Five Tips for Fish Handling

May 5, 2022 | Reno Fly Shop, Technique, Truckee River

Fish handling is a critical element of catch and release angling. While trout are hardy and robust, the act of being hooked, fought, landed and released can cause significant stress and the possibility of harm. We have prepared a list of five tips for fish handling in an effort to share what we have found to be some best handling practices. The following tips follow a loose sequence in the process of landing and releasing a fish.

Editor’s Note: The following tips are suggestions on how to catch and release fish with minimized impact. Admittedly we are not experts. We share this content in the hope it is informational and slightly educational. We did draw on some very experienced biologists in preparation of this article. To make it best we could. Also, you will see pictures in support of the copy. The photos that we chose are good examples of the tips we share. It will be very easy to point out pictures that we have shared in the past that don’t have these same qualities. We recognized and own these situations. We hope to be better and do better everyday we go out. Have fun and let’s respect the resources we all enjoy so much!

Carry a Net and Use it

When practicing catch and release, a landing net is important to protect the fish during this critical stage. Not all nets are created equal. A net with either a rubber basket or a rubber-coated mesh is ideal for protecting the outer slime coat on a fish. In protecting the slime coat, fish can be released back into their environment with a reduced risk of infection. According to Travis Hawks, Senior Biologist with the Nevada Department of Wildlife, “coated nets are preferable for catch and release, especially when increased stress occurs from summer water temperatures”.  Additionally, Travis shares that the outer slime coating (glycoprotein) is excreted more rapidly when a fish endures stress. If this slime coat is removed, the fish stands an increased risk for infection. Overall, a net with proper bag material means more fish will survive catch and release angling. The nets we offer in the shop all have rubber or coated nylon bags for the expressed purpose of reducing stress on our landed fish. 

Keep the Fish Submerged as Much as Possible

After the fish has been landed, you can allow the fish to recover in the net by keeping its gills submerged in water. By keeping the trout in clean, moving water, they can recover more quickly. 

During the warm summer months, there is less dissolved oxygen in the river due to increased water temperature. This can make it more difficult for the trout to recover and it might need more time to be able to swim away strongly. These practices become more crucial in the summer when fish are at an increased stress level even before being hooked.

Wet Your Hands & Use the Right Tools

After landing a fish, proper handling is critical. By wetting your hands prior to touching the fish, you reduce your risk of removing the slime coat. This is not any more involved than dipping your hand in the water of which the fish just came from. 

Bonus Pro Tip: If you are on a boat or even a ladder and the water isn’t “right there”. It is easy to wet your hand by simply touching the bottom of the net bag the fish is in to dampen your hand before reaching in and touching the fish.

Travis suggested not using tailing gloves when handling fish. He believes these can penetrate and/or remove the slime coat on a fish, increasing risk of infection. 

Beyond wetting hands, proper tools for catch and release also improve trout survival. Single barbless hooks are a great way to limit your impact. You can either crimp down a barb on a barbed hook or use hooks manufactured without a barb. Travis shared that “single barbless hooks will cause the least physical harm”. 

The right hook removal tool can also quicken the act of hook removal. There can be a lot of options available. Pliers, hemostats, mitten clamps, and even “catch-’em” tools are great options. Small blunt points are helpful when removing hooks from smaller trout. 

Bonus Pro Tip: Purpose built tools for fly fishing can serve multiple functions. Flat tipped (non-serrated) tools for mashing hook barbs, rubberized grips for firm contact in your hand, scissors for trimming leader/tippet and lockable grips to attach to tags and clothing when not in use.

Photographing Your Catch

While protecting the fish is important to catch and release angling, taking a photo of a trophy or  unique fish is something to be cherished. By taking and sharing photographs of fish, we highlight the wonderful resource and passively advocate for its health and protection. Taking photographs of fish in the water is the least impactful way to document your catch. Often it is possible to photograph fish fully submerged and end up with a unique image.

If removing the fish from the water for a photograph, there are a few things to keep in mind. Travis offered this advice: “when handling a fish, keep the fish in its natural position…cradle it, don’t squeeze it”. Mr. Hawks also noted that it is important not to turn or twist the Caudal Peduncle (for non-biologists this is the wrist, or thin area, just in front of the tail). Unnatural positioning can cause structural damage to the fish.

There are critical organs on the underside of the fish just behind its head. It is best to use one hand to cradle the fish loosely near its pectoral fins with fingers extending along the bottom up towards its head/gills. 

When ready to lift a fish for a picture, use one hand to cradle the fish near its pectoral fins with support underneath towards its head and your other hand to circle the wrist (just in front of the tail). One securely holding the fish. Have the photographer ready before lifting the fish.

Hold the gills above water for no more than 10 seconds and then return the fish to the water. It is best to lift and return the fish to the safety of the net. This will allow you to determine when the fish is revived and ready to release.

Revive and Release

The final step to successful catch and release is reviving and releasing the fish back to its habitat. If the previous tips were followed, the fish should be ready to swim back and resume its normal activities of eating bugs and growing big. While many anglers attempt to release the fish into fast water where more dissolved oxygen is found, Travis suggested releasing the fish into  water with a moderate velocity and depth available close by. This allows the fish to acclimate and get back into its rhythm. Travis also noted that “if a fish is released into heavy current or riffle structure, the fish must work harder [to hold its position]”. 

By utilizing these fish handling tips,  we can limit our own impact and reduce post-catch mortality.

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