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December 08, 2016
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How to Successfully Land & Release Fish

Bob Toffler holds a nice brown and shows the proper method to support it and pose for a photo. Notice the water dripping from the fish indicating the shot was set up and then the fish was hoisted for a quick in and out of the water.
Photos by Joe Demalderis

You’ve hooked a nice fish. Line is peeling off your reel, adrenaline is flowing, and you start to fear you’ll lose the fish, a big one no less. If you want to increase your odds of landing a good fish, stop thinking you might lose it. It’s only a fish. Relax.

The hard part is done, fooling the fish. Sure, we all want to get the fish to hand, maybe get a quick photo and then release our quarry to live another day. To do that, more often than not, requires the right mindset. Forget about “playing” the fish. We played with the fish when we were presenting our fly, now you want to land it.

The fish gave us our fun. Now, at the very least, we owe our quarry the respect of safe handling so he can be set free with minimal harm, if any. Though we might have felt some stress in the frustration of getting a fish to take our fly and the nervousness that could come with landing a nice fish, we need to reduce the stress on the fish. Of paramount importance is keeping hands free of the gills and keeping the fish in the water.

You should use the right rod, one not too light for the strength or size of what you’re fishing for. Also use the heaviest tippet you can get away with. With these in place you need to use them to their potential. Use the midsection of the rod. The midsection will let you put more pressure on the fish. I often see anglers using just the tip of the rod. That softer, flexible section gives fish the advantage. There’s simply not enough resistance to quickly land a good fish.

A safe-enough-to-do-at-home experiment is to string up your rod, tie a 5x or 6x tippet to a six or eight ounce weight, and then with your rod, lift the weight. The result will surprise you. Use heavier weights and see what happens. It’s hard to break off a fly caught in something by just using your rod. It’s easier to break the line by pulling on it or giving a sudden jerk to the line. It’s the same with a fish on the line. Keep the pressure steady by slowly lifting the rod and reeling down toward the fish, always ready to let go of the reel handle when there’s a sudden surge. Don’t use the reel to winch the fish in.

Using a rubber or rubber-coated landing net is easier on the fish’s scales and skin coating. Avoid knotted nets. The knots in those inexpensive or old-style nets are damaging to the fish’s eyes. A good net is good for the fish. It allows you to land the fish without having to tire it out too much, resulting in better recovery on release. Rubber nets can be used as an aquarium of sorts, holding the fish in the current until it’s recovered and swims from the net on its own.

Being in control of a hooked fish increases the odds for additional hookups by not having the fish zipping all over and spooking other fish. If there are other anglers nearby, it’s just common courtesy not to spook the whole pool. Sometimes, an angler who’s hooked a decent fish will walk downriver trying to “keep up” with the fish. If others are fishing downstream it’s just plain rude, since it will disturb the water they’re fishing, unless it’s truly a gigantic fish, one the size seldom seen in the water you’re fishing. Walking a fish also takes the pressure off. With no pressure, the fish is resting and you lessen your chances of landing it. Lose the fear of losing fish, and you’ll find you’ll do less fish walking.

So we got some of the quirks out of the way, the fish is reasonably beat, but not beat to death, and now it’s in the net. Keep the fish in the net and in the water while you remove the fly. Barbless hooks make that easier and put less stress on an already stressed fish. Keep the fish in the water until it’s recovered enough to swim away on its own. If it needs a little “push” it’s not ready yet.

If you want a picture and you’re alone, take the picture with the fish in the water. Bank shots in the grass are the kiss of death. If you’re with someone else, keep the fish in the water and net while your buddy gets ready, focused and framed. Then on the count of two, quickly lift the fish, supporting it by the tail and under the pectoral fins, take the shot and put the fish back in the water. This process should take no more than two or three seconds. The shot you get is the shot you get. With some luck, the picture came out fine. With time and experience, the pictures come out fine more and more often.

[Capt. Joe Demalderis is a partner in Cross Current Guide Service & Outfitters with offices in Milford, PA & Hancock, NY. In 2010, he was the 2010 Orvis Endorsed Fly Fishing Guide of the Year.]