How to

Landing the Prize


Hooking and fighting a fish is only part of the overall fishing equation. You also need to land it. SAMI OMARI details the various options you can use to claim your trophy.

THE anticipation of the strike and the initial burst of adrenalin subsides as you settle into the fight. The task of locating and hooking your quarry has been accomplished and after a short while the initial vigour displayed by an angry speedster diminishes. Most of the hard work is done and after a spirited battle a flash of colour beneath the surface signifies the concluding stages of the fight. That first glimpse of a prized catch elevates the excitement levels but those in the know aren’t high-fiving one another just yet. Close quarters combat in any situation poses increased risk and in a fishing scenario the last few moments of the fight are when many fish are lost. An angler almost needs a sixth sense to anticipate what might happen when a fish sees the boat and panics or if a mate misses a net shot. The ability to react in a split second to any sudden movements with the fish on a short line and near the boat is vital, however, being prepared to land your prize requires careful consideration. Will the fish be kept or released? Is it well hooked? Is your landing technique going to work or is the fish too big to manage?

A number of considerations arise when the fish is near the boat. With the fish on a short leash it can be awkward to control any last minute lunges or erratic movements and the amount of stretch in the system is decreased, accentuating any sudden forces. It pays to back the drag off and use a finger or thumb on the spool to add any additional pressure. This helps minimise the chance of the hook tearing or the line breaking when trying to overcome the start-up inertia of a tight drag. You should also avoid winding the fish to the rod tip. Instead, leave about a rod length of line between you and the fish to assist in guiding the fish with the rod.

Small fish are generally easier to manage while larger fish pose more of a challenge because of their physical bulk and the need to somehow subdue and support them if they are candidates for release. A comfort lift might work on a trout if you’re up to your hips and wading, a gaff shot on a legal king suggests it will become dinner and a small bream can easily be poled into the boat without using any equipment to aid with landing whatsoever. The following landing techniques and tools of the trade round out the common practices employed by anglers when landing their prize.

Landing nets

Using a net is one of the most common methods of landing a fish with a wide selection of shapes and styles available to anglers. When netting a fish you generally place the net in the water and guide the fish into the waiting net head first. Avoid swiping at a fish with the net which will confuse, agitate and potentially cause the fish to panic and thrash about. You should also avoid netting a fish tail first because it is very easy for the fish to panic, kick its tail and swim out! Once the fish is past the opening of the net, lift the net out of the water with a slight forward scooping motion to secure the prize. Environet style mesh nets and knotless varieties are designed to minimise damage to the fish and are recommended for catch & release.

Lip gripping tools

Mechanical lip gripping tools feature a set of spring loaded jaws that are designed to securely clamp the bottom lip of a fish. You simply pull back on a spring loaded section of handle on the device to open the jaws, slip the open jaws of the device over the bottom lip of the fish and release the spring loaded section to force the jaws closed. While this sounds simple in theory, you’ll have a tough time trying to lock on to a thrashing fish in the water. With practice, however, these tools can be quite useful. Swivelling or rotating jaws help minimise damage to a fish that is being unco-operative. If using the gripping tool to land a fish, support the weight of the fish with a wet hand under the body as fish as not made to support their entire weight through their jaw.


The ideal place to gaff a fish is behind the head in the shoulder section of the fish to give you greater control and minimise damage to the flesh. When gaffing a fish you should come in behind the line so that if you miss the shot you don’t end up tangling or hitting the line.

It’s important to be patient and wait for a clean gaff shot rather than trying to gaff a fish that’s out of range. Once the fish is in range you use a swift but firm and steady action to send the sharpened gaff hook into the shoulder. Once the gaff hook is securely in place carefully lift the fish up and out of the water in a single fluid motion and dispatch the fish humanely.

Gaffing is a destructive landing process and should only be used on fish that are to be taken home for the table and clearly over the legal size limit – it goes without saying that gaff & release is not an acceptable practice!

Tracing and lifting

Tracing a fish and controlling it in the final stages of a fight can be a delicate operation. Taking the leader on an angry marlin, for example, requires care, caution and the ability to judge whether you should hold on to an uncooperative fish or dump the leader. When grabbing the leader you should avoid wrapping the leader around your hand where possible and always be mindful of how to quickly release the leader if the fish suddenly bolts. You generally want to gently guide the fish to towards a waiting net, tag pole or means of securing/releasing the catch. If tracing a fish to release it boat side then you should either act quickly or keep the boat ticking forward to ensure water and oxygen flow through the gills to keep the fish calm.

When a smaller fish is finally beaten, taking a firm grip on the leader and gently lifting the fish into a waiting set of hands can be a viable option. When lifting a fish from the water, it is important to be able to see the hook – if the fish is lightly hooked or if you can’t see how well the fish is hooked then you should avoid the risk of lifting the fish and having the hook tear of become dislodged.

If beach or rock fishing you can use the sea to your advantage to help lift a fish onto shore. Timing is important in this case as you want to use the momentum of the fish coming towards you and a wave rolling in to lift a fish up and over a rock ledge or onto the sand. As a wave or swell recedes you should let the fish travel back with the sea; avoid trying to brute force it onto shore which will put an excessive amount of pressure on the hook point, connections and terminal tackle.

Comfort lift

Smaller fish can be landed using a comfort lift by placing your hand underneath one side of the fish and gently taking the weight of the fish to place a bend in its body. Some species (more generally freshwater species) will lie motionless on their side for a while before becoming distressed and thrashing about. Once mastered, the comfort lift works well when wading or if fishing out of a kayak because the close proximity to water level makes it easy to slip an open hand beneath a fish while the simplicity of the technique means that no landing equipment needs to be carried or stored.

Thumb grip

Watch any bass fishing show in the US and you’ll soon see what a thumb grip is all about. The technique is to carefully place your thumb inside the mouth of the fish and firmly grab the lower jaw. A wet hand under the belly of the fish should be used to support the weight of larger specimens. I’ve used this technique to land estuary perch, Australian bass and kingfish in the saltwater. You obviously don’t want to thumb grip a fish that has teeth or powerful, crushing jaws and you also want to exercise extreme care around hooks. People often make the mistake of trying to thumb grip a flathead and soon find that the fine raspy teeth inside a flatty’s mouth are great for shredding skin off your thumb! The thumb takes the place of a mechanical lip gripping tool and again it is important support the weight of the fish and minimise pressure on the jaw.

Other techniques

An improved comfort lift can use used on a flathead with moderate success – with the fish upside down you wrap your wet hand around the mid section and grip the fish by firmly pressing your thumb on its vent (and, yes, it’s exactly what you’re thinking – you’re squeezing the bejeesus out of its bum!). This is one of those techniques that requires care because the flathead may still thrash about and those hideous spines on the side or the head will probably get you every time. With a little practice, however, this can be a useful technique.

Marlin have a convenient handle pointing out from their face – for those that are experienced, grabbing the bill of a smaller, sedate fish with a gloved hand can work well as long as the boat is idling forward and the fish is getting fresh water through its gills. Many people make the mistake of keeping the boat in neutral causing the fish to become oxygen deprived and agitated. A safer substitute for a gloved hand is a bill rope or snooter which secures a loop of rope over the bill and negates the need for direct contact.

Mulloway that are destined for the table can be gill lifted by placing a hand inside the gill plate and sliding up towards the throat. This technique requires a bit of practice and you need to avoid slipping your fingers into the sharp gill rakers at all costs! Again this should only be used on fish destined for the table.

You can use the momentum of smaller fish that are swimming quickly towards the boat to pole them into a waiting set of hands. As with lifting any fish, you need to ensure the hook is securely pinned and your terminal connections are sound.

Final considerations

With any landing technique, safety of the angler is paramount – don’t put your hands near any sharp teeth, spines or hooks and ensure the fish is secured and subdued before bringing it on board or taking it for the table. If employing catch & release then you should always handle a fish with a scale safe net or wet hands and avoid putting any unnecessary excess pressure and stress on the fish.

Think through how and where you are going to land your fish before you start fishing and have the necessary tools or people on hand to help during the final stages of the fight. Losing a fish boat side is a painful and gut wrenching experience, however with some careful thought, planning and having the necessary tools on hand you can help maximise your chances of landing that prized fish next time you’re out on the water.

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