Taking photos of fish has been a tradition in our sport since a guy with a camera, saw a guy with a big fish, and wanted to document it. It is human to want to share our joyous occasions with each other, and to have tangible proof of our great catch. I am a sportsman, and when I catch a great fish, I love to share it with the rest of my friends. However, I also care about the treatment of our fish and fisheries, so I try as hard as I can to make sure I release those special fish unharmed. When I was a rookie, I made mistakes when trying to unhook and photograph fish. As a result, fish got hurt in the process, and some had to come home with me because I could not, in good conscience, leave them to die and go to waste. So, I am going to share with you tips I use to get good photos of my fish, and do it in a way that causes the fish minimal harm.

Nick’s Tips for Good Pictures and Happy Fish:

I ALWAYS, wet my hands before handling a fish for a photograph. Dry hands strip the protective slime off the skin of fish, which leaves them vulnerable for infection from parasites. The slime also serves as a lubricant that allows the fish to swim through the water easier.

I NEVER grip a fish hard around the torso! This is especially important for big fish. Unless the fish is small (palm sized), always support with two hands. A fish in water is not used to the gravity we feel outside of water, ergo, holding big fish out of water without supporting it, can damage vital internal organs.

I DO NOT keep my fish out of the water for longer than ten seconds to snap a photo. Fish need water to breathe, just as we need air. To put this into a fish’s perspective, I try to imagine what it would be to like fighting for my life, being trapped in a net, and then having my head shoved underwater for 30 seconds to a minute while weird creatures poked, and prodded me. Do you think that you would survive such an ordeal? This is where a net with a rubber bag is invaluable. Until you are ready to photograph your fish, keep it in the net, and keep the net in the water. This will allow the fish to re-cooperate, and give you time to get a picture without causing the fish anymore harm.

I ALWAYS TRY TO HOLD MY FISH CLOSE TO THE WATER. Preferably just above the net. In the event that the fish decides to squirm out of your hands, it will land in the water, and most likely in the net. In short, it will keep the fish from further hurting itself.

I TRY TO NEVER BEACH MY FISH. Grass, gravel, dry rocks, sand-none of these are good for the fishes skin! I always try my hardest to keep the fish in the water, especially if it is a big fish. It will reduce the risk of harming the fish’s internal organs.

I USE MY COMMON SENSE! I only take pictures of fish when I am in a safe place in the river to take photos, I am confident that I will not harm them, or I am with someone who has a camera. If you are fishing alone with a phone or camera that is not waterproof, it is really hard to get a great picture and make sure the fish gets returned safely. When I find myself in such a position, I just let the fish go unharmed, rather than risk its health taking pictures that don’t do it justice.

INVEST IN A WATERPROOF PHONE/CAMERA. You will be able to focus on the fish, rather than keeping your super fancy device from drowning. I love my waterproof camera, because if I have an uncooperative fish in the net, I can put the camera down anywhere, and not have to worry about ruining it. Also, I can choose to take video of my fish instead of a picture. This allows me to record a memory of the fish, and not harm it trying to make it stay still for a picture.

I DON’T TAKE PICTURES OF EVERY FISH I CATCH. All fish are special, but there are those that have very unique colors or features (i.e. Size, Spots, etc.) that, I feel, warrant some form of documentation. By doing this, I usually find that the pictures I DO take are of better quality, have more meaning, and I reduce the chances of accidentally harming fish by putting more of them back quickly and safely.

I hope that this post helps you in your future fishing endeavors, and that you use these tried and true tips, because returning our fish safely from whence they came should be our ultimate goal as catch-and-release anglers. I ask my clients when we miss the opportunity to photograph a nice fish, or have a long distance release this question:

“What were we going to do with the fish if/when we landed it anyway?”

Answer: “Release It.”

Keep this in mind, and I think that you will find you won’t be so disappointed if/when a nice fish flops out of your net, or comes loose at a distance. I do carry and use a waterproof camera for guide trips, but on my personal days, I only take it out for very special fish. If I am alone, and I land a big fish, I am much more likely to release it without a photo because I don’t want to take that fish away from the river. In the end, all I would like is for everyone to take good care of our finny friends, and always remember to try your best to #keepthemwet. I know the fish will appreciate it!

Nick is a longtime shop employee, guide, and instructor for Western Rivers Flyfisher in Salt Lake City, UT. When he is not out teaching, guiding, or working in the store, you can find him chasing fish across the state and west. He is also a Sage Pro-Staffer, Regional Ambassador for RIO Products, and a Certified Casting Instructor via the Federation of Flyfishers. In short, he loves his job, and helping others catch fish.