Keep 'em Wet To Conserve Mat-Su’s Resident Fish

Ben Rowell.jpg

Contributed by Ben Rowell

March is my favorite winter month. The days are getting longer, the temperature is rising and it’s prime time for most outdoor winter activities. But March also means our long winter will soon be over, and for many Alaskans like me, that means one thing – fishing season.

During winter, we prepare for this time, hunched under task lamps in garages, spare rooms and kitchen tables, by tying tens and even hundreds of flies. It’s a hobby that requires patience, attention to detail and creativity. The flies are made of feathers and synthetic material designed to mimic smolt, sculpin and leeches.They come in all colors and patterns, and at the end of winter, a fly fisher can amass quite an arsenal. My wife recently remarked, “You sure do have a lot of flies. You should go fishing more so you lose some.” Those are words I thought I’d never hear.

Shortly after break up begins, Mat-Su fly fishers will migrate to stream banks to intercept resident fish species, such as trout and grayling, just as the fish are migrating from main branches of rivers to tributaries. We’ll try to entice a skinny, calorie-starved trout into eating our flies to log our first catch of the season.

For most of the fishing I do, aside for salmon, I practice catch and release. My joy of fishing comes from the metronomic art of casting, absorbing the quiet in absence of everyday urban noises and just being outside. And of course, I love landing beautiful fish, big and small (but I really like the big ones).

This year, I’ll be making a greater effort to handle our resident species with much greater care than I have in the past. While I like to think released fish swim away unharmed, I haven’t always felt confident that the fish would live long after it’s been returned to the water. To increase the survival rate of released fish, I’ll be following these three principles from Keepemwet Fishing during the upcoming season:

Photo by Chad Gage: Photographing fish in the water easier on the fish and makes for more interesting photographs.

Photo by Chad Gage: Photographing fish in the water easier on the fish and makes for more interesting photographs.

1. Minimize Air Exposure

Holding a fish out of the water prevents recovery and can lead to death if done for too long. Even shorter durations can have serious effects on short-term and long-term fish health. Reduce these health effects by keeping the mouth and gills fully submerged in the water as much as possible during handling.

For photographs, keep the fish in the water. If a fish is momentarily taken out of the water, keep it as close to the water as possible and fully submerge it between pictures to give it a quick breather. 

2. Eliminate Contact with Dry Surfaces

Contact with dry surfaces can remove protective slime and make fish more susceptible to diseases. Additionally, if placed on a dry surface, there is an increased likelihood that a fish could injure itself by thrashing around on streamside rocks or the bottom of the boat.  

To eliminate contact with dry surfaces, try to land fish in the water, wet your hands prior to handling fish and hold fish in or slightly above the water, away from dry or hard surfaces.

3. Reduce Handling

Handling a fish too much can also remove slime and cause internal injuries or death.  Over-handling can be caused by not being prepared when the fight is over.

Photo by Ben Rowell: Reviving a leopard rainbow trout in Montana Creek.

Photo by Ben Rowell: Reviving a leopard rainbow trout in Montana Creek.

Minimize handling and help fish return to the water more quickly by using barbless hooks (they slip out easier) and rubber nets (they remove less slime), and have tools easily accessible. For example, I keep forceps on a lanyard worn around my neck so I can grab them quickly instead of fumbling through my backpack. 

I recently read a study by the Alaska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Unit at the University of Alaska Fairbanks claiming nearly 45% of rainbow trout in Willow and Montana Creeks have deformities such as cross bite, scars, dysfunctional eyes and lesions likely due to catch and release anglers. By following Keepemwet’s principles, we can all do our part to improve the health and population of our resident fish. 

I may end this season with fewer grip-ngrin type photos, but I think I’ll practice taking more creative, one of kind shots like the ones posted on Instagram’s hashtag #keepemwet. 

Ben Rowell lives in Wasilla, Alaska and hosts the International Fly Fishing Festival in Palmer and Anchorage. For more information about fly fishing in the Mat-Su Valley, visit