Fish Handling: Good Practice Tips

May 22, 2024 | Best Practice, Blog, Featured

“Post an image of your catch at your own peril!”

In a media driven world where anglers and fisheries want to share images and videos of catches, perhaps at times we are forgetting that the fish’s welfare comes first. This article on fish handling good practices is for both seasoned anglers and those new to salmon angling, with the best intentions and some background information. 

With the spot-light on every fish caught and posted for all to view on social media and other channels, it would seem that there are still lessons to be learnt when it comes to good practice fish handling. Post an image of your catch at your own peril! Social media can be a toxic environment that can take away the pure elation of catching that fish. Many species, after all, are a fish of a thousand casts, and we all want that wonderful memory to be captured. 

Most of our native species have had to adapt to changes over the years. Regulations have changed to attempt under certain circumstances to help, preserve or at least slow declines.  The handling is important no matter what the species, however one that has seen the most significant changes and receives a lot of “heat” on social media is the Salmon. 

Tide-fresh Wild Atlantic Salmon caught on a Hauger

Changes in Fish Handling Regulation

Whilst I do not want to dwell on the obvious, it has to be noted. With the decline in salmon numbers across the country, regulations on individual rivers have changed in an attempt to support our fisheries. In past generations where all and any fish could be harvested, we saw varying rules come in and ultimately end, mostly, with Catch & Release. A change of this magnitude was not easy for some to take, especially for those that loved to catch for the table. In my generation where I fished for the love of fishing, taking a salmon for the table was a great privilege and bonus. The changes were strange however it was easy to overcome given the struggles our salmon are facing. 

Education is key and something that most of us fall short on. The transition from killing everything to killing nothing and caring for our quarry with no education is, of course, not easy. Our assumption that it is in fact easy and that everyone should know from pure common sense is not a fair assessment. Careful handling of a fish is easy.  Here are some helpful pointers.

Get the perfect trophy photo whilst handling the fish correctly.

Keep them in the Water

The best practice without a doubt is to handle fish as little as possible, limiting possible infections and or internal damage. I am not a scientist so am unable to give exact and factual data on the amount of time a fish should be out of the water, however let’s state that the longer the fish is out of the water the more potential harm could come to it. 

Some of the do’s and don’ts

Do not:

  • Hold them by the tail and lift them into the air
  • Drag or lift a fish up onto the bank
  • Throw a fish out of the water onto rocks/bank 
  • Place your fingers into the gills / or lift by the gills 
  • Do not wear gloves (This, in my view, can take scales/slim off and increase the chances of infection)
  • If the hook is embedded deep in the throat do not attempt to rip it out of the fish

Do:

  • Unhook the fish in the water
  • Handle as little as possible and gently i.e. do not grasp the tail too firmly
  • When a hook embedded deep in the throat, without jamming a hand down, cut the line as close to the fly as you can and leave it

How many times have I heard that salmon/fish are incredibly strong and resilient? “You’re all being too soft!”

Yes, these fish are incredible and resilient in the face of serious adversity however this does not give us the right to treat them with anything other than the greatest of respect and care. 

Handling a fish as little as possible decreases the chances for possible infections and internal damage.

Fish Handling: The Grip & Grin (Trophy Photo)

The excitement of catching a fish for an avid fisher is overwhelming. Shear elation followed by shaking uncontrollably, tears, laughter and more. With catch and release rightly being in place we all want to take a memory home. Taking a salmon/fish, for me, in years past was the greatest of feelings. Being able to sit on the bank with my catch admiring it and reliving every moment of the take, the fight and the eventual landing gave me the greatest of pleasure. Taking it back to the house to tell everyone of the epic battle and being lucky enough to enjoy the beauty of home cooked wild Scottish salmon was an elating experience no matter how many fish you caught. 

This luxury is no longer an option, but we all want to take that picture or a short video. I’ve been guilty in the past of holding a fish for too long to get the video or the image but have since stopped and made sure I take what I need quickly.

Do:

  • Try and hold the fish horizontally with some of the belly, head and gills still in the water
  • For an out of water image/video, maybe reconsider and see if there’s a shot that can be taken of it in the net under the surface, from above

If we can follow these simple steps, sharing images of our catches to the world shouldn’t be a problem and the abusive backlash on social media should decrease significantly. 

Top photo tip: Try and hold the fish horizontally with some of the belly, head and gills still in the water,

Fish Handling: The Release

A few simple steps to release a fish.

Do:

  • If in a net, upright the fish gently and let it swim out when ready with a little encouragement;
  • If not in a net, or the fish is struggling with the above – hold the fish in the water one hand under the belly and one cupping the tail. Try not to grip it like a sword at the tail as this can remove that vital slime. But try to be in control ready for a premature kick of the tail;
  • Head facing into the current to allow fresh water over its gill’s
  • In a gentle current;
  • Wait until the fish has kicked firmly a few times meaning it’s alert and ready; 
  • Release and follow/watch the fish.

It’s vital to make sure that the fish is ready to return to the water. One kick of the tail can often not mean that the fish is completely ready and you are urged to hold on for a few kicks to make sure. Release time can be immediate however depending on the fight, the conditions and the handling can take longer. 

There are exceptions on releasing fish that are bleeding from the gills or simply unable to return. Rivers have rules as to what to do when this occurs and should you not have a ghillie present it’s best to find out before fishing what these rules are, or make a phone call with the fish in the net.

Ask your local ghillie about local fishing rules and fish handling tips.

Conclusion: Let’s continuously educate ourselves in correct fish handling

The points stated have come from listening, watching and learning. Lengthy riverside debates and ultimately learning from my mistakes in the past. Nobody is perfect, but we can always practise better handling.

Witnessing an angler not handling a fish correctly on the river or online, does not give us the right to abuse them, but an opportunity to educate and help. It’s a hard conversation to have.


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About the Author

Charlie Keyser has twenty years in sales and brand management working with some top brands such as Loop, Guideline & Vision in the recreational fishing industry, and also in footwear and lifestyle brands. With generations of fly fishing in the blood and an extreme passion for fly fishing and fly tying, he also lives for a life on the river and in the outdoors. Now, owner of the recognised fly-tying brand ‘CK Flies’, he brings his angling experience to a modern take on salmon fly tying through photography, videography and writing. His mission is to see his children take on the love of fly fishing, the way he and his family have for generations, and share his knowledge with others. 

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