By Spencer Durrant | Managing Editor
I should’ve been in class, but class was a hard sell to me at 16, especially when the weather promised a good mayfly hatch right in the middle of English. So instead of heading to Mrs. Earl’s classroom, I walked to my truck and drove north. On the way, I called the school and tried to deepen my voice by an octave. I pretended to be my dad, and excused my absence for the rest of the day.
With my ass now covered, I sped to a small spring creek about a half-hour from the high school. I parked in an empty field next to a sagging barbed-wire fence. Cows stood in the pasture, regarding me curiously, almost as if they knew I should’ve been in class.
I pulled on waders, shrugged into my fishing vest, and opened the old fence’s gate. The “No Trespassing” sign didn’t apply to me, which was thrilling in its own way. The land the stream ran through had been in my family for generations. Even though we didn’t currently own it, the owners were sympathetic to my cause. As long as I locked gates, didn’t break fences, and brought a fresh trout by every now and then, I could fish the stream to my heart’s content.
As I closed the gate behind me and took off for the stream, something yanked hard on the back of my vest. I tripped and fell backwards, right into the sagging old fence. The barbed wire cut my vest, shirt, pants, hat, and any exposed skin that got too close. I let out a stream of curses that made even the darkest cow in the pasture blush.
I finally freed myself from the fence and stood up, looking at the newly-mangled wire for an explanation.
That’s when I saw it. My fishing net – conveniently clipped to the back of my fishing vest – had snagged on the barbed wire. As I tried to walk away my net stayed caught in the fence, causing the ensuing chaos.
I checked for any major cuts, but aside from my pride, nothing really hurt. Cursing some more, I untangled my vest from the fence, but I left the net. It was shredded to bits, and the reason why I looked like I’d just lost a fight with a bobcat. I stomped off to the river, making a mental note to untangle the net and throw it in the bed of my truck before I left.
Ever since that day, I’ve never carried a net. I didn’t want a repeat of the fence debacle, and I’d grown up learning to land trout without fishing nets anyways.
I’ve regretted not having a net more than a few times. I once ruined a pair of waders and got pulled a half-mile downstream by a 26-inch cutthroat because I couldn’t net it (a story for another time). Aside from a handful of stories like that, I haven’t missed fishing nets over the years.
But after watching an angler play a 15-inch rainbow for 10 minutes in two feet of slow water yesterday, I couldn’t help but think about the ethics of the angler’s fish-landing skills, or lack thereof. Sure, he kept the fish in the water the entire time, and didn’t attempt a grip-and-grin, but he sure played that fish well beyond what was needed to net it. Unlike me, that angler had a net and put it to good, albeit delayed, use.
What bugged me wasn’t so much that angler playing the fish forever, but my own question – was I any better than that angler, ethically speaking? I landed my one fish of the afternoon quickly, but I didn’t use a net. It was a rainbow, maybe 16 inches, but fat, and I brought it right alongside me in the current. Quickly – because I’ve practiced this for years – I grabbed the fish in one hand, tucked my rod under my left arm, and turned the fish upside down in the water. I popped the hook free and the fish righted itself and shot back to the bottom of the river. It never left the water, and I felt good about it.
The #keepfishwet crowd is certainly happy about that, but I wonder if that’s a good way to treat a trout. After all, as Louis Cahill wrote over at Gink & Gasoline, a rubber net is your best friend because it doesn’t remove a trout’s protective slime. Even though I had my hands in the water with the fish, had I removed some of its slime? Should I have used a net and never touched the fish at all?
According to Allen Gardner, over at The Catch and The Hatch, fishing nets are critical to ensuring trout survive catch-and-release fishing. Gardner writes that holding a fish out of water “can damage the fish beyond recovery . . . Gravity out of the water is much greater and causes enormous stress on the trout’s system . . . Every second you keep a fish out of the water can reduce their chance of survival by 10%. 5 seconds is a coin flip on survival.”
So, even though I didn’t hold that rainbow trout I caught out of the water, Gardner would say I’m pretty guilty of causing undue stress on trout for all the times I’ve picked small ones up in my hand, pulled the fly out, and quickly released them.
And finally, Darcy Toner of Faceless Fly Fishing Media, wrote for Orvis that “However much we like to think that we are doing the fish a favor, even catch-and-release fishing can be stressful for them, especially some species of trout. So it is up to us as a community to do our best to cause the least amount of harm when landing any fish.
“Regrettably, back when I first started fly fishing, I did not use a net. A good landing net is beneficial for a number of reasons . . .”
So, it would appear that yes, fishing nets are absolutely necessary. Even when they pull you back into a barbed-wire fence and ruin your favorite fishing shirt, a net is worth hauling along.
Spencer Durrant is a fishing writer, guide, and bamboo rod builder from Utah. He’s the Owner/Lead Guide at the Utah Fly Fishing Company, the News Editor for MidCurrent, and a columnist for Hatch Magazine. Connect with him on Instagram/Twitter, @Spencer_Durrant.
You don’t need a net. Use a Ketchum. My wife and I release trout quickly and easily without removing them from the water. Actually, it’s easier to release a 20+ inch fish than a 6” one. You don’t need a net, the fish stays wet, and your hands stay dry. The learning curve is about 5 fish.
Those work really well! The only issue I’ve ever had with them is that they can sometimes weaken or even break the hooks on flies.
Over the past 60 years I’ve gone both ways…net and no net. But, because of survivability factors that you mentioned I’ve gone back to the net. And I hung my old and beautiful laminated net up in my den and switched to an inexpensive aluminum frame with a rubber net bag. The rubber is heavy to be sure. But it is much kinder to the fish.
I have to agree, the net is more about protecting and lowering the stress level of the fish. I have actually read studies where trout can have their jaw dislodged by anglers holding them by the jaw like a bass. Yes, it is more gear to carry on the water, but it also has saved the day many times with a big fish. Lastly, the rubber net tends to dislodge the fly without me ever touching the fish (providing you are using pinched down or barbless hooks). I too have been snapped backwards, but faithfully, go back, get the net loose and march on.
Learning how to properly catch and release a trout or bass is a challenge for many. I’m a relative newcomer to fly fishing but I’m trying to learn. If I had known how much of a challenge fly fishing really is, I doubt I would have taken it up; instead I would have just gone to fishing the way my dad tried to teach me around 60 years ago. He fly fished but never really taught us how to fish; it was his time away from kids (13 kids is a challenge).