Getting the Hero Shot When You’re fishing Solo

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

“How do photograph my fish when I’m by myself?”

I get this question all the time and I wince every time because I know there are many guys doing great harm to fish in an effort to capture the moment. I know because I was once one of them. Before I took photos of fish for a living, I took them for the same reason everyone else does. To have a memento of the experience. There’s not a thing wrong with that, but there was plenty wrong with the way I went about it.

With that in mind, and from a place of total humility and a little bit of shame, I’ve decided to try and help by laying out some strategies for getting a good solo photo of a fish without doing it any harm. It may require a little more work or some compromise but in the end you and the fish will both feel better.

Let’s start with what not to do. The mortal sin is to beach the fish. Never, ever take a fish out of the water and lay it on the bank for a photo. This kills fish three ways. It removes their protective slime and exposes them to harmful bacteria. It deprives them of oxygen for too long when they are already stressed and it puts them at risk for head trauma if they panic and start to flop around. What’s worse is to lay the fish on the snow in the winter. The risk are the same with the added chance that the cold will damage the delicate gill tissue. (Read more on that here) don’t try to juggle the fish and the camera for a reach-out-shot. You’ll most likely drop both.

Now let’s look at some options that can make for a good photo with out anyone getting hurt.


An old Selfie

An old Selfie

The self timer

Most cameras have a self timer that you can use to take a photo of yourself. Of course, carrying a tripod while fishing is a nuisance. There are still some good options. You can often find a rock or a log to set the camera on. A flexible mini tripod makes this safe and easy. For soft ground, like when wading flats for bonefish, I use a plastic tent stake from Home Depot with a camera mount glued on top. You can position the camera while the fish rests in the water. Most cameras have a light that lets you know when they will shoot, so you can lift the fish at the last second. This approach gives you the traditional hero shot and is perfectly safe for the fish.









The underwater camera

There are some really good underwater cameras on the market these days that won’t break the bank. With an underwater camera you can get the shot in the fish’s environment where he is safe, happy and looking his best. You can tail the fish or just let him rest in some soft water for his portrait. Underwater shots are cool and really show off the fish with his fins full and natural. I like the Pentax waterproof cameras and there are even waterproof cases for your iPhone.


The Macro Shot

It’s not always about size. The beauty of a wild fish is often more impressive than the size of a monster. A macro lens or macro mode on a point-and-shoot lets you capture the beauty many people never see while keeping the fish safely in the water. Hold the handle of your net between your knees and get in close.



Creative angles

I was alone when I caught my largest steelhead. A forty-two inch beauty from the Dean River. I knew there was no way to safely get a hero shot of that fish without help and there was no way I’d risk any harm coming to him. I chose to capture a photo of his impressive tail just before releasing him. You can’t see his length or girth in the photo but the tail tells the whole story. Think outside the box, you may be happy with the results.


Basic guidelines

Here are a few things to keep in mind whenever you are photographing fish.

Keep the fish in the water as much as possible. Hoist them for about ten seconds if you must but then give them a breath. Remember, fish don’t have lungs so they can’t hold their breath like we do. When deprived of oxygen their color starts to fade so a healthy fish is a good looking fish.

Never squeeze a fish or hold him under the belly. You can put a lot of pressure around his tail without harming him but his organs are vulnerable. Keep a hand under his pectoral fins and jaw where the bone carries the weight.

Hold a fish loosely. The tighter you grip them, the more they panic and fight. A relaxed fish who is not starved for oxygen is easy to hold and looks great in a photo.

Keep your hands on the back side of the fish where they don’t cover his markings. Be sure his fins are nicely presented. More fish, less hand makes a good photo. Keep the fish level and at the surface of the water. Don’t roll him back where all you see is his belly.

Above all, treat the fish with respect. Never hold him by his fragile jaw or gill plate. Don’t hoist him over your head or horse around with him. It may seem cool at the time, but you will look back on it with shame. Make sure your photo shows, not only a great fish, but a great fisherman.

Come fish with us in the Bahamas!

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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38 thoughts on “Getting the Hero Shot When You’re fishing Solo

  1. I don’t fish alone often, and almost hate doing so, for the fact that I don’t get to share the fun with a friend, and I hate trying to get photos of fish by myself. When I do venture out on my own, I often use the timer on my camera and just find a spot to place the camera for the pic. You can at least keep the fish in the water while you do this. I like the idea of the tail shot though. I’m gonna have to start thinking outside the box a little more. Like you mentioned, I’ve taken some photos on the fly before that were actually pretty damn cool. Good post Louis. We all need suggestions for this scenario!

  2. Louis,

    Many thanks. Reinforces what I have learned by trial and error and gives me new perspective on how to make my solo memory shots even better.

    I carry a nice Olympus waterproof digital camera which I have on a tether around my neck so it is handy and will not get dropped into cold, deep water or left on the bank. Most importantly, it saves digging for it, as time is crucial for the fish.

    I have had some luck with medium sized trout cradling them in my left hand while I click with my right. The fish is halfway or mostly in the water. I do not worry about getting the whole fish in the picture. It makes for a decent way to safely get the type of fish and a nice composition and background. If the light is right, the water can be stunning as well. It is a bit less artistic than your steelhead shot but still very nice and easy for a guy like me.

  3. Love it! A friend of mine does the “spray and pray” method as well. Take a ton of pictures in a short amount of time and get the fish on the way very quickly.
    Just sort through the pictures later and find the keeper. Or just take video of it with a goPro and take the best screenshot later.
    Great tip about the creative angles and outside the box thinking!

  4. One of my most memorable fish pictures was of my empty hand halfway in the water. I was trying to be quick, holding my camera, the fish and fly rod and I missed everything. A beautiful little brookie, I still remember the colors.
    Great post and Merry Christmas

  5. I’m looking for more info on laying a fish on the bank via peer reviewed scientific articles..what I have found thus far is interesting..”We reviewed 53 release mortality studies, doubling the number of estimates since Muoneke and Childress (1994) reviewed catch and release fishing. A meta-analysis of combined data (n=274) showed a skewed distribution of release mortality (median 11%, mean 18%, range 0–95%). Mortality distributions were similar for salmonids, marine, and freshwater species. Mean mortality varied greatly by species and within species, anatomical hooking location was the most important mortality factor. Other significant mortality factors were: use of natural bait, removing hooks from deeply hooked fish, use of J-hooks (vs. circle hooks), deeper depth of capture, warm water temperatures, and extended playing and handling times. Barbed hooks had marginally higher mortality than barbless hooks. Based on numbers of estimates, no statistically significant overall effects were found for fish size, hook size, venting to deflate fish caught at depth, or use of treble vs. single hooks.”
    Very interesting. Doesn’t mention removal of slime.
    I guess what I’m getting at Mr Cahill, is’s ironic when things like this are said about “laying a fish on the bank WILL kill it.” How can a person say they are sincerely in the best interest of the fish by saying something like that and then won’t hesitate to violently rip a sharp piece of metal through the mouth of that same fish.
    “anatomical hooking location was the most important mortality factor”
    That’s how you kill a fish my friend.

    • Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries
      200502/05, Volume 15, Issue 1-2, pp 129-154
      A Review of Catch-and-Release Angling Mortality with Implications for No-take Reserves

      Aaron Bartholomew, James A. Bohnsack
      128 Citations

      • This research actually argues against your methods because those would most likely fall under “extended playing and handling times.” Finding a rock or log to put your camera on? what do you do with the fish while you’re fumbling with all that? and setting up the camera? How did you land and measure a 42 inch steelhead which had to be close to what? 20 pounds? without letting the fish touch the bank? and how long was that fight? that fish must have been exhausted. The article actually irritates me. We must present evidence, references, citations to make broad sweeping statements like that. You run the risk of misinformation. I’m on your side for respecting the fish…

        • Spencer,
          You’re right, Laying a fish on the bank is just a piece of the puzzle when it comes to fish mortality. One of the issues I think Louis was trying to help with is one that was addressed in a previous post on G&G, which referred to injuries that occur if the fish is placed on the bank once the fish has been landed. Refer to the blog post “You may be killing steelhead and not even know it” on G&G. We all try to get photos of fish we catch, and Louis is probably just trying to give us suggestions for improving our methods of photographing them. I’ve seen some pretty gruesome photography attempts, so I think it’s great that Louis is giving us all advice on how to improve our amateur attempts at attaining pics of our trophies. Most wouldn’t care to take the time and effort to try and improve catch and release methods, so I applaud Louis and Kent for doing so!

          • You’re absolutely right.
            After I made those comments I actually went back and read that discussion for the first time and realized I was basically having the same conversation as that article. We are all on the same side.

    • Kent – Louis,

      You should do a piece on “Information.” Arn’t you curious how I whipped that up so fast? Scientific info is out there and not too terribly difficult to obtain. This may sound silly but have you heard of Its just one source for peer reviewed scientific information, accepted research.
      You can also use these resources to improve your fishing by finding the actual research on what fish are eating/doing or where they are going. Its quite useful.

  6. Louis this is great information. After reading the recent TU article on how photos are killing fish – starting next year I may not take any photos. If I do I’ll keep the fish in the the water. Don’t need the photo.. Only need my memory and that is all that matters. According to TU its like a human running a 100yd dash and then holding his breath for a minute. Again good article.

  7. I enjoy the outdoors alone 99% of the time and as an outdoor writer I must get the shot. It adds a lot of extra work to get a good image but well worth it for posterity. I regret not getting more images when I traveled Alaska and fly fished all over the state. Digital really makes it much easier and is why you see so many good shots today. I get emails asking me how I was the photographer when it is me in the photo. I have had several shots make the cover. I just tell them I took the photo. Great information and I can say that it just takes getting out there and practicing just like everything else it takes work to get it down but is well worth the effort.

  8. Man, this is one of the hardest things for me as I scout fish alone a good bit. You almost always have your best days when you fish alone for some reason. Why is that? Maybe your more focused……no pun. Good tips Louis!

  9. Thanks Louis, very helpful and informative. I’ve also read some recent research that indicates that fish flopping around (like on a river bank) or dropped into very shallow water often experience head impacts that cause them to die from brain trauma.

  10. Sorry, if we really care about the fish, don’t bother with what the literature says, just keep ’em in the water. the underwater shots are the most you should do, IMHO.

    • If we really, REALLY cared about the fish we wouldn’t dare subject them to puncture by a sharp hook, etc. 🙂

      Seems like most of us are responsible C&R fisherman.

      We should be looking for our similarities, not our small differences.

      • Precisely. If a fisherman practices c&r and minimizes damage taking the picture the impact is fairly small.

        That said, a fisherman that donates to conservation groups and participating is probably saving way more fish than they kill practicing c&r, whether or not they take a picture

  11. Informative article as always Louis. I would add how important it is to use a net. A net is essential if you’re alone and trying to take a picture of your catch. You can keep the fish in it while getting your camera ready. A lot of times I’ll lift the fish halfway out of the water in my net, and take the shot there so I don’t even have to touch the fish.

  12. Every now and then people come up with things like “oh if you care so much about handling that fish maybe you should stop fishing?”. Maybe. But I guess they just can’t understand.

  13. In today’s world of smart phones I give you this. The S4 and Note 3, which I have, both have 13 mp cameras with a voice activated shot. I have a 5 dollar case that stands the phone up in a 45 degree angle. Hold the fish in front how you want on the screen, then say ‘shoot.’
    Works pretty well when your by yourself. NO its not a world class picture, but its good enough to show your friends.

  14. I can’t see myself ever using and setting up a self timer and camera on a tripod. That would take me way, way too much time.

    I have a waterproof Olympus in my vest at all times that’s easy to access, but last season I started using a GoPro. I’n my experience, that’s the easiest and fastest way to take a quick snapshop of a fish.

  15. I fish a lot of saltwater and frequent the same spots. I usually dig a holding pool, have a designated camera lay and use a remote to a 10 second timer spraying 5 shots per 5 seconds. Release the fish or kill it and eat it. Be a pro at both photo and fish and don’t release something you just tortured, club that sucker and feed your lady friend. You might get some.

  16. I know i’m posting late, but heres to hoping there are still people following this thread. Of late, and because of this article and others, I’ve decided to commit my fly fishing photography in 2014 (and from now on) to some of the tactics mentioned above. But, I had some questions about shooting OTHERS while fly fishing. Namely about equipment. For solo angling I use Olympus’ new freeze proof water proof f2.0 camera. Has been working great. For shooting others I have a Canon 7d with 100mm f2.8, 50m f.18 and 17-55mm f2.8. I was wondering if I was to invest in some L series glass (I’ve shot with them before and love the sharpness and bokeh), which ONE would you get (you to if you’re listening Louis)?

    My assumption is the ‘fastest glass you can afford’ is going to be part of the answer. My question is more along the lines of what focal lengths? Given my current lens kit, which one would cover a range of distances best? I’ve been told the 24-70mm, but with a 1.6x crop factor it’ll shoot more like a 50-100mm (hardly wide angle) on the 7D.

    I’d like to get away with one or two lenses.

    Also, do you use any cokin filters when shooting or do you find them too cumbersome.

    I see awesome photos taken (nice recent cover on American Angler btw), but there is almost NEVER any information about settings used or equipment used behind the camera of pro (prosumer at best in my case) shooters.

    Many thanks for your important and Merry Christmas Eve to all. I’m heading out to a local spring creek right now!


    • I may, is carrying two cameras advised? I think (1) you won’t have to change lenses as much (or at all) and (2) if one camera takes a dunk you have a backup.

      And finally, is it worth getting an underwater housing for the canon 7d or just stick with my olympus?

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  19. What’s the impact of laying fish on the snow and ice? I’ve seen a handful of that lately with winter fishing in full effect, and I don’t imagine a wet fish on snow is in any way good.

    I see why people like photos, but it’s just not as important to me. If It was a quick landing, and the fish is still acting strong I’ll take a quick photo of it in my net, or head out of water. Otherwise I just want it back in the stream quickly and revived.

    Thanks for the post, and it’s interesting to see the debate above.

  20. Go Pro’s are absolutely awesome for getting a shot while fishing solo.

    Also, most DSLRs have remotes you can buy after,market. Set the camera to some kind of “burst mode”. Set your tripod up at the end of a run and get awesome quality shots with no additional harm to the fish. Obviously this tactic works best when you know where the fish are and know you’ll catch a few in particular hole or run.

  21. Look,….at the end of the day, hook types, depth of hook set, beaching, sticking fingers in gill plates, over handling or setting the fish on the bank are all most likely not great for the fish. I compliment the author for exposing a discussion that promotes the differences in the way fisherman think and approach the sport of fishing. The author was also brave enough to expose their weakness by admitting their inability to handle a fish. There are plenty of other points in the authors discussion to focus on such as; camera types, camera angles, creativity, and the overall notion of handling fish for any length of time should be done in a respectful manner.
    I like the overall angle of the discussion. If the author is a little off on the scientific data points, that’s OK. For those who want pure science on topics such as this one, they might be best reading elsewhere or writing the article themselves. We are always learning in this sport and all always humbled by mother nature whenever practicing fly fishing. For those who seem to know more than others about these matters, try to find a respectful way to show your knowledge. Remember this; facts and data can be also skewed, misrepresented, published or studied in a bias scientific manner.
    Nice job by the author.

  22. I have developed the habit of filming as much as I can with my GoPro camera and extracting still images from the video. It gives alot of choice for still photos. And for me the more the better. I don’t have to handle the fish nearly as much or for long, and get more photo opportunity.

    • Hey Billy!

      I use my GoPro a lot when I am fishing alone as well, and taking stills from video is a great idea! But I do notice that the quality usually isn’t as good as a photo.

      One function I like to use is the ‘burst’ setting. Where you can set the GoPro to take a photo every second, 2 secs, 3 secs etc. I usually just set it on a rock either above the water or underwater. But it just blasts a bunch of photos and you’re bound to get some great shots.

      Just another perspective.

      Tight Lines!

  23. I am all about catch and release of all wild trout species and some others as well… So that “Selfie” Shot will be the lasting memory or brag pic of the fish… My mentors were and still are strict with Catch and Release tactics… From playing the fish too long and netting the fish rough they touch on it all… No Picture is worth the life of that beautiful wild trout you just caught…
    Here is what helps me to help the fish and get quick picture before a good release..
    Tiny Tripod….6″ high with fold out legs…will setup almost everywhere…
    Camera Programming…..Keep Camera programmed to a timed exposure…I use 10 seconds which allows plenty of time to give them a dunk and hold fish gently up for the shot…
    Net Shots…. Sometimes after netting the fish I simply extract the fly and hold the net/fish in water for the picture… They have been some of the best I have taken…No need to see where I was or my ugly mug…
    I don’t like even touching the fish if at all possible…These wild beauties are far to special to risk their safety for my Irish Ego…
    Thanks for this post! It is a very good topic which needs to be talked about more… Happy New Year to Everyone….Tight Lines!
    Ken Martin

  24. Louis,
    I only just listened to your podcast with April Volkey, that shot of the tail of the 42″ steelhead really intrigued me. Just found it in the above, such an incredible shot, thank you. Hope to get a similar shot of an Irish bass soon. Inspirational stuff! (those monkeys though 🙂 )

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