Landing a Fish – How to Land a Fish

After fighting the fish to your boat or pier or the shore – what next?

Jimmy Brooks at Work
Jimmy Brooks hoists a Goliath Grouper with a gaff for the camera. Photo by Dr. Richard Kernish

You've done your homework and managed top hook a good fish. You fought the fish and now he is at boat side, or on the water under the pier. How do you get the fish aboard or up on the pier? Lots of fish are lost right at the boat because anglers don't know or don't follow some simple steps to bring the fish aboard. Here's how we land a fish.

Landing Techniques and Tools

  • Lift the Fish Aboard
    Small fish can usually simply be lifted aboard the boat or up to the pier. If they are obviously smaller than the strength of your line and you can see that they are well hooked, simply lift them aboard.

    Novice anglers often don't know when to stop reeling, and reel the fish too close to the end of the rod - sometimes all the way to the tip of the rod! A simple rule you can follow is to always leave line the length of your rod. Stop reeling when you have the rod high and the fish next to the boat. This allows you the freedom to manage landing the fish.

    If you plan to lift the fish aboard the boat, I suggest you do not do it with the rod. You may underestimate the size of the fish, and the weight of the fish may be too much for the rod to handle. I suggest one of two methods:

    • Grab the leader just above the fish and lift with the leader.
    • Bend over and place your hand under the belly of the fish and lift him aboard.
    • NOTICE that saltwater fish almost always have sharp teeth, even small ones. I would not plan to "lip" a fish like the freshwater bass anglers do, unless you know the fish you are landing. A snook is the only fish I would attempt to lip, and only on a small one. Even though you can lip a big snook, you will either loose the fish or break something on your hand when he shakes his head!
  • Net the Fish
    Landing nets come in all shapes and sizes and are made from a variety of materials. Choose the net that is right for the fish you are taking. Small minnow nets won't work on big fish! I would stay with a net that has a mouth opening of about 36 inches. This is big enough to allow a long fish into it and yet small enough to maneuver easily. They make much larger nets, but keeping them on a boat presents storage problems. I use nets on fish like redfish, seatrout, flounder, snapper, and other smaller saltwater species.

    To net the fish that is coming alongside the boat or bank, use your rod to keep the head of the fish at or slightly above the surface of the water. You don't want to allow his head to turn down or away into the water, because it will give him traction to run when he senses the net. Ideally netting is a two person process, but one person can do it with practice. While leading the fish high and toward the boat, quietly slip the net into the water behind the fish and bring it to, under and up so that the fish is in the middle of the mouth of the net. All in one motion move the net to, under and up and lift the fish out of the water and into the boat. No swatting or stabbing - simply and quietly bring the net up behind the fish. Too many fish have been lost because the person with the net did not know what they were doing!

  • Using the Gaff
    To gaff or not to gaff - that is the question in a lot of circumstances. The most obvious answer is another question or two; is the fish too big for a net; and, do you plan on keeping the fish? If the answer to both of these is yes, then by all means use the gaff. If the answer to even one of them is no, then put the gaff away. Gaffing a fish will insure that the fish will die - either in your ice chest or with some exceptions, in the water if he is released.

    I have two gaffs. One has a ten foot handle, and one has a four foot handle. I use the long one for fish like king mackerel, dolphin and sometimes cobia. If I see they are poorly hooked, I can reach out with the long handle and get them into the boat before I lose them. I use the short one for fish - like grouper and red snapper - that are at the side of the boat and on the surface.

    A gaff is a big, barbless hook on the end of a pole. The idea is to hook your fish somewhere and lift him aboard with the gaff. Where you hook you fish with the gaff can mean the difference in some good filets and some rather messy filets.

    On a bottom fish like a grouper, I try to use the short gaff and hook the fish inside the mouth, never touching the outside of the fish. On dolphin and king mackerel, I try to stick the fish as far forward toward the head as I can. That saves the meat on the filets.

    Always avoid sticking and fish in the stomach area. The skin and flesh in that area is not strong, and the fish can often fight while on the gaff and rip a hole, allowing the fish to get way. That fish will almost certainly die, and you have nothing to show for your efforts.

    One word of caution is needed. NEVER gaff a fish you plan to release, and NEVER gaff a fish that is or may be undersize. If you think you will need to measure the fish, use the net. I have seen charter head boat mates gaffing everything in site, getting fish aboard, and then finding them to be too short. They simply toss them back into the water to die.

    Bottom Line

    If you are pleasure fishing and plan to release everything you catch, why not try a water release. When the fish comes alongside the boat, bend over and work to remove the hook while the fish is still in the water. Florida did this with Goliath Grouper. They are totally protected, and while you can fish for and catch them, you cannot remove them from the water. They must be released unharmed while in the water. I see lots of pictures of anglers holding small ones up for a photo. Technically they broke the law, although my conversations with my Fish and Game officer friends tell me they turn a head because the fish is released after the picture. There is some logic in this world!

    Whatever fish you catch, landing that fish is just as important as hooking it. And landing it properly will insure that we have fish on the table or in the case of a release, fish for future generations.

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    Your Citation
    Brooks, Ron. "Landing a Fish – How to Land a Fish." ThoughtCo, Jan. 4, 2016, Brooks, Ron. (2016, January 4). Landing a Fish – How to Land a Fish. Retrieved from Brooks, Ron. "Landing a Fish – How to Land a Fish." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 25, 2017).