Fish and Aquatic Conservation

Responsible Fishing Tips for New Anglers

Did you know that you can be a super-star conservationist just by going fishing? Whether you prefer fly-fishing on a wild and scenic river, noodling for catfish, or dropping a line in an urban waterway, here are some basics to get you started fishing responsibly!

A young girl learns to fish
A young girl learns to fish. Photo by Steve Hillebrand/USFWS.

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Know before you go.

Before you hit the water, you’ll need a license and the local fishing regulations. Buying a fishing license is quick, easy, and supports local conservation efforts. In most states, licenses can be purchased online, by phone, or at retail establishments.

Fishing regulations keep fishing fun for future generations. Reach out to your state natural resource agency for information and help understanding the rules. Many national fish hatcheries and wildlife refuges host regular fishing derbies where you can ask questions and get some expert assistance.

Two people in life vests stand in front of a lake. One man is holding a fishing rod and a fish.
Refuge Volunteer Jerry Goran poses with a Project COMPASS client and his catch. Photo by USFWS.

Getting the right gear. 

You don’t need a lot of expensive gear to get started fishing. Many outdoor retailers sell kits that include everything you need, and a special excise tax ensures that a portion of the sales gets funneled back into conservation!

A fishing rod and reel. These can be purchased separately, but many beginners start with a combination rod and reel that comes packaged together.

4- to 12-pound-test monofilament fishing line.

A package of fishing weights.

Fish hooks (Number 6–10 size).

A plastic or cork bobber. 

A selection of bait and fishing lures.

A rubber fishing net.

If you are practicing catch and release fishing, consider using single barbless hooks and artificial lures instead of bait. Baits encourage fish to swallow hooks making survival less likely  after release.  Single barbless hooks are easier to remove quickly.

PRO-TIP: Some libraries, state agencies, national fish hatcheries, and national wildlife refuges even offer loaner programs for families and beginning anglers. Call around in your area to see what’s available!

Illustration of Fishing line wrapping around into a knot.
An illustration of the improved clinch knot.

Setting up your fishing rod - hook, line, and sinker.

Step 1: Tie on a fish hook at the end of your line. Pass line through the hook eye and, with the loose end, make 5 turns around the long end of line. Insert the loose end of the line between the eye and the first loop formed, then bring it back through the large second loop formed. Wet the line and tighten the knot slowly.

Step 2: Attach 1 or 2 sinkers, 6 to 12 inches above the hook. This weight will keep your bait or lure down in the water and will help swing it away from shore.

Step 3: Clip a bobber on the line. A bobber lets you know when fish are biting, because it moves up and down in the water as fish nibble at the bait.

A person holds a fish close to the water above a fishing net.
Cutthroat trout being released into the river. Photo by Tom Koerner/USFWS.

How to Release a Fish

Many people fish to feed their family or support their community. But there are many reasons you may need to release a fish that you’ve caught. Here are some general principles to make sure the fish you release has the best chance at surviving.

Keep fish as wet as possible. Fish have a natural mucus layer that protects them in the water. Using dry hands, cotton gloves, or other abrasives like flopping on a dry dock, can damage their protective layer. Wet your hands or use wet rubberized gloves and a rubber net to handle the fish.

Minimize air time. Fish need to be submerged in water to breath. Keep fish underwater as long as possible while removing the hook, getting ready for a photo, or preparing to release.

Plan your photo. If you take a photo of the fish, plan ahead to minimize the amount of time the fish is out of the water. Keep the fish horizontal, support the belly, and avoid the gills.

Remember to Clean. Drain. Dry. And Dispose!

One of the most important ways you can practice conservation is by preventing the spread of invasive species. Always clean and dry your boat, gear, and shoes before leaving the water, and never dump live fish or bait from one body of water into another.

A man sprays off the bottom of a boat.
Cleaning off your boat and gear can help prevent the spread of invasive species. Photo by NPS.

CLEAN off visible aquatic plants, animals, and mud from all equipment before leaving water access — including hulls, interiors, and motors.

DRAIN motors, bilge, livewells, and other water containing devices before leaving water access.

DRY everything for five days OR wipe with a towel.

DISPOSE of unwanted bait, fish parts, and packing materials, in the trash; never dump live fish or other organisms from one water body into another.

Three kids and an adult fish from a pier.
An adult watches a young boy and girl fishing from a dock. Photo by Kayt Jonsson/USFWS.

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Go Find Some Fish

The national fish hatchery system raises and stocks over 98 million fish every year to support recreational fishing, tribal subsistence fisheries, and the recovery and restoration of imperiled species. Whether you are a beginning angler wondering about walleye or teaching your kids to catch some crappie, here’s a <<round up of some of our favorite fishing tips from the experts who raise them>>.