Repost: Why So Much Criticism of “Grip and Grin” Photos?


There’s little doubt that the best trophy shots keep the fish in the water.
Photo by Sandy Hays

[Editor’s note: Here’s something that, I think, bears reposting. I continue to see a lot of online criticism–some warranted, of course–of grip-and-grin photos, and I wonder if there’s a right way and a wrong way to get the desired result, which is better fish-handling. Make sure you read though the comments below the post for lots more good information and tips, as well as some differing opinions. When all else fails, remember the #keepemwet Principles.]

Because I run a blog and Facebook page that often post “grip and grin” photos, I see a lot of negative comments about the way the person in a photograph is holding the fish. The two most common criticisms are that the person is squeezing the fish or holding the fish with dry hands. We don’t post any images that show a fish on the ground or an angler with his fingers in the fish’s gills or mouth, so I don’t see those kinds of negative comments, which I generally agree with.

I am always amazed by the certainty with which the critic makes his assertions, and I wonder whence comes this absolute sense of rightness. Let’s look at two examples:

1. Your hands must be wet when you handle a fish. This is one of the first things a trout angler learns, and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t believe it. But how do we know this to be true? I put the question to Prof. Gary Grossman—distinguished research professor of animal ecology at the University of Georgia and author of the “Ask Dr. Trout” column in American Angler magazine—and his response blew me away:

Conceptually, the idea is that dry hands dislodge the protective slime coating on the skin of trout and make it easier for infections to grow and penetrate the skin. Nonetheless, there is little scientific evidence that dry hands alone cause dislodgment of protective slime. It is clear that handling itself, regardless of how damp your hands are, is the major cause of stress for fish.

I assume that even with this knowledge, most of us will continue to wet our hands before we handle a fish, out of habit and because the rationale behind the practice makes sense, but Doctor Grossman’s explanation makes criticizing someone else for dry hands less justifiable.

2. Squeezing a fish damages its organs and often kills it. Earlier this year, an article from New Zealand’s Bish & Fish website made the rounds of fly-fishing sites. Author Tony Bishop coined the term “grip and kill,” and he offered scientific diagrams to show that “[a] fish subject to external pressure to the heart and other organs may swim away on release, but many die soon after.”

There’s no doubt that Bishop’s article is full of great advice for the best way to handle fish, but many casual readers focused on the “kill” part. Soon thereafter, the number of comments arguing that a person in a photo was killing the fish seemed to skyrocket. Since I am skeptical of almost anything I see on the Internet, I emailed a fisheries biologist friend (who asked to remain anonymous), included a link to Bish’s article, and just asked, “What do you think?” Here was his reply:

There is a bit of hyperbole and of course no data offered to support his assertions. On the other hand, I do think that some fish die from grip and grins, but mainly because they usually require multiple “takes,” and the fish is often dropped on rocks a time or two. If you hold the fish too lightly, you are more likely to drop it. Putting a bit of pressure on a trout’s heart for a few seconds shouldn’t hurt it. The best thing to do, of course, is not take the fish out of the water, i.e., a net shot.

My point in all of this is not that there aren’t right and wrong ways to hold a fish. We would never show a photo of a person with his or her fingers in a fish’s gills, for instance. But we need to remove some of the self-righteousness from the discussion because, frankly, there’s not a lot scientific evidence to support these arguments that are used to batter other anglers.

So instead of telling someone that he’s “killing” the fish by squeezing it or holding it with dry hands, why not offer helpful suggestions in your comment? For instance, “Since most of the trout’s vital organs are right there, you might want to be careful of squeezing too hard” or “most anglers believe that you should wet your hands before handling a fish.” And I think you’ll find your suggestion is better received if it’s accompanied by “great fish,” “I love that river,” or “nice job.”

If someone is holding a fish incorrectly in a photo, it’s most likely because they don’t know better. Yelling at someone or accusing them of murder is not the best teaching method.

30 thoughts on “Repost: Why So Much Criticism of “Grip and Grin” Photos?”

  1. I would guess that the size and condition of the fish would contribute to their survival. A small fish in a warmer than usual stream, played too long or to exhaustion, probably would die sooner even if released in the water. A 5 lb. trout who was released quickly would seem to have a greater chance of survival. Also a fish from a high quality, un-polluted, stream or lake, if released reasonably quickly and not squeezed too hard, should survive O.K.
    Good article. At least fishermen are aware of keeping our resources alive and well.
    Thank you.

  2. Good article Phil. What is not seen in a properly taken photo is the set up prior to the second or two that the fish is taken out of the water for the picture. Done correctly, the stress is minimal and the shot you get is the shot you get. Over time the technique gets perfected and the photos come out with the look that they were posed over a period of minutes, not just the couple of seconds it actually takes. I think what needs more attention is the kill ’em & grill ’em crowd that due to lack of regulations on many wild fisheries is still prevalent. Those fish are 100% absolutely killed. Spending more than a couple of hundred days on the water each year exposes me to witness too many iced wild game fish in both fresh & saltwater. Let’s spend more time educating the casual angler, both gear & fly on the merits of catch & release. A picture here and there does little harm compared to the killing of limits.

  3. This might be a good time to bring up and spread the word about Keepemwet, a campaign to kindly educate and promote “wet” handling of fish. The founders include a biologist. Any search of the term Keepemwet will get folks to some more insight. I think its a great idea, simple and easy to remember, and the wave of the future.

  4. I held my breath as I clicked the link thinking, please no more. Everyday it seems there is a new critic that takes issue with my beloved past times of hunting and fly fishing. However, I was relieved to read your article and see the contrary. Let us as fisherman consider first what it is we do, impale fish with a hook. With whatever grace and artistry we add to our hobby, it is still just hooking fish. Having established that, we hope to do it in the least impactful way possible, one that preserves the sport for generations to come. I see similarities in these arguements wether they be about inclusion, politics, or race. Hostility breeds hostility, and we have definitely reached a point that I find uncomfortable. A little common courtesy goes a long way. Allowing us to educate others on our causes and most importantly, to learn something from those same people.

    1. Great post with thoughtful reply.
      My rule of thumb – ask the angler to his or her breath while the fish’s gills are out of water and when they start gasping for air, submerge the fish’s gills in the water. Fish can not breath when they are out of water and remember, they have just finished a wrestling match so their need for oxygen is greater than the anglers.

      1. A thing to remember is that trout don’t have lungs so can’t store air the way we do when we hold our breath. . To really get an idea of how the fish feels, sprint around for a minute, expel all the air from your lungs, and then stop breathing. That is the stress we put fish through holding them out of water.

  5. good article and nice to see someone keeping things in perspective. Perhaps part of the backlash against “grip n’ grins” has more to do with an over-saturation of them thanks to the internet, etc.? like others mentioned, if done quickly, I see nothing wrong with it.

  6. The “grip and kill” article I wrote some months ago, achieved one thing – it started a number of people to think about the way they handle fish for photos.
    I have recently updated that article with a sidebar that provides, to my mind at least, some extra thoughts on the criticisms that article produced.
    Like the author of this article points out it is sad that some people decide to become judge and jury of another’s actions. I never intended my article to be anything other than thought provoking, and may help individuals look more closely at the way they handle fish for photos and release.
    And just one little quibble of your biologist friend’s comment “There is a bit of hyperbole and of course no data offered to support his assertions.” It is surprising that having critised me for providing no data in support, that he provided no data in support of his contrary view.
    Just for the record I have found no scientific evidence to support the squeeze and kill idea, and no evidence to debunk it, I have just my own, and the observations, of many reputable guides in New Zealand.

  7. As a full time fishing guide I have seen my share of well handled and poorly handled fish. I try to teach my clients to achieve the former. In fact I now encourage them to let me hold the fish on most shots. Let me begin by saying that I think this fish handling conversation is a good one to have. One that we should continue with open minds.

    Tony Biship makes a great point about the legitimacy of what these biologists are saying. Stating that there have been no studies done on how fish handling techniques affect fish tells us nothing. By treating these statements as facts we may (with or without knowing it) instill these ideas in anglers. It is not always easy to wet your hands when you are fishing from a boat ( I recommend grabbing the wet net bag) or in cold weather (just suck it up). More anglers may now choose to keep those hands dry.

    I too trust more in what guides see with hundreds of days on the water vs. what biologists say with hundreds of days in the lab. Take this quote by Gary Grossman for instance, “If you hold the fish too lightly, you are more likely to drop it. Putting a bit of pressure on a trout’s heart for a few seconds shouldn’t hurt it. ” Any guide, or even casual angler will tell you that squeezing a fish, especially near its heart, will cause violent thrashing. This usually leads to dropping the fish or further squeezing. While I have not done a scientific study on the effects of said handling I have seen my share of “squeezed fish”, most of which float away upon release. Maybe they survived…but I doubt it. Here is what Dr. Grossman should have recommended.

    Before you lift the fish be sure that your hands are wet. Next, insure that you are lifting the fish directly above the net, and/ or unobstructed water. Then hold the fish firmly by the tail (where there are no internal organs), and lightly under the pectoral fins. If the fish does struggle, do not squeeze, drop immediately into net or water. Do not lift from water until camera is on and ready to shoot. Lift, shoot, and place back in water for release.

  8. With all due respect, I find this article less than compelling. All you are doing is citing two sources, one of them anonymous, and expect us to accept that they are more credible than the rest of the information out there (I too am skeptical of things I read on the internet…especially from anonymous sources). I am on of those guides who has spent hundreds of days on the water and seen enough trout that were handled with dry hands and ended up with hand shaped fungus growth to form my own opinions on the matter, and have also seen what happens to a fish when a client squeezes them too hard.

    Writing an article suggesting that bad fish handling techniques might not actually be that bad based on the responses of two people you emailed feels a bit irresponsible (the statement that “there’s not a lot scientific evidence to support these arguments” is a bit misleading since there haven’t been many studies actually performed to prove or disprove them, but it is interesting that in aquaculture circles wet hands have long been considered important when handling fish).

    As a public voice in this sport you should be doing whatever you can to support the best conservation practices, and while I understand your main intent was to get the self-righteous bullies to lay off, I can’t help but feel you’ve sacrificed something a little more important to try and make your point.

    I fully agree that bashing somebody online for the way the hold a fish is ridiculous but let’s face it, it is the internet and that’s what people do. You can lecture them all you want, but the kind of people who do that in the first place aren’t going to change because the very nature of the internet allows them to act in ways they wouldn’t normally act in person. The best thing to do is just ignore them and they will go away, and stay focused on the things you can control like proper education and information.

  9. One valuable technique to avoid “too long of exposure” (no pun intended) may be for the holder of the fish to hold his or her breath while the fish is out of water. Reminds you that fish is not receiving oxygen via water flow through the gills while you’re getting your photo. Overplaying a fish (build-up of lactic acid) probably kills more fish than the snapshot does. Hard to do a reproducible controlled experiment to answer this question definitively.

    1. Arthur,

      Good idea.

      Matt,

      Well said. Your point about ignoring the negative comments on the internet got me thinking. When I was younger someone chastised me for posting a picture of a fish lying in sand. At the time I got defensive, saying that the sand was wet etc etc. But since then I never took a picture of a trout lying on the ground. So while the internet critics can be over the top, I do think that they can make a positive difference by shifting what is culturally acceptable to post on the internet.

  10. Rather than lift up the fish, get down in the water and barely raise the fish out… The angle and reflections make for a better pix. Dropping is less likely. Better yet take a mental pix and leave ’em in the water.. How many photos do we really need anyway? Is it REALLY all about the fish, or about the moment?!

  11. Pingback: Keep ‘Em Wet, Catch and Release, and Pickled Pike? | Trout and Cast Iron
  12. Well it’s a good article but you need to remember one thing that even if you put a fish in a net and it’s not a catch-and-release net you’re screwing that fish up for life (specially big fish) you know whether you keep your hands wet witches the most ideal situation to use, or even catch and release mitt/glove that is even better choice, because some trout (char) can be burned from the oils in human hands..There are many parts to ensuring the survival of fish :prop we r weight rod, fish friendly net, proper release, temp.of water and barb less hooks..I have been professional fishing guide and seen many fish released both professionally and personally. .so keep tight lines and rip some lip, enjoy.

  13. “there aren’t right and wrong ways to hold a fish” What??? Not sure what your trying to accomplish with this poorly written story quoting a scientist who doesn’t wish to have his name revealed. Trying to sell more equipment? Very poor journalism and harmful. See keepemwet.org for real scientists who are trying to help the environment.

  14. What are thoughts on gloves? I wear a pair of guide gloves when I fish for a few reasons. Sun, bugs, and a no slip grip on fish being the principle reasons. They get wet at the start of the day and stay that way until I let them dry out with my waders. Reading over this article makes me pause though and wonder if I am doing more harm that way? I always watch my fish swim away after unhooking and putting them in the water facing upstream. I take very few pictures because I catch a lot of small fish 🙂 Am I desliming though?

  15. In the past three years I’ve caught three fish that have had clearly visible discolored hand prints on them. I could count the fingers. Whether or not this is caused by dry hands or bug spray or sunscreen or something else, I don’t know. Keep them wet and use a net.

  16. Sometimes the truth and what is best isnt always synonymous.
    Take for instance porcupine quills.
    If you do not know what a porcupine is, it would be in your best interest to believe that porcupines can shoot there quills. Even though this is not true, it would prevent many unsuspecting victims of getting quilled by getting too close to the porcupine. A false statement can sometimes produce better results.
    Saying that not wetting your hands may not damage a fish protective layer does not help anyone, the simple act of wetting your hands cannot harm anyone, it may not be inherently true, but it sure as hell doesn’t hurt.

    Dont give people ammunition to practice poor fish handling

  17. Wow- this debate is still going strong! I would hope that publishers of fly fishing magazine/blogs would adhere to a standard – “I/we only publish photos of fish that are in wet and in a net” as per guidelines suggested for safe fish releasing practice (keepemwet.com). This would go a long way in updating everyone’s practice. As for personal Facebook, etc photos – to each his own!

  18. Big response! I know a lot of guys in our TU group have gone to taking pics with the fish in the net, in the water. And several take underwater shots right before netting/releasing. I’ll put my two cents in as an artist – from an artistic point of view, shots of the fish being held half in and half out of the water are pretty sexy.

  19. No excuses, keep them wet! I understand wanting to take a trophy picture. But common man, every fish doesn’t need a picture. This isn’t amateur hour. My only opinion is document the day with one fish while letting the others be happy and healthy in the water during hook removal/release.

  20. Good article and discussion. Can you please dispense with the repeated pop up for the Orvis plug? Once is okay but every time I return to the page for the next article I am interrupted. It’s a first world problem but it’s getting me pretty annoyed. Everyone else has a pop add up but usually only one! Thanks for the great information!

  21. I first learned about wetting your hands before handling trout when I read “Big Two-Hearted River” by Ernest Hemingway, back in the late 60’s, so that concept goes back a ways.

    “He had wet his hand before he touched the trout, so he would not disturb the delicate mucus that covered him. If a trout was touched with a dry hand, a white fungus attacked the unprotected spot. Years before when he had fished crowded streams, with fly fishermen ahead of him and behind him, Nick had again and again come on dead trout furry with white fungus, drilled against a rock, or floating belly up in some pool.”

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