Don’t Flip Out: Tips for Teaching Kids to Handle Fish

When taking a kid fishing, eventually an actual fish will be landed.  What happens next can affect the chances of a return trip. If the goal is to admire the catch, then watch it swim away, here are a few tips for proper fish handling (for you or for the kiddies):

1. The best thing to do is leave the fish in the water. However, holding the fish for a photo is often in order. A good rule of thumb is to keep a fish out of water, only as long as you can hold your breath.  Trout are more sensitive to exposure, whereas catfish or carp are able to tolerate being out of water a little longer. Most species fall somewhere between.  Don’t rush, but don’t waste any time either.

2. Do not play the fish until exhaustion. But when landed, watch out for a swinging fish on the end of the line, or arched posture, erect fins.  That is a sign that there is still another good flip or two coming.

3. Fascination generally overwhelms even the most squeamish of kids, and they may want to touch the shimmering creature. Have them wet their hands first to prevent removal of the fishes’ protective slime coating. How to hold each fish depends on the species because of fish body shape and structure.

4. The mouth can provide a great grip location and there is no better example than the largemouth bass.  However, the body of a big bass is not used to being without surrounding water so supporting at the tail may mean less stress on the fish.

5. Long body type fish with soft rays like trout can be held with two hands; one under the head, one at the tail.  Shorter, rounder fish with small mouths can be gripped in one hand, as long as the holder is aware of any dorsal spines such as on bluegill. Start at the top of the head and gently push them down for a quick grip during a photo.

6.  Lastly, make sure to beware of sharp parts, like teeth or gills. You’ll only make the mistake of “lipping” a pike or walleye once.  Some anglers try to use the gill openings as a handle but always stay away from the gills.  Plus, the gill covering of walleye is sharp. Catfish don’t have much in the way of teeth but demonstrate impressive jaw strength. Catfish also have pectoral and dorsal spines. Wait until the spines are out and then grip behind these pointed handles.

Learn the tricks to hold each species before letting a kid learn the hard way. Part of a successful release stems from a confident grip. If the fish thinks it is in charge, both kid and fish may seize the opportunity to do some flipping out.

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Andy Whitcomb

Andy Whitcomb

Andy is an outdoor writer ( and stressed-out Dad has contributed over 380 blogs to since 2011. Born in Florida, but raised on banks of Oklahoma farm ponds, he now chases pike, smallmouth bass, and steelhead in Pennsylvania. After earning a B.S. in Zoology from OSU, he worked in fish hatcheries and as a fisheries research technician at OSU, Iowa State, and Michigan State.