We have all been guilty of dropping or mistreating a fish at one point in our angling lives. Fly fishermen tend to think they are more careful with fish because of their perception they have a higher level of conservational awareness than others. I have seen both fly fishermen and conventional anglers handle fish poorly. Whether it is keeping the fish out of the water too long or dropping it, we all have probably been guilty of poor fish treatment. Sometimes the poor Rainbow, Redfish, steelhead or whatever it gets lucky and actually lands in the water when dropped. More often, the poor critter crashes into the rocks or the bottom of a boat head first from three or four feet above. That is the equivalent of you falling off of the top of your house! No Bueno.
The two major factors that contribute to free falling trout are ego and laziness. Together these two inherent human personality traits contribute to more fish mortality than most of us would like to admit. I have seen and been a part of preventable fish abuse that afterward has left me feeling guilty and ashamed. All of these “incidents” could have been prevented by just a little thought, at best, or some “direct” leadership, at worst.
Biggest Fish of My Life!!
Fish pictures tell all. They are mirrors of the souls (and egos) of fishermen. You can tell many things about people by the composition of a fish picture. Was a guide holding the fish? Was the guide smiling? Was the fish in the water? Did the angler hold the fish out from his or her body at arm’s length? Did you see a net in the photo? Were the rod and reel strategically placed so you could see the brand? The list goes on.
The advent of digital cameras and the need for shameless self-promotion has also played a huge role in how fish are treated. I am guilty of Facebooking or Instagramming a pic from the lake or river on occasion. Fish pics were taken by the average angler before the digital revolution were actually reserved for big fish because of film and developing costs. I am convinced this saved fish lives by the kazillions.
Today everyone seems to be channeling their inner Ansel Adams because of the explosion of digital cameras and smartphones – and the fish are the ones who suffer. I can go on and on with anecdote after anecdote of watching fishermen pose with, then drop, then repose with a poor fish. These photo sessions can go on for over five minutes, often times with the fish never getting to get a breath.
A picture should take no more than a few seconds. If you are going to lift the fish from the water then it should stay over the water or a net. The water depth should be deeper than a foot, a couple of inches of water count. I have a rule from my guiding days; “Drop it once and you are done.” This means the fish is released immediately if it is mishandled. It also meant that you probably didn’t get to hold your fish for the rest of the day for any pics. Killing a trout or any fish for a picture isn’t as good as the satisfaction of seeing it swim away in good health. If it isn’t, take up golf.
Lazy Is, As Lazy Does
Bent knees can keep most fish from falling from the heavens. Kneel down when you are landing a fish or get a net. This way the fish never has to leave the water, even for a picture. Once I watched a couple of pretty good fishermen imitate Dumb and Dumber as they repeatedly dropped a 7-8 lbs Rainbow on the floor of their boat multiple times. After 5 minutes, multiple pictures and louder “THUNKS!” they tried to release the fish. Minutes later it was floating belly up next to them. Sheepishly they pulled their Buffs up over their faces along with their anchor and moved on. The death of this big trout could have been easily prevented if they would have held it over a net or over the side of the boat while they took a picture.
“River rock is pretty hard, I think we can all agree. And you wouldn’t want to be dropped on your head onto most river rocks, I am guessing also. So why would you hold a fish over the rocks when there is lots of water that it can fall into if it is dropped?” said a million times by me to clients. Fact is, if experienced anglers practice good fish handling techniques when fishing with less experienced fly fishermen the problem would be solved in a short time. In fly fishing, like life, people watch and learn. It is no different than a beginner asking you why you prefer G. Loomis over Sage or vice-versa or how you roll cast. Leading by example on how to safely catch and release a fish is instrumental in maintaining the health of our fish populations.
Seat Belts Save Lives! So Do Landing Nets!
I am a convert. I have always used a net in a boat. Landing a fish in a boat without a net is next to impossible. My boat net is well used for netting fish and breaking their fall during a quick photo. I prefer using a rubber basket net over a cotton one because flies are less likely to become entangled in the mesh. Either is a great choice because they are less likely to injure the fish. Never use one of those green nylon nets that your grandpa used. If a trout just sees one there is a 50-50 chance it will die. Just kidding.
My new found love is my landing net when I am wading. I still choose not to use a net if I have shallow water to move the fish into like a gravel bar or a sandy shoal. But a small hand net has certainly made my life and the fish’s much easier. Being able to stand waist deep in current and land a fish without wading into shore is a bonus. The one thing I had forgotten is how much easier it is to unhook and release a netted fish. So, in the end, it is a winning situation for both the angler and the fish.
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