How to properly break a fish's jaw...
by Bill Byrd.

I titled this article to get everyone's attention. It covers a topic that makes me mad quickly - Incorrectly holding landed fish and inflicting damage to them. The image above is a way to hold a fish and protect its jaws.

With catch and release fly fishing practiced on most waters most of the time, there are ways to ensure the healthy release of fish. Actually the fly fisher's mishandling of the fish kills the fish in most cases. So be careful!

The purpose of this article is to focus on the behavior of those fishers maming and crippling thousands of fish per year just to get a damn photograph! Not that THEY would be visitors to my website! All that is needed to protect fish is the slightest amount of insight. You can read my article on Catch and Release that works! in this section of my website for more information than this article contains.

Protecting fish to live, grow larger, and fight many more days is NOT a difficult thing to do. It is the RIGHT thing to do. Want to see examples of those unthinking fishers I was referring to just above?

For purposes of this article I want to focus on just one simple thing: How a fisher holds a landed fish for a photo.

I particularly like the Boga grip that you see me holding this large bass with (right). Using the BOGA grip, I can grip the fish, remove my fly, even shoot a photo without touching the fish. With a quick release, the big bass is on her way. No contamination or disturbance of her slime coating has occurred. She is held vertically so no jaw cartilage is damaged. It is a good, fast release. Boga grips are available at most better fly shops. "Handling" a fish this way is MUCH better than netting this fish.

I don't recommend Boga Grip styled devices for landing fish like carp with very soft mouths. A mouth gripping landing device supporting full body weight can rip a fish's soft mouth or lips and cause real problems. Use a litter or both hands cradling the fish. This isn't an issue with most fish species.

In the image left the fisher has landed this bass and is holding it for a fast photo. He has wet both hands and is supporting its weight with his hands.

His guide obviously made sure that this bass was properly cared for by his client. By supporting this fat smallie as you see, the weight of this fish is well distributed along the length of the fish. I obscured the identity of this fisher on purpose.


(1) Play the fish to hand as rapidly as possible.
(2) Wet hands before touching the fish, and support it carefully.
(3) Remove the hook without touching the fish if possible.
(3) Shoot any photos, weigh the fish, and get it back in the water in under a minute.
(4) Position fish to force water through gills, and in streams point fish into current. When the fish tries to swim off, it is probably ready.
(5) Keep handling to an absolute minimum, and be gentle.
(6) Lip a fish vertically -- don't crank its jaw over until its tongue sticks out. You could injure the cartilage in its jaw and make it difficult for the fish's mouth to function properly hurting the fish's odds of survival.

The image right shows the perfect way to break a fish's jaw making it difficult or even impossible for that beautiful smallmouth to survive. This image was taken by a guide and is on his website to show the great fish available in the water he spends so much time on. He earns part of his living this way. Looks like he'd protect the fish better.

As a fisher or guide, I won't allow guests in my boat to mishandle a fish -- no exceptions. If someone won't properly handle fish in my boat -- I'll put them out of my boat, period.

Again the fish's weight is all on its jaws. If the fish suffers cartilage damage, his jaws won't work correctly making it difficult for it to feed. I have caught fish with damaged jaws and sometimes they have survived, but they are usually very thin and weak.

If you only have one hand free hold your fish vertical. This fish is being held vertically which takes the weight off his jaw and distributes it to his body. There should be no damage to the fish's jaw and his ability to continue to survive and grow.

Years ago I caught a 3 pound bass with a 7 inch bluegill stuck in its mouth. I couldn't believe that the bass had survived. It was showing signs of loss of eating ability. The big bluegill's fins had dug into the bass's mouth and the gill wouldn't budge.

When I landed the bass I expected that his jaws would be totally ruined. I carefully cut away the bluegills' fins with side cutters and removed it from the bass's mouth. Then I slowly and very carefully closed his jaws some, opened them, and closed them a little more until I could see the range of motion that was possible. Amazingly when I returned him to the water, he was able to work his jaws stiffly, but they appeared to work.

I released him and expected him to make a full recovery.

A friend recently sent me this image of a bass only slightly larger than the other bass that he'd tried to eat stuck in his mouth. This may have been the "Leroy Brown" bass mentally but his mouth obviously wasn't big enough. The result: both fish died. Let this be a lesson to all of us who love buffets! In nature freak things can happen. We don't have to add to the problem.

So there you have it. Anytime you land a fish please keep this information in mind. If you see someone else trying to break a fish's jaw -- please tactfully educate him on the negative possibilities, and the right way to hold a fish for a photo. If the fish is released unharmed everyone benefits. If it is released damaged for life, everyone loses. I believe it is that simple.