some incredible fights, aerial acrobatics, and can be challenging to feed.

What they do not offer is quality meat for harvest. When fly-fishermen are targeting these fish, it is strictly sport and they are always released. 

Conservation is critical to fly fisherman

Fly-fishing is primarily done by sight. It is difficult to make continuous blind casts with a fly rod all day. Your arm will want to fall off. Using sight as the primary way to find fish causes fly-fishermen to become more in tune with the environment.

It becomes easy to see degradation in habitats such as seagrass loss and water quality deterioration. These effects on an environment undoubtedly hurt fish populations. This has become a major factor in the choice of fly-fishermen to choose to become catch and release only, even if the species is edible.

catch and release

Why fly fisherman support catch and release

Many have decided that the love of the sport of catching fish outweighs the need to eat that fish. There is no arguing the fact that as populations grow, there is increased pressure on fish resources.

By practicing catch and release, these resources are more sustainable for future generations.

Trust local guide knowledge 

When fishing in unfamiliar areas or using a guide, it is always best to take a guide’s recommendation. They are on the water for a living and have a good pulse on their local fishery. 

Guides have the insight to know if certain fish populations are decreasing, and may choose to implement a catch and release only policy while fishing on their boat. In some cases, this policy may only apply to certain species they feel are more at risk. Others may have a blanket policy across the board.

If you are planning on keeping any catch while fishing with a guide, be sure to discuss this prior to booking a trip. 

catch and release snook

When does it make sense to keep fish?

I am willing to bet that the majority of fly-fishermen enjoy eating fish. Just because an angler has decided to practice catch and release, it does not mean that they do not keep a fish from time to time.

Personally, I practice catch and release the majority of the time, however, some species taste too good to throw back. Below are some scenarios where fly-fishermen may choose to harvest fish. 

Injured Fish

The most common scenario in which a fly-fisherman will choose to keep a fish is when the fish is injured during the fight. The leading cause of fish injuries is from being “gut hooked.” Gut hooked refers to when the fly is swallowed so deep that the hook has penetrated vital areas. 

Survival rates of gut hooked fish are extremely low. Gut hooked fish tend to bleed excessively and will become prone to infection.

Best way to release a gut hooked fish

Occasionally a gut hooked fish will lose its ability to feed, causing it to die. If you choose to try to release a gut hooked fish, it is best to cut the line and leave the hook in the fish. Leaving the hook intact will allow the wound to heal while the hook rusts out.

If the hook is extracted and the fish is bleeding excessively, you are probably better off just harvesting the fish. There is no point in throwing a dead fish back in the water that can be eaten. This is assuming it is legal to harvest that species of fish.

Fighting to the death

Certain species will leave it all on the table during a fight and will die from exhaustion. One species that comes to mind is tuna. Trying to revive a tuna is almost impossible.

Another species that fits this category is salmon. Salmon are usually targeted during their journey to spawn. The swim upstream to spawn is exhausting in and of itself. Couple this with exhaustion from the fight, and salmon stand very little chance to survive release.

In these situations, it is better to eat the fish than release them. 

harvest fish flounder

Fly-fishing harvest mindset: Take only what you need

From time to time, it is nice to eat fresh fish. Even when a fish is not injured, fly-fishermen may choose to keep some fish to eat for dinner. The amount harvested is typically only enough to eat fresh, and is not for filling the freezer. When fishing in remote places or camping, harvesting fish for dinner makes sense.

For example, when camping in the everglades, there is nothing better than sitting around the fire and cooking up fresh fish after a day on the water!

In Alaska, guides will take your catch and cook it over a grill along the banks of rivers while fishing. This is how lunch is provided for the guests.

The overall common theme of harvesting fish while fly-fishing is never taking more than you need. 

sheephead catch

Species-specific harvesting

Certain species of fish are just too delicious to throw back. I have had many days on the water fly-fishing where a surprise catch led me to harvest the fish.

For example, in my region of North Florida it is rare to catch flounder on fly. To me, these are one of the best eating fish in the ocean. So, when I am fortunate to catch one on fly he is coming home with me!

flounder catch

Species that are not common to catch on fly, but are incredible table fare (in my opinion), include triple tail, sheephead, and snapper.


The decision to practice catch and release while fly-fishing is completely up to you. While regulations will prohibit you from harvesting certain species and the amount taken, there is nothing wrong with harvesting fish while fly-fishing. 

In general, the majority of fly-fishermen follow an unwritten code of catch and release as a way of preserving a sport they love.