Handling and Releasing Fish – and Photographs

This is about a pet-peeve of mine. I am talking about the proper handling of trout and other fish we catch and release. The pet-peeve part concerns the mistreatment of fish we catch, specifically how fish are handled when in our care, especially if photos are taken.

If you are killing some fish to eat, which I have no problem with once in a while, then I care not how fish are handled. I was raised hunting so I have no hesitation to allow my ancestral killer-mammal, predator instincts to rise to the fore of my immediate behavior when the need arises. If fish are to be killed they should be dispatched quickly. Here is a quote from Ray Bergman that I discovered in my research back in 1998, it is published in his biography that I wrote for Forgotten Flies, 2000. This quotation was written in pencil by Ray on the back of a 1940’s photograph: “If a trout is to be kept, it should be killed at once. Don’t leave it struggle and suffocate in the creel.”

About sixteen years ago, I spent an afternoon fishing with one of the foremost fly fishing photographers in the business. When I caught a particularly nice brown, he wanted photos, which I am fine with. But after about eight seconds with me holding the fish up above the surface of the water for him to photograph – he shot at least a half dozen, this was pre-digital, so you couldn’t preview the images, but he did have an automatic film advance, I was ready to get the trout back in the water. When I felt it was time release the fish, or get it back into the water for a few seconds prior to another “short” photo session, I said so, but he kept saying one more, one more; click, click, click. I have to say I got a little peeved. I probably had that fish out of the water for 15 – 20 seconds, which might not seem that long to us, but to a trout that has just exerted itself as it was played in – keeping a fish out of the water for longer than a few intervals for photos, which should last no more than three to five seconds, is the equivalent of you running the hundred-yard dash and then having someone forcibly hold your head in a bucket of water. You want to catch your breath but you can’t. The same thing is true with fish out of water.

One of the worst: Last May on Maine’s Magalloway River, I watched a young guy, thirty-something and old enough to know better, hook, play, and net a landlocked salmon about seventeen inches in length. Another pet peeve; unless you intend to kill every fish you catch, then your hooks should all be barbless. Topic for another discussion. This guy had trouble removing the hook, which was obviously barbed. After he held the fish waist-high out of the water in his net, for longer than twenty seconds, I got a little concerned. I touched the stopwatch button on my wristwatch. I watched as he wrestled and wiggled his wrist and forearm for what seemed like an eternity, grasping the fish with both hands, which turned out to be an eternity for the fish, lasting another two minutes and fifteen seconds. During this time, I’m figuring if he keeps the salmon, no worries. But considering the possibility he may also release it, I was simultaneously beginning to get a little ticked off. I did start talking to myself, but in the end I said nothing. I should have, at least mentioned the reality of barbless hooks eliminating that kind of personal fish vs. man struggle. I know that fish eventually became raccoon, mink, otter, or snapping turtle bait. Two-and-a-half minutes out of the water; there is no way that salmon survived. Fortunately for the angler, I am not one to insert myself into a situation where some might say, I have no business. But whenever I see people or photos of people inappropriately handling and consequently abusing fish they have caught and intend to release, it is my business. It becomes the business of every angler to see that other anglers respect the fish that are caught. You can kill a fish to eat and still respect it. If you improperly handle a fish that you release and it dies because your improper care, it is disrespectful. Too many anglers place their personal gratification on a priority level above the well-being of their quarry.

If you caught a fish that is bleeding, if it is legal to kill it, do so. Don’t just cross your fingers and release it, hoping it will survive, because it won’t. But then again, it’s a lucky day for a raccoon or great blue heron or a bald eagle that finds a freshly-dead fish.

Education of proper fish handling methods is maintained through written and photographic publication that demonstrates, encourages, and promotes the respectful and correct handling of fish.

Here are a few tips:

1) Play and land fish as quickly as possible.

2) Keep the fish in the water as much as possible. Revive if necessary. If you followed No. 1 correctly then revival won’t be necessary for longer than a few seconds.

3) De-barb all your hooks. Makes hook removal much easier.

4) Use the Ketchum Release tool. Many times the fish won’t even have to be netted or touched when using this tool. I once thought it was just another tackle-gadget-gimmick until I tried one.

5) If taking photos, refer to No. 2 as priority No. 1.

6) Keep your fingers out of their gills.

7) Don’t squeeze the fish.

8) Don’t hold them up by the jaw. Gravity to a fish out of water is a lot different than what they are used to.

9) Get over the need to have to land every fish you hook. Unless you are killing them, or want a photo of a particularly nice fish, remember the number of hook ups you achieve is the real measure of how well you are doing, and how actively the fish are feeding. I’m releasing them anyway, if I hook a trout, play it a while, it jumps so I can see it, etc. and then gets off, I’m happy. An LDR – or Long-distance Release, saves the angler from what at times is a procedure where your hands get wet, cold, and slimy. If you are not in a fishing competition where a touch-release is required to score the fish, then fish-to-hand isn’t really all that important. We love to fish, but fishing should have more focus on the fish than on our ego.

10 comments on “Handling and Releasing Fish – and Photographs

  1. Terry Chapman says:

    “Point” well taken Don! Many times I skip the photo, knowing full well that I bested the trout at the time of hookup and don’t need to send another email with photo to my friends. The moment of catching a living creature is enough!

    • Don Bastian says:

      Hi Terry!
      I took a lot of fish photos this year by turning the camera on, setting it to macro, while I was still playing the fish with my rod hand. Then when I could lift the fish with my left hand, snap a picture or two with my right, remove the hook, and have it back in the water in under 12 – 15 seconds. Larger trout are netted and ushered to the shoreline where they can repose in comfort while I ready the camera. Thanks for your comment!

  2. Good and appropriate article. I myself use the ketchum release ‘um tool. I very rarely take photos of fish but any largish ones are taken whilst the fish is in the landing net.

    • Don Bastian says:

      Thank you for your comment! Appreciate you stopping by my blog. I’m glad you liked the article. It was spurred by a recent post online at a well-known fly tying/fishing site; some guy has his fingers in the fish’s gills…comments noting this is improper handling were deleted overnight. I’m like ???? The reality is the photo itself should have never been published. Particularly not where it was published. One expects this stuff on private posts and blogs. I want to believe people in charge of editing a major fly fishing site would know better. I can only imagine if a picture like this was posted in any fly tying / fishing magazine print edition, there would be an avalanche of editorial comments, of course, opposing the publication of such an inappropriate photo that displays improper, respectful handling of fish.
      Thanks again for your comment! Cheers!

  3. Thanks for the article Don. One thing I’ve gotten in the habit of doing is holding my breath when I release a fish. It’s a quick reminder that if I can’t breathe, neither can the fish. Barbless is a must IMO for catch and release. You also need to take into consideration the depth of the waters you fish, and the temperature of the water. I personally don’t fish when the water temps start getting high, and if I’m fishing deep water, it’s for harvesting only. Even with taking all these precautions, there are still a mortality rates to be associated with your catch, but taking care of the fish in your custody will greatly increase their odds of a quick recovery with no long term ills.

    • Don Bastian says:

      Hey Darren;
      Good to have you add your observations too. I didn’t get into the temperature issue, obviously fish, trout in particular, are more stressed when water temperatures significantly rise above their preferred optimum temperatures. Fish mortality can be minimized by using barbless hooks, facilitating faster release, and bringing the fish in quickly. Very few fish have ever had me into my backing. I don’t let them. Thanks for your comment!

  4. Rusty says:

    Hi Don, On the Nipigon River, very large brooktrout have been caught 5-6 times and released thanks to angler diary. The KEY is using wet fishing gloves when handling is necessary. Our biologist used to say to anglers during the fish run” How would you like to be dragged out of bed while cuddling with your partner, pulled under water till your lungs are going to burst, then tossed back into bed…” Great topic we cannot take for granted.


    • Don Bastian says:

      Hi Rusty;
      Thank you for your comment and input. That analogy about being dragged out of bed is a good one. 😉 Here in PA on Spring Creek, I recall a presentation by a PhD. biologist after a survey was conducted. Based on the number of anglers, electro-shocking results, and angler catch rates, they concluded on average that trout were being caught eight times per year in that section of stream. Catch-and-Release does work, but there are still people who need to be educated on proper fish care. Thanks for sharing your comment!

  5. Kelly L says:

    Great thoughts Don. I agree about the photos. I rarely take photos of my fish. I don’t always fish barbless, but then again, I rarely trout fish either, because they aren’t near by. Mainly I warm water fish.

    • Don Bastian says:

      Hi Kelly;
      Thanks for chiming in here. I just hope that people understand my main thrust is to keep the welfare of the fish above our personal need for a photo, to get the “big-fish-hero” shot. I have released fish I wanted to get photos of, or didn’t get photos that suited me, but instead released the fish, figuring it’s only a photo. Thanks for your comment!

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