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How to handle the fish you catch

September 12, 2017 5 min read

Trout & grayling populations are under more pressure than ever before; the number of predators like herons, sawbills, otters, mink & particularly cormorants are increasing steadily year on year; abstraction, siltation & pollution are seriously impacting on many of our rivers; to top it all we anglers are becoming more & more efficient at catching what fish are there thanks to advances in techniques including Euro nymphing/Czech nymphing & Micro Thin lines, plus the resurgence of the ancient technique of Tenkara. As a result we anglers must take extra care of the fish we catch.

Whilst drift-boat fishing the Bitterroot river in Montana a few years ago the guide informed me that it was estimated that most of the fish in the river were caught half a dozen times during the year. I am sure that the same is true of the trout & grayling in many heavily fished UK waters. So it is vital that, with few exceptions, we return the fish we catch safely to the water & that we take care of their aquatic habitats.

So how do we make sure that our precious fish are adequately protected? In no particular order I offer you the following suggestions:

  • Use barbless hooks. They cause significantly less damage to fish, angler, landing nets & clothing. Furthermore, having fished barbless for over 17 years using flies down to size 30, I’m convinced that I loose no more fish with barbless hooks than I did with barbed hooks.
  • Fish with as heavy a tippet as you can get away with. Overlong playing of fish on light lines increases the risk of a lethal anaerobic buildup of lactic acid in their tissues, particularly in warm summer waters which are low in dissolved oxygen. Whilst I am a great advocate of very light fly lines for trout & grayling fishing (1 to 3 weight) I rarely use tippet finer than 0.13mm diameter (a quoted breaking strain of 4lb 12oz), only dropping down to 0.10mm (3lb) when fishing flies of size 24 or smaller. I know that relatively thick, stiff tippet compromises the presentation of small flies, however this can be mitigated to some degree by tying the fly into a loop knot (Rapala Knot or Perfection Loop) that allows the fly to move more freely. Whilst fishing in New Zealand a few years ago I successfully fished a size 18 Willow Grub on 0.18mm (7.9lb) tippet. Some folks will say that the fish will be put off by the sight of thick tippet: I believe this to be a myth since when I attach a pinch of fluorescent floating putty to the thick (0.5mm diameter) butt of my leader when changing from my dry fly setup to nymph fish I regularly have fish take the putty.
  • Handle the fish as little as possible & keep it out of the water for as little time as possible. If a fish has fought hard & you have to remove the fish from the water to unhook or photograph it give it time to recover in the net in the water before taking it out of its oxygen supply (it takes time for lactic acid to be removed from the fish’s tissues: think of how long it takes a sprinter to get his or her breath back after they have gone anaerobic: if you stopped them gasping for breath they’d die!!!!). 
  • Never handle fish with dry hands (it would remove protective mucus) & never squeeze a struggling fish since it can crush vital organs, particularly the swim bladder that the fish uses to regulate its buoyancy (grayling can be a real problem as they struggle) & never hold a fish high up or over a hard surface (just in case it does jump out of your hands).
  • If, like me, you take photos of many of your fish have the camera easily to hand & with any settings already done so that the process takes no more than a few seconds. I use an Olympus TG4 waterproof compact set on program mode & -0.3 stops exposure. I keep it attached to a bungee cord in an open jacket pocket, ready for instant singlehanded use. IF IN DOUBT RELEASE THE FISH WITHOUT TAKING A PHOTO.
  • If a fish has fought to exhaustion make sure that you revive it thoroughly by holding it facing the flow before you release it. All too often I’ve seen fish released prematurely only to watch them turn upside down or get jammed in a weed bed then die.
  • When wading, particularly in shallow gravelly riffles & pool tails keep an eye out for clean patches of gravel & avoid standing on them as they may well be spawning redds. On most rivers trout spawn in October & November (as late as February on some chalk streams). Grayling spawn in April on most streams. Salmon generally spawn between October & February. Sea trout generally spawn in the autumn.
  • Get involved in protecting & enhancing the aquatic environments by joining & if possible actively participating in the work of agencies like the Wild Trout Trust, the Riverfly Partnership, your local Rivers Trust & Salmon & Trout Conservation UK. (I’ll say more about the Riverfly Partnership & their invertebrate sampling to monitor our rivers’ health in a later Blog).
  • If your club’s management policy includes stocking with tame, farmed, triploids try your best to persuade them to stop. I have irrefutable, statistically significant evidence of the damage done to the wild trout & grayling on one of my local rivers as a result of stocking with large numbers of oversized brown & rainbow trout. My catch rate on the unstocked parts of this East Yorkshire river are two to three times that on the stocked section.
  • If your club’s management policy includes removing every overhanging branch & bit of submerged debris so that members can easily cast try to persuade them that it is no good being able to cast to where the fish no longer live (destroy a fish’s home & it will move on & look for another one, probably in some other club’s unmanaged fishery if there is one on the same river).

Without YOUR HELP our fisheries will continue to suffer the insidious decline that I’ve seen on most rivers over the 60 plus years that I’ve been fishing. The only exceptions that I’ve seen are the northern industrial rivers where the polluting industries have collapsed & hard-working groups (like SPRITE in the Sheffield area) have fought to bring them back to life. 

Rapala Loop Knot, size 20 Agapetus Pupa & 0.16mm tippet

Rapala Loop Knot, size 20 Agapetus Pupa & 0.16mm tippet 

“Keep them wet” & “revive before release”

Clean patches of gravel could be spawning Redds! 

Clean patches of gravel could be spawning Redds!

This video is 1 of 94 casting tutorials explaining everything from basic set ups to master level casts

Fundamentals | Starting to Fly Cast

The basics of tackle
Language of casting
Sensory awareness


Fundamentals | Understanding Fly Tackle

Fly line weights, lengths & tapers
Rod lengths & weights
Leaders & tippet
Tackle to practise with


Fundamentals | Overhead Casting

How to hold a fly rod
Circles 8's & straights
Remove all slack
Plane of the Cast
Triangle Method
Overhead Cast
Stop & Drop
Retrieving the Line
High Back Cast
Breaking The Wrist
Shooting the line
Loop Shape
Slipping the Line
Stroke Length
The Forward Delivery
The Shelf
Drift Versus Breaking the Wrist
Backslash Forwardslash
Speed Ramp
Body Movement


Fundamentals | Double Haul

Intro to the Double Haul
Tackle for the Double Haul
Single Haul
Double Haul
Double Haul Fast Track
Cast Trajectory
Late Haul
Hauling Grip
Double Haul for Accuracy
Line Trays
Offset Alignment Guides


Fundamentals | Taking it to the Water

The Lift
Pick Up & Lay Down Cast
Roll cast
Energy of a Roll Cast


Advanced | Spey Casts

Intro to Spey Casting
Switch Cast
45 Degree Single Spey
Backhanded Cast
90 Degree Single Spey
90 Degree Snake Roll
45 Degree Snake Roll
90 Degree Double Spey
The Running Mouse
The Silent Spey
45 Degree Double Spey
45 Degree Snap T
90 Degree Snap T
45 Degree Circle Spey
90 Degree Circle Spey
Body Movement
Spey Cast Hauling
Beating Obstructions Spey


Advanced | Beating the Wind

Tail Wind
Head Wind
Side Wind


Master | Mends

Upstream Downstream Mends
Curve Mends
Reach Mends


Master | Pick Ups

Corkscrew Pick Up
Snap Pick Up
Roll Cast Pick Up
Double Spiral Pick Up
Snap Pick Up Variation
Aerial Spey
Cast Stringing


Master | Accessory Casts

Casting Big Flies
Feed Cast
Free Snag Cast
Snap Cast