A procedure previously used for sex steroids was adapted to extract free cortisol and cortisone from water samples taken from rainbow trout Oncorhynchus mykiss tanks. Both corticosteroids could be readily detected by radioimmunoassay (RIA), with cortisol being predominant. All stages of the sampling, extraction and RIA procedure were validated for cortisol. An intermittent problem with poor replication was traced to the use of diethyl ether during the extraction procedure, and was overcome by the use of ethyl acetate. Other modifications were also introduced to speed up the procedure. The concentration and time course of release of both corticosteroids were shown to be related to the degree of stress that the fish had been subjected to. It was confirmed that cortisol concentrations in water and estimated cortisol release rates increased in response to handling stress, and that both were correlated with plasma cortisol concentrations. The potential for using water cortisol concentration and release rates to assess the primary stress response of fishes as a non-invasive alternative to blood sampling is discussed.