Be sure to hold big fish properly

Just before the recent cold snap covered our lakes with ice, renowned fish and wildlife artist Curtis Atwater visited Sunset Country.
When he’s not painting, Curtis is working as the head of Lowrance Canada. And when he’s not doing either of those things, you’ll usually find him muskie fishing.
That is what we were doing this day and Curtis had hooked a fish on the very first spot we had visited.
It was a nice muskie that, for reasons we couldn’t understand, didn’t fight as well as we thought it should. The reason became obvious after I netted it. The fish appeared to have a broken back—literally.
Two-thirds of the way down its spine, we could see a noticeable 45-degree “dog leg.” It looked painful.
Was the injury the result of a previous encounter with an angler who had landed the fish incorrectly? We’ll never know. Indeed, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that holding a fish by its jaw or gill plate—without supporting its belly—can be injurious?
But that is only because the problem has never been studied. Ask some of the top fisheries biologists if the practise is prudent, however, and they’ll tell you it isn’t.
There is simply too much anecdotal evidence to suggest that the typical “vertical fish hold” is a “smoking gun.”
Rob Swainson is one of the most vocal fish managers. And for a good reason. He is responsible for managing Lake Nipigon and the Nipigon River. The latter is home to the world record brook trout while the gigantic lake feeding the rambling river is managed on a trophy basis.
As a result of the special regulations, it may be the best drive-to lake trout fishery on earth.
Swainson says anglers need to educate themselves on the need to handle big fish differently than small fish.
“Most people are just not used to catching big fish, so they don’t know how to handle them properly when they finally do,” he remarked. “I know I certainly wasn’t.
“I moved here from eastern Ontario and was used to catching lots of fish, but nothing of a size that required anything more than a one handed lift into the boat.”
That changed when Swainson landed his first Lake Nipigon lake trout. He gloved it by the tail and started lifting it out of the water for a picture. That’s when he heard the unmistakable popping sound as the vertebrae separated in the trout’s backbone.
He says the resonance sickened him.
“The trout only weighed about 18 pounds,” he recalled. “But I can tell you it is one fish I have never stopped thinking about.”
If holding a heavy fish vertically by its gill plate, without supporting its belly, can result in so much damage, why is it we catch so few fish with obvious injuries?
Even Swainson is quick to point out he’s only seen one or two large lake trout with deformed backbones. It is because they die.
“I am not surprised I haven’t seen many because the sound of popping vertebrae is likely the death knell for the big girls,” he explained. “Yes, they swim away. But do they survive? I doubt it.”
Indeed, Swainson says he is more surprised that he has seen any healed survivors. Just as in humans, back and spinal cord injuries can be devastating. He calls the few fish with deformed backbones that he has handled “the lucky ones.”
“I have spread the word as much as possible locally,” said Swainson. “And many of the folks who fish for big trout on a regular basis now handle them properly.
“But the majority of anglers still don’t know that the big lads need that extra body support.
“If someone were to lift you up, would you want to be held by the neck or would you rather they lifted you up by putting both arms under your body?” he asked rhetorically.
As an assistant hatchery supervisor, Ohio DNR staffer Elmer Heyob sees more fish with deformed backbones than most field biologists. He says most of the fish he sees with crooked spines are survivors of genetic defects.
You don’t see them in the wild, he notes, because they would never make it past the fry stage.
Like Swainson, Heyob also is an avid angler. Muskies, in particular, are a passion. He says a “problem” with holding a big fish in a vertical position is that it appears to “calm” down. As a result, many anglers think it a safer or preferred method of holding them.
Ironically, Heyob says he would have to agree the fish appear calmer. But only because they are nearly paralyzed from the strain on their vertebrae.
“I can give you a great example of what the weight, unsupported by water, can do to one of these great fish,” he remarked.
“An Ohio-based muskie club holds an annual summer tournament at which Ohio Division of Wildlife personnel often attend. We keep a redwood measuring board handy that we also use in our research work.
“One of the contestants caught a big muskie that they hung from a hook at the marina. When they measured it with a tape, it was 51 inches long. We then measured it on the board and it had shrunk back to 49 inches.”
If you must measure a fish’s length, Heyob and Swainson both recommend you do it while the fish is in the water alongside the boat. And what about the photo session that usually follows?
“In a perfect release world, we would just look at the fish in the water and remove the hooks,” said Heyob. “But how many anglers do you know that don’t want at least a picture or two and a near exact weight of a 50-inch fish?”
If you must lift a large fish out of the water, it is essential to support most of its weight with one hand firmly placed under its belly.
Heyob also is critical of the way many anglers use the new tools that grip a fish’s mouth and contain a built-in weigh scale. The constant swivel on the tool makes it difficult to control a spinning fish and more dangerous to remove the hooks.
The other problem, of course, is that the tools encourage anglers to vertically hang a fish by its jaw in order to weigh it.
A much better and fish-friendly method, noted Heyob, is to place the fish in a knotless net turned on its side. Then use the gripping tool to hang onto the hoop and weigh the fish. You can subtract the weight of the net later to get a precise measurement.
Catching big fish is one of life’s great pleasures. Landing, measuring, photographing, and releasing them correctly are not difficult tasks. And doing those things properly means more big fish in the future.

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