Fishing Etiquette: Tips for Handling Big Fish

Courtesy of Jay Talbot (@JayboArt)

Just because you catch a giant doesn’t mean that your fish handling techniques get thrown out the window. Here are 9 tips to help you improve how you handle big fish.

Jurassic Lake - Flylords Photo

Tip 1) Don’t Lift the Fish by Exclusively Their Mouth.

When lifting a fish, carefully lift it horizontally with two hands. The goal here is to give support along the entire length of the fish so that there isn’t any unnecessary pressure being applied to different parts of the fish. Even if it’s a species that is often held by the mouth, like striped bass or tarpon, it’s important to not hold big fish exclusively by the mouth. When fish reach larger sizes, they are too heavy to be held up by the mouth. The weight of their own bodies can actually rip and tear at their jaw.

Large tarpon being handled responsibly
Courtesy of Shallow Water Expeditions

Tip 2) If the Species Is Not Allowed Out of the Water by Law, Don’t Take It Out of the Water.

Certain species are not allowed to be taken out of the water depending on their size. For example, in the United States tarpon that are larger than 40 inches are not allowed to be taken out of the water. Once they’ve reached this size, their bodies have so much mass that they need to be kept in the water in order to support that mass. While this rule may not be in place within other countries where tarpon and other species exist, the physics and the ethics behind proper handling still apply.

Another example is the state of Washington prohibits anglers from taking wild steelhead and salmon out of the water for a photo before the fish is released. Be sure to check up on local regulations when fishing a new area.

Tip 3) Wet Your Hands Before Touching the Fish.

This is a rule that holds true for any fish, of any size. Some fish species are more delicate than others, but it’s always a good idea to wet your hands before handling them.

Florida Keys Tarpon - Flylords Photo

Tip 4) Don’t Place Your Fingers in the Fish’s Gills.

In an effort to grab ahold of larger fish many anglers find themselves reaching for the gills. Even though the gills provide a handhold for lifting up larger fish, it is one of the most deadly places to hold a fish. If you are practicing catch and release, placing your hands and fingers in the gills is one of the worst things you can do for increasing the likelihood of a fish kill.

Chinook Salmon, Salmon River New York

Tip 5) Don’t Lift Your Fish by Its Eyes or Touch Its Eyes.

Believe it or not, some anglers will even resort to holding a fish by its eyes. It should be pretty self-explanatory that this is not an appropriate way to hold a fish.

Angler holding a striped bass in the water
Courtesy of Kyle Schaefer / Soul Fly Outfitters

Tip 6) Don’t Play The Fish Too Long.

Larger fish will put up larger fights, but it’s up to the angler to limit the fight time as much as possible. Since the survival rate of fish decreases as fight time increases anglers should attempt to get the fish to hand as quickly as possible without breaking the line. If you are practicing catch and release you should be using gear that will minimize the fight time.

Steelhead Netting

7) If the Species Warrants Using a Net, Use a Rubber Net.

Depending on the fishery there are a number of ways that anglers will land big fish. This can be accomplished by hand, with a net, or with a gaff. Obviously, if it is a catch-and-release situation the angler won’t be landing the fish with a gaff. When using a net, make sure the net is made of rubber instead of nylon. Rubber netting is less harmful to the fish.

Rainbow trout from being held properly

Tip 8) Keep Fish Wet

Never lay a fish on dry ground. Anglers should minimize handling time outside of the water and keep the fish wet at all costs. One way to help keep the fish wet is to use a rubber net. It provides a safe place for the fish to stay in the water while the angler unhooks the fish, prepares to take a picture, prepares fish tagging materials, or does any other tasks before releasing the fish.

Angler releasing a striped bass
Courtesy of Kyle Schaefer / Soul Fly Outfitters

Tip 9) Revive the Fish Before Releasing It.

When releasing large fish back into the water it is important to revive the fish before releasing it. That fish just had to endure the stress of the fight, then had to be put through the stress of you unhooking it, then possibly a photo session out of the water. All of these stressful situations accumulate and can lead to a dead fish. Rather than merely tossing the fish into the water, take the time to carefully set the fish in the water and revive it before allowing it to swim away on its own.

There ya have it! Those are the 9 tips for improving your big fish handling skills. If we missed any techniques that you think are important, please comment below. Stay tuned for more installments of Fishing Etiquette.

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