Holding a Trout — Their Heart in Your Hands

by | Sep 5, 2016 | 10 comments

Fish pictures are the grand compromise of catch and release. An Instagram feed with a full gallery of trout is replacing the stringer of dead fish for bragging rights. And that’s a good thing. They look better alive anyway.

Would a trout be better off if we didn’t take its picture? Sure it would. Moreover, wouldn’t a trout be better off if we didn’t set a hook in its mouth and drag it through the water? Yup. So I think we have to be a little careful how self-righteous we get. Point is, we all draw the line somewhere, and I firmly believe that a quick picture, taken responsibly (I’ll get to that), won’t hurt a trout.

Most of the fishermen I know who’ve spent a great deal of time with their boots in the water have caught on to catch and release. The bare facts stare you in the face pretty quickly if you start keeping your limit on every trip. You soon realize that a good fisherman can thin out a stretch of water in short order, and a group of good fishermen can probably take down an entire watershed.

So we take pictures instead.

I’ve learned to play fish fast and hard, and even the Whiskeys are brought to hand in just a couple minutes. I rarely use anything less than 5X. I prefer a rod with a good backbone, and the average fight lasts less than, I’d guess, thirty seconds.

After playing a fish quickly, I scoop it in a rubber mesh net. I find an area next to the bank with cold, moving water about a foot deep and let the wooden frame of my net suspend the fish in the bag while I set up the camera and tripod. I have a routine for this, and it takes less than a minute. It’s important to keep the trout positioned in the net with its nose in the current, where the gills are free to breath. Done that way, a trout could survive in this small live-well for a long time. But we don’t ask it to.



When it’s time to take the picture, I slide one hand under and behind the pectoral fins so my palm and three fingers support most of the weight, and I like to support the head of larger fish with my extended index finger. I use my other hand to raise the tail.  The key point here is to lift — don’t grip.

A recent post from Tony Bishop of the New Zealand blog, Bish & Fish, pointedly addresses this foul.

Bishop writes, “Gripping a fish in the pectoral area using inward force and squeezing pressure will compress the heart and maybe the liver and gills. The outcome for the fish is not going to be good, even if it does manage to swim away on release.

Surprisingly, Bishop has taken some criticism from anglers asserting that squeezing the heart and the vital organs of a trout might not kill it. What? People are strange. It can’t be good for a trout, and pictures look better when the fish is lifted instead of squeezed anyway. So why take the discussion any further? It’s an easy adjustment to make. There’s no reason to squeeze — just lift and balance the fish. Again, a trout cannot be calmed by squeezing it.


Squeezing the heart can’t be a good thing.

Later in the article, however, Bishop makes a point that I respectfully disagree with. He argues that you can’t hold the tail underhand (what he calls the UK Grip) without squeezing with the forward hand.

I often grasp the tail underhand, and I get a firm hold around the bony part of the tail (the wrist). But if the fish does any thrashing around, I just put it back in the net. I never squeeze if it starts to move.

My favorite fish pictures are a simple lift and shoot. I’m usually kneeling, since that puts me close to the net and keeps the trout near the water. And I only lift the fish from the water for a few moments. (More than five seconds is a long time to me.) If the fish is not dripping water, it’s probably been out of the water for too long. If I’ve gotten the pic, then I release the fish into the river. If I want a second shot, I put the fish back in the net and admire it for a minute or so, then I lift it again. If I don’t get the shot I want after two tries, I usually release the fish anyway because it just seems like the right thing to do.

And, candidly . . . I’ve learned a lot more about what’s right and wrong through the years. I’ve made mistakes. We all do. The more you fish, the more those moments speak to you. The trout and the river will show you the way forward.

Catch & Release with a Picture

— On a camera, use the timer setting or a remote shutter. Or on a smart phone, turn on the voice activated shooting mode.

— Go barbless, especially in the larger hook sizes. I pinch down even small, micro-barbed hooks.

Fight ‘em quick. My strategy: when the fish isn’t pulling, then I am.

— Keep them in a rubber net in clear and cold water, not muddy sidewater.

— Be sure the net isn’t blocking the gills from breathing.

— Lift only for a few seconds.

— Stay close to the water surface.

— If the fish struggles, don’t squeeze. Just let it go. I often try to slide it back into my net.

— Don’t grip the trout’s heart.


Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky


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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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  1. Dom,

    Fantastic article agree with everything 100%. I am always asked why I practice catch and release, this is a perfect article.Also some great tips here regarding photos. Have so many new things to try on the up coming trip.


  2. Domenick,
    How do you trip the shutter ? Self timer?
    Thanks for writing this blog, I look forward to your posts .

    • Thanks, Pierre.

      Three options:

      First, my phone can be voice activated by saying, “shoot.”

      Second, use the timer on the SLR. It’s tricky getting the focus right.

      Third, a remote, wireless shutter release. I bought one from Cowboy Studios. It operates just like the shutter release on the camera, so I can use auto focus, then take the pic. I need two hands for the fish, so I operate the remote with my mouth. Or … I set the ten second timer on the camera, get in position and hold something else up for the camera to focus on, and I start the timer remotely. Then I have ten seconds to put the remote away and pic up the fish for the pre-focused picture.

      There’s always a way, right?

  3. Want to get any fish especially trout to settle down? Turn them upside down. Works EVERY time. I don’t know the exact reason why, some say it disorients them. Never heard of squeezing them? I always heard from very reliable sources that if you squeeze them it will kill them. Guess if you want to grip and grill that would work?

    • Great point about turning them upside down. I find that almost always works with brown trout and brookies. Bows are a little less cooperative.

    • Hmmm I wander if turning them upside down in the water has the same effect? Anyone tried it? I stopped doing this as much when I started unhooking in the water. For those times when the fly can’t easily be got to an upside down, underwater unhooking would seem a good option.

      • Good thought. So, yes, I’ve tried that. Doesn’t seem to work the same when they are in the water.

  4. This is such an important subject thanks for writing about it. As ever you give a thoughtful and balanced point of view. As more efficient fishing methods become more popular the health of the those fish released becomes more important. Fortunately the trend does seems to be the better the fish catching ability the better the catch and release technique. Until very recently I have been firmly in the no-hero-shot camp but at the same time one of my most important values is the ability to change my opinions based on new information.
    “Would a trout be better off if we didn’t take its picture? Sure it would.”
    The studies would suggest if everyone took your level of planning and care in their picture taking many fish would be better off being photographed than returned immediately. I can’t find it now but one study found no change in any physiological markers when a completely ‘fresh’ fish was lifted from the water for a short period (<10 Sec’s from memory) that’s in stark contrast to the damage done when a played out fish is lifted from the water immediately after landing.

  5. There is more research than ever, available to anyone with access to the internet, that should influence our catch and release practices. Some of it pretty scary like the average post-release mortality estimated at 15% (that’s 1 in 6 fish dying after release and don’t think that the fish swimming off means it’s going to survive the next 24 hours) or higher than 50% for poor fish handling practices. Some of it heartening like the best practices having a better than 1% mortality rate. The next step to increase post-release survival is to apply the inferred steps that these studies don’t cover. Take the study on landing net mesh type http://www.fecpl.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/nafm.10033.pdf . It’s often possible to use a landing net in such a way that the fish has little contact with the mesh at all and never has its full weight supported by the mesh.
    The smaller fish we catch are often more at risk than the larger fish of that catchment due to the higher likelihood of predation post release. Look after the little ones too.
    Equipment choice and techniques like these coupled with practices like (I personally think the self-righting time given is too long for trout, with immediate self-righting being better) https://www.keepemwet.org/keepemwet-news-1/2018/2/14/fish-reflex-tests-a-valuable-tool-for-anglers
    mean the incidence of individual-angler induced fish mortality (both long and short term) could be reduced to virtually nothing.


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