We have all done it. If you have a fishing rod and a camera you have probably at some point hoisted a fish high and proud for a picture before releasing it back into the water. It’s just a natural thing to do, you want to show your family and friends a little slice of your successful fishing and what better way than a smiling fisherman, beautiful water in the background and the fish displayed for maximum exposure, sometimes at arms length for a little forced perspective to make the fish appear larger. Like I said, nothing wrong with that, or is there?
You would have to living in a sealed 45-gallon drum at the bottom of an elevator shaft full of raw sewage to have failed to notice the arrival of the internet and specifically, the proliferation of social media such as facebook, twitter, instagram, online forums, etc., etc. The list of arguments for and against such things is long, and probably pointless to seriously consider, but one irrefutable fact of widespread instant communication between friends and strangers is that a picture that might have seen a dozen eyes in the past can now be seen by thousands, even millions in a very short time. And, since all those people have the ability to communicate back to you and express their opinions over what you were doing in the picture without fear of reprisal, you are going to hear it all: good, bad and totally off the wall.
Since many people post pictures of their catch online, it seems reasonable that a debate on the ethics and practices of removing a fish from water for a vanity picture would ensue and that the people on both sides would argue their position with great passion. This has happened and as is the way of such things, good information is gelling on the subject and reasonable procedures are being adopted and incorporated into the group psyche of the angling world. People are, at the very least, more aware of what they are doing and how they are doing it when it’s comes time to take a picture of a freshly caught fish.
So is it OK or not? Well, it’s not that simple. I myself rarely take grip-n-grin shots anymore but I have taken a million of them and when I do it now, the techniques I use are vastly different from the way I used to do it. I’ve taken one armed shots of the fish when I was by myself, sometimes resulting in the fish flopping out of my hand into the boat where it bounced around and got tangled in my line or beat itself senseless against the various items found there. I’ve held fish up in the air while friends took two or three shots and I’ve probably held fish tighter than I should have. I’m not proud of those things, quite the opposite in fact but that was just the way catch and release was done, at least among ignorant young fishermen such as myself at the time. If you didn’t have pics of the catch, then as far as your friends and family were concerned, it didn’t happen, or at least the dimensions and numbers of the fish were up for scrutiny.
I personally have nothing against hero shots PROVIDED, they are done properly taking into consideration weather factors, the type of fish, the length of the fight (fish condition) and proper technique.
First ask yourself this question: do you really need to take pictures of every fish you catch? Seriously, we all catch fish, it’s kind of expected of us. I mean we spend a lot of money and steal a lot of time away from our families; we damn well better be catching fish. Let’s assume the fact that we caught fish is a given and we can release 90% of our fish without subjecting them to the pictures nobody wants to see anyway. For the last 10%, the really exceptional or pretty fish, go ahead and show them off. We all like a little fish porn, it gets our blood flowing and drags us out of bed at an hour when even the dog won’t lift his head to say goodbye. But do it thoughtfully.
One of the important considerations while photographing a fish is the weather. How cold or hot is it? We all know that fish breathe through a delicate set of tissue known as gills. Water is filtered through; oxygen is absorbed, yadda, yadda. Now you take those gills, which were never meant to see temperatures lower than close to freezing, and expose them to air that is much colder and you have frozen tissue which will kill or cripple a fish very quickly. Likewise if the air is too hot, the fish will dry out and suffer a similar fate. If the weather is extreme it would be best not to take the fish out of the water at all.
Do we even have to talk about beaching a fish you plan on releasing?
Yes, you can guide a thoroughly played out steelhead into the shallow water at your feet and successfully release it without harm but I’ve seen too many people drag a gorgeous fish up onto the sand and kneel on it while they free the hook and dig out the camera and then stand up for a picture. Then they walk down to the water and tenderly release it. That makes sense how?
OK, the weather is good, the fish is a really nice one and you want to immortalize it in a picture. It’s time to consider the options. The one I use most of the time is to let my net float on the water while I slide my hand under the belly of the un-hooked fish and tilt it a little up near the surface without actually allowing it to come out of the water enough to feel the weight in my hand. Most tired fish will stay still long enough for one of these pics and if they don’t they usually stay in the net for a second try after a few moments. The fish is never breathing air for more than a second or two and is never squeezed or forced to support its weight out of the water. If this method is performed while a friend is taking the picture from another boat you can get very good shots of yourself leaning over the side cradling the fish under the “chest” and gripping the wrist of the tail while you lift the fish just barely out of the water. The fish stays submerged until the very last second, is easily released immediately after and you get a great picture of both you and the fish.
Another option to consider is the underwater camera. There are more and more of these things out there and they are not expensive. You can even get waterproof phones! I’ve taken a few of these pics and they can be quite striking. The fish sometimes appear quite large and the reflections from the underside of the surface are sometimes very interesting. The fish never leaves the water and you get the type of picture you don’t see every day.
If you absolutely must take the traditional shot, leave the fish in the net until the last instant when you are sure the camera is focused and ready to go. Grip the fish firmly but not tight by the wrist of the tail and cradle the fish’s upper midsection without gripping it. Make sure your hands are wet. Don’t let your fingers slide under the gill plate and unless it’s a bass, don’t hold onto it by the lip. Take the picture fast and get the fish back in the water as quickly as possible. Don’t stop to review the picture, let the fish go. If you screwed up the shot then you screwed up the shot, there will be more and better fish. Better luck next time.
Well, there you have it, the preach on how to keep the fish’s health more paramount than your need for a hero shot. Make your own decision. Personally, I take very few and when I do take them, I try to be as quick and gentle as possible. Some people don’t take any pictures, ever. Still others feel perfectly fine doing it the way it was always done. So be it. Do it however you like but put some thought into it before you put it in your hand, you owe it to the fish.