Fish Handling

Proper Handling of Fish for Release

I release 99% of the trout that I catch, but do enjoy eating a few of the smaller ones (which are the finest eating). I used to let them all go, but my 6 year old daughter Ellie begs me to bring some home for her and the two of us have special times cleaning, cooking, and eating them. She is the light of my life, and old enough now that she is looking forward to joining me in some of my more fair-weather trophy trout hunting expeditions.
I want to encourage all to release the majority of fish, but to be extremely cautious in handling a fish that you intend to release, as they are far more fragile than many believe. I know of too many guys that assume that if a fish swims away, it will live. Not necessarily true at all. I have had in depth talks with fish biologists on survival rates of released fish, and it has lead me to realize that many of the nice fish that I have released in the past may not have made it. It shames me to admit, but I hope that others may learn as I have, and stop wasting fish. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind.
Do not hold the fish vertically, by the gill plate, lip gripper scale, or otherwise. I have done a lot of this in the past, as I like the look of the photo with the fish held vertically. I always assured myself that if you hold it in the right place it doesn’t hurt the gills, which is true. The real issue hear is the fish’s vital organs. A fish is designed to be horizontal, in the water 100% of the time. Once out of the water, gravity can take a big toll on the organs, and when held vertically, the organs can easily shift out of position and “knot-up”. I have abandoned this pose, and feel better for it. To weigh the fish, I simply hang the net from the scale with the fish in it and subtract the weight of the net. My net is 5 1/4 pounds.
The next big item is the fish’s slime coat. Most guys know about this, but it’s extremely important for long term survival of the fish so I want to put emphasis here. If the slime coat is damaged, the fish will likely succumb to infection and die in the following weeks or months. A sad thought. There are many things that can damage the protective slime coating on a fish, but the two big ones are hands and nets. It’s a good idea to have fish handling gloves, but simply wetting your hands before holding the fish works fine. This is easier said then done when outside temperature are in the teens, but it just needs to become part of the game. A few nets are designed to go easy on the slime. My favorite is the rubber basket. It makes for a heavier net, but most people I know can handle a 5 pound net, even if it’s loaded with a 20 pound trout. You can spend a lot of money on a rubber net, but I got mine at Sportsman’s Warehouse for $40. It is very heavy duty and big enough to handle fish over 30 lbs. It’s made by Ranger nets and by far the best bang for the buck… Go get one!
I have an old boat that I have customized with a 150 qt cooler that serves as a livewell. A livewell is a great tool for releasing fish. It gives you a chance to gain composure after catching a killer fish, and review photos to make sure you’ve got a good one before sending the fish away. My fish never flop in the bottom of the boat because they go from the lake, to the net, to the livewell. I have installed a circulating pump in the cooler which creates oxygen rich water for the stressed out fish. The big tank takes up a lot of room in the boat, but acts as my seat, as well as dry storage for the transporting gear.
Lastly, occasionally a fish gets badly hooked or just to tired to revive. When in doubt, eat it, is what I say. Don’t be wasteful. It is too convenient to tell yourself that it will be fine, but it probably will not live. If you don’t enjoy eating fish, I’m sure you have a friend or neighbor who does. I have been to lakes after “catch and release” fisherman have left and found numbers of dead fish floating. Not cool, don’t kid yourself on this issue.
Okay, I’ll step off the soapbox now. Thanks for reading.