Thursday, January 28, 2010

Best way to land and hold a northern pike

What is the best way to land and hold a northern pike?

Conservationists, biologists and outdoor writers are nearly unanimous in frowning on the use of lipgrip tools. These devices which latch onto the lower jaw of a fish end up harming the fish when it is lifted out of the water by the jaw, they say.

The most humane method of landing a big northern pike, they advocate, is with a fish cradle. These are two slender boards with a mesh between. The fish is pulled over the cradle in the water, then lifted aboard the boat or, even better, held securely in the water while the hooks are extracted and the fish is released.

The second best way to land a pike, the experts say, is with a landing net. The best of these are the rubber nets because the fish cannot get tangled in the mesh but the rubber supports the fish's body. Very small mesh nets are also excellent. The worst are the conventional mesh nets because the fish wraps up in the net making it difficult to remove the hooks. Also the mesh can cut the fish and break its fins.

Incidentally the conservation experts also do not like to see anglers use jaw spreaders. These are springs that hold the mouth open while the hooks are removed. The big problem with these is that when used on smaller fish the spring is so strong it can break or dislocate the fish's jaw.

As a fishing camp operator I agree with everything the experts have said but I'm also faced with some practical realities. Most people have no idea how to use a fish cradle. If we were to supply them in our boats I would expect the fine mesh on them would be ripped to shreds by fish hooks in very short order.

Rubber nets large enough to land a very large northern pike, 40-50 inches, must be so wide that they also are very heavy. Since most people net almost every fish they catch, it would be tiresome to use this very large, heavy net all day.

The fine-mesh conservation nets, which come with a flat bottom that better supports the weight of the fish, are probably the way to go. These just came out recently and are very expensive. One of the frustrating things for me as a camp operator is to see how most people abuse the landing nets we supply. They use their knives to cut lures out of the net, etc. Some people offer to pay for the damage which, to replace with a good quality mesh can be $10-$15. If we were to use the small mesh conservation nets the bill would be more like $80. So, we don't use the conservation types, but there's nothing stopping you from bringing your own. Ditto for the large rubber nets.

We do have the medium-size rubber nets. Everyone loves them for landing walleye and northern pike up to about 35 inches. But they feel like a serving spoon when you try to land a real whopper of a pike, 20-30 pounds and with a head the size of a minnow pail.

The experts also agree that the best way to hold a northern pike is the way my niece, Alice, demonstrates in these three fish she caught and released at camp last summer.

The top two photos show the best way to hold the pike for photos. By having the hands beneath the body the fish's weight is supported. By contrast when holding a big fish by the jaw, all of the weight is hanging on the jaw which could then be damaged.

The bottom photo shows the best way to grasp a pike, by gently squeezing in on the gill plates. This is also the best way to pick up a pike by hand out of the water. Whenever doing so, however, beware of the hooks from your lure. As talked about in a couple of blogs back, fish caught on lures with a single set of treble hooks such as spoons and spinners are quite safe to grasp by hand. Lures with three sets of trebles, which almost all the large stick baits have, are so dangerous you have to be extremely cautious. From my point of view, these lures are so dangerous, to you in handling the fish and to the fish while you try to extract all the hooks, that you should think twice about using them.

When it comes to jaw spreaders I think it is good advice to carry them but just not to use them on little fish.

While all the advice from the experts is good, I can also say that even though we seemed to do everything wrong for years we didn't seem to harm many fish.

I personally don't have any problem with holding a fish upright to get its photo taken.

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Anonymous said...

Thanks for the wonderful handling tips. You just saved me some serious dollars. I was thinking about purchasing a lipgrip tool for this summer, and since reading about the potential of harming the fish, I am satisfied with continuing to handle them the old-fashioned way; by hand. I am probably like most of your visitors, I "might" keep a fish for consumption, but I more than likely just borrow him for a few moments to admire, and then I let him go back to his underwater world. With that said, I sure don't want to harm him or jeapordize his health or well being while I am working to get him back to the water.

The last few years, I have been wearing a pair of gloves designed for handling fish. These have enabled me to handle the fish with less fear of being cut, slashed, or impaled; while at the same time creating a slip free grip as I work to remove the hook. I hope that the use of the gloves do not cause any harm to the fish and its body. I have read that trout (rainbow, brown, and such) can be harmed from human bare skin damaging their outer surface causing bacteria and germs to threaten that protective layer. I have no clue about walleye, pike, or lake trout in this department. I would hope that the gloves do not cause any undue harm. However, if there is evidence that the use of gloves could cause harm, I would certainly quit using them.

Happy Fishing...

Dan B. said...

I'm glad you brought up the subject of gloves because I forgot to mention them.
A fish can be harmed if the protective slime is wiped off his skin, something that will happen if you handle the fish with either dry gloves or dry hands.
The "experts" suggest using cotton gloves and wetting them before use.
A lot of people use Kevlar or other knife-proof gloves such as those worn when cleaning fish. These are probably also fine, provided they are wet. They do protect the hand from being cut by fish teeth but will not prevent you from getting a fish hook in your hand.
Thanks again for your comment.