You’ve a caught a nice fish and have it close to the boat or the shore, and you’re trying to figure out the best way to hold the fish to get the hook out and take a photo. We’ve all been there (and if not, you’re probably at the wrong blog…). Should you grab it by the lip? By the gill cover? By the tail? One hand or two? Gaff? Net? I’m here to set the record straight on the best way to land and handle a fish for the fish’s health and the best way to photograph with a fish to show off your catch like a pro!
When it comes to landing a fish, a lot can go wrong. You can miss with the net, scaring the fish onto a run through the boat prop. You may try to gaff a fish through the mouth, missing and hitting it through the skull. You can also lift a fish straight out of the water by the line, and have the line snap while you are so close to bringing the 5 lb. rainbow trout onto the pier (sorry Trent).
According to fisheries scientists John Tiedemann and Dr. Andy Danylchuk (2012), the safest way to land a fish is to not actually land it; keep the fish in the water and grab it with your hands or a net. Many fish can be dehooked and photographed easily while in the water, like the tarpon below. This keeps the fish safe by surrounding it by water, and it prevents it from thrashing on the boat/ground which can cause damage to you, the fish, and your stuff. If you must bring it onto the boat or on the shore, a net is the best option, as it’ll cause the fish the least harm. Gaffing a fish is fine for a fish that you plan on keeping, but is not recommended for catch and release as it can mortally wound a fish.
Noah and Capt. Colt Harrison with a monster tarpon. It was dehooked, photographed, and released without leaving the water.
Bringing a fish onto the boat safely is also important for your photos as a vibrant, colorful, healthy looking fish makes for the best photos. Now, what’s the best way to hold it to make it look as big as possible without hurting the fish? A recent study by Skaggs et al. (2017) showed that in terms of long-term survival, there really is not much of a difference to largemouth bass if you hold them vertically by the lip with one hand/lip gripper or if you hold them horizontally with an extra hand to support the belly.
Bigger fish have more weight to be pulled down on by gravity, though, so larger species like striped bass should be held horizontal to avoid damaging their jaw or internal organs. Fish with teeth shouldn’t be lipped at all (duh), but you can still support their belly with one hand and their tail with another. Holding fish by gill covers should be avoided as this can damage their gills. Many also fish have sharp gill covers, like snook, and can badly cut your hand if you hold them like that.
Noah with a common snook (Centropomus undecimalis), supporting its belly at arm’s length, with a slight bend in the elbow while facing the sun. This makes this 5 five pounder look like a 10 pounder!
Fish do revive more quickly when you hold them horizontally for photos and dehooking (Skaggs et al., 2017), though. So, while lipping fish my not harm them in the long-run if you revive them properly (see blog post on fish CPR), it is best for them if you support their belly with a hand as well. Supporting the belly also makes for a great picture, as it bulges the belly out, making the fish look fatter! For best photos, you should also hold the fish out almost at arm’s length, to make the fish look as big as possible. However, you’ll want a slight bend in your elbows so it doesn’t look like you’re doing that. For best lighting, face the sun, preferably with sunglasses. Then, take the photo as quickly as possible, as a fish’s colors will fade the longer it is out of the water. Now, send in your best fish pics to @AFishingStoryTV!
Noah Bressman is a PhD candidate studying fish biology, behavior, and biomechanics at Wake Forest University. Below is Noah with an Atlantic Salmon (Salmo salar), caught on a blue and silver Kastmaster spoon at Seneca Lake, NY. Note the hand on the bulging belly makes the fish look fatter, but the hand in front of the tail obscures the tail. For the best photos, you should hold the tail from behind.
Skaggs, J., Quintana, Y., Shaw, S. L., Allen, M. S., Trippel, N. A., & Matthews, M. (2017). Effects of common angler handling techniques on Florida Largemouth Bass behavior, feeding, and survival. North American Journal of Fisheries Management, 37(2), 263-270.
Tiedemann, J. & Danylchuk, A. (2012). Assessing Impacts of Catch and Release Practices on Striped Bass (Morone saxatilis) Implications for Conservation and Management. https://www.monmouth.edu/uci/documents/2018/10/best-practices-striped-bass-catch-and-release-report.pdf/