Properly handling catfish and safely releasing them requires the right tools,
like a good set of lip grips or a rubber-coated micro-mesh landing net.
How to Properly Release Big Catfish Unharmed
Courtesy of Greg Wagner and Nebraskaland magazine
Tips to assure your trophy catch will be caught again
The practice of catch-and-release fishing provides opportunities for increasing numbers of anglers to enjoy fishing and to successfully catch some jumbo whiskerfish—perhaps even the fish of a lifetime. But returning big catfish to the water unharmed only works if we learn to properly handle and care for those trophies.
In a recent issue of Nebraskaland magazine, Greg Wagner, an ardent angler and communications specialist with the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission (NGPC), shared some great catch-and-release tips from folks like North Dakota catfish guide Brad Durick and NGPC fisheries biologist Daryl Bauer. Mr. Wagner kindly consented to let us reprint those tips here so you, too, can learn to be a catfish conservationist.
- Grab that rubber net. Unlike most fish species, catfish aren’t armed with skin-protecting scales. Instead, they have skin and secrete a viscous slimy substance that acts as an antiseptic. So, for landing big catfish you need a knotless, rubber or rubber-coated net that won’t abrade their skin or remove their vital slime layer. A rubber-coated net with micro-mesh and a flat bottom panel is optimum because it gently supports the fish without contorting its body in abnormal angles. Without a good-sized rubber net, a large, wild catfish flopping on the boat floor, bank or dock is asking for trouble — broken equipment, sprained ankles and severely injured fish.
- Lip grips can be used with care. Big catfish can tear your hands up and make you think twice about sticking your hand in their mouth. A good pair of what are called lip grips may be used with care to handle and release large catfish. When you squeeze the grips, make sure the jaws of the catfish do not open, otherwise injury will be caused. If you’re wondering, a lip grip is typically a floating, plastic device that features a handle with a locking system that clamps down on the inside and outside of the fish’s bottom lip while you use your other hand to support the catfish on its underside near the tail fin. The lip grip makes it easier to control the fish while holding it.
- Wear rubber gloves. In the case of handling big catfish, a variety of rubber gloves specifically designed to make gripping fish easier without removing their slime should be worn. They should always be wetted first, before grabbing a fish, in order to be minimally abrasive. Gloves also have the added bonus of protecting anglers from catfish spines, sandpaper-like teeth and even hooks.
- No vertical holds. Fully support the weight of that big catfish with both hands and hold it horizontally. Keep hands away from gills and gill openings. Grip the narrow body section just below the tail with one hand and then basically cradle the fish’s head and shoulders with the other, avoiding pectoral and dorsal fins completely. If the fish decides to shake, you simply keep a firm grip on the tail and keep its head balanced until it calms down. It’s a safe, easy grip that just works.
- Use quality circle hooks. A huge part of proper catch and release for substantial catfish involves the use of circle hooks and preferably higher-quality, tournament-grade circle hooks. Good circle hooks are a must for hooking catfish safely and securely. Employing tournament-grade circle hooks allows nearly all big catfish to be hooked in the corner of the jaw. This allows for a quicker hook removal, causes less stress on the fish and shortens the time that the fish has to be out of the water.
- Carry long-handled needle nose pliers. These tools let you to remove hooks with better control and limit your “hands on” contact with big catfish. Fish that are barely hooked or hooked in the lip can usually be freed with your hand, but it’s a good idea to always have a pair of long-handled needle nose pliers for those harder to reach hooks.
- Take quick pics. Take a few quick Android or iPhone photos of the big channel, blue or flathead catfish you landed to preserve the memory of that trophy catch, and then put the fish gently back in the water right away. We call this conservation practice CPR—catch, photograph and release. Just think, next week, the large catfish you released could be the biggest catfish some other lucky angler ever caught!
- Be prepared. Are your rubber gloves or rubber net and pliers within reach? Is your camera ready? Anything you can do to get that big catfish back in the water as soon as possible helps to improve the odds for survival. If you have everything you need handy, you won’t have to keep the fish out of the water for very long.
- Catch-and-release fishing for weighty cats works if three basic tactics are remembered and followed: 1) play the fish as little as possible; 2) keep the fish in the water as long as possible; and 3) cut the line if the fish has swallowed the hook.