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Fish Handling & Care

By Chris Smith, Principal Fisheries Biologist


An angler’s proper handling of fish can greatly
improve their survival when released.

Like many of us I started fishing at a very young age and learned to fish from my dad. As I got older I continued my quest to become a proficient angler by watching fishing shows on TV, reading magazines and books. I was like a sponge for anything about fish or fishing. I once received a plaque that said, “Fishing is not a matter of life or death…it’s more important than that.” Some call it passion…some say it’s an obsession. Call it what you want, I call it a love for fishing. I know, this sounds a little sappy but why else would we get up at 3 a.m., stand in the pouring rain for 10 hours with the wind blowing 35 mph hoping to catch a 15-inch bass?

Many anglers have this same obsession and passion for fishing. However,some anglers have not yet acquired the passion and respect for the fish itself. The building block of the sport begins with the fish, not just the thrill of the fight. My dad taught me core values early on and inspired me to become a biologist. Fish care and handling has always been very important to me, regardless of whether the fish was going home for dinner or back in the pond.

Large predatory fish such as bass, trout and muskies are generally well-respected but others—including panfish, chain pickerel and rough fish are not cared for equally. All fish are equal and serve an important part in the aquatic ecosystem. So all fish should be treated with respect and handled with care.

Handling fish properly protects both you and the fish. Most fish have sharp spines; some have rather large sharp teeth. Learning the proper way to hold each species keeps you and the fish safe. Largemouth and smallmouth bass can be safely held by the lower jaw but don’t try that with a musky; they should be held horizontally and supported by both hands. Catfish have large spines on their pectoral fins and dorsal fin which should be avoided. If you are unsure how to hold a fish, watch and learn from an experienced angler or search online.

A little common sense and some respect for the fish can make for a more enjoyable fishing experience. Always wet your hands first before handling fish so as not to disturb the protective surface slime layer. Don’t allow fish to flop around on the bank, the dock, or the deck of the boat. If keeping fish, put them on ice in a cooler or in an aerated livewell. If you intend to release the fish, take the fish off the hook as quickly as possible and gently lower it into the water until it begins to swim away.

Proper Handling and Releasing Techniques Reduce Fish Mortality.

  • Land fish as quickly as possible, except when retrieving from depths of 20-feet or more. Fighting a fish to exhaustion increases mortality as does rapidly bringing up a fish through the changing water pressure and temperature gradients.
  • Keep fish intended for release in the water as much as possible. Plan ahead with tools and camera.
  • To bring a fish out of the water momentarily, use a rubber net or one of knotless nylon. Handle the fish carefully using wet hands to minimize loss of the fish’s protective slime layer.
  • Minimize physical injury. Do not touch gills or allow fish to flop around on deck.
  • Carefully remove hooks using a dehooker or needle-nose pliers.
  • Use plain hooks, not stainless, to rust away quickly if one must be left in a gut-hooked fish. Cut this line close to the hook’s eyelet.
  • To revive lethargic fish hold in a normal, upright position. Move the fish forward in an “S” or figure-8 pattern so that water flows over the gills only from front to back.
  • Use circle hooks or barbless hooks.

Sean Cochran/ NJ Div. of Fish and Wildlife

Regulations in red are new this year.

Purple text indicates an important note.

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