Telling a beginner angler to release the first fish he catches would be cruel and unusual punishment. The fishing experience isn't complete unless the fish is captured, possessed and eaten.

It's easy to tell a born fishman. If the novice finds the fish repugnant, doesn't care to feel its slimy body and wants to throw it back, he's not a fisherman. If he wants to string all fish, no matter how tiny and commonplace, he's on the verge of a helpless addiction.

Ironically, the same fanatic who keeps all the fish he catches at first generally chooses to release his quarry unharmed as his interest in the sport is refined.

Releasing fish is a subject of some complexity and can be beneficial or harmful, depending on a number of variables. Certain species need to be harvested regularly, just as whitetail deer and other games animals must be cropped, lest they outgrow the available food supply. There is nothing more disturbing than a farm pond overpopulated with dwarfed, malnourished bream - and nothing more common.

All the freshwater panfish come under this category, including blue-gills, crappie, redbreast sunfish and rock bass. Many saltwater species also need frequent thinning, such as croakers, spot, white perch, sea bass, and blufish.

With less prolific species, killing is not so easily justified. Bluefin tuna, marlin and muskie are examples of fish that are not extremely abundant and that conservation-minded anglers often return to the water.

Stream trout are another good example. Our cold-water fisheries are among the most fragile ecosystems. Many trout streams have perished over the last half-century and many of thos remaining are sustained by hatchery fish. Only in some densely populated remote streams will trout be populous enough to withstand harvesting without hurting the quality of the fishery.

Things are not quite so clear-cut where bass are concerned. Releasing bass is definitely a good idea on heavily-fished waters. That's not because bass are necessarily scarce in these lakes, but because certain bass are born "biters" and certain bass are not. If all the bass that readily strike anglers' offerings are culled, a population of bass that fishermen rarely catch will remain. Result: poor fishing.

Size of the fish also comes into play where bass are concerned. The most prolific breeding bass are medium-sized fish in the two- to four-pound class. These bass should be released for their reproductive capacities.

So much for species. What of the claims of some that fish will die anyway once you touch them? Malarkey, pure and simple.

Anyone with a modicum of fishing experience will tell you this self-serving theory simply does not hold water. There are instances when a fish should not be released. The most common example is when using bait and a fish swallows the hook. If the fish is bleeding when landed, he should be dispatched and put on ice. If not bleeding, the fish may survive. Studies have shown that up to 40 per cent of gut-hooked fish can live if released.

Over the years I've caught nearly a dozen fish that had old stuck hooks in their guts. Most were fat, thriving specimens. The hooks generally showed clear signs of disintegration from digestive enzymes. One incredibly chunky bass caught at Lake Gaston had a large green plastic worm and hook embedded in his stomach.

Lactic acid builds up in fish as they struggle on the line and can be harmful if it reaches excessive levels. However, only in rare situations, such as in anadromous fish of the salmon family caught in salt water, does this reach lethal levels.

There would be little rationale for fish commissions to establish so-called "fish-for-fun" streams for trout if fish died after being caught or touched by humans. I watched an angler on the no-kill stretch of the Beaverkill catch one 17-inch brown trout three times during a Hendrickson hatch over a two-hour period. The fish started risking again soon after being released the third time.

There is a definite technique for releasing fish properly. You don't just chuck 'em back in.

With barbless hooks it is relatively simple. To make lures barbless, simply take a pair of pliers and squeeze the barb down to a flat hump. This also makes hooking fish easier.

Hook disgorgers come in handy on occasion, but if a fish is impaled deeply enough to need these, he's a poor candidate for survival. What are quite useful tools to have in the tackle box or fly vest are needle-nosed pliers and surgical forceps. These are used to grasp lure hooks and flies. A simple twist of the hand and the hook is free.

The cardinal rule for releasing fish in a healthy state is to touch them as little as possible. Excessive handling can remove their protective slime and increase the risk of bacterial infection.

A good grasp for holding bass and trout while you remove hooks is around the belly, with the weight of the fish loaded on the palm on your hand. This temporarily immobilizes the fish as the internal organs press against the spinal cord.

Fish returned to the water with care normally dart away fit as a fiddle. If the quarry is abit tired and wavers weakly, hold him upright facing the current while he regains his strength. If necessary, grab the fish by the tail and pull backwards through the water to force oxygen into the gills. Release your hands after this and see if the fish is strong enough to swim away upright. If so, he'll likely survive.

And next time you catch him, he may be twice as big.