Jul 10, 2018
The Second Catch
Tips and tactics for humane netting and release of trophy fish
By Dan Gropengiser
When considering how much time musky anglers put into chasing the trophy of a lifetime, one of the most important aspects of landing the fish is never discussed until it’s too late and your shot at holding the fish is nothing but a hard-learned lesson. Many of us fish with multiple partners during the season that share the same passion for chasing musky. Taking time to go over layout of your net, release tools and protective gloves will go a long way once you put the hooks home on your trophy.
Musky fishing gives us just a scant amount of chances per outing to net fish compared to other species. I begin my open water season walleye fishing and use that period to get back into the swing of things netting fish. It may be a smaller net and smaller targets, but practicing getting the head in first will pay off when musky season opens.
Even when decent-sized pike are feeding on jig and minnow combos, practice will help you and your partner knock the dust off from a long winter. Clear versus dark water will offer a different view as to where the fish is in the water column coming to the boat. Look for the angle of the line and the leader as the fish comes to the boat and begins to surface. Smallies are another great fish to practice sliding the net under due to their ability to fight hard and dig deep once they come close to the boat.
Layout and game plan
Whether fishing alone or with a partner, make preparations before you get on the water as to where the net will be placed and ease of access of release tools. Make sure the net isn’t buried next to seat adjusters or rods that have baits on them. Nothing is worse than reaching for the net and the outer edge of the bag getting hooked by either reel handles or baits and trying to free them while your partner is waiting for you.
Keep your decks clean and free from baits laying in the corners that could get stepped on or kneeled on while netting. We are all guilty of changing baits out as the day progresses, just randomly laying them down and not putting them back where they came from. I use a pedestal Just Encase box at the front of my boat which also holds my Musky Armor gloves, release tools and hook cutters on the sides. Tools include long-handled needle-nose pliers, Baker hook out tool and a pair of Knipex cutters. Many times fish will end up with multiple hooks in them, and with these three tools you’ll be able to free them in the net quickly.
When it comes to cutting hooks on fish I tend to cut as many as possible to speed things up – remember to get the cut pieces out of the fish to prevent infection. I keep a box of multiple sizes of shanks and gaps in a storage compartment, and I keep a set of split-ring pliers to detach and reattach hooks. You can quickly replace hooks and have them sharpened in minutes flat on a hot bait.
The hook up
You and your partner have fished a couple of good spots and have seen some decent followers during the day. You both decide to go back on the biggest fish during a major period.
After setting the boat down and getting close to the best area, your partner gets slammed on a bomb cast, similar to what you had also just cast. The first thing you should do is get your bait into the boat as fast as possible and out of the way.
The next task is going for the net and watching where the fish is coming from and how deep it’s coming in. Try to place yourself on the deck next to your partner in preparation for when the fish comes close to the boat. At this time the fish is literally fighting for its life and doing everything to shake the hooks free. I try to visualize putting the head in the net first, centered in the hoop and scooping the fish to the bottom of the bag.
When the fish comes boatside, I have the bottom of the bag pulled back with my forward-netting hand, and one loop will be attached to my finger. This will allow less drag from the bag as I go in for the fish. Never put the net in the water waiting for your partner to put the fish in for you. The fish will see the net and more than likely take off away from the boat trying to shake or pull the hooks. If the fish is big and swimming downward, you can coach your partner through steps to take the fish for a walk around the boat. This will give you a better vantage point for netting the fish as it comes at you.
Netting should be a fluid motion when going after the fish and reaching out to catch it in the net. Sometimes events don’t go as planned, and you’ll have to regroup if the fish is really green and makes a couple of runs. I try to treat every fish as though it is a tournament catch from the time of hook up until it hits the bag.
Another point to remember is to pull the hoop out of the net and in toward the boat to prevent the fish from launching out. This will give you time to get your release tools and let the fish thrash around and calm down before removing hooks.
The fish is unhooked and you are ready to take measurements and a couple of quick photos prior to release. Grab the bump board and place it in the water to wet it down first before placing the fish on it for measuring. Your phone should be set up at this time – gone are the days of searching for the camera now that everyone has one on our cell phones.
With the gloves on, reach into the net and get your fingers underneath the outer part of the gill plate, making sure your fingers don’t go inside the gills. Pick the fish straight up, and as the tail breaks the water, place your other hand under the belly to support it horizontally for photos. A couple of quick photos and measurements – pinching the tail to get full length – and you’re ready to place your catch back in the water. The time it takes to have the fish out of the water is the equivalent of the time a human can hold their breath under water.
After pulling the fish off the bump board, you should support the fish all the way to the water and set the head in first. I grasp the tail around the base and hold the fish upright while laying off the edge of the boat. There is no need to push the fish forward and backward to the boat as it was thought years ago for reviving oxygen flow to the fish. Just creating a swimming motion with the fish will get the fins moving and allow it to gain the strength to swim off on its own.
If you are dealing with heavy winds during release, place the fish on the side of the boat opposite the direction the wind is coming from to prevent drowning the fish. If you’re on a high-traffic lake, remain around the release area as the fish swims off to prevent it from being struck by other boaters. Good luck and tight lines on the water.