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Landing fish on your kayak, Gaff, Glove, or Net?
1:19PM 2nd Jul 14

(Destined for the table, a quick mouth/jaw shot will have this snapper under control and ready for de-hooking and stowing on ice. Using the appropriate technique will minimize any chance of comedy or tragedy when landing your catch.)

Gaff, Glove, or Net?

Fishing from kayaks has always created the potential for adventure, comedy, and drama. Aside from all the usual possibilities arising from paddling a skinny piece of plastic or composite (or a piece of canvas over a frame if you’re a traditionalist), the biggest cause for excitement for kayak fisho’s may be that we get to be angler, skipper, wire-man, and gaff-man all rolled into one. The result: a sometimes frenetic display of action with little time to think and plenty of potential for laughter or tears – and of course, no one else to blame!

In fact it’s almost possible to claim hooking and playing a fish is the boring easy bit, the real adventure doesn’t begin until you attempt to land your prize (well almost, I still can’t get over the adrenalin rush of a screaming ratchet and a rod impossible to hold out of the water as it’s bent near to breaking). So given all this potential for comedy and catastrophe, let’s take a more serious look at landing and handling fish aboard kayaks.


If you’re intending to release your catch at the side of the kayak it’s still possible to record the capture. Here the image is taken from above with a camera mounted behind the seat.

 Catch and release, or home for the table?

When considering how I’m going to land my catch I first start with deciding what my intentions are for the day: am I going to release as many fish as possible, or am I targeting a feed for family and friends? If the main goal is catch and release then there’s considerably greater emphasis placed on minimizing the amount of handling fish are subjected to, and the gaff is relegated to last resort use only. This generally leaves us with three options:

  1. Don’t lift the fish from the water at all – use a long pair of hook-out pliers to remove the hooks while the fish is still in the water. This minimizes any chance of injuring the fish or disturbing the protective slime coat that’s essential to keeping fish healthy.

I’m using this technique much more often now that I regularly use barbless hooks (or those I’ve crushed the barbs flat). Aside from minimizing injury to the fish this technique means I don’t have to contend with a lap full of teeth, spines, and hooks all intent on piercing tender parts of my anatomy! Releasing a fish at the side of the kayak also gives the fastest possible turnaround to get lures or baits back in the water.

  1. Tail the fish aboard – simply trace the fish then grasp it by the wrist of the tail and slide it into your lap (I don’t like tracing a fish without a tail lift to spread the load as this has the potential to create injury). This is a technique my fishing buddy Milkey does with amazing dexterity. Using a wet glove or hand at the wrist of the tail means there’s minimal chance of injuring the fish, and if quickly de-hooked there’s minimal delay in sliding it off the other side of the kayak and back into the water.

The big advantage here is that little equipment is required and there’s no net to foul hooks. This also means less clutter when de-hooking the fish, but the compromise is that fish are much harder to control creating the potential for injury (either to you or the fish!). I find when tailing big fish aboard it can sometimes be useful to put one leg over the side and slide the fish upside down into the leg well. When upside down most fish will quiet down to some extent and having them in the leg well means any loose hooks are safely contained. Another alternative is to have a wet rag ready to cover the fish’s eyes; this will often convince them to relax making de-hooking and release much easier.

Landing nets are often the best option when looking to release fish. A good net gives support and minimizes stress on the fish, and gives good control in the cockpit.

  1. Use a landing net – this is the most common technique used when carrying out a lot of catch and release. It gives good control of the fish at the side of the kayak (you have time to pause and check all is ready for the lift aboard), and once the fish is in the cockpit the landing net can be lifted again to keep an unruly passenger from thrashing around out of control.

Using landing nets from kayaks is relatively straight forward as we’re effectively sitting right beside our quarry. Good technique is still required because we’re using the net one-handed (as mentioned we’re angler, skipper, wireman, and wielding the net all at the same time). We also have the added complication of not wanting to fall out of our kayak, so it’s definitely a case of playing the fish to the net rather than trying to chase then scoop from the water.

If considering a landing net make sure you select one with a knotless rubber or plastic mesh bag. While these are heavier and have more drag through the water than traditional landing nets, they don’t foul hooks. This becomes a critical safety issue when using a net to land larger fish. Remember, all the action is happening in your lap and there’s nothing worse than one hook in the fish and one stuck in the net where the exposed point and barb can still pin you.

If instead of catch and release my intention for the day is to target a feed, then priority is given to safely landing a catch and having it dispatched and on ice with speed and efficiency. The goal is to ensure the fish remains in the best eating condition possible making it imperative to limit stress and any thrashing around on deck that may lead to bruising or other damage.

When keeping instead of releasing my catch I change my options for landing fish:  

  1. Trace the fish aboard – this suits smaller fish in situations where there’s a trace strong enough, or it’s possible to grab the lure or jig head to lift the fish bodily over the side.

I view this as different to tailing and tracing the fish aboard when intending to release it. In this situation we aren’t concerned for the fish’s survivability (it’s going home for dinner) and lifting by the trace or lure with one hand frees the other to immediately get a good hold through the gills. In turn this firm grasp makes it much faster to get the fish onto the fish stringer and iki’d because of the greater control and leverage you have.

  1. Use a gaff – when fish are too big to simply trace aboard I bring out the gaff. It’s compact and easy to stow, and properly wielded makes it easy to land and have control over your fish.

When using a gaff on kayaks I’ve found the trick for fish of all sizes is to go for a chin-shot. This gives you the best control and minimizes the risks posed by flailing hooks on lures or multi-hook rigs. It also makes it possible to slide the fish onto the kayak starting with the heavy head end, and with all scales and spines pointed back into the water.

I know this may sound logical, but I’ve watched the comedy and drama of an angler trying to drag a 15kg king over the side after gaffing it in the middle of the back. He took a swipe at the still green fish as it swam past, and pandemonium reigned! I’m sure the resonating drum beats as the thrashing fish pummeled the kayak sides could be heard a kilometer away, and after having the decks almost swept clear the writhing green monster had to be released for a better shot. This time gaffing it in the chin enabled a very wet and beaten up angler to land his prize!

When keeping fish for the table using a glove makes it easy to get a firm hold through the gills for threading onto a fish stringer and iki’ing, then it’s a quick pose for the camera before getting it on ice.

Wear a glove

When kayak fishing I choose to wear a glove on my left hand (leaving my right clear for tying knots, adjusting drags, and working sounder and camera buttons). It’s a brilliantly useful tool serving more than one purpose: stopping the skin from being worn off my thumb when laying line on free-spool reels, grasping terminal tackle for tighter knots, and best of all it’s an excellent way to securely hold a fish.

Because the glove is on your hand there’s no need to go hunting for it when needing to control a fish. Like a wet rag it provides grip ensuring there’s no need to squeeze fish that are to be released. If fish are being kept having full protection for fingers, thumb, and palm means there’s no hesitation diving into the gill area, and for fish like kings and hapuku there’s no worry grabbing a fist full of bottom jaw for better control.

Fishing from kayaks, especially when using barbless hooks, makes it possible to release fish without even handling them. This gives the best possible chance of survival.

This article was written by Stephen for the June 2012 NZ Fishing News magazine, read more of Stephens Fishing News articles HERE


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