Have you ever thought about the term “landing a fish”? It means getting the fish from the water the finned critter calls home onto the land, or your boat, in your possession.
Angler records are kept for possessing fish, for bringing it under control, for being in hand.
If that weren’t the case let me tell you about the six-foot tarpon I hooked in the Florida Everglades, or the two foot long brown trout I brought to the shoreline on the Tuolumne River in California’s Sequoia National Park, or the northern pike that broke my rod in half in Canada.
On the other hand, let my friend Steve “Devo” Grayson share his tale of the monster smallmouth bass he hung in the nearby Nolichucky River. We had just started our sunny day summer float below the Embreeville Bridge when Devo snagged something big. His rod bent. Fishing line peeled from his reel. We were in a pool between rapids, well positioned to land a lunker. I steadied the canoe while Devo played the fish. Suddenly, it burst forth from the river and jumped high into the air, landing with a gaudy splash. What a monster!
Devo’s adrenalin surged, his hands visibly shaking as he managed the rod. More line screamed out the reel as the fish shot for the depths. I was excited for Devo, but admit feeling a little jealousy. After all, I had been angling on the Nolichucky for years and had not nailed a bass that big.
Nevertheless, I resolved to help him bring home his trophy. After all, what are friends for? He would do the same for me.
I eased the canoe toward the bank, where he could land the fish from shore. I pulled onto a sandy bank. Devo hopped from the canoe, rod bent to the point of breaking. The lunker smallie had tired and his catch seemed a sure thing. The fish slowly finned a foot below the surface and visible to both of us.
It was the biggest smallmouth bass I had seen in a lifetime of fishing.
Devo was on one side of the canoe and the fish on the other. I stayed in the rear seat, watching his almost moment of glory. He then committed a critical error, which he laments to this day. He attempted to lift the bass from the water over the canoe and onto land.
The fish weighed much more than the four-pound test line, and when Devo lifted the fish from the water, the line snapped! Devo desperately lunged his hand into the depths, trying to catch the smallmouth. However, it was just a moment before the bass got away, returning to the depths, sure to shake off the lure on its own schedule.
Devo was stunned, and bent his arm back, making like he was going to throw his rod in the river, before regaining composure. I suppressed a giggle at his feigned rod throwing, but was shocked and truly sad at his bad luck.
As we floated downriver, he kept saying repeatedly, “Why did I try to lift the fish from the water?”, as if repeating the mistake would make it go away.
You ain’t caught it til you got it.
He should have either lip locked the fish with his hand or brought it to shore.
Pitfalls in landing a fish start well before landing the fish. First, you have to hook the fish. When retrieving the line and a fish hits your lure, the first thing you need to do is set the hook. When feeling the fish strike pull your rod back, making the hook pop through the cartilage in the fish’s mouth, literally hooking the fish.
Next, raise the tip of your rod and keep it up. This keeps the line tight. Loose line enables the fish to shake the hook free. The rod, line and hook are your connection to the fish.
After that, survey the surrounding waters. Are there obstacles such as logs or rocks around which the fish may entangle the line? If possible, try to lead the fish to still, deep, uncluttered water. Head for slow water if possible. Fast moving water increases tension on the fishing line, potentially leading to the line breaking.
As you bring the fish in closer, look for a potential landing locale if on or near shore, otherwise bring the fish alongside the boat. Try to strike a balance between wearing the fish down and playing it to exhaustion. Properly played fish will be tired enough to be handled more effectively but exhausted fish can die when returned to water. Do not overplay the fish if you are sport fishing and don’t plan to keep the fish.
Check your drag to make sure if the fish makes a run that it will not snap the line but will simply pull out line without it breaking. Properly set drag will release line without breaking or becoming too slack.
Also, leave a little line between your rod tip and the fish. Too little line keeps the fish too far away to land or grasp.
In addition, prepare for one last run when you get the fish into the shallows. The fish will instinctively realize something is wrong when being brought to shore and will muster all its strength to get away. Continue to keep the tip of your rod up. And work it to shore. Once you get it to shore, make a firm grab on the fish. No wimp grabs -- the fish might get away or you may find the hook in your finger instead of the fish as it flails away. Do not try to lift a big one out of the water by the line — ask Devo about that one.
After possessing the fish, have a plan as to what to do with it. If you are going to keep it put the fish on a stringer — immediately. I cannot tell you how many fish have flopped away from me while trying to string them. And stringing it meant I was planning to eat it, therefore I lost dinner. A fish is going to flop and flop frantically, trying to return to water, the environment it knows best.
If in a boat, and you are planning to keep it, get the fish over the boat before unhooking it. That way if it flops out of your hand it will land in the boat instead of escaping into the water. String the fish over the boat, too.
Then you will have it in your possession, avoiding the pitfalls lying between hooking and landing the fish.