Fish handling is a hotly contested issue in fly fishing. There are ideologies all over the place, ranging from a solely catch-and-release to a completely no-touch approach. And, that’s all fine and good, until it creates conflict on the river.
We’re all anglers and the last thing we need is our love for the sport dividing us. So, in that spirit, we thought we’d offer a plan for fish handling. While it’s inherently a personal subject, these five tips are a real-world guide to keeping the fish healthy while acknowledging that sometimes you’re going to come in contact with a trout.
And let’s not beat around the bush. Whether you’re practicing catch and release or keeping everything that comes out of the water, the fish are encountering some harm. Statistics show that depending on conditions, between 2% and 28% of fish in Montana die after being released back into the water. But by practicing good habits, we can keep that percentage as low as possible. Here are five tips for keeping fish healthy and happy.
Have a Plan of Action
If you’re going to remember one thing, remember this point. The best thing you can do for a fish is knowing ahead of time what you’ll do when you catch it. Probably more fish are harmed by an angler scrambling for the net or generally fumbling around.
So, know your plan of action. When you hook into a trout, what will you do? Are you going to net it or land it on the bank? Do you have hemostats ready to remove the hook? Be intentional about fishing and it will be more enjoyable for you—and certainly less painful for the fish.
Choose Photos Wisely
We live in modern times. People are going to want photos of fish for their Instagram. Regardless of where you land on the social media spectrum, this reality is not going anywhere—it’s here to stay. So, if you have to ‘gram, then choose your moment wisely.
First, have your phone ready to go and easy to access. Second, have someone else take the picture so you’re not fumbling with the fish and your phone (fish selfies suck anyway). Third, be quick about it. Fourth, and most importantly, be willing to not take a picture. If it’s been a hard fight for the fish or you’re on a solo outing, just release the fish as quickly as possible. There will always be another fish for another photo.
Be Mindful of the Fight
So much debate circles around whether or not to touch the fish, how to net it, and how quickly you release it. But, considering the fight is equally important. Use the appropriate tackle for the fish you’re targeting, and catch the fish as efficiently as possible. Don’t haul it in immediately to where it’ll beat itself against the net or the riverbed. Also, don’t overplay the fish so it exhausts itself—which is one of the greatest contributors to a high mortality rate. And, if it has been a tough fight, then be prepared to revive and release the fish as quickly and gently as possible.
Educate, Don’t Lecture
We’re all fly fishers, regardless of our stance on fish handling. We’re all here because we love the sport, the lifestyle, and the animals we’re coming in contact with. Keep this in mind when you see improper handling. Be sure to speak up, but use it as a moment to instruct your fellow angler respectfully, without giving them a lecture or verbally abusing them.
So many times our desire to impart our own beliefs trumps the well-being of the fish. It doesn’t do anyone any good to start a fight at the river, and we all need to remember that. So, lead by example and practice good fish handling, then have a little grace when you see it done poorly by others. We’re all doing our best.
There are plenty of tangible tactics for fish health—rubber netting, keeping your hands wet, hook-release tools, going barbless, etc.—but it all starts with your mindset and intentionality. Take the time and energy to keep the fish in mind, and the rest will fall into place. If you think this doesn’t sound “fun,” just remember that there’s nothing more fun than having healthy fish to catch.
All pictures by Black Mountain Cinema