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October 26, 2001

Get the Scoop

When you should use a landing net and why.

The fight's over. A fish struggles on the end of a short line beside the boat. Now what? Gaff the fish? Net it? Reach over the gunwale and remove the hook?
What you plan to do with your catch greatly affects the way fish should be handled. Forget about a gentle boat-side manner if a dinner plate represents your quarry's final destination; swing it aboard by hook or crook and deposit it in the fish box. On the other hand, any fish to be released deserves careful treatment.
Experienced anglers hold sailfish by the bill or grab tarpon by the lower jaw to maintain control while removing hooks and reviving these fish without lifting them from the water. But unhooking smaller game fish may require bringing them aboard for a brief visit before release. "Fish in the 3- to 5-pound range can be handled safely by the lower jaw," says Capt. Al Anderson of species lacking nasty dentures. He's tagged and released nearly 20,000 fish (mostly striped bass and tuna) off Narragansett, Rhode Island, over four decades in the charter industry. "But I feel that lipping fish over 8 or 10 pounds puts strain on muscles and tendons in the head and jaw, risking injury to the fish."
In the Bag
Anderson relies on landing nets to gain control of fish from about 10 to 40 pounds to lift them aboard. "When lifted from the water and writhing in a net, there's no doubt that fish lose some protective slime. But I still feel better about netting than lipping large fish," he says. "We've worked out a system where fish usually spend just a few seconds inside the net. While a hose pumps seawater onto a carpet to keep the deck wet, the mate lifts and swings the net while I guide the fish's head with the leader. I'm already sliding the fish out when the net reaches the carpet. We can measure, tag and release fish in less than a minute."
A come-from-behind approach with landing nets seems to go against conventional wisdom but works best in most - but not all - situations. Gerry Mengo, president of Mengo Industries (manufacturer of DOTLINE nets), says, "You can try to lead fish into a net if you're very fast, but there's much less chance of losing a fish if you net it tailfirst." Fish that see the net may spook and make a desperate lunge for freedom that could pull the hook or cut the line if it rubs on the net frame. Headfirst netting also creates the possibility of hooks snagging the mesh and preventing the fish's body from entering the net bag.
Anderson scoops up stripers tailfirst, but uses different tactics for small tuna. "I wear wet cotton gloves and grab tuna under 20 pounds by the tail," he says. "Then, lifting them by the leader and tail, we place small tuna on the gunwale to tag and release them in 10 seconds. But you can't pick up a 25- or 30-pound tuna like that. We swim larger fish headfirst into a wide-mouth, nylon-mesh net, lift them to the deck and get them out of the net as quickly as possible. Tuna swim with a lot of momentum at boat-side. You think you can come up from behind one with a net and catch it? Ha! Plain and simple, it won't work."
The depth of a net's bag should influence your choice when deciding which one to purchase. Of course, the net must be able to contain fish of the size you expect to catch, but other factors enter into the equation. "For snapper and grouper - fish you'll want to keep - use a net about 36 inches deep," says Jeff Powell, president of net manufacturer Ed Cumings, Inc. "Use shallow-bag nets for catch-and-release angling. They allow quick and easy hook removal with minimal handling of fish."
The bag's material and construction also warrant consideration. Polyethylene, the most commonly used material, provides strength and durability but may not be the most fish-friendly due to its stiffness. Nylon makes for a strong yet gentle mesh to corral fish. "Because it's soft and less harmful to fish, nylon is better for release-minded anglers," advises Mengo.
Several manufacturers, including Cumings and Frabill, cater to devout practitioners of catch-and-release by offering knotless net bags made of "super-soft" nylon. "Fish suffer injury when sliding across knots in a landing net," explains Mark Gostisha, Frabill's national sales manager. "The special weaving process in our catch-and-release bags eliminates knots that scratch fish."
Nets labeled "tangle free" or "hook free" feature mesh coated with a substance (usually PVC) that renders it thicker and slightly more rigid than standard mesh and much less likely to snag hooks. Such nets help anglers save time and fish. "The coating prevents hooks, especially trebles, from lodging in the mesh," explains Mengo. Gostisha adds that tangle-free bags keep gaining popularity in the saltwater market "because they make it easier for anglers to get fish in and out of the net. Whether keeping or releasing your catch, it's essential to remove fish and lures from the net quickly. Hooks snagged in the net cut into valuable fishing time." Hooks may go around a strand of mesh material, but they won't create a bunched-up, snarly mess that requires time - and maybe a knife - to untangle. Fewer snags translates into less time in the net and a quicker return to the water for captured fish. Tangle-free coating also smoothes over knots, resulting in a less abrasive net bag.
Through the Hoop
Net frames, also called hoops, come in many different shapes and sizes to suit various needs and regional preferences. Teardrop (or pear-shaped) hoops probably hold the title as most popular in the saltwater market. This style works very well for landing game fish ranging from snapper to striped bass to small tuna. "Scooper" frames see quite a bit of duty in the salmon fishery of the Pacific Northwest and California. The net's nearly triangular shape forms a wide mouth for engulfing elusive targets; the lower lip curves upward to keep fish in the bag when lifting the net.
According to Gostisha, scooper-style nets have been gaining popularity among flats fishermen. "You can push the flat edge of the net against the bottom," he says. "Then fish can't swim under or around the hoop."
Frabill's Troll-N-Shovel stands out as an example of a net designed for a specific purpose. "Salmon trollers rarely stop the boat or bring in the other lines once a fish is hooked," says Gostisha. "They fight the fish to the transom and net it there. The Troll-N-Shovel's front rim drops off to get under fish easily, and the fabric 'skid plate' lets fish slide in head-first without snagging in the mesh. A clip on the handle holds the net bag out of the prop wash until a fish enters the net."
Proper Handling
Because his 42-foot custom boat sports considerable freeboard, Anderson prefers landing nets with 40-inch handles to gain control of fish without having to lean far over the gunwale. Using a long-handled net on a flats skiff with near-zero freeboard would prove awkward, explaining why manufacturers usually offer several handle options for the same-size net frame.
Telescoping handles slide inside the net frame for convenient storage. When a fish nears the boat, the net man pulls the handle out and secures it in place with a lock-button. To make the locking procedure quick and foolproof, most telescopic handles feature triangular or octagonal cross sections so the handle can't rotate and hide the lock-button. Since today's nets feature hollow metal handles, non-circular cross sections also contribute to overall strength, as does the thickness of the metal. "When deciding which net to buy, you can't determine a handle's exact wall thickness because it's covered with end caps or grips," says Mengo. "But you should pick up a net, feel its weight and compare with other brands to select the sturdiest."
No matter how strong you think a landing net may be, "Never heft it like a pitchfork once you've bagged a fish. That will bend the handle," warns Mengo. "Hold the handle nearly vertical and bring it in hand-over-hand until you can grab the hoop and lift it into the boat."
Anglers who'd like to weigh fish quickly before release should look into DOTLINE's series of nets that feature scales in the handle. Two different scales are available (20 and 40 pounds), offering "accuracy to within 2 ounces," according to Mengo.Perhaps you should be using landing nets more often, especially when boating a fish whose fate remains uncertain until measurements determine if it's a keeper. "If you gaff a fish, you'll injure or kill it," says Powell. "A net allows you to subdue and control a fish and still be able to release it safely."