Well, that’s what it’s all about: the fight is over and you have the fish you’ve been chasing all day. Now to get a photo or two, and then, in this case, release it back into the lake or stream to fight another day; perhaps to be caught again when it’s bigger and wiser.
Now comes the touchy subject, fish handling. If you’re not dispatching your catch for the family dinner that night, you’ll release it. But unfortunately for the fish, there are actually wrong ways to handle them; some that will end up fatal. Which defeats the whole point.
One reason this is a touchy subject, is because a lot of us as anglers think we’ve been taught how to release fish properly; think the fish will be right. “It swam away fine,” they say. Yet maybe, you’ve actually ended up inadvertently killing the fish you were hoping to catch again someday.
Hopefully, by reading this piece, you may pick up a few tricks and tips to help more of your catch survive release. More fish to be caught. More fish to spawn. More fun to be had!
Never hold a fish with your fingers inside its gill covers, or touching any part of the gills.
Gills are extremely delicate and easy to damage. I do see a lot of people handling fish this way, even experienced anglers. It’s an easy mistake to make as gills offer a solid grip.
But please, for the fish’s sake, never touch the gills. It’s actually very easy not to. Leaving it in the net in the water, grab the tail and support the body. And try you’re very best to keep hooks away from gills. Quicker strikes, and constant contact with your line to set hooks in lips rather than fish swallowing flies.
Never play a fish to exhaustion.
A lot of times on the water, I hear, “I’ll just tire it out.” Taken to extremes, this is very bad for fish you wish to release, and decreases the survival rate dramatically. Fish, like humans, get a build-up of lactic acid; just like me when I run to the other side of the bay to net a mate’s fish, then cramp up because I’m a long way from being an Iron Man! One easy way to reduce fight time is to carry and use a net, and a knotless net at that (knots can damage the fish’s layer of protective slime and cause abrasions, which may lead to fatal infections). Shorten the fight, and the fish will also have more energy to swim away safely, rather than into the mouth of a waiting predator.
Never beach a fish
– At least not onto any dry or abrasive surface like rock, gravel or sand. Again, the rough dry surface will damage their protective slime. It makes matters worse if that surface has heated up on a sunny day.
And for the same reason, when lifting the fish out for a photo, keep it over the water. If the fish flips and flops and you drop it, at least it will land back in the water or the net you have laying there. (If using a brag mat to measure your fish, first wet the mat and keep it cool by stowing it away in your backpack or in a hatch in your boat.)
(Gloves can also damage the protective slime and scales. If it’s cold, you’re wearing gloves, and you want a fish photo, who wants slimy wet gloves? Take them off, wet your hands and lift the fish out for the pic. If, for whatever reason, you do need or want to handle the fish with gloves, wet them first.)
Never ‘bass grip’.
A bass grip is where you hold a fish with one hand by its bottom jaw, causing all its weight to be suspended from that point. This can damage delicate internal organs and the fish’s skeletal structure. It can be avoided by still holding the fish by its bottom jaw for such things as a photo or hook removal, but simultaneously supporting the fish by its belly and not bending the fish at all.
Or just keep it in the water – an in-the-water fish photo always looks good!
I’ll put this as a ‘never’, but I sometimes get lazy and don’t crimp barbs. (I hope certain people don’t read this as I just dobbed myself in!) But please believe me, the use of barbed hooks can be fatal and you won’t even mean it. As a guide, I’ve seen a lot of fish caught, and sometimes it doesn’t end nicely. I’ve seen gills pulled out from a fight, I’ve seen jaws broken off with the hook removal, and most of all, I’ve seen a lot more fish lost through bust-offs. That fish now was a hook, or sometimes more than one hook hanging out of its face for a very long time, which obviously decreases survival.
Always swim a fish before releasing it. Holding the tail, slowly move the fish back and forth. Depending on water temperature and other factors, it may take anything from a few seconds to a few minutes, but the fish will tell you when it’s ready to swim away strongly. Kicking and fighting.
And always keep the fish in the water as long as possible before that pic. Prepare yourself and the camera first for that quick lift shot. Don’t leave the fish out of water whilst preparing your photo or camera.
Finally, I should mention that I don’t have a doctorate in fish handling. Everything I’m writing here has come from my own mistakes, and seeing others make them when I’m out on the water guiding, and from talking to people who’ve been doing this for a long time. So no high horse here, just me trying to help keep our waterways healthy and full of fish.