How to play and land a fish

You have done everything right; you picked the right place, at the right time; used the right bait or lure; made a good cast; and now you have a fish on the end of your line! It’s a great feeling!

However, you still may be a long way from a fish dinner. You now have to reel the fish in, land it, get it off of the hook, and then save it for future processing.             

In many situations, a panfish will bite your bait or lure hard enough to hook itself. But this does not always happen. Knowing how to “set the hook” is an important skill that is part of the fishing process.

How you set the hook depends on the equipment you are using. If using conventional hooks, the hook setting process should start by gently reeling in line until you begin to feel the weight of the fish. Once the fish is felt on the line, the “hook set” is accomplished with a quick flick of the wrist. This causes the end of the fishing rod to quickly bend, which drives the hook into the fish's mouth. With conventional hooks, just reeling in the fish without a wrist flick, may or may not properly hook the fish. You may just pull the bait out of the fish's mouth, or the fish may just let go of the bait.

If you are using the newer “circle hooks,” you do not need to set the hook or flick your wrist. Just slowly start reeling in. However, you should point your rod in a direction perpendicular to the line the fish is traveling. These hooks are designed to slide into the corner of a fishes’ mouth and use the fishes’ own weight to hook itself.  Trying to set the hook with these hooks will cause the hook point to slide past the fishes jaw and often will pull the bait out of the fish's mouth.

Experienced anglers who have used conventional hooks for a long time often have trouble breaking the habit of setting the hook when using circle hooks, and may miss a lot of fish as a result. Novices without much previous experience generally do very well with these newer types of hooks.  

If you are using lures, jigs, or flies, a hook set is good insurance, but may not be needed. These lures are normally being reeled in on a tight line when a fish hits. As a result, the momentum of the fish coupled with the resistance generated by the tight line generally hooks the fish with out any extra actions.  However, an additional wrist-snap, hook set is advisable.

Before you go fishing you should set the drag on your reel. Drag is an internal mechanism on a reel that allows the fish to strip line out of the reel before the line breaks. Generally, you want to have your drag set at approximately 25% of the line's test or breaking weight. For example, if the line on your reel is eight-pound test, you will want to set your drag to two-pounds. The best way to do this is with a small spring scale. The drag’s weight should be measured at the end of the rod after the rod has been strung.

An experienced angler can “guestimate” the reel's drag as a result of years of experience.  Pulling on the line right where it leaves the reel will allow you to make a quick check on the drag’s setting. It should pull out fairly easily. Reels have an adjustment knob that can be loosened or tightened as needed. It is better to have the drag set too loosely rather than having is set too tight, and risk breaking the line on a big fish.

Most panfish you catch will not be big enough to pull out line, but it is important to be prepared for the fish that will. Losing a big fish can be heartbreaking!

It is also advisable to “play” the fish before attempting to land it. Playing the fish simply means allowing the fish to pull against the rod, line and drag so it tires itself out. A tired fish will roll on its side or belly, which makes it much easier to land.  Pan fish generally tire quickly. However, the larger individuals will put up quite a struggle before you can get them in.  It is important to keep the line tight and try and guide fish away from underwater hazards where it may tangle the line  and get away.

Netting/Landing Your Catch

Being prepared to land the fish you hook will help avoid the disappointment of losing the fish. The best tool to use is a landing net.  The best nets are rubber, expandable nets. These nets are convenient to use because they are easier to store and cause fewer tangles with hooks.  They also remove less slime from fish, which will keep them healthier if you elect to return them to the water.  However, almost any net will work.

If you are fishing from the bank, having a net with a longer handle will allow you to reach fish easier.

It is often best to have a fishing partner net your fish for you. However, you need to make sure that your partner knows how to use the net.  The most important thing to remember about netting a fish is to lead the fish – headfirst – into the net. Trying to scoop a fish tail-first will likely result in the fish breaking the line and getting away. Don't put the net into the water until the fish starts to tire. Sometimes the mere sight of the net causes the fish to lunge or run, which can break the line. Once it is tired enough, lead the fish into the net headfirst, and then scoop it up. 

Depending on the strength of the line you are fishing with, fish may also simply be lifted out of the water and set down on the land. This will work, but increases the risk of it getting away. Attempting to grab a flopping fish also increases the chances that you will be accidently impaled on one of its sharp spines. Having a fish flop around in the dirt will also cause additional stress on the fish and reduce its chances of surviving if you elect to release it.