Category: Shore Fishing Techniques

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.

Float Fishing Tips

Float fishing is an extremely popular way to target certain species, particularly during the summer months.  The main target species to float fishing for around Devon and Cornwall are Mackerel, Garfish, Pollack, Bass and Mullet – although, depending on the depth of water, other species such as Wrasse, Bream and a variety of minis-species can also be caught.

Float fishing is without doubt an exciting and fun way to fish and provides the perfect opportunity to fish with light tackle for some great sport. Another bonus of float fishing is the ability to fish tight to a snaggy sea bed or other feature in shallow water without risking the loss of much gear in the process.


How to Set Up a Float Fishing Rig

Setting up a float fishing rig is easy enough and can be done in several different ways, although using a quick float fishing rig and attaching your desired trace length to the end surely has to be the quickest and easiest in the long run.

For this, the main part of the float fishing rig – the float, the right size ball weight, 2 retaining beads contained between and a swivel and a snap swivel at either end – can be made up before hand which just leaves you to clip on whichever trace length is necessary depending on which species you wish to target during the fishing session.



Quick float fishing set up


As well as the time saving aspect, the other beauty of this float fishing rig is that your pre-made trace lengths can also be used with two other light tackle set up: the free lining rig and the quick ball weight rig.

*TIP* If you want to be extra crafty, the quick float fishing rig can also be adapted to enable you to float fish and bottom fish simultaneously with the same rod. Replacing the standard swivel at the top of the float rig with an American snap swivel (or similar clip swivel) will allow you to cast out a bottom fishing rig such as a Pennel Pulley Rig, Ball Weight Rig or Ledger Rig and then, once its settled on the seabed, clip the float fishing rig onto the mainline and slide it down into the swim (using the mainline like a zip line). Your float will stay put and put you in the running for Mackerel or Garfish while you also target bottom feeders.

It’s great if all of a sudden you see other anglers catching Mackerel etc but you don’t want to take your main rig out of the water to have a punt at another species.

Because different species require slightly different float fishing tactics to catch them, below we’ve put together some quick guides for targeting different fish on the float.


Float Fishing for Mackerel & Garfish

Float Fishing for Pollack

Float Fishing for Wrasse

Float Fishing for Bass

Float Fishing for Mullet

Lighten Up: Fishing on Light Tackle

Many folks, including myself, rattle on about ‘fishing light’. You only have to read through a handful of catch reports and sea fishing articles to see the phrases ‘with light tackle’ or ‘on light gear’ popping up all the time. So what’s the big deal with fishing light? Surely, the lighter you fish, greater are the chances of losing that prize specimen, right? Possibly…but here’s the thing: although the chances of losing a fish increase slightly, the chances of a hook up in the first place increase dramatically.

Scaling down the terminal tackle helps your bait to blend into the surroundings and gives it a more natural in the water. This is key for catching some of the more wary species (Mullet being the perfect example) which are almost exclusively caught using light line tactics. With such fish being easily spooked, heavier lines and big weights and booms reduce hook up rates significantly. Although the cautious mullet are an extreme example when it comes to proving the effectiveness of light line fishing, adopting these same light line tactics with other species will also bring greater success.

But it’s not just the terminal tackle that needs to be trimmed down – tackle, rod and reel must all complement each other. On light tackle, it takes little for the line to break with a hard fighting fish, consequently, a rod needs to give (to reduce strain on the line) but still retain power enough to successfully play a fish. It’s a fine balancing act, but it is possible.

When all is said and done, switching to lighter tackle will bump up your catch rate for many species around the Devon and Cornwall shores. Not only that, but it’s a whole lot of fun, too.

When fishing as light as you dare, a mackerel becomes a tuna and a mullet a bonefish. It’s true. With lighter line whipping through the water like a knife through butter and less trailing lead, a fish will be able to run – and run they will!

Nothing gets the heart thumping more than a prize Bass stripping line from your multiplier (apart from the chance of losing that prize Bass because you’re fishing light!) But who’s to say that you wouldn’t have got the fish on in the first place if you hadn’t scaled down the tackle? The risk may increase, but so does the fun and excitement. Tenfold.

Who wouldn’t rather skilfully play and land a fish for 10 minutes than tediously winch it in for 2? Where’s the thrill in that? After all, sea angling is a sport, and fishing light keeps so.

Delving Deep into the Addictive World of Lure Fishing

I have been looking on and at times actively participating in a number of forum threads on this site that have covered various aspects of lure fishing, from tackle preferences, lure debates, and most importantly session reports. Although the views are very much varied, the underlying tone has been extremely positive. The sense of excitement and intrigue coming from others is undeniable and I wanted to tap into this. I wanted to find out what it is about lure fishing really draws people in.


Opening the mind and experiencing new things

Although I do occasionally have a go I have never been entirely convinced by the enticements of lure fishing as I have always thought (erroneously as it happens) that I would be limited to targeting a few specific species. I have also always held the slightly cynical view that lure fishing has been a niche playground for tackle tarts, and to certain extent, elitism by those that indulge it over other forms of fishing.  To quote another SWSF stalwart, it’s just fishing with a load of posh string and expensive balsa wood isn’t it?

As I alluded to in a recent blog post, I really do want to open my mind and in return I want to gain an appreciation for other areas of angling that I have previously dismissed. However with this obviously prejudicial mindset I could not simply write this piece from just a first person perspective, I felt I needed to interrogate someone else who has completely caught the bug and tap into the reasons behind it. I could think of no one better to use as a “guinea pig” than one of my regular fishing buddies, Toby Harnett.


The allure of lure fishing

Toby Toby has morphed from a part-time lure dabbler into a full blown addict, complete with his very own dedicated lure drying line (in his kitchen!), over the past few months. He has immersed himself in it, became a local fishing celebrity by getting his picture in a well known blog by a well known fishing photo-journalist, went for a guided session and most importantly he has caught fish and set a personal best for bass. He is the perfect guy to grill for information on why lure fishing is so enticing and what all the fuss is about.


I could not think of a better way to dig a little deeper into the attraction of lure fishing than actually getting out there and seeing this particular breed of angler in the wild so I caught up with Toby on a session to speak to him and get his views on the subject.

As Toby got down to business kitting up, I got the interrogation underway as I was keen to glean as much information from him as possible during this relatively short session. When quizzed why he had taken the step into lure fishing, Toby answered pretty candidly, “I suppose it was initially just curiosity, something different that I had read about and was keen to find out more.”

After taking some time to concentrate on his kit and reflect, he went on to expand his answer and highlighted some of the other attractions he had discovered from getting out on some lure sessions. “Convenience plays a part, not having to worry about bait and not having to pack a 2 ton tackle box is a bonus – it allows you to be spontaneous and nip out for an impromptu session without any real planning.”

As he was obviously eager to get a lure in the water I let Toby get on with it while I observed for a while. Off he went looking for a prime perch to base himself. “It certainly keeps you fit, all this clambering over rocks” he yelled over his shoulder. “Lost nearly a stone in weight since taking this up”, he added with a satisfied smirk on his face.

Looking back up the hill that we had descended to get to the mark, I thought to myself that he had a point as I certainly was not looking forward to the lung busting ascent back up once we were done, especially on a day where it seemed even the mercury in the thermometer might be at risk of freezing.


Second mortgage needed?

As he worked away, I could not help noticing the difference between Toby’s kit and the gear that I use. I generally use my trusty battered old spinning rod, a constant companion for more than a decade, coupled with a decent yet simple spinning reel. Toby, however, had a shiny, relatively new specialist lure rod perfectly matched with a high quality reel. Although he had been fortunate to win the gear in a raffle, it still looked relatively expensive so I thought I would try and be a bit more provocative so I asked Toby what his view was if I said that you had to have state of the art, expensive kit to do it.

“Nonsense!” was his immediate response. “Like with any sort of fishing you can catch on the cheapest or the most expensive of gear. You can get some real bargains out there for quality, specialist gear. What is more important is getting the right advice to ensure that the gear you are buying is exactly what you need and suits the type of lure fishing that you’re planning on doing.”

He went on to highlight that his original Bushwacker lure rod (before he won an AnyFish AnyWhere (AFAW) rod in the raffle at the Art of Fishing shop opening) retails at approximately £60 but had the feel of a far more expensive rod. He did concede that he thought that over time the more expensive gear would shine through, in terms of durability & build quality as much as anything else. He also noted that the level of refinement is very noticeable commenting that the AFAW rod was much lighter than the Bushwacker making for greater comfort on those lengthy sessions.


Controlling the inner tackle tart

Following on with the gear theme I commented that I had the impression that lure angling was an indulgence for the ultimate tackle tart. That got a smile and an unashamed confession, “I freely admit that I’m a tackle tart and that I’ve been sucked in by the glossy pictures and shiny, pretty lures – well they are nice to look at aren’t they?”

We also discussed the various investments that Toby had made in accessorising, from the waders, to the multi pocketed jacket and the lure boxes and it was clear that they all had a purpose. Toby freely admitted that he did not think they were all a critical pre-requisite to taking up lure fishing but they did contribute to the enjoyment of the experience by making it more comfortable. I challenged him to pick a single piece of kit that he would recommend to any perspective new-comer as a “must have” (not including the rod, reel and lures themselves).

The response surprised me as he picked a really functional item forsaking some of the more shiny stuff. He chose his forceps/pliers.

“You’ll need them for anything you do – unhooking fish, cutting line etc.” He advised. “I’ve recently bought some 8” long Rapala pliers with tungsten carbide teeth that can cut braid as well as mono, fit split rings, cut treble hooks and also act as a pair of forceps. It saves carrying multiple different tools around.”

After showing me the pliers he put them back into one of the umpteen pockets in his jacket, another seemingly practical possession. It turned out to be even more functional than I originally thought as it included a self inflating personal flotation device (PFD). Wearing a buoyancy aid whilst shore fishing had never occurred to me but it made perfect sense given the size of the swell coming in and Toby’s position at the end of a rocky outcrop.

He put it into an all too realistic context for me recalling a recent mishap where he ended up in the water after, in his own words, foolishly trying to get back a lure that had snagged. The PFD inflated as it should and would have played an even more important role had he bashed his head and lost consciousness which is an eminent possibility given the rocky terrain.

It really brought home the importance of safety to me and really got me thinking about the times I had been balanced in a precarious position, spinning or float fishing in just shorts, t-shirt and a pair of sandals, and with little regard for the power of the sea. Needless to say, I gave myself a mental clip ‘round the ear for being so irresponsible.


Some useful lessons learned

I knew that Toby had recently fished the Weymouth Bass Festival alongside some long established lure anglers that he had met through various fishing circles and it was clear he had absorbed a huge amount of knowledge on the back of this.

I wanted to tap into this so I asked for a few examples of useful lessons learned. The response was immediate, “To read the water and understand where the fish should be. This is probably the most important thing that I’ve learnt since taking up lure fishing.”

This point was evident from just observing Toby earlier scouting for the optimum spot to fish from, deliberately taking into account the terrain and the swell amongst other things. Everything seemed to be tactical and to a certain extent planned even as far as just retrieving the lure.

Toby elaborated on this, “You can often fish the same lure in a variety of different ways from a straight retrieve, to a retrieve, pause and twitch, popping, and at different depths just by raising or lowering your rod.”

I could tell that Toby’s final tip came from learning the hard way.  “Get control of the fish before trying to unhook it!” he ruefully reflected.  “Not having caught loads of fish before, particularly bass, this was something that was not apparent to me until having to deal with a lively bass with sharp spines in its fins, razor sharp gill plates and 3 treble hooks flying around, all in very close vicinity to your hands.”

Wise words and something I could fully relate to after having my best summer bass season in recent years. Those inevitable cuts and grazes make for a painful experience when combined with lashings of salty water.


Evoking the senses

The fish had evidently not read the script and were conspicuous by their absence so I asked Toby to describe the feeling of hooking into a fish on a lure – what made it so special? I knew straight away that I had asked the right question and had teased out perhaps the biggest draw of lure fishing. The response was full of passion and enthusiasm.

“It’s so sudden. You may have been quietly casting and retrieving your lure for hours and then WHAM!! FISH ON!! Your heart starts pumping and your knees trembling. I reckon that the feeling is emphasised because you’re holding the rod in your hands when the fish smashes the lure.”

I let Toby get on with more of an extended fish and settled back to observe proceedings and was just blown away by the serenity of the scenery. Despite the noise of swell and white water crashing on the rocks it was just so tranquil, positively therapeutic in fact. Watching Toby and a couple of other lure anglers working away, it seemed that they had entered a Zen-like state, completely absorbed in their own world and focused on the area in front of them, feeling every vibration of the lure through the rod as they worked them in a specific, methodical way.

I think it was at this point that it all clicked and I really started to get an appreciation of the draw of lure fishing. It was clear that my outlook on the subject was changing and I was starting to regret my previously reluctant attitude.


Successfully balancing the best of both worlds

One of the reasons for my reluctance to give lure fishing a chance seems to stem from an irrational fear of perhaps liking it so much that I ended up forsaking my fishing roots. Bait fishing has always been my passion and I have so many fond memories of growing up learning to fish with both my father and grandfather. I looked to get Toby’s take on my concerns and stated that a lot of lure anglers seem to move solely to that side and forsake other forms of fishing. I asked him whether he was going to do this and whether he felt that he could combine both.

“No I’m not going to do that, certainly as far as I feel at the moment anyhow and yes I think that I can do both.” Touching on the key reason why, he went on to add, “I’ve met some good friends through SWSF and bait fishing. Many of these people don’t lure fish regularly so to keep in touch with them I will definitely still go bait fishing.”

I must admit I liked his answer as it just summed up the camaraderie and value of friendships within the wider angling world.


Acknowledging the error of my ways

I like to think that I am reasonable enough to admit it when I am wrong and this is one of those cases. I readily dismissed lure fishing for a number of reasons, many of which I outlined at the beginning of this article. However just spending a day getting another person’s perspective blew many of these out of the water. Even if some pre-conceptions remain, rather than just carry them with me I have seen enough of the upside to lure fishing to give it the benefit of the doubt.

I owe a massive debt of gratitude to Toby for taking the time to meet up with me, putting up with my endless questions and for just being so candid with his answers. I have seen Toby’s transition into the world of lure fishing and it seems to have been such a positive experience which fills me with optimism not only for my own foray into the area but also for any other potential fledgling lure anglers. It truly is an area of fishing that is accessible to all.


Barely scratching the surface

Now I have barely scratched the surface here and it was never my intention to try and cover absolutely everything to do with lure fishing. That would be impossible and would quite probably fill quite a hefty book. I wanted to tap into the psyche of a passionate lure angler recently immersed in the discipline as well as sharing the evolution of my own candid views.

If you are interested in finding out more about lure fishing there is plenty of resources out there. From dedicated websites like The Lure Forum, to the opportunity of guided sessions conducted by an experienced lure angler. I would also be remiss if I did not mention that there are a number of dedicated lure angling shops on our doorstep in the south-west. As well as selling all the kit you could possibly need to get into lure fishing, they also throw in perhaps the most important commodity of all – good, solid advice.