The best way to take fish pictures.

kamishak steve

Active Member
About a month ago I finished my 6th season guiding in the Katmai region of Alaska. In that time I have seen some absolutely atrocious fish handling practices by uneducated guests or unethical guides that just don't care about their resource. This ranges from dragging the fish onto gravel bars, to holding the fish over land so that when it flops and the fish is dropped it hits rocks, to squeezing the life out of a fish, to holding it solely by the line stretching its spine and ripping its mandible (or other mouth area) apart, fingers in the gills, to a wide range of other appalling choices that kill fish, and make lousy pictures.

It occurred to me that I have probably helped guests land well over 30,000 fish (trout and salmon). ( I can explain the math I used to generate that figure, it is a very conservative estimate.) In that time I've developed a few tricks, most of them obvious, but all too often ignored to get great fish pictures (and this is the MOST IMPORTANT PART) without hurting the fish. Rather than complaining about how shamefully a lot of people handle fish and do nothing about it, I've decided to write up a list of the techniques for landing 20 inch plus fish (while fishing from shore and not netting the fish) that have worked for me. These are the same instructions I have given my guests for seasons, and I invite any other users on here to contribute with tricks they have picked up in their own experience. I am writing this to help newbies or even experts reduce the fish mortality while they capture those trophy photos. Sometimes in the heat of the excitement people forget these things (even some of the seasoned pros on here), so maybe having a list will help people to remember when it really counts.

1)Land the fish quickly: This is achieved by using gear appropriate to the size of fish you are catching, and pushing that gear to near its maximum without breaking the tippet. For most salmon/steelhead I use 12lb maxima and you can just about pull a truck with it. Whatever you use, make sure its strong enough and be familiar with its breaking point so you can operate just below it. Pulling in a large fish can be difficult, especially if you are pulling it upstream or even quartering it upstream and towards the bank. For really big salmon I recommend standing parallel or slightly downstream of the fish in the current, and sweeping the rod downstream and to the bank to steer the fishes head towards shore.

2)'Beach' the fish: When I say beach the fish, I don't mean yard it onto the bank, or pull it into 1 1/2 inches of water either. Pull the fish in such a way that is very close to shore (in very slack water if possible) and that it's head is pointed towards shore so that if it is to swim, it would have to beach itself. As I am finishing up a fight with a fish, I'm often looking for areas among the boulders where I can pull the fish into still water where it wont be able to swim back out into the main body of the river, but that it is deep enough that the fish has enough water so that its totally submerged. If you can't find something like that, gently nosing it into the bank is fine if you are careful. This is your opportunity to quickly move from where you are standing down to where the fish is, grabbing the tippet just above the line while at the same time tailing the fish. The only reason I grab the line is that is often difficult to tail the fish when its in the water without having some control over what it's head it doing. Also if I get ahold of the tail, but lose grip, or the fish flops away, I can try again. If you've nosed the fish into the bank, just grab the line and the tail and adjust the fish so that you are able to hold it with its head & gills totally under the water. Either way you should have control over the fish, and be able to keep that fish totally submerged during the next portion of the process.

3)Setting up the photo: Get your buddy the camera man to take into account the light, the distance from the subject, and his position before you even THINK about lifting the fish out of the water. When I'm taking pictures for my guests, I usually take a couple sample picture or two of the guy before he's lifted the fish out of the water so I know what to expect. There's no bigger bummer than seeing a guy fumbling with the camera because the lens cap is on or the setting isn't right, or he can't get the zoom to work, meanwhile your holding your tank out of the water. Furthermore this alos tends to cause people to hold the fish out of the water too long in "the pose". Once you've quickly seen the sample pics of just the subject with no fish yet and everything looks cool, have the lucky angler hold up the fish.

4)Holding the fish: I've got two strategies for this one. If the fish is big enough, do the classic steelhead pose with your hand around the wrist of the tail with your palm facing towards you. i usually tell guests to make an 'Ok' sign when they squeeze the tail, so that they are just using the index finger and thumb. It often seems like when people try to use their whole fist, the tail just squirts right out and we have to start over tailing the fish again. With the other hand, gently cradle the fish's belly just behind the pectoral (front) fins. Don't get anywhere near the gills with your fingers.
If the fish is around 20 inches (or down to 16) i recommend holding the line with one hand to balance the head, and cradling the fish under the middle of the belly with the other hand. This shows mainly fish, limited hand, and seems to be a really easy way of controlling the fish, even for novices. (i'll try to post pictures of both ways so people can see what i mean). I leave the fly in the fish's mouth until the last photo is taken. Typically people want to take the hook out right away, then lift the fish up immediately- guess what, fish flops out of your hands, back into the water, and there goes your photo opportunity. If you have the hook in its mouth during the photo, even if the fish flops out of your hands, you can grab the line and have another go at it before the release.

5)Taking the Picture: Make sure the camera guy is there & ready before you take the fish out of the water. NEVER hold the fish out of the water for more than 4 seconds, before you put it back into the water for a breather. Be sure that you are holding the fish over water (!) and not gravel, so if the fish flops and gets away from you, it lands in water, and not on gravel or boulders. Take as many shots as possible while the fish is held out of the water, and even as it is goin back into the water (those often make great shots). If you need to take another set of pictures, give the fish a long while to breath, while holding it gently completely submerged in the water, and don't repeat this process more than 3 times. If your camera man set up the picture correctly beforehand, you shouldn't have to try again. Another note, for some reason, people never seem to tilt the back towards the camer nearly enough. I can't tell you how many goons I see with pictures of belly of the fish and nothing else. Tilt the back forward until the fish is upright!

6)Releasing the fish: As you've had the fish in the water pretty much this whole time, it shouldn't need to be revived hardly at all. All to often I see people overhandling fish unnecessarily misguidedly thinking the fish needs to be 'revived', thrashing it back & forth to get air into its gills. Believe me, the fish has been doing that it's whole life, it doesn't need you to force water through its gills. Simply lower the fish back into clean (not super muddy or warm stagnant) water after the last photo set and gently guide it towards the main river, preferably a section that the current isn't absolutely roaring through. This should give the fish a chance to get back into the river no problem.

There you have it, trophy fish pictures made easy without killing, maiming or otherwise torturing your catch. Anybody that would like to contribute with their own tips, or even rip this post a new one, I invite your comments.

kamishak steve

Active Member
So the third pic is the classic steelhead/salmon pose I was talking about. Notice the fish still has water droplets coming off it? Thats because it's only been out of the water for 2 seconds. Notice the same thing on the other two pictures? It's a theme!

The other two pics are just showing that other option I described for holding smaller fish that seems to work pretty well. There shouldn't be much tension on the line, just barely enough to keep the fish balanced.


Outta Here
What excellent advice! I tend to skip fish pictures out of concern for minimizing trauma before release, but these are detailed and practical recommendations for those pictures that must be taken.

Chris Johnson

Active Member
Great post, I'm not much of a picture guy, as I fish alone alot and its just to hard to manage safely(for the fish) by myself. Beautiful steelhead by the way.

Old Man

A very Old Man
WFF Supporter
The best way to take pictures of fish is in the water. Holding them in any way is harmful to them. Your hand under their belly is one way of squeezing them so their innards are damaged. And I fish alone a lot also so all my pictures are in my head.


WFF Supporter
Hadn't thought of keeping my hand on the line for one-handed pics. Nice write-up, thank you.


That Chrome is sweet... nice write up. Have had some nice picture advice from some board members. It really does make a difference


Active Member
Great advice! I see alot of poor fish handling practices. If it's picture worthy, I pretty much follow the guidelines you mentioned above. If I don't take a pic, I don't touch the fish at all. I just reach down, grab the fly and slip it out. If the fish is still a little rowdy, I roll it over on it's back. This usually will you give you a few seconds to grab the fly and remove it before the fish regains it's senses. I agree about the reviving part. It's rarely needed and usually just stresses the fish more. Flyfishermen often think that just because they're using a fly the fish will be ok. Fish handling skills are still important. Every year the spokane fly fishing club comes to McGinnis for a weekend. You should see all the brookies floating after they leave. Hundreds of them. I cringe now when I hear they're coming. I would rather have the usual gear crowd up there. At least they only kill their five brookies and leave. The flyfishermen catch and "release" 20, and are lucky if five survive.

kamishak steve

Active Member

Unfortunately you're right. Often people think that just because they are using a fly, that no harm can come to the fish. Especially in warm water (which can often be a factor in lakes like mcginnis), can reduce dissolved osygen levels, and overplaying fish is a real hazard. If fish are floating belly up, there are some serious landing/photo issues.

Rob Allen

Active Member
In the state of Washington it is illegal to remove fully from the water any fish that is required for release!
a fish intended for release should not be removed from the water anyway.. So if you are taking pictures of wild steelhead and the fish is out of the water you are 1 wrong and 2 preforming an illegal act.

recent studies have shown that rainbow trout that were exercised and then held out of the water for 10 seconds had a HIGH mortality rate and that the mortality rate grew exponentially with more seconds out of water.

John Hicks

Reformed Guide and sometimes fisherman
recent studies have shown that rainbow trout that were exercised and then held out of the water for 10 seconds had a HIGH mortality rate and that the mortality rate grew exponentially with more seconds out of water.

So I agree somewhat....But with this logic why is it that all of us know that stream where fish are caught again and again. Their mouths are deformed from hook scar after hook scar. Those fish are still swimming..........

Gary Thompson

dirty dog
Good advice.
I quit posting pics of fish cause I don't take pics of fish I'm releasing cause of the harm done to the fish.
So I posted some pics of keepers and caught some flack over posting pics of dead fish.
So, now ya know why I don't post fish porn on WFF anymore.

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