8 Tips On Photographing Fish Without Harming Them

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Photo by Louis cahill

Photo by Louis cahill

By Louis Cahill

You can take better photos of the fish you catch and still practice good Catch-and-Release.

Is the fly fishing media turning anglers off to catch-and-release? I received a pretty agitated email from a reader the other day. Thankfully, he was not responding to anything written here on G&G but from this excerpt you can see he was pretty fired up and honestly, so am I.

“All of the blogs and articles I am beginning to see pop up everywhere telling me that catch and release is harmful to the fish, and I’m doing it wrong, and I’m killing all the poor fragile little fishies, and I should never take the fish out of the water, and blah, Bah, BLAH!!!!

AAARRRGGGGHHH!!! Are you kidding me? Now I can’t even take a quick cheesy grip and grin photo with a fish without being ‘that guy?’ “


DSC_5380-2Our friend suggested that he releases 99% of the fish he catches and I gather from his email that his heart is in the right place. I have no way of knowing how good his actual catch-and-release practices are, but he’s clearly trying to do the right thing. It’s also clear that he’s feeling a little harassed.

Catch-and-release is a topic that’s dear to my heart and it’s been a while since I have written about it. I thought I’d take this opportunity to try and put a friendlier face on what the fly fishing media is trying to accomplish.

This is not a sermon!

So what’s going on in the fly fishing media?

edit-5907-2I imagine that a lot of writers in the field feel the same way I do. We spend a lot of time as ambassadors of the sport and we introduce a lot of new folks to the water we love, and share. While I firmly believe in that mission, I do feel morally obliged to do everything in power to not screw it up for everyone. It’s a topic I lose sleep over. If I have a hand in creating more, and more effective, anglers then I am duty bound to make them more responsible anglers.

So the result is that you, the reader, get preached to a whole bunch about how you handle fish. Recently a lot of that preaching has been aimed at demonizing the photographing of fish. That’s not really fair. Do a lot of fish get injured in the process of saying cheese? You bet they do, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

If you are not going to photograph a fish, and every fish does not need to be photographed, then it’s always best to release it without taking it from the water or even handling it. I use the Rising Crocodile tool for just this purpose. But it’s not realistic to expect anglers to release every fish without a photo. That’s the bargain that makes C&R work.

Rather than take the, currently popular, stance that you can’t photograph fish without killing them, I’m going to give you some pointers that will not only help you protect fish but take better photos. 

8 Tips for taking great photos while practicing good Catch-and-Release


Carry enough net

DSC_5504Carry a net with a large rubber net bag. Rubber nets are super gentile on fish and allow you to rest the fish in the net. You can spend money on a nice one but you can also get one for $20 at Walmart.

Let the fish recover

Once you’ve landed your fish, give him a minute or two to revive from the fight. Let him rest in the net, fully submerged, near the edge of the current where the water is full of oxygen. Keep his head upstream and let him relax. This goes a long way.

Get your act together

Take advantage of the rest period to do your job as a photographer. Find your angle, figure out your exposure, get your angler looking good, take a few test shots without the fish. A little time spent now while there’s no pressure will make your photos a lot better in the end.

Hold the fish right

No need to panic

No need to panic

This is where both C&R and good photography usually go out the window. I am continually blown away by how many anglers don’t know how to hold a fish for a photo.

First and most importantly, never squeeze a fish. This doesn’t help anybody. Most guys hold fish way too tightly. If you’re not sure, you are, I promise. When you squeeze a fish, it panics and struggles. If you respond by squeezing tighter, he struggles more. This is how photos get ruined and fish get killed. No grip is needed, I promise. If you let the fish balance in your hand he will relax and you will not have to fight him.

DSC_0127Use two hands. Let the front of the fish rest on one of your hands. Keep your index and ring finger under the bone of his skull to support the weight. This keeps his organs safe from harm. Put your other hand just in front of his tail. This part of the fish is all muscle so you can grip him firmly here. If possible, put this hand on the back side of the fish, away from the camera. It makes a much better photo.

Try this and you’ll be surprised how much easier it is. Trust me, this is my job.

Keep the fish in the water

DSC_3161It’s not just good for the fish, it’s good for the photo. Fish start to lose their color as soon as you take them out of the water. Keep them fully submerged until you are ready to snap the shutter, then lift them for no more than 10 seconds at a time. Fish don’t have lungs, so they can’t hold their breath.

Leave the fly in the fish

If you’re worried about dropping the fish and missing the shot, there’s a simple solution. Leave the fly in his mouth. He won’t go far.

Take a knee

There’s no need in blowing your back out. Take a knee in the river or on the flat with your fish. This makes a much more flattering photo and makes it easier to keep the fish in the water.


DSC_6870Most of the things I see go wrong when taking fish photos are due to tense anglers. And of course you’re tense! You’ve been told you’re killing every fish you touch. Take a deep breath and chill. Everything will go smoother. I know you might think you’re never going to catch another fish like this one, but you will, plenty of them. Just enjoy the moment.



There’s one more thing that I don’t think gets talked about enough.

_DSC5481Not every fish is created equal. A bass is a much hardier fish than a trout. A permit is tough as nails while a big burly tarpon is quite fragile. Some species, like steelhead, are so embattled that only the very best C&R practices are in order. Take the time to know your query.

edit-4985Where it is not regulation, catch-and-release is a personal choice. It is a choice which usually comes with time and a learned respect for the resource we all share. It is such a popular choice that it has become almost synonymous with fly fishing. It is, in a way, what separates us from the rest of the fishing world.

I think most fly anglers agree that it is in our own best interest to protect the fish which give us so much pleasure. It’s a practical stance, if nothing else. There was a time when we could all take what we wanted with no consequences. Unfortunately, the sheer number of us makes that unsustainable. In the same way that we once learned that we shouldn’t throw out trash on the ground, and have now learned that we must recycle it, we are now learning that it’s best for us all to release our fish.


Photo by Andrew Bennett

As a side bar, I do a lot of my writing on airplanes and as I type this I am flying over Cuba. For the record it’s killing me. Can’t we just stop and fish a half day?


Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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34 thoughts on “8 Tips On Photographing Fish Without Harming Them

  1. First let me say this easily the best fly blog on the net. Thanks for all the info, great pics, and pointers.

    Secondly, as a former guide, and current fish nut I’d like to thank you for bringing up the ambassador ideal. I feel each and every sportsman should believe that they are an ambassador for thier sport. It just takes one stupid move to turn a person that’s on the fence into an “Anti”. Or any other combo of non-sporting person and poor behavior.

    As far as C&R, it’s about respect for the animal, whether it’s a trophy or a 3″ Bluegill. Its a living creature. Whether a person has killed an Elk or caught a tarpon shouldn’t matter. Respect for the life that you’ve impacted in some way. Sometimes that means eating them, and respect comes in the form of some deglazed wine and morels with fresh greens and a fat trout. Other times it’s respect is paid by doing everything in your power to see that fish swim back home.

    C&R is great, CPR adds to the memory. If the fish/game, is handled with true reverence and respect….some do gooder on the internet telling me I’m killing fish can well….kiss my a#$. Lets never forget that everytime you hook a fish you have a chance at killing it. Fatigue, lactic acid, was sick, hook in the gills, etc. To say the pic is the killer is ridiculous. It’s the fight on a 3 weight when you should have had a 5 on that water, to me the fight and “playing fish out” kill way more than a wetted hand liftNGrin. So should we all go trout fishing with 12wts now? Keep snapping hero shots and let the people judge who they will. More than likely their just jealous of your 20″ bow, badass level with the water mountains in the back ground, huge smile trophy shot. I know i would be if I never took a pic.

    It’s respect for the animals we pursue that matters most, the rest in IMO will sort its self out.

    • Great comments. I couldn’t agree more. It just goes to show you that anything can be taken too far,even if it was a good idea in the first place. I have run across some folks in the fly fishing world who seem so concerned about the fish that one can only wonder how they can sleep at night if they continue to fish at all. The act of angling for sport does put the fish at risk, no matter how careful one is about it. If you have reached the point where you can’t deal with this reality, then it’s time to stop fishing. Harassing others and preaching from a supposedly morally superior position can quickly go too far.

    • I agree as well, especially regarding the rod weight. I am beginning to see a trend around where I fish. Guys boasting about using 3wt fiberglass rod’s to land trophy fish. Yes, the bend in the rod looks great in a photo. But they are landing large brown and bull trout with them. So clearly, dogging these fish to point of complete exhaustion in order to get them in.

      I think this practice needs to stop, it’s becoming trendy to use these super light rod’s on big fish. But people are forgetting about the fish. In my opinion it’s no great achievement and we need to stop commending these people on social media like it’s some great feat. Although these fish may lethargically swim away, there are a large percentage that will head back to their pool, only to die a few hours later.

      But articles like this are great, and I believe more and more people are becoming aware of proper practices. And don’t be afraid to point out some of these tips to fellow anglers. Some people were just never properly taught but have the right intentions in mind.

      • I agree… the less stress we put on the fish the better for the fish and the next angler. While were at it…remove any extra hooks that the fish is carrying around from previous break-offs.

  2. Thank you Luis for a great piece of writing and an excellent commentary. You hit several of the ‘contentious nails’ on the head. Now, I -and everyone who is concerned with the current lax in personal responsible ethics- sincerely hope those who read this article -Listen. Practice and Pass-On, this information. Nothing short of our fishing future depends on it. Let’ls all hope the people who read what you wrote understand it is about Personal ETHICS and not about whether Catch & Release is a good thing. Thank you again. – AOF

  3. THANK YOU, for writing a sane post on this issue (and I hesitate to use the word ‘issue’ to describe the act of taking a pic of a fish, but that’s what the hipsters have made it). I read a lot of blogs, and lately I’ve gotten really sick of people lecturing me about how to treat a fish. When I take never-beens out to catch a fish, they want to catch fish, and have fun, and maybe even get a good old stinkin’ grip-and-grin in their email from me when they get home so they can show their spouse…absolutely nothing wring with that!

  4. Thanks for using your highly respected and popular platform to discuss this topic. As a frequent consumer of flyfishing media, a flyshop guy and a guide, this subject comes up daily.

    I am not really seeing much demonization of holding fish out of water in the promotion of the #keepemwet ideal. I do see pressure on anglers that lay fish down on rocks, put fingers through gills or other displays of boorish behavior. I also see a lot of positive modelling in social media on how to create great memories through photos. I see hundreds of photos every week that are great examples of respectful fish handling. The recent evolution towards better fish handling has gained momentum and support from many respected fly anglers and businesses that depend on healthy fish stocks. It seems unlikely that the pendulum will ever swing back in the other direction.

    Last year we had a young man walk into the shop beaming from catching his first large brown trout on our local stretch of the Deschutes River. It was a good fish with a big head and buttery flanks. When he proudly showed his iPhone pic to all the employees that day I can remember each staff member congratulated and slapped a couple high-fives and then one of the seasoned shop vets took him aside and quietly and calmly explained that the fish that he caught is now most likely dead. The young man said that it swam away fine but the shot of the fish the fingers jammed through the gills and blood running down its side it was evident that was not the case. Like many of the new anglers we see the fishing techniques and behaviors were not learned from a relative but from the internet.

    This Sunday, the same young man caught another really nice brown from the same stretch of river. The picture shows a big smile, a healthy brown trout held slightly out of the water but dripping wet. This is a success story from the frontlines. He is a good young man, a leader, and has lots of friends that are getting into fishing. They all active on social media.

    I am confident the future is bright and in good hands.

  5. Hej Louis,
    Great article!
    Here in Germany C&R is still a rarity, even with fly fishermen. But discussion has started and more and more anglers start to think and discuss that topic with me as a C&R practioneer having to defend myself which is funny because having learned fly fishing in Canada the views on ethics seem to be so opposing.

    Back to topic.: could you please write an article about photographing yourself and your fish while being on the water alone? I would love to hear some views on that.
    Thanks, Leon

    • Well… Google helped.
      I found an older article of yours, dealing exactly with getting the perfect shot while being solo.
      Thanks a lot.

  6. Great piece chock full of excellent tips and terrific reader response content as well. I keep teaching this stuff (C&R and responsible associated photography) to our TUers and Wounded Warriors. I guarantee the photo is important to them… and they would feel sick if they killed a fish getting it. Your tips here add some excellent details that often get overlooked in teaching and in practice. A checklist like this is a big help for me.

    I find that the rubber net is easier on the fish and also makes it much easier to recovering the fly from the net quickly and undamaged, which takes one more worry away when preparing to release the fish.

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  9. I’m also getting a little flack about fish pictures, some of which were taken many years ago. I’ve guided 26 years and have released many thousands of fish and feel my technique is quite polished.

    I guide a river that is one of the most heavily fished in the nation and figure that the average trout in the river gets caught and released about 40 times in a year. Also, if everyone that fished the river kept or otherwise killed a fish by bad handling, there would not be a fish left by the end of the year. You can’t catch fish over and over that many times if they were all dying. Fish are tougher than that, with an excellent survival instinct.

    Yes we can all improve our catch and release technique somewhat but hero fish pictures are part of the sport and won’t be going away. As was mentioned above, if you hook fish at all , you risk killing them by the hook getting them in the gills or internal organs. Luckily, most fly hooks only do superficial damage to the fish.

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  11. Great article.
    I think saving fish starts with a barbless hook.
    There are far too many “grip and grin photos taken.” Soon we will be having a policy at Boxwood Gulch and Long Meadow that only photos with the fish in the water will be published in any of our media. The angler can still get his or her face in the shot if the photo is taken correctly….with the safety of the fish in mind.
    Thanks again for spreading the word…Dan

    • Seriously? Can’t take the fish out of the water? Not even a little? WOW. That is seriously flawed thinking and just a lil’ just a lil’ pretentious. Your place do as you see fit. I can just imagine Grandma Kneeling down….her knees poppin’. Smiling with her head above the water. (the smile is really a grimace from the hip replacement). As you explain to her that this is best for the fish….and never do really see her fish in the pic, now Grandma and the pic are glaring….Next I’ll do kid in a wheel chair…..sry slow day.

  12. Here’s a fresh idea. Those of you who profess to be sage, experienced anglers should just quit taking “grip and grin” photo of fish. Are you that insecure in your angling abilities, you have to show off your catch? To paraphrase the late-American football coach Chuck Knoll, “act like you have caught a fish before”. Geez, I am so sick of the gratuitous “fish porn” that is pervasive in our sport. It entirely detracts from the sport’s beauty. As the sport fishing instructor for the University of Alaska, this is what I impart on my students.

    • Chuck Knoll also said, “Pressure is something you feel when you don’t know what you’re doing.”

      I feel no pressure from the bleeding hearts. That said if it is against the rules to get excited about catching a fish, of any size, then you’ve totally missed the point. People work long and hard to garner the knowledge to consistently catch fish. Hours of practice casting, tying flies, thousands on rods etc. But to hell with them if they want a pic of the whole reason they look like an idiot casting at the local park, or the guy who spends his days at a desk dreaming about his next trip.What about the guy/girl who would like to have a pic of the 25+” Bow they spent 2years and 3,000 dollars on. You know those “sage” anglers are just ridiculous for being excited, stupid people should act like they’ve been there before? I mean it’s not like they’ve invested anything…. I’d like to know how or in what way any picture done in good taste detracts from anything? All I can figure is that people opposed to Grip and Grin’ photos, must be ugly or something. While you’re entitled to your opinion, I hope you see the error in your thinking. It saddens and frightens me that someone who directly educates the future generations of our sport: A) has the gall to say something as pompous as “the sage anglers” comment. B) that instead of the actual impact of pictures on the fish you focus on the idea that a Grip and Grin pic is detrimental to the beauty of our sport. Instead of educating people as to what an actual “instructor” might do you belittle prospective students; more so the people who will probably pay their tuition. Typical Academic attitude.

      Lastly, I am sooooo “sick” of the gratuitous bleeding hearts thinking their way is the only right way. Don’t belittle people because you disagree with them, is that how you handle students?

      TO EVERYONE ELSE, take fish pics and send them to the sport fishing department at the UofAK. The bigger the grin the better.

      • I wasn’t going to say anything on this one, but I agree with you, Paul. What the sport does not need is more elitism, more people who find some excuse in their approach to fishing to feel morally superior to others, and proceed to look down their noses at those “less enlightened” troglodytes who just can’t see as far ahead as they can. Listen folks, if you don’t like “grip and grins”, then don’t take them. But to suggest that you are somehow morally superior if you don’t, or look down on those who do (for whatever reason)? Perhaps you should turn that psychoanalytical eye on yourself, and figure out why you need fly fishing to feel like you are better than other people.

        • Nice try Kevin and Paul. Anyone who knows me or has taken a class or workshop through knows that I am far from an elitist. One fact that cannot be argued is that the longer that the fish is out of the water, the more the potentially release fish is harmed. This includes the 30 seconds (most likely more) or so it takes to pull a camera/phone out, hold the fish in the “proper” position, frame the shot and take one (or more) photos.

          Paul, anyone who spends “thousands on rods” is a person who has been sold a “story” by the cutthroat fly tackle manufactures who preach that “you can cast better if you buy THIS rod”. Mostly the reason(s) why people cannot cast well has little to do with the rod. It’s similar to golfers who change clubs often. Why most anglers could use (yes, even me) are lessons from an IFFF-Certified Casting Instructor, not a “new” rod.

          Kevin, I fly fish for the pleasure. I used to read about fly fishing in print and on the web. However, most magazines and blogs these days are just either travel articles (generally written by guide or a lodge to drum up business) or gratuitous fish porn. Rarely is there an thoughtfully-written article on technique or angling-related fish biology/ecology. Quite frankly, I won’t spend my time or resources on travel pieces or fish porn. If other anglers do, that’s fine. I just wish the authors wouldn’t try to pass such off as fine angling literature or outdoor writing.

          To both, I will concede that my way is not the “right way”, and I apologize if I came off as such. However, it is the right way for me, and it is my personal ethic.

          Good discussion my friends.


          • Shann; I don’t know you. You may be the greatest guy in the world, but if what you originally wrote isn’t an expression of elitism, then the word has no meaning. Here’s how it came across: “I don’t take grip-and-grin photos, and anyone who does must be insecure and unenlightened (unlike me)”. Perhaps that’s not what you intended. I’m willing to grant the benefit of the doubt. Nevertheless, I believe you are coming only a half-step shy of constructing an argument for banning all fishing. Fishing puts the fish at risk. granted, holding a fish out of the water increases the risk, but only by not fishing at all can we eliminate it. We need to maintain perspective. For example, the old argument against catch-and-release fishing was entirely valid. We torture fish for amusement. We have no need of them for food, and no intention of eating them, yet we still fish for them. We release them out of necessity, and are unwilling to give up the sport to spare the fish. That means something. The “value” of the fish must be kept in proper perspective, or we end up as “animal rights” activists, and to be intellectually honest, we must then give up fishing. Anyway, my point is that we are coming close to taking all the enjoyment out of the sport with this sort of thinking. Yes, proper handling is better for the fish, but even a “good idea” can be taken too far.

          • this thread is too old to matter anymore but I had to mention that some people might have multiple rods because they like to fish different styles or species or river sizes or on and on. You sound pretty upset and angry and I think you need t fish more and preach less. Though I will say I had a 5 wt and I bought the NRX LP because I personally like having something that value highly for the thing I do to recreate that I value you more than most pursuits. Man, People get so angry on the internet. It amazes me they were able to get through their first summer of catching nothing but casting knots.

      • Paul,

        Just a note. I teach adults, not the “future generation”, but rather new fly anglers of the current generation.

        I refuse to teach normally-developed children. That choice has more to do with the fact that I am a single parent of a severely autistic boy. I would rather spend my time teaching him and children like him.

        Should a lucrative opportunity ever present itself to go solely into doing outdoor recreation for intellectually and developmentally disabled children and adults, I would immediately resign my position with the University of Alaska.

        Just clarifying my position.

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