Proper Handling of Trophy Fish

Fish Facts
This is the best way to handle that huge fish. This fish tipped the scales above 9 pounds.
This is the best way to handle that huge fish. This fish tipped the scales above 9 pounds.

Perfect day to be fishing, isn't it? You've got all you need, and are headed to the water. Favorite combos? Check. Tackle boxes? Sure thing. Life preserver? Yep. Battery for the trolling motor? Oops, almost forgot that.

Although most of us truly do want to catch a big fish, it still seems to come as a large surprise when we tie into a beast. One thing we don't think about often enough is how to properly handle and care for that giant once we bring it boat side.

While it's a fantastic accomplishment to catch a true trophy fish of any species, it's even a better accomplishment to handle it properly. Keep in mind a trophy fish grew to that size after overcoming astronomical odds. You and I have a greater chance of being struck by lightning than the odds of a fish growing to giant sizes.

That means we need to handle it properly, with kindness, and understand what is happening with that fish at that moment.

Here's a primer on fish physiology. That fish took the bait, literally, and then tried to go where it normally goes, to digest its quarry in peace, but that taut line redirected its train of direction. As the battle emerged, your huge fish now lunges to accommodate its conditioning, pulling and flexing its strength instinctively. Since you are flexing as well, and taking the fish other than where it wants to go, it begins more of a flight pattern, escaping at any cost, running under logs, around tree limbs, past rocks— whatever is nearby. As it muscles its way with its attempt, its muscles begin to tire. Its heart rate escalates some, but the energy it takes for this fish to run, pull, and jump is not unlike us on a fast-paced treadmill. Lactic acid is building as the fish does its dives and sometimes both aerial and aquatic acrobatics. As lactic acid builds, its strength wanes, and it becomes tired. That's why you can get it to the boat, in most cases.

Now, it's time to land the tired, majestic animal. While these truths are evident for all big fish, I'll use largemouth bass as a prime example of this next event. Say you've fought a largemouth bigger than 13 pounds and it's time to bring it aboard the boat.

Use a net. Buy a rubber dip net—before you catch the big one. Those nylon nets are abrasive, scraping slime off any fish you hoist in it. Remember, the fish's slime is its first line of defense against bacterial infection. If it loses slime, and is stressed from the battle, your giant loses its odds of healthy survival. Heavy on the word, healthy. When you prepare to touch the creature, wet your hands. Wet hands work well to help keep slime intact. Dry hands cause slime to stick, pulling it from your fish. More than once, I've come across huge bass with fungus-covered handprints on their sides, dead and floating due to lousy handling. This happens to some fish during winter months.

As you prepare to pick it up, keep in mind the fish's mass. That 13-pound-plus fish also weighs that much under water, but with its swim bladder, it manages to have neutral buoyancy, meaning its bones don't have to support its weight like our bodies do.

That giant, that trophy you've just caught, doesn't have the skeletal structure to support its weight out of water. DO NOT—I repeat, Do Not, under any circumstances, hold a true trophy bass by its lower jaw without supporting its body with your other hand under the rear part of its stomach. By no means, with any bass of any size, ever pull back on the jaw of your fish, as it can become quickly fractured or dislocated.

Smaller-sized fish can be held like this.
Smaller-sized fish can be held like this.

That's usually a death sentence to a big fish. If you don't believe me, ask those who run the ShareLunker program at the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. Several great specimens were donated to that program last year to spawn and help stock public lakes around the state. But, those gorgeous girls didn't get past angler handling to do what they could do to help many other lakes. They died from bad handling.

Here's a bullet point list of what to do when you catch a big fish.

  • Once you know you have a true trophy, fight it and get it aboard as soon as you can.
  • Use a rubber dip net, or a soft nylon mesh, not the rough, abrasive kind.
  • Don't jack its jaw. Support the weight of the fish with your other hand, as you hold the lower jaw near its closed position.
  • Always handle any fish with wet hands.
  • Get it into lake water as soon as possible, whether you release it or put it in a live well. If you plan to keep it for whatever reason, make sure the live well has fresh water pumping in from the lake.
  • If you aren't pumping fresh water from the lake consistently, add some table salt to the live well. That helps strengthen the fish's slime by dehydrating it, making it stickier. Add 2-2.5 pounds of salt for each 100 gallons of water.
  • Extrapolate the other way, if your live well is smaller. Do this if your fish will be in the live well longer than 20-30 minutes.
  • Don't keep it out of water for more than 20 seconds at a time. You can't hold your breath forever, and neither can a tired fish with lactic acid in its muscles. Take pictures fast, and if you plan to release it, do it sooner rather than later.
  • If you plan to donate the fish in a ShareLunker-type program, keep it in well-aerated lake water, in the dark, and don't handle it any more than necessary.

Congratulations! You've caught the fish of a lifetime—your personal best—maybe even a record beyond you. Consider what it took for that majestic animal to become what it is, the odds it beat to grow to this giant size, and consider the odds you just beat by catching it. Both you and that fish deserve to be handled well. For the fish, it's life or death. For you, it's the thrill of accomplishing something that many people will never do. And, if the fish lives, your accomplishment won't end with an asterisk beside your heart. That big fish will go back to do what it did, and what it can do to make sure its genes will be paid forward.

Reprinted with permission from Pond Boss Magazine