Improving Fish Handling

Muhammad Ali said, “A man who views the world the same at 50 as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.” It’s a simple message: that one should grow and always be open to changes in perspective, and try to better oneself over time. Looking back on my fishing pictures from the early 2000s, when I had just gotten my driver’s license, and started to tear around eastern Washington in search of fat desert trout, I see that my perspective on fish handling has changed over time. Now, I was never a “drag ‘em through the dirt, hold ‘em by the gills, bounce em on the bottom of the boat” kind of guy. Not by a long shot. But I have many photos in my first fishing album of fish high and dry, on the grass, as I’m photographing them. Now, do I think those fish survived? Probably. But I have realized over time that I can and should do better. 

Fish handling has become a fairly hot topic over the last several years, with the rise of the #keepemwet movement on social media. That hashtag is meant to encourage people to keep fish wet during photo opportunities. Numerous people have been called out on the internet for poor fish handling practices over the years. Washington State has even gone so far as to outlaw removing a wild steelhead from the water, and a movement in British Columbia aims to enact the same regulation. Florida law requires that tarpon be kept in the water as well. Now, I’ll be the first to say that the “#keepemwet crusaders” sometimes take it too far. Just because a fish is out of the water in a photo doesn’t mean that it was abused. It could have been lifted for just a couple of seconds and then returned to the water. And I don’t care who you are, you’re not going to convince me that those two seconds are significantly harmful to a fish, as long as as fish is subsequently properly revived, with the possible exception of coldwater fish like trout that are caught in excessively hot, very low oxygen conditions. But in those cases you really shouldn’t be fishing anyway. So why all the fuss about fish handling? Honestly, coming from perhaps the strictest fish handling state in the country, Washington, to Florida, I’ve been fairly amazed at the generally poor state of fish handling here. To be fair, a snook, a redfish, a speckled trout, a jack crevalle, is not a steelhead. The regulations that Washington has enacted to protect its state fish result largely from that coldwater fish’s high oxygen needs. I am not saying that you should never take a fish like a snook out of the water. But I think a look at some data will help me make my point. 

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commision (FWC), the latest stock assessment estimates that over 27,700 snook, (2.13% of the total number caught) died that year after being released. That number, the “cryptic mortality” is 43% of the total number of snook killed in that fishery- almost as many snook as were kept. And that is an estimate that assumes a snook is only caught once, which we know is not the case. In fact, by their estimate each snook in Florida is caught as many as four times (!), meaning the real number of caught and released snook deaths is much higher. Wouldn’t you love to have 27,700 or even more additional snook in the ocean every time you go fishing? This is a real world example, based on data, that illustrates a point that many of us have known all along: poor fish handling kills fish. Just because your fish appeared to swim off, or sulk away, or sink into the depths, does not mean that it survived to fight another day. Now, you may ask, since the estimate of snook survival in Florida is more than 97%, what’s the big deal? Well, 2.13% of 1.299 million is still a big absolute number. Imagine a pile of 27,700 dead snook. That’s a big pile. And, the good news in this example is that, that 97% number means that, this really isn’t all that hard! Let’s make that pile smaller. 

The exact cause of “cryptic mortality”, or fish death due to mishandling, varies. Some fish are dropped in boats and suffer internal or brain damage. Some lose too much slime as a result of being grabbed with dry gloves. Some fish are held up by boga grips and have their internal organs displaced. Some fish are fought past exhaustion and can’t recover and right themselves. Some fish are gut-hooked. Some fish are hooked in the gill rakers and bleed out. And surely, many fish are held out of the water too long and die from suffocation. To illustrate, one of my buddies is, as many fly fishermen are, a steelhead worshipper. He would talk your ear off ad nauseum about how special steelhead are. But in a video that I took of him holding a steelhead (from 2010), I later counted that he held a fish out of the water for over 20 seconds for one photo opp. I say this not to blame him, but just to explain how a well-intentioned fish lover can, in the heat of excitement, put a sensitive fish at risk by holding it out of water way too long. I was excited too, and, although I sort of remember noticing that the fish was out of the water too long, I didn’t say anything to him about it at the time. So, if a steelhead worshipper can do that, imagine what first-time fishermen are doing in boats all over this country. I don’t need to imagine; I’ve seen it. There is a ton of room for improvement in fish handling today. We don’t know what it feels like to be a fish and get caught, but one good analogy is: imagine running a marathon, getting totally exhausted, and then right when you finish, having your head dunked underwater. Doesn’t sound like too much fun, right? Again, I’m not trying to point fingers, I’m just trying to raise awareness, because the more fish that survive being caught, the more for all of us to catch in the future. 

I fish alone a lot, and I am a guy who likes to take fish pictures. So how do I manage that? First, I fight the fish about 90 percent of the way in, and then with my right hand I take my phone out of my waders or hip pack (a chest pocket would be ideal as well). My phone has face recognition, so I unlock the phone, and then put it back in the pocket and continue the fight. When I take the phone out again, after I have landed the fish and hopefully slid it into shallow water or secured it in my left hand, I take out the phone and it is ready to go. I take a few photos, keeping the fish as wet as possible, and then put my phone back and release the fish. It’s really not hard to do at all. I realize that not everyone has a face-activated phone, but many people do have phones that can be unlocked with a code or better yet be set to unlocked mode when fishing. The key is that the fish is held out of the water either not at all or for the absolute minimum possible amount of time. I set myself a three second limit, and two would be even better. On a boat that is considerably more difficult to achieve, but in any case the general idea remains. Have the camera turned on and the shot ready to go so that you can lift the fish for just a few seconds. Then, instead of just dumping the fish overboard, hold it upright in the water, into the current if there is any, until the fish is ready to go. You’ll know it’s ready when it makes a forceful attempt to swim away. When the fish is ready to go, set the fish on its way. That way the fish can continue breathing and recovering instead of just sinking to the bottom. 

Apart from the important survivability concerns, fish photos where the fish is kept in the water look more natural and peaceful. They communicate a sense that you know how to handle fish, that this is not your first rodeo. To non-fishers, whose opinions matter in voting on public policy decisions, they portray more care and responsibility towards the fish and improve public opinion towards catch and release fishing. 

See the Florida FWC’s website (link below) for a very good list of tips to increase fish survivability. Here are some of my favorites, from them and my own experience: 

  1. The bigger a fish is, the worse taking it out of the water is for it, because of gravity’s effect on organs and body 

parts. 2. Never pull a fish up onto the beach, or worse, the rocks, where it can bang its head, lose slime, and suffocate. 3. Never hold a big fish vertically, as with a boga grip. This is a totally unnatural position and their skeleton and internal 

organs are not built for it. The head will actually partially detach from the body, and the fish will die a slow death from starvation. Instead support the fish horizontally with one hand just behind the gills or, if necessary, by the jaw, and the other hand under the belly, preferably to the tail side of the belly for better balance. 4. Never grab a fish by the gills, period. 5. Don’t try to remove a hook from a fish’s gill rakers. The fish will almost surely bleed out and die. Instead, cut the leader as close to the hook as possible. The hook will rust out in a matter of days, and the fish, if handled properly, should be tough enough to survive until that happens. Avoid using stainless steel hooks for this reason. 6. Instead of bringing a fish up into a boat, try to take the picture with the fish boatside at water level, as is commonly done with tarpon. If you must bring a fish up to your level in a boat, try to hold it over the water so if it falls it doesn’t do a death bounce onto the boat. 7. Don’t move the fish forwards and backwards while releasing it. Backwards movement is unnatural and harmful. If the water is still, hold the fish in place. If there is current, always hold the fish head into the current. 8. Try barbless hooks. I know, to some people that is anathema. But trust me, you really won’t notice a difference in landing fish as long as you apply proper pressure. And it will save you so much trouble, and save the fish, when unhooking almost any fish, especially those hooked in tough spots. And if you ever hook yourself, you will thank me. 9. Get a release net for landing smaller fish out of a boat. This will significantly reduce fight and landing times. 10. Instead of taking a bunch of photos, put your phone on burst mode before you land a fish, so that you can take a bunch of photos per second, ensuring that you get at least one shot where you and the fish both look good. 

I’m not perfect. In the past, I’ve placed some fish on the grass and the dirt to get photos. I’m sure I’ve held fish out of the water too long before, and taken too many pictures. But the point is that we can all do better. If we want good fishing to continue in this world of ever increasing population and fishing pressure then we all need to do our part to protect the resource. If it’s a choice between taking good care of a fish and getting a photo, choose the fish’s health! Making sure that a maximum number of our fish survive directly benefits our future selves as well as our fellow anglers. 

Sources: Florida FWC. Cryptic Mortality and Its Effects. 

Florida FWC. Techniques to Reduce Catch and Release Mortality. 

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