Get Your Fingers Out of My Face: Holding Fish by the Gills

January 23, 2013 3:55 pm  /  Fly Fishing Basics  /  , , ,

written by TheRockyRiver.com staff

If you pride yourself on catch and release, we applaud you. If you find yourself holding a trout up vertically before releasing it, we insist you read this short article, as you may be releasing a “dead-fish-swimming.”


Catch And Release Never Hold A Fish Up By The GillsTalk to 1,000 catch and release fishermen, and you might talk to 150 or 200 that see nothing wrong with holding a large fish up by the gill plates for a photo before releasing it. While that may not be the majority of the sampling, it remains a huge number when factored exponentially across the planet. Perform a quick Internet search on the topic, and the results will display several hundred pages of websites and forums that continue to debate whether or not this particular hold harms the fish.


Let us clear it up for everyone in three words – it’s not good.


For one, holding a trout, steelhead, or salmon (which are designed to spend life positioned horizontally) puts abnormal pressure on the organs and skeletal structure, even if just a brief moment. The bigger the fish, the higher the risk of permanent damage to the face and gill plate, simply due to gravity pulling harder as the fish gets heavier. (Imagine someone putting a finger in each of your nostrils and lifting you off the ground for 10 or 15 seconds.) Additionally, if the fish, which lacks common sense, then attempts escape and shakes its body while being held up vertically by the gills, the risk of severe damage to the gill plate and body is essentially a given – especially if the fish is dropped.


And we haven’t even covered the actual gills (the precious ‘red stuff’ inside the gill plates) yet.


A longtime 30 | 10 club member, Jonathan Brauer told TheRockyRiver.com, “As much as I like seeing guys catch trophy class fish and having their picture on the wall, I can’t help but cringe when I see the way some of the fish are handled.” Brauer continued, “Several photos show guys with their fingers shoved far into the gill cover of these trophy fish – a short blurb on proper fish handling would curb some of this rough handling and save some of our trophy fish from a slow death.”


We are not here to broadcast scare tactics and preach 100% certainties, because no such thing exists. However, Mr. Brauer brings up very good points that have not yet stuck with all C&R anglers. Is it guaranteed that the fish you held up by the gills is going to die a slow death? Of course not. Does it increase the chances that the fish could die? Of course it does. Just because you put that fish back in the water and watched it swim off, does not mean it is still going to be swimming a week later.


It is a matter of common sense here. The delicate red gills of a fish make up its respiratory organ – the piscatorial equivalent of human lungs. They are responsible for extracting the dissolved oxygen from the water and excreting the carbon dioxide. Now, (unrealistic open body cavity argument aside) if someone were to jam a hand directly into your lungs, its safe to say that you are going to be in pretty big trouble and would need the immediate help of a very good medical professional. Even the most precautious of gill plate holds can result in a slight nick of the gills, or total destruction should the fish decide to flop.


So the question is, what is the point of risking it? It’s not like there is no other way to safely hold a trout, which when done properly, is by firmly holding the tail with your dominant hand while gently cradling the chest (area between the head and stomach) with the less dominant hand. (For more on the hold, check out our article for practicing proper catch and release here.)


One final point on gills – if you are not taking a quick photo of your catch, there should then be no need to remove the fish from the water. Water is more than 700 times denser than air with an oxygen diffusion rate that is about 10,000 times lower. Factoring in the one-way current of water with the specialized breathing system needed in these conditions, simple “lungs” as we know them would not be able to operate. This is the reason for the existence of gills. The density of the water also prevents the gills from collapsing on top of each other. The point is, removing a fish from the water temporarily collapses its “lungs.” So, if you do not need a photo, you do not need to remove the fish from the water.


You already pride yourself as a catch and release angler, so make sure that you are doing everything properly so that when you do send that beautiful fish off, you are giving it the very best chance of finding the end of your line again some day.


If you already do hold trout and salmon properly – we thank you. Teach your knowledge to a kid.


If you are guilty of the gill plate hold from time-to-time – we forgive you. But please, make every effort to change your habits and please don’t be that one guy that thinks his ego is bigger than scientific fact. Nobody likes that guy.


And if you’re a new angler or a young person that is not sure who to trust or what to believe, take our advice in this article and think about it, research it, and ask around. When you do see someone else holding a fish in a way that could harm it (because you will, often), speak up and correct the individual in a manner that is educational and respectful. We promise – they’ll be impressed with you. After all, we all want the same thing – bountiful rivers and great fishing for ourselves and for our children. ::

  • owen

    you had me reading all of this like maybe you knew what you were talking about.
    and then you said its like someone holding you off the ground by your nostrils.
    well no…its not the same thing….its not the same at all.
    it would be more like someone holding you off the ground by your chin.
    which is totally fine in doing so.
    and i have looked….and so far…i have not come across any evidence to suggest putting your hand under the gill plate (while avoiding the gills) causes any harm to the fish’s ability to intake oxygen.

    so just because a person on the net says the information is out there….means nothing people. just remember…that bigger fish need to be held under the belly while you hold them.
    just to make sure you dont put any stress on the jaw muscle.
    and a lot of what you say is simply not true…
    like this….

    It is a matter of common sense here. The delicate red gills of a fish make up its respiratory organ – the piscatorial equivalent of human lungs. They are responsible for extracting the dissolved oxygen from the water and excreting the carbon dioxide. Now, (unrealistic open body cavity argument aside) if someone were to jam a hand directly into your lungs, its safe to say that you are going to be in pretty big trouble and would need the immediate help of a very good medical professional. Even the most precautious of gill plate holds can result in a slight nick of the gills, or total destruction should the fish decide to flop.

    this is not true at all…if someone were to touch the inside of your lungs….you would be just fine..it would hurt…but you would have no trouble breathing afterwards as long as they didnt bruise or damage the lungs.

    you keep mentioning scientific fact….but there is no study to suggest simply touching thegills does any harm at all….ripping them out…or damaging them is another story.

    and i keep hearing you say why take the risk…if someone is carefull why risk it at all?
    please…..do not talk about someone and their ego….when you take the risk every cast of killing fish….are you so high and mighty that you fail to mention that any fish you hook has the potential to have that hook go down into its belly or gills?
    i would expect you to apoliogze to all of these people for misleading them…but then again i assume you wont….and its for the same reason i would…its how we were raised

    • -TRR Dudes

      All comments that are not spam or inappropriate are posted Owen. Nostrils, chin… fair enough, but either way it is a very uncomfortable and unnatural position to be in, and that was the point of the comparison. Wouldn’t you agree? Don’t you think a fella would rather be cradled horizontally with two hands than lifted by their chin? Again, the article did not preach any certainties, if you read above, and by no means is this saying that the fish WILL die if damage occurs to the gills. But it certainly could. If you caught the fish and wanted to release it, why hold it up like that? Even if the fish lives, but damage results from it- then what was the point of putting it in a position to be damaged? I would disagree with your statement about any fish you hook could swallow the hook or take it in the gills. That can happen with bait anglers, sure, and once in a while a bass may take a soft plastic deep in the throat, but rarely is a trout or salmon hooked anywhere but in the mouth from fly anglers or drift anglers that know what they’re doing. You may be interested in reading the hundreds of comments on the recent would-be state record rainbow trout from a few weeks back, held by the gills and released… (see: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=460646620689878&l=6d74e744cb ) Respectfully, I disagree that the article is misleading- it simply defines best practices, which they are. However, you are entitled to speak your mind and voice your opinion, as is anyone here, and studies do sometimes contradict prior studies, but as for this topic, these are the best known practices based on what we know. I don’t see how that could be debated.

  • owen

    i see the people on here are afraid someone will say something they dont like.
    so to those reading my posts…..if you choose not to accept what i say . and show the world.
    then i would ask you to find this scientifc fact this moron is talking about.
    because everything i have looked up…shows just touching the gills does no harm

    i have also personally seen fish with gills missing….and the wound has been healed…..and yet that fish was perfectly fine….

    it would be like telling someone with one lung they cant live….or telling a man with damaged lungs they will die….they may not live as healthy….but it did not casuse death.

    please….again ..if you dont want to post my comments….then at least post some material for people to make up their own minds…and take out the errors that are not facts in this article. also have the guy take out the stuff about peoples ego….and if you are not him..or talk to him …tell him i said hes a moron…and how dare he say those things when he runs the risk of killing fish with every cast. shame on this person.

  • Tana

    I’m not a fisherman I’ve never fished before in my life.

    On that note I intend on going fishing in the near future. I’m the type of person that is all for treating animals the best possible way in our hobbies. Although I will mainly be fishing for food, there will be times when I need practice. that means I will need to learn good catch-and-release practices. So aside from the damage it’ll receive from the hook, I don’t want to further harm the fish or risk taking its life for my own selfish desires.

    I was reading the comments to this article and was astonished to see how many people think its o.k to hold a fish by the gill plate. Although the gill plate is not attached to the gills them selves you still run the risk of damaging the gills. A fishes gills are EXTREMELY sensitive. If you’ve ever owned and properly cared for domestic fish you would know that.

    Also if we were talking about anatomically correct places of gills compared to the human body, we as humans would be held by our throats not our chins. imagine being held by your throat by a giant being. This being thinks its o.k to hold the tiny human by the neck just because the neck stays intact (visually on the surface) but I wonder what happens when force and damage occurs to our necks? the esophagus gets damaged and assuming you live through it, you now will have trouble eating drinking AND breathing! its trues fish don’t eat with their gills but they do take in water and air, but if you REALLY think about it, the damage occurring in both areas is still the same.

    now If you hold a fish by the gill plate and the fish tries to get away from you, instant damage to the gills. even if the damage is minimal, you’ve now impaired that fish for the rest of its life and shortened its life span by a large degree! those gills are meant to filter out particles from entering their system as well as taking in air and water. with the gills damaged they could get sand, dirt, larger parasites that wouldn’t ordinarily bother them and what ever the heck else fits into the space now provided by that unprotected wall known as the gill.

    as for the comment about shoving fists into peoples lungs. you make it sound like having others touch your lungs is a walk in the park then suddenly you trip!
    “if someone were to touch the inside of your lungs….you would be just fine..it would hurt…but you would have no trouble breathing afterwards as long as they didn’t bruise or damage the lungs”
    your lungs WOULD get bruised and damaged even with the slightest touch. they are on the inside of your body for a reason. they aren’t meant to be touched. have you ever gotten liquid in your lungs before by accident? It more than just “hurts”. this should be signal enough that things except air aren’t meant to be in there! let alone the fact the trachea isn’t large enough to hold a whole hand!

    as for the writer of this article. I applaud you! Teaching people the ethical way to hold fish really does speak what kind of person you are!