Fish Handling Skills

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We all want to catch fish every day we go out. Learning correct fish handling skills will increase the number of times you get to catch a fish.

The GEAR Colorado Fly Fishing Guide Staff believe strongly in the principles of Catch and Release. We base our fish handling skills off of the principles espoused by KeepEmWet.

Our Principles of Fish Handling

Keep The Fight Short

keep the fight short, fish handling

After casting to and hooking a fish, you need to quickly land the fish. Playing a fish to exhaustion is a no-no in fly fishing, unless you are planning to eat the fish. The longer you fight the fish, the more oxygen it uses, along with a larger build up of lactic acid in it’s muscles. These factors increase the mortality of the fish exponentially.

GEAR Colorado Fly Fishing Guide Services practices a strict Catch and Release (C&R) ethos. We do this as a business practice as the fish are business partners. Our staff would prefer people practice C&R, but if you are fishing C&K please make sure you know the current regulations regarding Catch and Keep (C&K).

Keep Handling to a Minimum

The more time you take handling a fish, there is a reciprocal increase in stress experienced by your catch. There are a number of practices that you can do to decrease handling time while improving you fish handling skills.

barbless hook, fish handling
  1. Use barbless hooks. Our Head Guide, Graham, has found the use of barbless hooks allows him to release a fish much faster, and in some cases, he has not had to handle the fish at all. Interestingly, using barbless hooks has actually increased his catch rate. Graham finds barbless hooks more effective in piercing a fish’s lip due to the gentle taper of the hook. NOTE: Some locations we guide, like Rocky Mountain National Park, require barbless hooks.
  2. Use a Net. To speed up the landing of fish and to avoid undue fish handling, you should always use a net to finish landing the fish. The guides at GEAR Colorado suggest a net that provides plenty of reach without being uncomfortable for the angler. They also suggest using a net with a rubber basket, as it is more gentle on the slime found on the skin of a fish.
  3. Get your tools ready before touching the fish. If you have a hook removal tool in you hand, you can release the fish much quicker without fumbling for a tool. With the fish resting in the net basket, and angler should be able to simply grasp the hook and slide it out of the lip of the fish with ease.

No Dry Surfaces

Phillip Chamberlain, fish handling

Fish have a coating of slime on their bodies. This slime protects them from skin parasites and other nastiness found the water. A dry surface could be your hands, a rock above the surface of the water, grass, or the deck of a boat.

The staff of GEAR Colorado have a few basic No Dry Surface strategies we utilize.

  1. Land the fish in the water.
  2. Wet your hands in the water before getting anywhere near the fish. The oils in your skin will quickly strip the slime off of a healthy fish in no time.
  3. When admiring a fish you caught, hold it near the surface of the water and away from hard or dry surfaces. You do not want the fish to injure itself while flopping around if it slips from your hands.

Minimize Air Exposure

Fish breath by having water carrying oxygen flow over their gills. When an angler holds a fish out of the water the fish literally suffocates. Times vary per species in how long they will last out of the water. We at GEAR Colorado suggest no more than 10 seconds for any species.

catch and release fish handling

So how can you admire your catch without suffocating the fish? Here are just a few of our favorite tips and techniques.

  1. Keep the basket of your net, with your fish in it, in the water as much as possible. Even if a fish is in your net in the water, the fish is still able to breathe.
  2. To look at the fish closer, gently lift your net up, bringing the fish closer to you, while still keeping the fish in the water.
  3. When you want to take a picture of your catch, make sure the photographer has his or her camera ready before lifting the fish from the net. Gently cradle the fish under it’s head and tail, lift the fish, smile, and then lower the fish back into the net. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, we agree and a picture makes a memory last forever.

The Release

A true master of fish handling is not done practicing immediately after a picture is taken. The Release is the final step in protecting your catch. A caught and landed fish needs to recover from it’s exertions just like humans after exercising.

Here are a few of our favorite tips on releasing a fish:

  1. Re-wet your hands. Make sure to get your hands wet before touching the fish again.
  2. Gently lift the fish from the net. With your hands gently lift the fish from the net and lower it into the water. Wrap one hand around it’s body just above the tail, forming a circle with your thumb and forefinger. Use the free hand to cradle the belly of the fish.
  3. Face the fish upriver. With the fish facing upriver, water will start flowing over it’s gills. In a short amount of time the fish will revive and start to struggle against your grip. Do Not rock the fish back and forth while it is facing upstream!
  4. Release the fish! When the fish appears to have enough strength to swim, simply open your fingers wrapped above the tail, open them and watch the fish swim back to it’s home.

Fish Handling Conclusions

If you follow these simple tips, your practice of catching and releasing fish will be almost complete. There is always something to learn in fly fishing and fish handling is never the same. Just remember what Graham says about Catch and Release and proper fish handling skills:

A caught fish, properly landed and handled, then released is a fish to be caught another day. Maybe by you, or to the enjoyment of another angler!

About The Author

Graham Moran

Graham is the Owner and Head Guide for GEAR Colorado Fly Fishing. He has been fishing most if his life. Fly fishing entered his realm of interest when he was 16 years old. Graham asked his grandfather if he would teach him. His grandfather said yes, and now Graham is a fly fishing guide with a passion of teaching others. When Graham is not guiding you will find him at home with his wife and kids. If he is not with his wife and kids you will find him working on his other website

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