The Angler’s Guide to Handling Fish

This article has been written as a guide and for information purposes only – its not a ‘This is how it should be done’ spiel, as I am sure that many fellow anglers have their own equally safe and respectful ways to handle different fish and disgorge the hook from them. However, for the newer anglers among us that have not handled many fish before, I hope this is of some help.

During this article I am going to cover a few topics including landing the fish, handling the fish to remove the hook, dispatching the fish if you intend to keep it, and returning the fish safely to water for those that you don’t intend to keep.

Whilst we are out fishing we are always in the general publics view and what we do when we catch a fish can affect the way they portray the average fisherperson.  In my time I have (and no doubt others have too) seen some sad behaviour of the minority of anglers that let us all down. I hope here can share some tips to help make us all Ambassadors of our sport.


Catching and Landing Your Fish

On hooking into your fish and reeling in, you will come to the point of removing the fish from the water – and you would be amazed at just how much damage you could do to a fish if it’s carried out in the wrong manner or using the wrong equipment.  So, should you use a gaff, a net, or just to lift it straight out using the line? It depends to a certain extent on whether you are boat, pier or beach fishing, but please be aware there is quite a bit of crossover too!

A gaff is one of the normal instruments used on boats for larger specimens of fish such as massive conger.  I myself have used a homemade gaff on board ship to lift out large stingray onto the deck for hook removal before being returned to swim off happily.  The problem comes when you don’t know where to gaff a fish, although if you are on a reputable charter boat then the skipper of the boat should normally know.  When it comes to conger it is now unacceptable to gaff it in its body where it causes a lot of damage and unnecessary pain to the fish – now the gaff is placed in the underside of the eel’s jaw where there is a soft membrane and nothing else.


For skate and rays, the leading edge of the wing should be used where a small whole caused by the gaff emulates a natural wound that it would receive whilst bottom fishing.  The only other fish that should need to be gaffed is the Angler (or Monk) fish.  No way should sharks be gaffed, they should be lifted out of the water by two people – one at the dorsal, the other at the tail – carefully and securely lifting them out for unhooking etc.  If the shark is too big then leave it in the water and unhook it (or cut the trace near the hook).  Thornback rays (and other rays as well as Huss can be lifted out of the water by the hook trace and by the tail (ensure you use a gloved hand when lifting sting rays).

netA landing net or drop net should be used if there is some distance from the water for larger fish. Either are useful to have and will also help stop the loss of fish when hauling them out of the water.

Using a landing net is easy to use, you simply steer the fish over the landing net and scoop up the fish – it’s easy, quick, efficient and good for the fish.

Just lifting them out by the line is acceptable and is probably the most used technique used by anglers all around the country.


Handling Fish

The main problem when finally landing the fish is to handle it correctly and not let it thrash around and injure itself – whether you are on a boat or shore fishing.

teethyfishThere are many things to look out for before you handle a fish, for example, does it have spines (and if so, where are they located?), has it got teeth etc?  Many fish also have a protective coating of mucus or slime on the body to protect them from infection, and the last thing you want to do is disrupt this before returning it to the water.

When fish are taken out of the water you should handle them with wet hands, because if you do handle them with normal dry hands some of that coating will adhere to your hands and leave the fish open to attack.  Better still, you should handle them with a damp cloth or chamois leather (this will also aid in grip), similarly if you have to put the fish down then place it on a soft wet surface or cloth and not down on tarmac, sand or shingle.  Using a cloth is also good if the fish have spines, as this will give some padding between your skin and the sharp bits.  You should be confident, yet gentle, when picking the fish up – it appals me to see how some people hold fish, squeezing them tightly – so much so you can see their eyes bulging out (I know some people from this site have seen fish literally squeezed to death) due to bad handling.

fishhandlingdiagramRound fish should be gripped between thumb and fingers over the head and just to the rear of the gill plates – this allows the hand gripping the fish full manoeuvrability.


Common and Silver Eels there is no easy way of handling them as they tend to wriggle and squirm all of the time, knotting themselves and your tackle up – the best way to handle these are with a piece of chamois leather as this gives better grip, and by holding the main body and gently grip the head between index, middle finger and third finger you should be able to remove the hook.

Dogfish are another matter, especially with their sandpaper skin that can literally rub your hands etc raw if you are not careful – they should be held by folding the tail round to touch their head and gripped so for unhooking.

Flatfish should be held gently behind the head with your fingers underneath and your thumb on top.

I feel that in this part the mackerel should have its own mention here – the long and short of it is that the heat and oils from our hands damage their skin – which in turn causes them to die from between 3 to 48 hours afterwards.  I have done some research on this and have found many references on websites which have been confirmed by CEFAS (Centre for Environment, Fisheries & Aquaculture Science).


The recommendation here is:

1.    Stop catching them once you have reached your personal quota and change rigs to go for other fish like Bass which won’t be far from the shoal.

2.    Use gloves / a cloth whilst unhooking them.

3.    Use barbless hooks and shake them off without touching them.


Removing Hooks

Once you have hold of your fish you will want to get the hook out of it so you can carry on fishing.  There are many tools to help you do this and everyone will have their favourite.  It has been suggested that there are a few ways to subdue a fish and make it easier to remove the hook.  One way is to place a damp cloth over its eyes, and the other is to turn it on its back.  I have not tried the fist but have had some success on the second.  Fish that are going to be returned should be unhooked as quickly as possible.

disgorgersFor smaller fish you can use a disgorger which is a moulded plastic or aluminium tool where the end is slipped over the line and sliding it down to the bend in the hook.  A push is then needed to remove the hook, and under the pressure of the line, the hook will tighten against the end of the disgorger and removed from the mouth.

Bigger fish you can use a set of forceps or long (snipe) nosed pliers to do the job.

For shark, tope, eels and rays etc then a normal set of pliers can sometimes be used at a push – but remember to keep your fingers away from the teeth/grinders – although its much safer and more prefereable to use a heavy disgorger, or T-bar, as they are commonly referred to.

The best place to grip a hook is not on its shank, but in the middle of the bend where gentle, but persistent pressure away from the hook hold will lift the hook point free. Twisting the hook will do no good at all. If a fish has pulled the hook point fully through the lip or any part of the skin, then it’s quicker to snip the hook trace off above the hook, and pull the hook through point first followed by the shank.

The next bit is a bit of a debate, what to do if you can’t get the hook out – do you cut it off and leave the hook in there, or do you try your hardest to get the hook out and possibly end up killing said fish?

I can only offer what I know. If you take what fish eat, broken mussel, razorfish shells and hard backed crab for instance, then you realise just how insignificant a hook can be to a fish. There is evidence to suggest that fish can shed a hook within hours of being hooked, providing it is a bronze pattern and that it will corrode. It is recommended that coated or commercially plated pattern hooks and stainless steel hooks should never be used for this reason.


Returning Fish to Water

dogfishhandlingHow you return a fish to water can make the difference to whether it will live or die.  A lot of anglers tend to just throw the fish back without any consideration (and yes I have been guilty of this one as well) to the fish.  Fish can be damaged this way as well as being killed by shock.  If you have to drop them into the water then reduce the height at which you do to the minimum.  Even better, if you can place them into the water by hand (one hand supporting the stomach and the other at the tail, place in towards oncoming water), or walk them out into deeper water – just watch out for dogfish though as they have a tendency to swim back towards you after release.  Some fish like wrasse and pollack can be left in deeper tidal pools until reclaimed by incoming tides.


Getting the smell of Fish off your hands at the end of the day

Handling fish leaves a less than pleasant smell on your hands (unless you’re into that sort of thing!!!).  Whether you are fishing, gutting, cleaning the fish, the fishy smell remains long after the fun is over.  There are many options to remove the smell off your hands.  Choose whichever one easier for you.

  • Cut a fresh lemon into wedges. After you are finished handling the fish, squeeze the lemon onto your hands, rub your hands together, and rinse with water.
  • Squeeze liquid hand-sanitizer onto your hands. Rub your hands together till dry.
  • Rub your hands with toothpaste, then rub together, and rinse under water.
  • Use soap specifically made for removing fish odors, like De-Fishing Soap.
  • Surgical spirit works well also.
  • Wash your hands with neat Head & Shoulders Intensive Care shampoo and rinse with water.

One comment on “The Angler’s Guide to Handling Fish

  1. Elvis McIlmoyle says:

    I’ve heard that stainless steel soap is a good way to neutrilise fish odour on your hands. Bettaware and places like The Range sell stainless steel soap. Its not actually soapy by the way, its just a lunp of stainless stell that removes the smell by ions present in the metal that help detatch the source of the fish smell. Also works for Garlic and onions etc.

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