Anglers who enjoy kayak fishing know that they have very little deck space on the best of days. We are practically sitting on the water, and things can get out of hand quickly while trying to land a fish. There have been a few times when I thought I had things under control only to have my prize catch flip over the gunwale and swim away. Here are a few tricks on how to land fish safely, and keep them in the boat.
I net my catch 99 percent of the time. I like using a short-handled net, with a flat bottom and soft, fine mesh. If you are a catch and release angler you should never use a net with knots in its netting and/or a mesh made of nylon. This will damage the slime coating on the fish. Fish need this protective slime to guard against disease and parasites, so net manufactures make nets with soft or rubber-dipped mesh specifically for the catch and release angler.
If targeting very large fish, big striped bass for example, I will use a long-handled rubberized net. Smaller fish are easily scooped up and brought into the boat while larger fish may require you to use both hands to control the net while de-hooking the fish. I’ll use the netting at times to grip the fish while de-hooking it. I never use a rag or my dry hand while handling a fish, as I do not want to remove the fish’s protective slime coating. When using a long-handled net, I will at times place it under one of my legs while I’m working on the fish, keeping the mesh and the fish in the water until I am ready to take a quick photo.
An important thing to remember is that fish can’t hold their breath any longer than you can. Imagine some giant reaching down, grabbing you up, and then putting your head into a bucket of water. Not cool. So if possible, leave the fish in the net and in the water while de-hooking it.
As for those toothy fish like pickerel and snakeheads, I will keep the fish in the net then use a fish-gripper to control them if needed. This helps me to retrieve my bait without harming the fish or myself. I did say if needed; I will normally use the gripper only if the fish has the bait entirely in its mouth. The type of grippers I use are of the plastic variety, and I carry large and medium size. They have a broader and flatter gripping end that will not poke a hole through the fish’s mouth. I am guilty of holding pickerel up with my grippers to take a quick photo of them, and I shouldn’t hold the fish vertically, or hold any fish vertically, for that matter. You have to remember that fish live in a horizontal world, and held vertically you can damage their jaw and/or their organs may get shifted, causing internal damage. Last word on lip grips: use the strap that is provided. I have seen anglers drop a fish and then watch as it swam away with the gripper still attached.
If I am catching fish to take home, I will bring along a chain stringer, cord stringer, or a cooler with ice. I prefer a chain stringer when keeping snakehead, and will double up the clips through the fish’s lower lip (you can do this while the fish is still in the net, so it doesn’t flop free). I have seen too many friends drop their snakehead into a cooler just to see it come flying back out and swim away. There was one case where my buddy Zach Ditmars put a snakehead into his cooler after cutting through its gill arches, to kill it before retention, as required by the regs. Then, when he got ready to drop in his next catch, the first fish jumped out and swam away. Yes, really.
-By Eric Packard