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Ronan's report

Thursday 13th November, 2008

Fish deserve respect when being played and handled. To be frank, obviously I don't draw the line at enticing them to impale themselves on a sharp bit of metal, causing them to hurtle round a river in a panic for my selfish amusement, but aside from that they deserve respect.

Depending on rules and regulations, you have two choices when you land a fish. You can release it or you can keep (kill) it. Here in NZ we don't have any freshwater fisheries where you have to kill fish (aside from pest fish), and few places which are catch-and-release. This means you have the choice. Releasing fish is the increasingly popular one. I do keep an occasional fish, but I'm choosy about where I do it. Mainly I keep fish from lakes which I know are periodically stocked, and I also keep the odd one from lower parts of bigger rivers. When it gets close to spawning time and I notice fish are starting to fill with eggs I stop taking them. I never keep fish from backcountry rivers and lakes and the like. I'd much rather release the fish so someone else can enjoy catching it.

When keeping a fish things are pretty simple. Get it in and then kill it. How to kill it is important. You want to kill it quickly otherwise it will suffocate. Fish basically drown in air, they can't breathe it of course. One widely accepted way to kill fish is to knock them on the top of the head between the eyes with something heavy. Many people carry a "priest" for this, which is a small heavy club. Theoretically a sharp rap with a priest should kill the fish. I don't carry a priest, mainly because where I fish there's always a rock close to hand. I'm not always convinced this kills the fish. A lot of the twitches and so on you get after whacking a fish are just caused by nerves and the fish is dead, but I have the odd one seem to revive.

A popular method of killing fish in NZ is to "iki" them. I believe this comes from a Japanese technique called iki-jime. The basic idea is to drive a spike into the fish's brain, killing it immediately, and is considered humane. The spike could be a nail in wooden handle, awl or sharpened screwdriver, something which can be quickly and easily pushed into the fish's rather tough head. I use a small sharp knife. You can tell you've got the right place when then fish tenses then relaxes. I use a rock to stun it before driving the knife into its brain. I could probably just use the knife but stunning the fish makes it easier to handle. Aside from the certain death iki-ing the fish has the advantage of making for a better tasting meal. As well as preventing the buildup of chemicals in the flesh when the fish dies slowly, it also apparently causes the blood to withdraw from the flesh. It's not a bad idea to cut open the head of a fish to make sure you know where the brain is and can target it accurately.

If you're going to release a fish, then you need to keep this in mind right from the start. As you fight the fish it starts to build up lactic acid in it's muscle. The greater the lactic acid buildup the harder it will be for the fish to recover once released. To avoid this don't play it longer than necessary. Always use the heaviest tippet possible. This will allow you to put more pressure on the fish and land it quicker. Playing fish was discussed a short time ago on the Board.

I feel a landing net is the best way to go. For very large fish the most practical thing might be to get it by the tail, but for most fish a net is ideal. Whatever you do don't hold a fish up by it's tail. This can dislocate or even break its spine. It's definitely not cool to drag a fish up on the shore. Apart from shocking the fish on sunwarmed rocks, you can also damage its skin.

Wetting the landing net prior to netting the fish can help to make it more comfortable. Don't take wild sweeps at the fish with the net. This could scare it and make it shoot off, perhaps breaking the tippet in the process. The best way is to net the fish head first. If the fish decides to bolt it'll go into the net rather than out of it. A lot of the time you can lift the head of the fish out of the water and lead it into your net. Hold the net underwater at about a 45° angle. When the fish is close enough scoop upward toward it and it'll be yours.

Handle the fish as little as possible. Wet your hands before you touch it. This will lessen the shock from your warm hands, which probably feel very hot to a cold blooded fish. Wet hands will also remove less of the fish's protective slimy coating. During the Summer I wear sun gloves, and these stay nice and damp while handling fish. Don't ever put you fingers inside it's gills. The gills are a delicate structure which carry a lot of blood, and damaging them can be fatal. Don't squeeze the fish on the body behind the the gills. This is where a lot of the fish's vital organs like the heart are. When holding the fish near the head just cradle it. If you need a firmer grip it's safer to grip the body at the narrow place just in front of the tail fin. Often fish will calm down if they're held upside down.

Unhooking can be made a lot easier by using a unhooking tool or forceps. I like forceps. It really is much quicker and easier to use forceps than your hands. You can quickly grab the fly, push it out the way it went in and remove it. Recently I decided to unhook some fish by hand because they looked easy enough. Even so it would have been quicker with forceps. Fish have a lot of sharp bits in their mouths, and it's hard not to be a bit tentative with your fingers. Even when the hook is on the outside of the mouth it can be surprisingly firmly embedded and it's easier to get it out with forceps. Another consideration is that forceps which clamp can make short work of unhooking when a fish is thrashing around.

Sometimes fish can be very deeply hooked, way back in the mouth and even the top of the gut. If you want to release the fish the best way is just to cut the nylon as far in as you can get it and leave it at that. Trying to remove the hook will only stress out you and the fish. I did ask about this on the Board once, and the general consensus was that fish can survive some pretty improbable situations. I've come across fish which had flies in their jaw which had almost been covered over by scar tissue. They were still in good condition, and I'm pretty sure one was a fish I'd caught a year earlier. They can be surprisingly tough. I've just come across an example of a fish surviving after losing an eye to a hook. Mortality rates for released fish aren't terribly high, I've seen rates of 10% to 3%. Released fish have a good chance of surviving if handled well, and there is plenty of evidence of fish being caught multiple times and still being in good shape.

There has been a bit of talk recently on the Board about what to do if a fish is bleeding when you release it. The gist seems to be that if you keep the fish it stands 0% change of surviving, which is fair enough. It's a bit of a judgement call. If I feel a fish has injuries which it might not survive and it's from a place I would sometimes keep fish then I'll keep it. If it's from a place I wouldn't normally keep fish and it doesn't seem close to imminent death I'll let it go. It's up to you.

When releasing a fish in a river try and do it in slower water out of strong flow. If I've caught a fish in a pool I take it back there if it isn't too far away. Behind rocks can be a good place. If you're midstream you can face downstream and use the slack water created by your legs. Cradle the fish under the head and take a firm grip around the tail. Place it in the water so its head is facing upstream. If the fish doesn't try and kick away you may need to hold it gently in the water while it revives. This can take some time so be prepared to sit with it holding it upright until it's looking in better shape. This can get a bit painful during Winter! Sometimes it takes longer for a fish to revive than it does to land it. When the fish has got itself together it might just sit there. Watch it for a bit to make sure it doesn't roll over on its side. I've had a couple of fish do that, and a quick grab with the net and supporting it in the water for longer has seen it recover better.

For me it's just as satisfying to release a fish as to keep it. More so in fact, because I don't enjoy killing them. I don't eat trout, so take them as special requests for family. However a lot of the time people don't believe you've caught fish, or at least not ones as big as you've said, so some evidence is needed. A photo is the way. When the photo is being taken try not to stress the fish too much. Don't mess about. Keep it in the water until the photographer is ready, and return it to the water as quickly as possible once the photo has been taken. As above, grip it at the tail and cradle it near the head. Don't squeeze.

When you're landing your first few fish you'll probably make a mess of things, I know I did. I felt bad about it, but it's just a matter of practice. If you're still freaking out after landing a few then you need to relax and get a hold of yourself. You're not doing yourself or, more importantly, the fish any favours. Don't try to rush, take it calmly and get it done. Slow but careful handling will be better for the fish than rough fast handling. Remember that the fish can't breathe if it isn't in the water, so try and keep it in the water as much as possible.

I think this will be the last of my beginner's series, I've pretty much covered all I can think of. I hope you've enjoyed them, and if you are a beginner hopefully it's given you a realistic idea of getting started with flyfishing. The main theme is that it isn't as hard as it might seem at times, it doesn't have to be expensive and most importantly, it's a lot of fun. Never be afraid to ask questions on the the Board. As the old saying goes, the only stupid question is the one which isn't asked.


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