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Leaving Lakes, Rivers, and Streams Better Than We Found Them

by John Harrington, Jr.

Where to Begin with Conservation

Whether you’ve spent your whole life outdoors, or are just getting started with fly fishing, conservation is something that everyone plays a role in. Whether they realize it or not.

When done right, it can and will make a difference. Same for when it is done wrong. The purpose of this article is to give you a general understanding of the type of role you can play in leaving the water you choose to fish in better than you found it. So that you and generations to come can enjoy and appreciate the outdoors and wildlife for what they are.

As a quick disclaimer before we jump in – I am by no means an expert on this topic (!) The views expressed here are based on my own understanding and experience. There are plenty of people out there who dedicate their life to conservation, personally and professionally. All I do is practice what they preach when I have the opportunity. So what I am sharing with you are things I’ve picked up over the years that any angler can try out when they approach a stream, a river, or a lake. It doesn’t contain everything, just a few tips, but it should be enough to get you started, reflect on what you’re currently doing, or possibly help you change for the better.

Proper Disposal of Waste When on the Water

Proper Disposal of Waste When on the Water

We’ve all been there. You just spent a long time in the car excited to get to the water. You’re walking from the parking lot and are mentally preparing for where you’ll set up and what fly you’ll be casting. Along the way you see an empty container of Berkley PowerBait. A crushed beer can that is covered in dirt. A few tattered plastic bags from CVS caught up in the bushes. Someone’s mono rig wrapped around a tree like a Christmas decoration. It’s sad, but it’s also predictable. And not a single place is immune to it.

The best thing you can do in this situation is pick it up and properly dispose of it in a trash or recycling receptacle. Many times, I’ll fill up my landing net with trash. It's crazy how fast it piles up. Bring something you can collect trash in, and make a concerted effort to clean up after those that haven’t formed the best habits. Know that what you are doing isn’t going to solve the overall problem, but for the place you are in, it is making a difference. One trip at a time.

When it comes to fishing, you can also do your part to reduce waste finding its way into the natural habitat. For example, keep a microtrash container on your person to dispose of tippet and waste, instead of clipping line and tippet into the water and contributing to the microplastics problem that is plaguing freshwater ecosystems.

Rights and Wrongs when it Comes to Handling Fish

This one may seem very straightforward. But if you spend any time on social media, you’ll quickly see that all too many people get this one wrong. Let’s remember that most of the photos and videos you’ve seen with poor fish handling weren’t due to bad intentions – rather, the person wasn’t properly instructed how to handle fish the right way, so they do what they saw someone else do and perpetuate the problem.

The harsh reality is that fishing is a blood sport. Each time your fly has been cast, there’s an inherent risk that you will foul hook a fish and mortally wound it. It could break off, with your rig lodged in its mouth. At times, your imitation will be so realistic that the fish will swallow up your hook deep into its mouth, making it difficult to retrieve even with hemostats or pliers. Water temperatures can also rise to unsafe levels where the stress of being caught can end a fish’s life (Pro Tip: check temps with a stream thermometer before you wet a line!)

All of this to say: once you’ve landed a fish, you have direct control over its survival. Here are some common do’s and don'ts that you should adhere to if you aim to improve the survival rate of your catch.


  • Invest in a landing net with durable rubber mesh
  • Pinch your barbs to ease removal of hooks. Or just use barbless hooks.
  • Get ready to snap a photo before removing the fish from the water and net
  • Take off your gloves and wet both of your hands before touching fish
  • Keep the fish wet, minimizing every second you expose the fish to air
  • Promptly release the fish facing upstream


  • Pursue fish when the temperatures are too high (e.g., trout fishing at or above 67 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Use barbed hooks
  • Handle fish with gloves or dry hands
  • Expose the fish to oxygen for long periods of time to take photos
  • Drop the fish or drag it directly onto rocks or grass

What if You Aren’t Catching and Releasing?

If you plan to keep your fish instead of releasing it, study the water it is coming from; some bodies of water can be dangerous to consume fish from due to contaminants. In some, the population is severely depleted, so keeping every chess piece on the board is critical to continue playing the game. Also make sure you are adhering to local laws and regulations and know what your fishing license enables you to do. Some stretches of water are catch and release only, and many have limits that you will absolutely need to be mindful of. These exist for a reason, to protect your quarry. Assuming you’ve done your homework on all of the above, I recommend respecting the fish by promptly striking it on its head (a single, accurate, crushing blow) and clean it right on the spot. Carry a creel to keep it cool before you are ready to consume it.

Invasive Aquatic Species: Do Your Research

Chances are, if you fish a lot, you’ve fished in one spot, and brought some hitch hikers along for the ride to your next. You probably didn’t mean to, but that’s how it works. They’re called invasive aquatic species for a reason, and they love to come along for the ride wherever you are going. 

The best thing you can do is research before you go to any given body of water. Know what it contains, and know what you can do proactively to avoid the spread to other systems of water that are not presently impacted.

For example, some of the local streams I enjoy fishing have New Zealand Mud Snails. Except for the one or two times I tried escargot, I think snails are pretty gross. But I dislike these even more because they’re not native to the water I enjoy fishing; they are competing with the native species for resources, disrupting the natural habitat, and negatively impacting the quality of the water.

So, what I do is I make my best effort to thoroughly inspect and clean my gear when I get home by hosing down everything and leaving it out in the air and sun to completely dry for a few hours. I avoid going from stream to stream when I know one has a problem and the other does not.

What you decide to do is going to depend on where you go, and the types of problems that are impacting the setting. But the more you know, the better you can prepare and protect the natural settings that you decide to spend your time in.

Find a Local TU Chapter, and Volunteer When You Can

The number one reason I enjoy fly fishing is getting some sun, fresh air, and enjoying the peace of nature. Part of that is taking in the wild life that exists in the setting, and admiring its beauty.

With each fishing trip, I’ve come to recognize the fragility of nature and the important role that humans play in preserving it over time. With our knowledge, data, and resources, humans have never been more capable of doing the right thing for the world we live in. 

One way you can do that is looking into local organizations and nonprofits that dedicate their time and effort to preserving our natural resources. One such example is Trout Unlimited, which spends time, money, and countless effort preserving lakes, rivers, and streams throughout the country.

Since joining my local TU chapter, I’ve had some amazing opportunities to create some impact:

  • Planted trees to support the riparian buffer zone.
  • Supported TU’s efforts to protect a fragile native trout population when water levels were too low and temperatures were too high.
  • Placed trout eggs in a local tributary that at one point had a thriving population. 

Each of these examples may seem small in the big scheme of things. However, if you also do your part where you live in the water you fish in – rest be assured that it adds up! I hope you found some of my perspective useful, if nothing else, an opportunity to reflect on what you’re doing and the real control you have over the tomorrow that we’d all like to see.