How to Hold a Fish Properly: Tips for Handling, Photographing & Releasing

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How to hold fish trout

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As a catch and release angler, it’s important that you return fish to the water in good condition so they can continue to live on and support the fishery. Being able to get a lasting photo of your catch is important to most anglers as well, and if you follow a few basic tips about handling the fish and releasing it back into the water, you can help ensure its long-term survival.

When You Need to Hold a Fish…

How to hold fish sailfish
Catch-and-release fishing is one way of conserving native fish species. When done correctly, this method results in fish’s high survival rates.

For a Photograph

Catching your personal record breaker is an exciting time in any angler’s life. Of course, you want to get measurements and a photo of that catch to remember it forever. But taking photos of the fish can be extremely stressful and potentially dangerous to the fish if not done properly.

In most cases, having a friend with you to take the photos can be the best way to get a good photo without harming the fish because you can keep the fish safely in the net under the water until right up to when you are ready to take the snap.

But if you are the only one around, you can still get a great photo of your catch without much additional hassle on your part and no additional stress for the fish. Just think creatively and get a close-up of the fish, say, half in the water.

Not every picture needs to be a grip and grin! The Keep Em Wet movement has really highlighted the benefits of keeping fish in the water during handling.

To Remove Hooks

Removing hooks from your catches is important. Cutting the line and letting the hook rust out should be a last resort option for hooks you simply cannot reach by normal means. Sometimes, attempting to remove a stubborn hook can do more damage than just cutting the line and leaving it in place.

However, handling the fish and moving the jaw can be potentially dangerous if you aren’t aware of how to properly support the body. Fish jaws can be dislocated or broken, leaving the fish unable to properly feed and slowly starve to death after being returned to the water.

Try to keep the fish in the net and under the water while you remove the hook, and minimize the number of times you touch the fish with your hands. Forceps, pliers, or a hook removal tool can be a help here, as well as using barbless hooks.

To Revive and Release

The mere act of hooking the fish and bringing it into the boat can be extremely stressful, sometimes to the point of making the fish unresponsive or catatonic. While not dead, the fish are close to it. They may need your help to be properly revived in order to swim away and recover.

Reviving and releasing the fish in the water requires handling and forced movement of the fish in order to help it breathe and recover from the stress overload. Doing this properly can improve the fish’s chances of making a full and safe recovery when released.

How to Hold Freshwater Gamefish (Walleye, Smallmouth Bass)

How to hold fish walleye
When handling walleye and smallmouth bass, keep your hands out of the gill plate at all costs to prevent any damages to the gills, which are comparable to a human’s lungs.

Regardless of the species of fish or the size, there are several important things to keep in mind when handling your freshwater game fish catches. First of all, keeping the fish wet is very important. 

Fish have a natural slime coating over their scales which protects them from injuries and infection. When being handled, this slime coat can be scraped off or dried out quickly, leaving the fish susceptible to harm.

In order to minimize damage to the slime coat, keep your hands and any handling equipment wet. This includes your net, any surface the fish will be touching, or any fabric the fish might be laid on.

Another thing to pay attention to is the fish’s gills. You should never touch the delicate red gills on any fish. The gills are required for the fish to breathe in the water, and any damage to these membranes can quickly kill a fish after it has been released.

When attempting to hold a fish, never hook your fingers deep into the gills. You can hold onto the thick scale over the delicate red gills known as the gill plate, but touching anything deeper beneath the gill plate can do incredible amounts of damage to the fish.

When holding a fish by the lower lip, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, smallmouth bass can be held horizontally by the lower lip only if they are small. Fish over about a pound in weight can dislocate or even break their jaws from the pressure of being held horizontally.

These large fish should only be held vertically, so their body stays straight below their lower lip. This still puts pressure on the jawline but greatly limits the risk of it being dislocated or broken. If the fish are large, such as over 5 pounds or so, their weight should be supported and not suspended from the bottom lip. 

Trout, on the other hand, should never be held vertically. In handling trout of any size, take care to support their belly and hold them horizontally while you remove the hook or take a photo.

How to Hold Largemouth Bass

How to hold fish bass 1
 The best way to hold a bass is by the lower jaw in an upright vertical position.

There are normally three holds anglers will use when holding their largemouth bass. The vertical hold, the horizontal hold, and the angled hold. Two of these are much more desirable, and one of them should never be used.

The vertical hold is one of the safest ways to hold bass of all sizes. It involves putting your finger inside the fish’s mouth to get a grip on the bottom lip and having the rest of your fingers holding the lip from the outside to prevent slippage. 

When being held vertically, the size of the bass falls straight below the lower lip, preventing any pressure from dislocating or breaking the jaw. For bass up to 5 pounds, this is a safe and secure way to hold them for photos, measurement, and other reasons.

For large bass that may be too large to be fully supported by their lower lip, the horizontal hold is preferred. This can also be a great way to hold your fish of other species for a photo opportunity. This involves holding the bass in the same way as you would with the vertical hold, but instead of letting the body hang below putting all the poundage on the lower lip, you will instead support the stomach with your other hand.

This is much more comfortable for large fish of bass and any other species, and they won’t risk dislocating the jaw due to their excess body weight. Fish over 5 pounds or so should always have the weight of their body supported by your other hand and not by their own lower lip.

The third and arguably worst way to hold a bass is the angled hold. Unfortunately, this is a common way for untrained anglers to hold their fish of various species. This involves holding the fish by the bottom lip as you would in the other two holds, but by tilting the head down leading to a weird angle between the head and the weight.

This not only puts severe pressure on the lower lip, but can also damage the throat, gill membranes, and spine of larger fish. Unfortunately, many fish held in this way have a much harder time recovering, and may even have long-term physical damage to their skeletons leading to death by starvation when they are unable to swim and eat properly.

How to Hold Toothy Fish (Pike, Musky and Saltwater Fish)

How to hold fish pike
Fish grips can be used to protect your fingers from the sharp teeth of the fish by holding onto the bottom lip of the fish’s mouth. 

Toothy fish such as Northern Pike, Musky, Brook Trout, and other species can bring a whole new range of issues when it comes to safe fish handling methods. You definitely don’t want to stick your finger in the mouth of these trophy fish to hold onto the lower lip. Instead, this is where fish grips can be a vital addition to your gear kit to help you handle fish of all species properly and safely.

Fish grips come in a wide range of sizes and brands, but their purpose is to hold onto the bottom lip of the fish’s mouth in a vice-like fashion, so your fingers are protected from their sharp teeth. Once the jaw is gripped, you can safely use your other hand to support the fish’s body size in order to get photos and get the fish of any species back into the lake.

How to Hold Larger Fish Species

If over 5 or 6 pounds in size, you should always be mindful to hold fish horizontally with the bottom jaw being held by your fingers or a fish grip and the size of the fish supported by your hand. When removing the hook from larger fish of any species, keeping these fish in the water is much safer and less physically dangerous for them. 

If holding catfish or other similar species, the gill hold is somewhat safer, especially when the fish are smaller. On catfish, the dorsal fin and pectoral fins can have sharp spikes, which can cause painful damage to your skin.

When holding small catfish or other similar species, use your dominant hand to do a gill hold by wrapping your hand around the fish’s head behind the gill plate. This prevents damage to the fish’s internal organs while also keeping your hand away from their sharp barbs.

Tips on Releasing Fish

How to hold fish bass 2
Catching and releasing fish successfully takes practice. You’ll want to minimize stress and injury to the fish.

Handling your fish safely and kindly is the first step in proper and successful releasing. A good release helps ensure that fish can get back to their normal routine of eating and will help them lead a long and productive life to breed and continue building the numbers of those fish for future generations of anglers.

If a fish has been kept out of the water for too long, it may start to go into a coma-like state. This is due to the stress of the catch, as well as the stress and shock of being removed from the water and ultimately starved of usable oxygen.

Fish placed back into the water after being stressed like this may need some extra TLC in order to recover and swim away safely. For example, if you place the fish back into the pond or lake and it just lists over on its side and does not swim, you will need to help it recover.

Do this by moving the fish back and forth in the water to move water and oxygen past the gill membranes. This helps ventilate the fish. You should see the gill membranes moving soon after placing them back into the water, which is a great sign.

Keep moving the fish back and forth until it is able to swim off on its own. If you simply toss the fish back in the water and watch it float or sink out of sight, chances are good it may not recover on its own.

Anglers that take a bit of time helping their catches recover before release are helping to ensure those fish go on to breed another season, adding to the numbers of the fish you love to catch and helping keep them in good numbers for future anglers to enjoy.

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Jeff Knapp is an expert fisherman, guide and outdoor writer whose work is widely published across a range of sites including Tackle Village. Jeff is based in Pennsylvania and loves exploring the waterways of that state in pursuit of smallmouth bass, largemouth, panfish and trout.
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