Traditional regulatory options (formal institutions) imposed by government agencies such as harvest and gear restrictions represent the standard in recreational fisheries management, at least in developed countries. However, there exist a number of alternatives including the use of angler education programmes that attempt to evoke voluntary changes in angler behaviour, resulting in the emergence of voluntarily motivated resource-conserving informal institutions. These ‘softer’ approaches to aquatic stewardship and fisheries management can be developed in cooperation with stakeholders and in many cases are led by avid anglers and angling groups. Examples of such measures include voluntary sanctuaries, informally enforced seasonal closures, personal daily bag limits, self-imposed constraints on gear, development of entirely live-release fisheries, and adoption of fish and aquatic ecosystem conservation-oriented gears and release practices. Education efforts that provide anglers with knowledge on best practices and empower them to modify their behaviour hold great promise to meet formal management goals and objectives, but seem to be underutilized relative to formal regulations. This article highlights the benefits and challenges of relying on informal institutions as alternatives to traditional regulatory options. Informal institutions that protect resources and help overfished stocks recover hold great promise in both developed and developing countries, particularly when there is a single stakeholder group or when the capacity to enforce traditional regulations or to invest in stock assessments is limited. Informal institutions may help make formal institutions more effective or can even be alternatives to costly institutions that depend on enforcement to be effective.