Properly handling fish once they are in the boat is an essential skill every angler needs to master in order to prevent injury to themselves as well as the fish. Improper handling can lead to killing fish which is completely avoidable if the angler is prepared. A net is a valuable tool anglers can use to help handle fish and avoid unnecessary injuries. The fish can and should be kept in the net and in the water (be sure the basket of your net can reach the water) until the angler is ready with pliers, scale, measuring tape, and camera. Fish should not be held out of the water any longer than necessary and resting or dropping them on the floor can do serious harm to them from impact as well as damaging their protective slime layer. Although they will likely swim away most fish injured in the boat will suffer from delayed mortality. This means they will not die right away but rather a short after being released due to their injuries. Anglers may have no way of knowing that they are injuring fish and causing this to occur which is why it is so important to practice proper fish handling practices every time you’re on the water!
When preparing to unhook fish anglers should be careful not to get teeth or hooks stuck into themselves. Grabbing a fish the wrong way can be one shake away from a hand full of hooks! When ready anglers should grab the fish and quickly take the hooks out, grab a quick picture or measurements, and then release the fish back into the water. When possible it is best to take the hooks out while the fish is still in the net and water. Avoid touching the gills of the fish at all times as this is how they obtain oxygen from the water and any damage can lead to death. Grabbing and holding on to fish will vary from species to species. Panfish that do not have teeth, such as largemouth and smallmouth bass, can be held by their mouth but fish with teeth such as pike, walleye, Musky, and lake trout need to be held be their jaw. In general the safest way to hold a fish is vertical with the tail directly below the head (that is until they get heavy). This eliminates any pressure on the fish’ jaw. Alternatively, they can be held horizontally as long the angler supports the weight of the fish with their other hand. Fish should never be held such that their body and jaw are at an angle from each other as this will injure or kill the fish
To hold bass simply put your thumb into their mouth and pinch their bottom lip between your thumb and the rest of your fingers. Be sure to hold on tight as fish shaking will make your grip slip and could end up dropping the fish. Dropping a fish on the ground or into your boat has numerous negative consequences for the health of the fish and should be avoided at all costs. Holding the fish close to the ground or over the net in the water will help ensure any damage is avoided. If you need to weigh the fish using a bag is the best way. Next in line would be a fish grip on the lip as apposed to the hook under the gill plate. Under no circumstances should you ever puncture the fish lip with the scale hook to weigh it. This is some serious damage to the fish that can lead to all kinds of health complications down the road.
Delayed mortality is a huge concern amongst big fish hunters alike. It takes decades to grow trophy sized pike, muskie, and lake trout and this can only happen through catch and release. If these big fish are not handled properly the likelihood of having a trophy fishery for years to come is unlikely. Trophy sized pike, muskie, and lake trout are sought after for their difficulty to catch and the fight that will ensue once one is hooked. The downside to this is that these giants will use a ton of energy trying to get away putting them in a weakened state even before getting into the boat. Ensuring all the necessary tools are ready to quickly unhook the fish, grab a quick picture, and release it without spending too much time out of the water is essential for establishing and maintaining fisheries that will produce trophies!
To hold these trophy sized fish anglers need to watch out for the sharp teeth! To avoid the teeth they should grab the piece of jaw between their gill plates. Carefully slide your fingers under the gill cover and slide them up into the “V” notch. Be sure to not push your fingers in more than past the fingertips to avoid the gill rakers. Be sure not to touch the gills as this may kill the fish as well as cut the angler. Squeeze by placing your thumb on the opposite side of the gill plate against your fingers. When holding the fish be sure to support the weight of the fish with both hands to limit the stress on the fish. Holding trophy sized fish in a horizontal position is the easiest and safest way to hold them for a photo. If a vertical hold is required be sure to support the weight with your other hand and limit the weight being held up by the fish jaw. This includes while you lift it out of the net! Lifting completely by the jaw and then holding in the horizontal position may have already done the damage. If you need to weigh the fish it should be done using a cradle or bag that supports the fish weight equally rather than by its jaw.
Proper fish handling is something that can often be overlooked. As an angler it is your duty to learn and practice proper techniques so that we can maintain the health of our fisheries; and you never know, your next catch might just be a trophy!
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