When you bring a wild steelhead to hand, it’s up to you to take care of that fish until it’s rested and ready to continue on its long journey. There are dos and don’ts to make sure fish are treated properly.
Haul the fish into your boat with a net and set it down in the bottom of the boat. Fish flopping against hard surfaces beat themselves up just like they do on land.
Beach a wild fish for the same reason you don’t lay it in the boat. A flailing fish is in trouble.
Stick your fingers in its gills. Don’t lip steelhead; they’re not bass.
Get into knee-deep water and tail the fish when it comes near. It may take a couple of tries and you don’t need a glove, which removes protective slime from the fish’s skin.
Support a fish’s body (not in its gills) and hold the tail while you rest it before releasing. If you’re taking a photo, keep the fish in the water and only lift for a few seconds if you must.
Handle them carefully and let them go when they show signs that they’ve regained their strength.
For more detail on what to do with beautiful wild steelhead once you’ve brought them close, check out our post on landing big fish.
There has been a lot of talk around here lately about how to properly land and handle large fish – see Gink and Gasoline’s recent post on catch and release mortality and you’ll see why this is important.
Safely landing and releasing can be particularly challenging when using a spey rod so this is how we like to do it to make sure that wild fish we release have a chance to spawn and hatchery fish make it to the smoker. Generally when swinging flies you will already be wading in the river, which is ideal because you want to land your fish in knee deep water.
The method: When I feel the fish is tired out enough to handle, I pull the fish up near the surface and grab the leader as it moves by me. The key is to not reel in too much line, try to have more line out than the length of your rod. Once you have the leader in your hand tail the fish and tuck the rod under your arm. You should have slack in your line at this point so pull some line off the reel if you need to. You can then unhook the fish, revive it if necessary and let it go without ever taking it out of the water. This is easiest in knee deep water so you don’t have to bend over as far. I have landed kings by myself this way and it works great, but may take a few tries and a bit of practice.