Don’t lose fish at the landing stage

All anglers need to make sure their catch comes out of the water safely, yet many sea anglers have a blind spot when it comes to nets, gaffs and so on. Odd, considering that these anglers have already done all the hard work of getting the fish to the side of the boat or to the shore. Why should they baulk at the last stage?

land a tope with a tailer

Preparing to land a tope with a tailer. Once you get the fish to the side of the boat, slip the loop over the tail, draw it tight, and pull the fish aboard – intact.

very large net

Nets this size give you a good chance with big cod and bass from high fishing platforms such as breakwaters. Landing fish in this way is a two-person job – get help or risk losing the fish.

baited dropnet

A baited dropnet is an ideal way to catch shrimps, crabs and small fish – all of which make good bait.

fish at sea level in safety

On many jetties you can often fish at sea level in safety. Where there is no wave action to make landing the fish more awkward, a landing net can be an extremely useful item of tackle, particularly for soft- mouthed fish such as mullet which you can’t simply swing in to hand.

Slacken off your clutch a bit when a fish is on the top. It’s amazing just how much fight a big fish can muster when it feels the gaff or sees the net. There’s a lot less line stretch to absorb the fight close in.

landing a small shark

This is perhaps the most humane way of landing a small shark – tailing by hand. This blue shark can be returned unharmed to its watery home. Remember, though, that sharks have extremely rough sandpaper skin, so you must wear gloves to do this.

gaffing a big conger aboard

The skipper gaffs a big conger aboard. If you want to land a fish for weighing and/or eating, make sure no-one gets in the way. That way it is easier to cut the trace and despatch the eel. Nowadays, many conservation-minded anglers prefer to release their conger eels at the side of the boat.

Shore thing

In some respects beach anglers are lucky. Fishing almost at sea level usually means you don’t need much in the way of landing equipment. You can usually float the catch ashore on a wave or wade into the surf (if it’s not too big) and lift it out by the gills without too many problems.

On beaches noted for big cod, a short-handled gaff is nevertheless very useful. The fishes’ pot-bellied shape makes them difficult to float ashore, so gaffing them under the chin or in the corner of the mouth is often the order of the day. You can of course gaff a cod anywhere, but you should try to avoid the edible flesh.

Stingray fishermen also sometimes gaff their fish ashore. However, most rays are returned nowadays, which is rapidly making the gaff obsolete.

Fishing rocks and harbour walls often puts you well above the sea, so you need some way of landing the catch. Obviously, small fish aren’t a problem – you can just wind or handline them straight in. Bigger fish can be a much trickier proposition.

A dropnet is best for most of the more docile sea species, such as cod, bass and mullet. At its most basic it is just a hoop with a net bag lashed to the rim and a rope attached to lower it down to the sea.

Landing fish using a dropnet is easier with two anglers. The netsman lowers the net until the rim is just below the surface of the water. The catcher guides the beaten fish over the rim and the netsman hauls away. The fish’s weight should hold it stable in the middle of the net.

The problem with a dropnet is that it is big and cumbersome to hump around. And unfortunately no-one has yet devised a folding dropnet which is not prone to collapsing under pressure.

However, dropnets do have the advantage that, lowered into the water with a few scraps of fish, they provide an excellent way of catching prawns, crabs and other useful items of bait.

With an easy approach to the sea, such as harbour steps or gently shelving rocks, the simplest solution is a heavy-duty long-handled gaff. In any case a gaff is essential for landing lively species such as conger. Just try to get a strap conger into a dropnet and you’ll soon be out buying a gaff. If there’s no way down to the water, you need a really long-handled gaff to cope with big lively fish. You’ll have to make this yourself as it’s a fairly specialized item of tackle. You might try basing it on an extendible drain rod. This is made in sections which screw into each other, making the rod easy to carry.

The main problem with a screw-in gaff comes when a conger does one of those spins for which the species is famous. It can easily unscrew one of the joins in the gaff if you aren’t quick to land the fish – sending gaff sections and fish back into the briny.

There are two main techniques for gaffing eels on the shore. Some anglers gaff them through the middle so the fish folds in two when it is lifted from the water. Others prefer to gaff close to the head. This gives a good hold but allows the eel to spin, so that it might be able to wrench itself off the gaff.

Three gaffs in a boat

For landing decent-sized fish on a boat, there are three different devices. The most widely used is the gaff, or rather, gaffs. Every boat should have several sizes. You need a small-headed one for brill, turbot and ray, a medium-sized one for conger, cod, pollack, coalfish and so on and a heavy-duty model for landing good-sized shark and giant skate. For the real heavyweights a flying gaff is the order of the day. Big fish, particularly big shark, can go berserk when they feel the gaff. With a fixed gaff, the fish might shake the handle out of your grasp and then batter you with it as it continues to thrash around. Limbs and heads tend to get broken in this way!

With a flying gaff, the gaff head comes away from the handle under the weight of a fish, but remains firmly shackled to a rope. Once the gaff has been set, the handle detaches, leaving you to heave the fish aboard with the rope – and no possibility of broken arms and cracked skulls. Many shark and big fish men prefer to use a short mouth-gaff, rather than a long-handled type. It is designed to gaff the fish in the mouth or jaw, and generally has to be custom-made.

Obviously, if you intend to release the sharks, then a gaff is not necessary. Just ‘guesstimate’ the weight of the fish as it comes alongside the boat (or get the skipper to judge if you haven’t seen enough sharks to make a reasonable guess yourself. Landing giant skate calls for a different approach. After gaffing the fish through the fleshy part of the wing, you generally need to use a block and tackle to drag the fish out of the water.

It is usually weighed, tagged, swung out over the water and gently released. In the Isle of Mull this technique has proved highly successful – so much so that many of the resident monsters have been caught time and again.

For shark and tope fishing you’ll find a tailer or tail rope a very useful gadget. The basic tail rope consists of a 1.8-2. lm (6-7ft) length of heavy wire cable, spliced into a loop at either end.

Push one loop through the other to form a stiffish circle of wire. Tie, splice or clip some rope to the free loop, creating a device like a lasso. Slip the loop over the shark’s tail and pull, so the loop is drawn tight, enabling you to drag the shark aboard.

A tailer has a handle rather than a length of rope and is best for landing the smaller sharks such as tope, smooth hounds and small blues.

Most boats carry a round landing net, about 75cm (30in) across, with a deep mesh bag made of orange Courlene (nylontype string). This can be used to boat cod, ray, turbot, bass, pollack and coalfish. It has the advantage that the fish come aboard in pristine condition – either to be kept for eating or to be returned alive and intact to their native element.

Wherever you fish, and whatever species you are going for, it helps to have the right gear to hand to land them. If not, you’ll only regret it the first time you feel a big fish on the other end of your line.