Learn The Fly Fishing Basics and How to Fly Fish!

How to Safely Handle Fish

We all love the sport of fly fishing. There’s no questioning that. Along with that love of the sport is a responsibility to protect it and the living creatures we love to pursue. How does one do that though? Many people that are new to fly fishing, or even fishing in general, aren’t aware of the proper handling techniques of fish and just how to safely handle fish in order to ensure their survival for the next angler to come along. This may often get overlooked in the grand scheme of learning how to fly fish, but it is one of the most important things to remember when out on the water.

Cutthroat Trout in Net - How to Safely Handle Fish - Catch and Release

How to Safely Handle Fish

Many anglers out there prefer to catch and keep their fish. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, those that choose to catch and release their fish are the ones that need to know a few simple tips on how to safely handle fish in order to ensure that fish’s survival when they swim off into the depths.

Want I want to do is give you five simple tips you can take with you to the river or lake next time to help those fish last another day and help keep them around for your kids, grandkids, or any other angler out there to be able to enjoy. There’s a great quote by Lee Wulff, who many consider the father of the catch and release movement, that I’m often reminded of when thinking about releasing a fish into the wild after I’ve caught it:

Game fish are too valuable to only be caught once.
– Lee Wulff

Fish Handling Tip #1

Keep your fight with the fish as brief as possible. The longer you tend to fight/play a fish, the more it wears them out. At the end of your struggle, that fish still needs to have enough energy to swim off and face the currents and other aspects of their world. If they don’t have enough energy to do that, they are in a world of trouble.

Many anglers love to target fish with super lightweight rods. I’ll admit it is pretty fun to catch a large fish on ultralight fishing gear. However, this can lead to potential problems when trying to land a large fish in a timely manner. If you wear the fish out too much, you stand the risk of them not having enough energy to swim off and survive. Keep your gear in mind when targeting fish and be prepared to spend additional time when releasing them. This tip on how to safely handle fish will certainly help to make sure they can swim off and live to fight another day.

Releasing-a-Trout - How to Safely Handle Fish - Catch and Release

Find a Fly Fishing Net

Fish Handling Tip #2

Try to use barbless hooks. I’ve spoken about the benefits of using barbless hooks in the past. If you haven’t read that post, take a few minutes and read over it. It may help sway you to try this out.

Using barbless hooks decreases the mortality rate and also decreases the damage done to the fish on hookup. This is especially important when fish tend to swallow the fly deep into their mouth. Barbs on a hook tend to rip and tear a fish up when trying to remove the hook. That does far more harm and stresses a fish out, preventing them from being able to survive after release.

A barbless hook will allow you to remove the hook and release the fish far quicker, which correlates well with tip #1 above. It may be a bit more difficult to keep a fish hooked when using barbless hooks, but I urge to to try it out sometime. It may just add a little extra challenge for you.

Fish Handling Tip #3

Spend some time reviving the fish after the fight. As mentioned in tip #1, playing/fighting a fish saps all of their energy out of them. They need this energy to swim off and survive.

After you remove the hook, gently hold the fish in the water and move them back and forth to get the water flowing through their gills. This will help them gain some energy back and allow them to rest just a bit before swimming off. Don’t just drop them in the water and go on your merry way! Some fish may be ready and rearing to go. You will most likely be able to tell this. But take the time and be sure your fish is ready to swim off.

Here’s an additional sub-tip to help you determine if a fish is OK to release. When you put the fish in the water and are no longer touching it, it will hold itself upright and not fall over to one side or upside down. This is a good indicator that the fish is gaining energy and will successfully be able to swim off.

Fish Handling Tip #4

Keep that fish in the water as much as you possibly can. Water is what makes these creatures survive. Taking them out for an extended period of time is only detrimental to them and knowing these tips on how to safely handle fish is extremely important.

Everyone wants to get that photo of their prize catch too. I’m not saying you can never get that. I’ve done it myself. Just make sure to minimize the time out of the water. Keep the fish in the net in the water up until the moment before you’re going to snap the photo and then immediately put it back in the water. This way you can still help the fish survive and get your bragging rights for later.

Here are some good options for landing nets to use:
Landing Nets 

Fish Handling Tip #5

This last tip on how to safely handle fish is a short and sweet one. Don’t squeeze the fish too hard. It’s just the same as if someone gives you a massive bear hug and you feel squished beyond belief. The fish don’t like it. Make use of your net to help control the fish. If they are squirming around too much, drop them back in the net and place them back underwater for a moment until they calm down.

Brown-Trout-Under-Water - How to Safely Handle Fish - Catch and Release

Bonus Fish Handling Tip

One more bonus tip on how to safely handle fish for you is to always remember to wet your hands before touching or holding the fish. Fish have a protective layer that people usually notice as a slimy feel. This layer protects them from all sorts of disease and other harmful things. When you use a dry hand to handle the fish, it removes this protective layer. Always remember to wet your hands first!

How to Safely Handle Fish Wrap-Up

As you may be able to tell now, small things you can do when you catch a fish can make a big difference in their survival. Try to think about the fishes survival when you hook into one and help preserve them for future generations of anglers to enjoy. Learning how to safely handle fish is just the first step.

For more information, Orvis has put together a great little video on catch and release fishing and how to catch and release a trout safely. It’s a good primer to go along with this article.
Check it out here 

If you have any questions or feedback, be sure to leave a comment below or send me a message.

About Clint Losee

Clint Losee is an avid fly angler of 30+ years, web developer, and Utah Landscape & Nature Photographer. You can connect with him on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter. Curious about some of the gear he uses? Check out the new Amazon store.