Ok, so maybe I shouldn’t get on here and tell you how to hold a fish… But I would like to make a few points on fish handling as it relates to catch and release fishing for wild Salmon and Steelhead, the latter being my primary focus however I feel it’s fair to let the two overlap. First I want to start off by saying that everything below is based on my own opinions, some of which have been taught to me by people I have immense respect for, others simply based on observations made on the water. That being said I am not trying stand on a box and preach some almighty word, but rather to start a conversation and get people thinking about a few things that might have been missed up to this point. I also want to make it clear that some of the things written below are mistakes that I’m also guilty of making in the past; I hope that breaking it down will help to prevent others from making those same mistakes. Offending my peers is something I have no interest in, but if something I write in this post does get under your skin feel free to reach out so we can come to a better understanding of each other.
Let’s talk about fish handling.
Practicing proper fish handling techniques is a big deal, or at least it should be. I’m not just talking about how you hold your fish for a picture, but everything we do that has an impact on the fitness and survival of the fish we intend to release. I feel that we have a responsibility as anglers to push ourselves to do everything in our power to take care of the fish we all love. If you can’t respect a resource for it’s natural value then in my mind you have no business trying to gain something from it. Whether it’s the guy who seeks to profit off such a resource (me), or someone who hopes for a steelhead just for the fun of it (also me) we all need to have the well being of these critters in mind if we want to continue to chase them across the Pacific Northwest.
For me an angler starts “handling” a fish the moment it turns on the fly/lure/bait and gets hooked, so it only makes sense to start there. The mistake I see a lot of people making at this point usually comes from a fear of losing a steelhead, and that is not applying enough pressure during the fight. If I’m watching someone fight anything larger than a half-pounder and their rod doesn’t bend past the tip section of the blank, I know they aren’t really battling that fish. To be honest I’ve really only witnessed this with fly fisherman, and I think part of it is from the “light tackle” perspective where the idea is to play the fish and really tire it out before attempting the final capture. Fly rods are relatively light tackle, but the modern 6-8wts we have at our disposal are incredibly strong and efficient fish fighting tools, something that may be lost on some people. I look at fighting a fish for what it is: a fight. It’s a really fun fight, but still.
Especially when targeting larger anadromous species I think it’s really important to use the fly rod as the lever it is; I want to get them in fast, and if they’re not willing then I want to make sure I give them a worthy fight. Losing a fish because you fought it properly should not equate to a failed mission, really it’s the opposite. You got the best out of that fish and made sure it wasn’t played to the point of exhaustion, to me that’s a win. So don’t be afraid to bend your 13 footer down to the cork when the big one is bulldogging you, because it might make the difference in the survival of that fish. Besides, the battle is the fun part anyway and the memory lasts just as long as a photo.
Now let’s say it did take a while to get your fish to hand; if that is the case, what happens during the “landing” process through to the release is critically important. Even if you succeed in ending the battle in a timely manner, the way we physically handle and interact with steelhead and salmon at this point may have the greatest effect on their well-being. Personally I choose to tail or leader my fish 99% of the time, because I have a firm belief that netting wild steelhead has an adverse affect on their health. Partially due to my observations time and time again that using a net encourages poor handling practices in most people. My own opinion is that just placing those fish in a net can cause harm through the removal of the protective coating, splitting fins, contorting the body, scratching eyes, etc.
Although I would rather not use a net, I understand that there are times when it may be the best option for getting a stubborn salmon or steelhead in quickly. Not often, but sometimes. In those instances, or if you’re someone who just has to have a net for some reason, there are a couple of things we ought to consider.
First I think we need to understand that there is a proper way to land a fish with a net, and that does not involve chasing fish through the shallows trying to scoop them from behind. Really, the moment when you should slide the net into the river is the same time I’m looking to grab my leader or the fishes tail: the short window in which a fish starts to let you lift it’s head and begins gliding in your direction. By waiting for this situation you are less likely to hit the fish, leader, or fly with the net, and when hand lining a fish in those final moments, that is the instance where you can guide it in towards you and put a hand on the tail.
Next, realize that your net is only helping the fish if you keep the mesh submerged through the entire interaction. When you lift a steelhead out of the water and carry it back to the boat in your net it is putting unnecessary stress on their bodies. A fish is designed to live in a medium that supports all their weight for them. When suspended in a bag they now feel the pressure of their own weight, which can lead to injury and certainly added stress. Not good. Another point to make on this is that you’re more likely to have a fish thrashing around frantically if you lift a net out of the water, doing even more damage than would otherwise be present.
No matter how you choose to do it, it is advisable to have at least a foot of water where you land your catch. This is one I mess up on most often, sometimes bringing the fish into water just deep enough to cover its back instead of taking a few steps further out. I think that is acceptable at times but I am certainly trying to be more mindful of it; the main thing is to NEVER drag them over dry ground. If you’re one of the people that sees no issue in this, next time you go out to the river I simply ask that you tape your eye-lids open, hold your breath, and have a friend smash your face in the gravel while dragging you up the beach. Not a very pretty picture, so why subject your favorite target species to that kind of treatment?
If you’re side-drifting with a fly rod and net the wild fish you catch, please, please, please just go to shore and get in the water to unhook and take photos if that is your prerogative. Unfortunately the common practice I see is to either lift the net into the boat and rest a thrashing fish on a metal floor, or lift the fish by it’s tail into the boat for a picture, where inevitably it is dropped on it’s head. To me both of these practices are completely unacceptable, and I can only hope it happens out of negligence. The reasoning here should be obvious, but in case it isn’t I’ll briefly explain. 1) Lifting a fish vertically by it’s tail can sever the spinal column and cause death or irreparable damage. 2) Dropping fish on their heads can kill them. 3) Lifting fish into your boat guarantees they will be out of the water for longer than necessary. Pretty straight forward, but apparently this is lost on some. It is just as important to note that just because you’re fishing from shore, does not mean you should lift a fish out of the net by it’s tail. I see this way too often from way too many people who know way better.
Finally, we need to go over how we hold fish for pictures. I’ll keep this short, because this issue has been beaten to death. It’s my opinion that so long as you are cradling vs squeezing, it’s all good. I prefer to have the fish very close to (or in) the water for pictures, keeping said fish submerged until the camera is ready. Then take a quick snap or two and place the fish back in the water to revive. Something that came to my attention recently is the importance of letting the fish catch it’s breath before taking pictures. That steelhead just completed the equivalent of a 800m dash, so don’t take away their oxygen the minute you get your hands on one. Let your fish settle down, then gently apply pressure to the top and bottom of the “wrist” of the tail, and cradle just behind the pectoral fins with utmost care. Do those things and you can rest assured that you’re having as small an impact on your fish as possible.
So here we are, a beautiful wild steelhead (or salmon) took the fly, we fought and landed her properly, got a nice picture with the fish lifted out of the water only for a moment to capture the memory, and now it’s time to let her go. My final words in this post are words I find myself repeating in a lot of situations on the river: slow down, take your time, enjoy the moment. Make sure your fish is really ready to go, hold her gently, and let her decide when it’s time to say goodbye. For a lot of us chasing wild fish truly is a love affair with something bigger than ourselves. Sappy, I know, but those last seconds where we revive and ultimately release our catch are truly special. Through all the chaos of a day on the water, this is the one time where you can see and appreciate what you spend so much time and energy chasing. In fact, anymore those moments are all I need. Sure it’s great to get a picture to boost the ego, but the feeling I get as that beautiful creature powers off into the emerald green is indescribable and powerful beyond comparison with any post on social media.
At the end of the day, proper fish handling is the practice of awareness and mindfulness. Being aware that we love these fish, mindful of the fact that everything we do out there may have an impact on them, and understanding that it’s better to do the best we can for no reason than to do our worst and see an unfortunate outcome. There is no doubt there will always be differing opinions in all things and fishing is no exception, but I hope that we can challenge each other to learn, improve, and see things from new perspectives. I hope writing my thoughts down is beneficial to someone in some way, and that it gets people thinking about the way we interact with wild salmon and steelhead. At a time where upward trending fish returns are an anomaly, we owe it to the fish to do our very best.
Thanks for taking the time to read through this, if you’d like to have a conversation on or off the water I would love to get in touch and make that happen.