How Long Can Trout Live Out of Water? Fresh Air Exposure

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Danny holding the South Dakota Tiger Trout

There isn’t an exact time limit out of the water trout can’t surpass before they die. Their survival time depends on the fight, water conditions, temperature, and overall health. Generally, trout can last no more than 4 minutes out of the water before they die.

When I caught my first 18-inch trout, adrenaline pumped through my veins, but I was also highly unorganized. The trout was in my net, tangled in my nymph rig, and I struggled to keep it in the water while trying to untangle and unhook it. I kept it out of the water for too long, and it took a minute to revive it fully. I handled it poorly, potentially costing the fish its life. 

Trout Exposure to Open Air 

Whether you’ve landed a trout along the bank, in a drift boat, or in the stream, trout undergo a series of physical changes while in the fresh air. Like humans drown when underwater for too long, trout drown when exposed to fresh air for too long.

As trout leave the water, their lungs begin working in overdrive. Their lungs collapse if they don’t return to the water within a minute. As soon as the longs collapse, the trout die. Trout are more sensitive than bass and other freshwater fish, so their fresh air tolerance is lower than that of other fish. 

Trout get their oxygen from the water. The water passes through their gills, and dissolved oxygen is absorbed. Trout have blood vessels that help extract the necessary oxygen. After they absorb the oxygen, carbon dioxide releases into the water. 

Trout lose the ability to extract oxygen when exposed to fresh air for too long. They’re unable to extract oxygen from the air. Without water passing over their gills, they suffocate. 

Keeping Trout out of the Water

Anglers love their pictures. We work hard to purchase our gear, get to the fishing spot, and catch the fish. Pictures are a part of the reward for our hard work. 

However, these pictures keep trout in the air for potentially dangerous times. A recent study of 300 Idaho anglers discovered that most anglers keep trout out of the water for 26 seconds on average. 

Generally, trout released in under 60 seconds can swim away with little to no damage, depending on the fight and water conditions. If the water is below 60 degrees, and you don’t put the fish through a several-minute fight, they have a high survival rate. 

However, if you’re fishing in warm water and putting the fish through an exhausting fight, a 60-second exposure to the air can greatly inhibit its swimming performance. A struggling trout is the perfect target for predators. They must try to recover and avoid larger fish or aerial predators. 

Whenever you’re holding a fish out of the water, try to limit its air exposure as much as possible. I’ll fight the fish, land it, and keep it in the net until I’m ready to take the picture. 

Minimize the fight time, fish cold water, and release the fish as quickly as possible. This keeps fish populations healthy for generations. 

Danny catching the  Tiger Trout in the river.
Driftless Region Tiger Trout

How to Keep Trout Fresh After Catching

If you keep the trout you catch, you have a few options to keep them fresh. You can immediately dispatch or keep them in the water until the picture ends. 

Clean Them Immediately

I like to cut the throat of the trout, bleed it, and remove the guts and innards as quickly as I can. The meat tastes the most fresh when I clean the fish soon after I catch them. 

Once the fish are cleaned and rinsed, you want them on ice as soon as possible. This prevents bacteria from growing and gives the fish the best possible taste. When in doubt, I clean my fish as soon as I can. I don’t want to mess with bacteria or other issues. 

Keep Trout on a Stringer

If I’m not cleaning the fish immediately, I keep them on a stringer in moving water. Thankfully, most trout waters are cold, so the fish don’t need to get on ice right away. 

Keeping them in moving water allows water to pass over their gills and produce fresh oxygen. I also like to place them in the shade so they don’t get continuous direct sunlight. If the conditions are right, they’ll stay alive for a long time. 

However, as their bodies undergo more stress, it can spoil the meat, so don’t leave them on a stringer all day. Take a break, clean your fish, get them on ice, and return to fishing. 

Montana trout on the grass.
Montana trout

Catch and Release Safety

If you want to practice catch and release, there are a few necessary strategies to keep the fish as healthy as possible. Safe and ethical catch and release practices save the lives of fish. 

Wet Your Hands

Trout have a protective slime on their bodies that protects them from fungal and bacterial infections. Plus, it keeps them agile in the water. If you grab a trout with dry hands, you’ll rub that protective slime off their bodies, exposing them to harm. Always thoroughly wet your hands before you touch trout. 

Use Barbless Hooks

Barbless hooks are another tool catch-and-release anglers can use to keep fish safe. When fighting fish on barbless hooks, you can’t horse them in as much as you could with barbed lures, hooks, and flies.

They pop right out of the mouths of the fish and don’t require you to grab onto the fish and wrestle the hook out of their mouths. Use your forceps, grab the bend of the hook, pop it out, and release the fish. 

If you purchase lures and flies with barbs, your forceps can crush the barbs. Otherwise, a set of pliers does the trick. Barbless hooks keep fish safe. 

Keep the Fish in the Net

One of the best things you can do for trout is keep them in the net for as long as possible. Keep them in the water while you remove the hook, and only take them out when you’re snapping a picture and releasing them. There’s no need to pick them up to remove the hook or do anything else. 

Revive the Fish

When releasing the fish, don’t just let it go into the water and let it swim away. Hold the fish under the belly and move it back and forth. The movement gets water passing over their gills and boosts their energy. When the trout are ready, they’ll give one strong push and dart into the water. It’s a small step that makes a difference. 

Frequently Asked Questions 

Why Do Trout Die When They Touch the Ground?

Trout don’t immediately die when they touch the ground. However, their protective slime gets wiped away, and they spend time out of the water. Laying a trout on the ground for two or three minutes is likely to kill them, but if they’re on the ground for a few seconds, they don’t die. 

How Long Do Fish Live After Being Caught? 

Most fish can live out of the water for a couple of minutes. If they aren’t put back into the water quickly, they’re at risk of death. 

At What Water Temperature Do Trout Die? 

Water over 70 degrees is dangerous for trout. They need cool, oxygenated water, and as soon as it gets over 65 or 70 degrees, they’re at risk of death. 


Yes, catching trout is an absolute blast. They fight hard, live in beautiful places, and offer fishing experiences unlike anything else. However, our job as anglers is to protect these fish to the best of our abilities. They can’t survive long out of the water, so do your part to keep them in water and only take them out when necessary. They need our help. 

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