You can’t stop fishermen from holding their trout. All of the Keep ‘Em Wet campaigns and the Ketchum Release tools will not stop anglers from reaching into the water and lifting their prize. It’s a desire to complete the act, to finish the catch, an instinct to hold the creature that we set out to capture.
And why wouldn’t we want to hold a wild trout — to touch the majesty of Mother Nature — to feel a fleeting, darting, irrefutably gorgeous animal and admire it, and to look upon that which eludes us so often and for so long? No, you’re not going to stop fishermen from holding their trout.
Instead, let’s spread the word about how to safely handle trout without harming them. And after thirty-some years of trout fishing, I can promise you, first hand, it is possible. You can hook a trout, land it, hold it, and even take a picture before letting it go. And if you do all of that right — if you truly respect the trout and are cautious with its health, it will swim off into the deep dark with nothing more than a new education about what it shouldn’t eat.
I know what a trout looks like when it’s released, no worse for wear. And I know what a trout looks like when it’s been hurt — because I’ve made my share of mistakes. I fear that most of us must learn these lessons the hard way, because that’s human nature. I’ve played trout too long, accidentally dropped them on rocks, held them up to the lens for a few extra snapped shutters, and damaged trout in other ways. And always, something inside me knew it was wrong. When the trout swam away lethargic, I took it as a lesson and did my best to learn from those mistakes.
So I’d like to share my experience here. I encourage you to also seek out scientific research on trout handling, on exposure times and water temps. I believe that most of what I’ve discovered first-hand corresponds with that research.
What follows is a real world, riverside understanding of how to hold a trout, all from a fisherman who’s held a few trout, large and small.
The Other Articles
Real quick, these paragraphs are not meant to be a comprehensive take on the subject of ethical catch and release. This article is about the literal handling of trout. For more perspective on the process of safely catching and releasing trout, here are a few other Troutbitten articles.
Fishing for trout in warming water:
Fighting trout the right way — It matters just as much as how we hold them:
Realize where the heart of a trout is. Always avoid squeezing in that vital area:
And lastly, if you choose to take a picture, here’s the best way to do it . . .
Looking back, I realize that within all these articles, there’s a lot more to be said about holding a trout. So here we go . . .
A Calming Hold
Trout like to know that you aren’t trying to kill them. Think about it. Predators grab, spear or squeeze a trout. And if you do that, every trout will fear you as a predator. But if you handle a trout without squeezing, by cradling it and supporting its weight, you might be amazed how often they match your calmness.
Never squeeze. It does no good. The amount of pressure you’d have to apply to actually keep a trout from escaping is sure to damage the fish. Instead, take the opposite approach. Work with the trout to support it. Allow it to feel comfortable, laying in your hands. Such an approach does wonders.
Lift the trout from underneath, don’t squeeze from over the top. If it wriggles or flops as you try to lift the fish, that’s okay. Keep waiting for the chance to cradle it from underneath. It will happen, as long as you don’t squeeze.
I often joke that brown trout have more self-respect than rainbows. Brookies fall somewhere in the middle. Provided the calm approach described above, most brown trout seem to get over it and say, Alright, fair enough, you got me. Now let’s just get this over with, and you put me right back, alright?
Rainbows, on the other hand, often keep wriggling and flopping like a melodramatic school girl. Ahhhh! This is the end of the world! Nevertheless, treating rainbow trout as calm as possible is the only way to have a chance at relaxing them.
“Why do you turn him over like that, Dad?” Joey asked me when he was five. The habit was so ingrained that I hadn’t given it any thought in years. (And this is the pleasure of having kids — a renewed perspective.)
I explained to Joey that a wiggling or panicked trout often calms down by inverting him. Cradled and belly up is the way I hold trout to remove most hooks from a trout’s lip.
Can we talk about that net for just a minute? For most of my trout fishing life, I walked without a net. And if you have no intention of admiring your trout for very long or taking a picture, then you might do just fine without one too, assuming your fish fighting and trout handling skills are already excellent.
But when my sons were born, I started carrying the hoop. My boys needed a few extra moments to observe the trout in a watery holding pen. The rubber mesh live-well also gave me a chance to get the camera ready while keeping trout safe in the water. I later realized that there’s no fair argument against the following fact: You can land more trout faster and safer by using a net. Full stop. So I carry it always.
Buy one with a rubber mesh bag and a hoop that floats, and there’s you live-well — suitable for holding a trout for a few extra seconds before the release.
And if you take a picture . . .
The hero shots won’t end. It’s the grand compromise of catch and release. When C&R took over as the expected normal, that didn’t change the angler’s propensity to brag a little about his catch.
Do you need to long arm every trout that comes to your net? Probably not. But if we truly want the next generation to enjoy this sport, to become guardians of our waters and the trout themselves, then we must allow for some pride in the success of catching a fish — especially the bigger ones. Because most new (and old) anglers want to show off a trout now and then.
Holding a trout to quickly remove the hook is one thing. But holding them for a picture is a little different.
— Keep them close to the river. Fish pictures look better with water in the frame anyway. Think about it.
— No fingers in the gills. This should be a given, but I’ll mention it. The gills are delicate and easily damaged. There’s no need to involve yourself with a trout’s gills.
— Support the fish. Again, this is a guiding principle. Trout calm down when they don’t feel threatened. By cradling them, by supporting their weight and not squeezing, trout are more likely to cooperate.
— Front hand at the fins. You probably take hero shots of large fish, not small ones, and the big boys have heavy heads. So support them. Extend a finger under the jaw bone. Then allow the fin to rest between your two middle fingers, while the palm of your hand supports most of the trout’s weight from underneath.
— Rear hand at the tail. On larger trout, grab the wrist — the bony part at the base of the tail. This is one place you can squeeze a trout without scaring or hurting it. A good firm hold at the wrist, overhand or underhand, provides a lot of control and support.
— The long-arming hero shots have been overdone. Try some new angles, and don’t worry so much about your pretty face in the picture.
Truth is, holding large trout takes some practice before you feel comfortable. But after a dozen or so large fish at the net, safe handling becomes natural if you keep the above points in mind.
It takes practice to find the places where your fingers and hands should go. And it takes some repetition to understand how to avoid squeezing — to work with the fish and let them feel comfortable. You can tell a lot about the experience of an angler by how he holds a trout.
What’s up with the Knuckle Thing?
I’m not sure how this hold became so popular. But I see it gaining momentum. It’s an effort to hide the fingers, I suppose, but it just looks barbaric, to my eyes.
Why force the trout to rest on top of your hard knuckles? It pushes the belly out unnaturally and looks really uncomfortable for the trout. I swear you can see the trout struggling in these pics above. Is it worth that, just to keep your fingers out of the pic? To me, an easy cradling of the trout looks a lot more natural. We know your fingers are in your fist, man.
Trying to hide the fingers ends up in squeezing the trout all too often.
The Fragile Swimmer
Trout are not bass. And they are far more delicate than most of their swimming counterparts. Trout are a fragile species. So make every effort to limit their time out of the water.
No, really. Put them back quickly.
How long should they be out of the water? Just a few seconds, really.
I’ve often heard the anecdote to hold your own breath, and that’s how long a trout can stay out of the water. But it seems like somebody just made that up, with no science behind it. So let’s cut it in half. Now cut it in half again. And from my experience, that’s probably more right. Keep a trout out of the water for just a few seconds, and then put it back. If you don’t, you’ll notice that trout struggle to swim away when released. And that shouldn’t happen.
Here’s an easier way to gauge the time a trout may safely be out of the water, without holding your breath or counting sheep: When the water stops rolling and dripping off a trout’s body, put it back in the river. That’s usually just a handful of seconds.
Likewise, trout are easily hurt through contact with non-watery things, like dry hands, dirt and gravel banks. So wet yer digits before touching a trout. And don’t lay trout anywhere but back in the water.
Let ‘em go
Of course, all of this handling — any handling — adds risk to the trout. But so does dragging it through the water with a hook in its face. And when the fish comes to the net, even barbless hooks sometimes require some fish handling to remove the steel without damage. Likewise, since anglers will never stop admiring trout, taking their picture and sharing those images with friends, the best we can do is learn to hold a trout with caution. And then spread the word.
Sometimes, it’s best to release the hook and allow the trout to swim away. In fact, that’s probably always the best option. But when you want to admire the trout for a moment, handle with care.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N