How to Hold a Trout? A Common Sense Goes a Long Way

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Man standing in the water holding a trout, held with two hands — one near the tail and one under the fish’s shoulders.

The best way to hold a trout, particularly if you plan to release it, is by supporting its midsection and avoiding its gills. Trout bones are flexible, but they can be damaged if the fish’s weight isn’t supported.

There’s a perception out there that trout are delicate creatures that can die at the blink of an eye. Hogwash. Trout are resilient and adaptable. They can live happily in the coldest of water. They can thrive in habitats that might kill a bass or a panfish. 

But, just like any other fish you’re lucky enough to catch, how you handle them matters. It’s particularly important if you plan to release trout alive.

Give Trout Needed Support

Trout, particularly larger specimens that might measure longer than 18 inches (about 45 centimeters), should be handled carefully. If you must lift a big trout like this out of the water, do so with a hand under the fish’s midsection. 

Larger trout over 20 inches (50 centimeters) should be held with two hands. One hand should go under the fish’s vent above the tail, and the other should support the fish under its “shoulders,” or about halfway between the gills and the belly. For added support, extend an index finger along the jawbone of the trout. 

This just gives these larger specimens the support they need. Their cartilage skeletal system is strong and flexible. But it’s not built to support the fish’s weight outside of a near-weightless environment where trout live. The extra support for a second or two will help the fish’s bones support its weight. 

Equally important, while you’re supporting the fish’s weight, try very hard not to squeeze the fish. Its internal organs are susceptible to damage. Again, trout, like all fish, live in a virtually weightless environment. Their anatomy, when out of the water, is subject to unfamiliar pressure.

Hands Off the Gills

Man's hand holding the trout above the water not touching the gills.
Smaller trout can be handled with one hand, but don’t touch a trout’s gills.

When I was a kid, I was fishing for brook trout in the mountains of central Colorado with my uncle. I remember catching a very small brookie, and declaring that I was going to throw the fish back.

My uncle watched as I grabbed the fish around the midsection and then slid my fingers under its gills while I worked the hook free. 

“Would you be OK if someone were to grab you out of the water by the face and then start running their hands over your lungs?” my uncle asked me. 

“No,” I remember saying. 

“Well, that’s what it’s like to be a trout when you put your fingers in its gills,” he said.

A trout’s gills are the fish’s breathing apparatus. The gills glean oxygen from the water. They are fragile and vital to the fish’s survival. If you handle any trout by the gills, chances are, the fish will be severely injured. It might even die.

It was a valuable lesson that I try to teach new anglers as often as I can. Avoid the gills at all costs. 

Keep Trout Wet

Man holding the trout's tail above the water.
Keeping trout wet can help keep trout alive.

Trout, like most fish, have a coating of fishy slime that covers their entire body. This coating helps the fish avoid disease and it aids in their locomotion. When they’re kept out of the water for more than a few seconds, that slime coat begins to dry up

When you handle trout, only lift them from the water long enough to snap a quick photo or two. If you need another photo, dunk them back into the water for a few seconds before lifting them out again, quickly. 

It’s generally OK to touch trout, but try not to run your fingers or hands across their bodies. That friction, particularly if your hands are dry, can rub that slime coating off. That can prove problematic for the fish. 

That’s why, when you watch videos of anglers handling trout, you’ll often see the angler wet his or her hands before touching the trout. 

Limit Their Exposure

Trout — just like any other fish — can’t breathe out of the water. Many anglers, understanding what it’s like to be unable to breathe, particularly after heavy exertion, don’t take trout out of the water at all. 

That’s obviously the best choice. But, many anglers want to get that photo taken. The desire for the Instagram selfie is just too great to overcome. When you must have a photo of or with a trout, make sure you only leave the fish out of the water as long as it’s absolutely necessary

Think about it. You just managed to fool and then fight a trout to the net or to hand. It’s exhausted. It’s literally been fighting for its life. Then, to add insult to injury, you decide you need a photo, so you lift the fish out of the water, where it can’t breathe. 

A good rule of thumb? Count to three. That’s as long as it should take to capture two or three quick photos, and that’s as long as a trout should be lifted from the water. Lift the fish, count to three, dunk the fish. Simple as that. 

How About a Net? 

Trout fish in the water.
If you’re going to use a net, a rubberized mesh net will help you avoid injuring a trout.

The jury is out on this one. Many believe that nets cause undue injury to trout. They can be abrasive and, often, netted trout still have a lot of energy. When they’re captured, they panic (just as we might, right?). In their frantic efforts to escape, they can hurt themselves. 

Others believe that nets are safer for the fish. We can capture them without handling them too much, which makes good sense. We can keep them in the water longer, which makes even better sense. 

If you use a net to handle trout, consider a rubber-mesh net, not an abrasive mesh or a net constructed from monofilament. 

And a good rule of thumb? Larger trout should probably be netted. Smaller trout are a bit easier to handle and can likely be handled and released without the aid of a net. 

Final Thoughts

Man's hand holding the trout's tail
The closer you keep a trout to the water, the better. Use common sense when handling trout, and you’ll release more of them alive.

A lot of people believe trout to be fragile or unable to deal with being handled. That’s not entirely accurate. A trout’s skeletal structure is actually quite strong, but it’s not designed to support the fish’s weight when the fish is out of the water.

So, when you lift a trout out of the water, be sure you support its midsection. For longer and larger trout, hold the fish underneath its vent at the rear and under its upper-middle section, about halfway between its gills and its belly. 

Be sure to keep the fish wet to avoid rubbing the slime coat off. It’ll help if you wet your hands before you handle the fish. Don’t run your hands over the fish, and don’t touch its gills. 

Finally, use common sense. Don’t hold a fish out of the water so long that it suffocates. 

If you handle trout responsibly and then release the fish, it’ll be there the next time you go fishing. And, chances are, it’ll be bigger the next time you catch it. 


Is It Better to Avoid Handling Trout at All?

In short, yes. But let’s be honest. That’s not very realistic. Some anglers do, indeed, only touch the fly in the corner of a fish’s mouth, and avoid touching the fish at all. But most anglers like to show off their catch, and that means they’ll have to handle them responsibly. 

Should you hold a trout by its mouth?

No. First, larger trout have larger teeth and jaws. Second, remember that trout live in a weightless world. Lipping a trout can put too much pressure on its jaw, particularly if it’s a larger fish.

Can I Lift a Trout by Its Tail?

Yes, but it’s not the best practice. Sometimes it’s easier to grab larger trout’s tail and then slide a hand underneath it. If you do this, put your hand under the tail before you lift it.

Can I Lift a Trout by Its Gills?

No. Never touch a trout’s gills unless you intend to harvest the fish.

Chris Hunt Avatar


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