Proper Fish Handling Techniquesby Capt. Terry Rand
When it comes to fishing, every day on the water is a learning experience. And, as an angler continues to fish, they become more educated on their techniques and approaches as well as the fish they are after. The same is true for proper catch and release practices and we have learned over many years that some of our fish handling skills need some updating.
The use of nets for landing fish has really come a long way over the years as we have learned more about successful catch and release fishing. Nets that use knots to connect the netting material together have been found to be especially detrimental to the fish as well as many of the coarse fiber materials that are used in many nets. They tend to scrape away at the slime coating on the fish as it flops or slides in the net. This causes undue stress on the fish as well as makes the fish vulnerable to infections.
But, with modern advancements have come some great net making materials. If your goal is catch and release fishing and you prefer to use a net then a coated net material or a rubber net is the best way to go. Many net designs are using a net material that is made entirely of heavy duty rubber, which is perfectly smooth and has some stretch to absorb the weight of the fish. Others nets are standard designs that are dipped into a liquid rubber and then allowed to dry, creating a smoother and less damaging net material. Still, others are made with very fine, high grade nylon mesh to reduce slime coat damage and some even have flat bottoms to minimize the fish’s movement in the net.
Another great fish landing and handling tool that has been around for some time now is the mechanical lip gripper. For those not familiar, a lip gripper is a tool that locks two opposing steel jaws around the bottom lip of a fish’s mouth. The jaws lock securely enough to hold the fish tight by its bottom lip while you remove the hook or hold the fish up for a picture. As helpful as these tools may be, there is a proper way to use them so that you don’t injure the fish while using them.
Damage can occur from the weight of the fish being entirely supported by the lower jaw while the fish is being held vertically out of the water. Smaller sized fish are usually less vulnerable to any damage from lip grippers just because of their smaller size. But, large fish can dislocate their lower jaw while being supported by the jaw alone. It is always best to use the lip gripper in one hand while you use your other hand to support the fish from its underside. Holding it in this fashion will keep the fish horizontal and properly supported along the length of its body.
Another point worth mentioning when discussing proper catch and release is that when a heavy fish is in the water, its weight is supported by the environment it lives in. When you take a fish out of the water, its body weight is suddenly magnified and under excess stress. This weight displacement can cause the organs of a fish to move and create serious internal injury. Holding a large fish out of the water vertically can worsen the situation. The symptoms of these injuries may not be seen for days or even weeks after release, but they can occur. Always consider simply unhooking and releasing the fish at boat side rather than taking it inside the boat.
And, when it comes to hooks and unhooking, consider using circle hooks for all of your baiting applications. They lodge in the corner of the mouth, prevent gut hooking and are easy to remove. When using lures with treble hooks, have a good pair of pliers handy. Long, needle nose designs will cause less damage to the fish and you. A quality pair of heavy-gauge wire cutters is also necessary when removing deeply embedded hooks. Just snip off the hook points that won’t come out easily and this will usually give the fish a better chance than ripping and tearing away to get the hooks out.
With all of this said, there is more to be said and more to learn about fish conservation. Anglers who spend a lot of time on the water know this more than anyone else as they see what works and what doesn’t when it comes to properly releasing fish in different situations and in different locations around the world. Learn from others in your area and find out what works best for the different species that you commonly fish for. And, always remember to only take as much as you can eat and release the rest….especially the big ones.