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. ::