There are several ways to deal with fish when you have them under control. Just what technique you use to secure the catch can depend on its species, size, how and where it is hooked, and your intentions towards it (releasing it or keeping it). Some fish are simple to handle while others can be difficult or even dangerous.
Let us start with the simple stuff. Smaller fish are mostly not a problem to handle because their size and strength makes them easy to overpower. A quick look should tell you if the fish is securely-hooked and can be simply lifted aboard on the trace, or if it is lightly hooked and should be secured with a landing net – assuming you want to keep it, that is.
“and I said ‘with my net
I can get them, I bet.
I bet, with my net,
I can get those things yet!”
Although not referring to fishing, the good doctor (Seuss) got it right when he wrote those famous words in ‘The Cat in the Hat’: the most useful tool for handling modest-sized fish is a landing net.
When I grew up fishing as a kid in Hawkes Bay, a standard trace was 24kg mono. This meant that most of the catch (fish like gurnard, kahawai, blue cod or tarakihi) could be simply lifted aboard. If a fish was too big for this (a decent-sized snapper, groper or kingfish, for example), then you stuck a gaff in it.
There was not a lot of netting practiced in those days – landing nets were things trout fishermen used – but there were down-sides to gaffing. The impact of the gaff would sometimes knock a fish off the hook if it was lightly-hooked or a soft-mouthed species like trevally and john dory. Other disadvantages included spoiling the meat with the gaff hole, spreading blood around the boat and, of course (unless lip-gaffed) the injury caused by the gaff precluded any chance of releasing the fish.
Times have changed. These days it is rare that I unclip my gaff from its hidey-hole under the gunwale. Now nearly every fish is lifted or netted and recent developments in net design have encouraged their use.
Nets are now available that are big enough to scoop up a 10kg snapper or even a modest-sized kingfish. The commonly available rubber/silicon mesh is easier on the mucus coatings of fish destined for release and greatly reduces instances of terminal tackle becoming entangled. This allows you to get ‘throwbacks’ back over the side much faster, and also allows the angler to return to the fishing action more quickly and less frustrated.
Using nets keeps the boat a lot cleaner (and hence safer – less slipping) too, as there is no bleeding involved. Those designs with retractable handles make stowage simpler, even the finer gauges of netting are easy to pull through the water, and the anodised-aluminium frames are light and strong, as well as corrosion-resistant.
One of the more useful items you can have on the boat is a towel. Wetted down, it is a very useful item when controlling and unhooking fish. Like modern net materials, it protects the fish from skin/slime damage caused by hot, dry surfaces (including hands). This, in turn, helps protect the fish from developing skin infections if they are released.
Wet towels also improve your grip on the fish. (A tip: many fish will stop struggling if you turn them upside down).
Towels also offer protection for your hands. Species you should handle with particular care include: spiny dogfish (two toxic dorsal spines), the deepwater spotted gurnard (even more impressively armoured around the head than the normal red gurnard), barracouta, gemfish and frostfish (razor-sharp teeth), golden snapper (extremely sharp scales ‘against the grain’), scorpionfish (toxic dorsal and head spines), and elephant fish (watch for the primary dorsal spine).
Even common species like snapper, gurnard and blue cod nail a lot of people with gillplates and spines. Minor injuries, for sure, but they can lead to infection and blood poisoning.
A towel can also help subdue a fish if you use it to cover its eyes – if they can’t see, fish often stop thrashing around.
This is one of three classic ways of dealing with that tropical crazy fish, the mahimahi. These fish are not easy to control – I have never found an effective iki spot for them and clubbing them doesn’t seem to make much difference either. Mahimahi probably cause more injuries to crews and anglers than any other fish species in the tropics, usually by thrashing around with hooks in their mouths. But if you throw a towel over a mahimahi’s head, covering its eyes, it will usually settle down. This works for domestic species as well, including snapper.
Another method to deal with mahimahi is to gaff them in the top of the head and then get them in the fish bin fast before slamming the lid closed. Or you can bend them in a U-shape (get the head into the corner of the cockpit, grab the tail and push) and keep them that way with a cord noose that has a loop on one end and a barbless hook on the other (see the photo on page 50).
We used a similar technique to subdue a huge Canadian halibut, a fish feared by the locals for its potential to cause havoc and injury by thrashing around in a boat. In Alaska the deckies sorted these big flatfish out with a 410 shotgun round to the head before boating, but the Canadians preferred to use a detachablehead harpoon.
When we were faced with dealing to a massive 280-pound halibut (brought to boat by my fishing buddy Rick Wakelin), our guide Andy harpooned it through the head and then we managed to tie it in a U-shape using the harpoon cord around the tail. That was a bit of a buttock-clenching exercise!
Here in New Zealand there are plenty of local fish species to watch out for, too. Stingrays and eagle rays have strong bone barbs on the top side of their tails which are serrated and covered with infection-causing black toxic slime. Stingrays are the most dangerous, as the barb is bigger and further down the tail, giving them more reach if they lash out when they feel themselves at risk.
Not rated as eating fish, rays are seldom targeted and mostly released if caught. In this case, their weapon is their weakness. Mostly bottom dwellers, rays’ weaponised tails are designed to be deployed against enemies attacking from above.
To keep yourself safe, the trick is to turn a ray on its back – or turn the back toward the side of the boat so they can’t get at you with the sharp bit. One way to manoeuvre them into this position is by lightly gaffing them through the skin on the leading edge of a wing. This will cause a modest injury to the ray, but they seem to heal well and it is a whole lot better than getting nailed yourself.
Sharks can be tricky to handle, too. They have the potential to grow to large sizes, have decent teeth, a powerful tail, very abrasive skin, and can usually muster an unexpected burst of energy, twisting and spinning when you least expect them to. In general, they are not popular table fish and so are often released.
My advice, if you need to deal with a hooked shark, is to use tools like a decent hook bar or a release knife, to keep your hands out of the ‘war zone’. Cut the line as close to the hook as you safely can.
A gaff can also be used to unhook a shark caught on a lure if you can get it into the bend of the hook and pull back against the leader. But DO NOT gaff a shark using a fixed head gaff with a wrist strap. If the shark starts spinning its body, as they often do, it can twist the strap tightly into your flesh.
Smaller sharks can be immobilised on board a boat if you can get in behind them and put a foot on each pectoral fin, pinning it to the deck while unhooking them. You can do this with your hands on the pectoral fins of smaller specimens too, if you are careful.
Those who pursue larger sharks often prefer to use ropes or nooses to secure them. This type of noose is made of a heavy sinking rope like nylon. When the shark is boat-side, the noose can be slid down the leader, worked past the pectoral fins and then pulled tight.
I have mentioned gaffing several times already in this article. It is possible to ‘lip-gaff’ a fish – slip the point into its mouth and through the cheek – to secure it, as the jaw is strong and a good lifting point. This is not usually a fatal shot, and fish can be released, but obviously it will wound the fish, which is not a good thing.
Kingfish seem to survive lip- gaffing OK. It is a popular shot to secure a hapuku too, which usually come out of deep water embolised, with their mouths wide open. This makes for an easy gaff shot, giving a strong hold, an easy lift, and doesn’t spoil any meat.
Billfish, if they are to be taken, are mostly secured with a flying gaff (detachable head gaff) in the meaty shoulder, which gives a good hold, and then a tail rope is slipped around the tail wrist.
A secondary gaff shot on billfish should come in from below the fish and set the gaff though the bony extensions that run up into the fish from the anal fin, but it is not an easy shot as the gaff can be deflected by water pressure as the boat runs forward.
In practice, the average stripy can usually be billed with a gloved hand, dispatched with a bat, and pulled aboard over the gunwale or through the transom door.
A fish that often causes problems at the gaff is a large yellowfin tuna. They are very powerful and securing them is often attempted with a big fixedhead gaff. These fish tend to lug down hard under the corner of the cockpit on the leader. When someone has a dab with the gaff, the water pressure of the boat running forward drags the gaff back so that the fish is hit too far back in the body. All the fish has to do then is turn its head away and the body acts like a paravane against the water rushing by, putting huge pressure on the gaffer. Been there, done that.
The gaff shot needs to be in the head to get control of a decentsized tuna.
Finally, there are various devices intended to grip fish by the jaws. The best of those I have used is the US-made BogaGrip. I first ran into them while fishing for the many weird and wonderful species in Brazil’s Amazon River. You never knew what your next catch would be, but many of them had serious teeth.
We were fishing in a ‘no contact’ Indian reserve and part of the deal was to collect fish data, return nearly all the catch, and to avoid contact with the indigenous Yanomami Indians. Lures were mostly armed with two (or even three) trebles which could cause serious tangling issues if nets were used.
Although heavy and not cheap, the BogaGrips were ideal, holding and controlling the fish while they were quickly unhooked, photographed and returned.
Super-robustly made of stainless steel, the original Bogas (there are plenty of copies around) also have three sizes of built-in scales. I have since used them on big snapper with good success, but in practical terms, like the character from ‘The Cat in the Hat’, for most every-day fishing, I think it is hard to beat a net!
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