Carp Care & Fish Handling

When the Editor, Elton, asked me to write a piece on carp care, I was not quite sure where to start; you see for me, care for the quarry starts long before the fish is actually on the bank. However, I was keen to oblige as there is a great deal published about how to catch carp but very little it seems on how to look after one once you’ve hooked it!

On our last carp fishing trip together, Elton was a like a man possessed with the camera and got some great reportage style shots covering the whole sequence from start to finish, so what better opportunity to put the two together!

Playing A CarpAs I say, the care process should start long before the fish picks up your bait. On many occasions I have witnessed so called specimen anglers (not just carp anglers) casting baits to what at best could be described as ‘adventurous’ positions, at worst, downright stupid. Yes, there is a high probability you will get the take you are after if you place your bait six inches off those snags or right up against that submerged tree. However, there is also a high probability that you will lose it before you’ve even picked up your rod. What’s worse, the fish could be left tethered. I’m not going to get bogged down with safe rigs in this piece as there is plenty of content covering suitable set-ups in areas of the site. The point I’m making is that you should think of fish welfare long before you hook one. Use your common sense. Take into account the proximity of features that may cause a problem if you hook a fish and think about your own ability to overcome these obstacles. This applies to all sectors of the sport, not just carp angling.

1. Fish care should start long before it’s up on the scales!

In addition, the rod you use and the way you use it should be carefully considered. After reading many articles, newcomers to the sport could be forgiven for thinking they need 3lb test curve rods and 3oz leads for all their fishing. If you are fishing small and medium sized waters nothing could be further from the truth! The strength or test curve of the rod should be matched to the distances and weights you will be casting for the majority of your fishing – in essence, the bigger the distance, the larger the test curve. However, if you learn how to use a fishing rod correctly, and perhaps more importantly, learn how to cast, you can achieve big distances with small test curve rods. Nearly all my fishing is done with my trusty hand built Sportex two and a quarter pound test curve rods – and yes, I can easily chuck a big lump well over one hundred yards. The benefit of large test curve rods is that at distance you can apply pressure quicker and gain control of the situation faster, but what you have to bear in mind is that at short range, almost the opposite can apply. The rod can be less sensitive and therefore more difficult to use at close quarters leading to hook pulls, etc. Thus, if most of your fishing is done on small waters you would be better suited to a smaller test curve rod. As I say, it’s about matching your tackle to your intended use so give it some thought.

With that out of the way, how do we look after a big fish once we’ve hooked it? The first thing to ensure is that you have all the right gear in the right place at the right time. Once a fish picks up your bait it’s no good if the landing net is still in your bag and the unhooking mat is in the car. Before you cast a bait you should always ensure that your landing net is set up, near to your rods and ready to go. Also, make sure that the net is the correct size for the type of fish you are targeting. If you are fishing for carp, and the water contains specimen fish, then you should be prepared for the eventuality of actually catching one! In my eyes there is no excuse for having the wrong tackle and equipment for the fish you are trying to target. Indeed on the water I run we expel members who turn up with inadequate tackle, as do many others - so think on! I appreciate that tackle can sometimes be costly, but even the most expensive of brands have become much more affordable via eBay and alike so there really is no excuse. Also, don’t forget to check out the Fishing Ads section on Anglers Net.

Landing a carp2. Ensure you have the right equipment for the job.

Once the fish is in the net don’t be in too much of a rush to pull your prize straight out. I know it’s a very exciting time, but just take a moment to ensure everything is ready and that all the items you need are already in place so that once the fish is lifted out of the water you don’t then need to keep running to and from your bivvy looking for various bits of paraphernalia, and if you do need to sort out a few bits before lifting the fish make sure the net is fully secured! You should always fish with some sort of unhooking mat to protect the carp while it is out of the water, so make sure this is ready and positioned away from the waters edge and, if possible, on a flat surface (This ensures the fish can’t flap its way back down the bank and into the water – I’ve seen it happen so many times!). Also, if you intend to weigh your fish you will need a weigh sling. Again this should be ready in advance. You will also need to have a pair of forceps to hand in case your fish is deeply hooked. Again, all this should be ready beforehand so that when you do have a fish; it’s out of the water for the minimum amount of time. I always keep my sling wrapped up in my unhooking mat and also keep a pair of long-nosed forceps clipped to my unhooking mat, this ensures that the three main items I need are always together and in one place. Also, to minimise time on the bank, it helps to wet your sling and have scales zeroed before you lift the fish.

OK, so with everything in place you are ready to lift the net and have a look at your prize. However, do be VERY careful here, as you have to bear in mind that the fish is still hooked. If you just grab around the mesh of the net and heave everything up onto the bank there is a good chance you will pull the line and actually pull the hook out of the mouth. It’s my opinion that more mouth damage occurs to fish when they are being lifted than at any other time so please, do be careful. Just make sure that when you lift the net, that the line is not in your grip – if it is, make sure it’s slack enough below so that it won’t pull on the fish’s mouth when you lift. Also, ensure that the fish is positioned neatly in the centre and bottom of the net before you lift, this way it won’t suddenly get trapped in an awkward position or tumble to the bottom of the net when you gather the mesh and lift it. You should never lift a fish by using the net pole or handle as either could easily give way under the weight of a specimen fish. You should always gather the mesh in your hands just above the fish (a bit like you would if you were about to blow up a paper bag) and the lift carefully with the fish in one hand and your rod and net pole in the other.

3. Always treat fish with the care and respect they deserve.

Common Carp

Once you have carefully transferred the fish from the water to your unhooking mat you should go about your business with care but with promptness. The idea is to keep the fish out of the water for the minimum amount of time necessary. Yes, it is a fact that carp can survive for a long time out of water; I once read that the Dutch were well known for their fondness of carp (to eat, that is!) and would often wrap large carp in damp Hessian sacks in their cellars. They would keep the sacks wet at all times and feed the carp bread and milk for a couple of days prior to eating! However, just because they can survive out of water for a long time does not necessarily mean they want to! So just bear the time factor in mind.

Now you need to unhook the fish. I find the easiest way is to first check where and how the hook has been set and then, manoeuvre it so that it comes out in exactly the same manner in which it went in. I position the eye and shank with my thumb and forefinger, then when the barb and angle of the shank is at exactly the same angle as when it went in, apply a small sharp jab of pressure on the eye of the hook and it will simply pop out. It’s a little tricky to put down on paper so if you are unsure about the best way to unhook a fish, go and have a look at an experienced carp angler with a fish on the bank and ask them to show you – that’s how I learnt. It’s a very simple process once you’ve learnt and takes just a second to do. However, if the fish is deep hooked don’t waste time fiddling, just reach for the forceps – it’s much quicker. A quick tip here is to remove the rod and line as soon as you have removed the hook. Just place the hook in your rod eye, wind in the slack and place the rod to one side. If you don’t you can guarantee that when you do come to sort everything out later the line will be tangled everywhere and the hook will be firmly embedded and immovable from the bottom of your landing net! Once you have unhooked the fish, it’s a good time to perform a quick health check. I always investigate both flanks of the fish and have a look at all the fins, tail and dorsal ridge to check for any damage or injuries. I also check the gill covers, head and also have a check inside the mouth. If you do find any damage it is a good idea to have some antiseptic treatment handy (Klinik is a good one, as is the Nash Tackle Medi Carp). Just apply a small amount to the effected area.

Carp Mouth4. Performing a quick health check

On transferring the fish from net to sling, make sure you are not wearing anything that could damage the fish, like a ring with sharp edges or a set stone or a watch with a sharp strap - I made sure my wedding ring was a simple flat band so that I would not have to take it off every time I handled a fish, and I always try to remove my watch when handling a specimen for photos, etc. Also, as with any fish, make sure your hands are wet and that any slings and sacks you are using are already wet before handling as the body of a fish has a mucus covering which protects the fish from infection so it's important not to damage this membrane when handling. When you transfer the fish to a sling, again make sure that the fish is in the bottom centre of the sling and that its pectoral fins are tucked into the body so that it won’t damage itself when you lift it up.

5. Remove any items of clothing or watches that could damage the fish.

Ok, you’ve weighed your fish and congratulations, it’s a big’un! Time for a photograph to capture the moment - There are two schools of thought here, either taking a photo there and then whatever time of day or night, or, if its at night, sacking the fish until its light enough to take some photos. Sacking fish is a subject which causes a good deal of debate. Personally I’m not a big fan of sacking fish and prefer wherever possible to take photos there and then and to return the fish immediately. If you prepare for your shot properly my feeling is that you can get some stunning images at night which can really capture the moment. However, if you wish to sack a fish and the venue permits it, then you should always remember not to sack a fish in shallow water or immediately after a prolonged battle. Carp obtain their oxygen by wafting water through their gills and in some cases a sack can reduce the free-flow of water required to necessitate this process so you should never place a worn out fish into a sack – in simple terms it could die through exhaustion. Also, by the same token, shallow water has less dissolved oxygen for the fish to utilise so bear this in mind for the same reasons. It goes without saying that you should ensure the sack is properly secured – the thought of a specimen fish set adrift in a sealed sack does not bear thinking about, so make sure you secure it properly and it won’t be a situation you’re ever faced with. If you are going to sack a fish, make sure you check it at regular intervals to ensure firstly that the fish is OK and secondly that everything is secure.

So, either way it’s now time to get a photo and the fish is on the mat. A few basic rules apply here; readiness being the first. The camera gear should have been set up prior to lifting the fish from the water. Once you’re competent at handling both fish and camera, self-take is an option but for now we’ll assume that you have somebody to take the picture for you. Firstly, ensure the photographer is ready with the camera before you attempt to lift the fish. When lifting you should try not to hold the fish against your body as clothing can damage the skin of the fish and remove its protective membrane. Also you should try not to lift the fish from under its belly. Many of the delicate organs including the heart are located on the underside of the body, and whilst in the water there is little pressure on such areas, once out of the water (thus effected by gravity) the pressure is greatly increased. The best way to lift a carp is to have one hand under its head, just in front of the pectoral fins, and one hand under its body, just past the stomach by its anal fin.

6. Ready to lift…

With the photographer in front of you, you want to have the fish on its side with back towards you and belly towards camera. Then, carefully scoop your hands under the fish from behind and bring them round to the front of the body. Scoop one hand under the head and slide the pectoral fin between your fingers. Then scoop the other hand under the rear section around to the anal fin area (see photo below left). Then, slowly lift and level the fish. Be prepared for the fish to kick and be ready to cushion it when it does! I’ve found this method of lifting to be by far the most effective giving good stability to counter the fish when it decides to kick. Keep the fish low to the mat and hold it steady. Big fish can be hard to hold still so it helps to brace the fish; I tend to keep my elbows on my knees which gives a more rigid frame. A quick photography tip here; it helps for the photographer to be at the same level as you, i.e. close to the ground - either kneeling down or, even better, lying down. This gives a great perspective rather than if you are on the floor and the photographer is standing up directly in front of you, the sharp angle when taken from above will make your capture look much smaller than it actually is!

Photographing carpPhotographing carp

Photographing carp7. Hold steady and keep the fish close to the mat

Once you have the shot it’s time to get the fish back in the water. Place it back in the centre and bottom of the sling as before and again make sure the pectoral fins are tucked into the body, and then carefully lift the fish and place back into the water. Do not make the mistake of thinking that just because the fish has behaved for the photo that you can return it without the sling, you can be guaranteed it will have a flap at some point before you get it back in the water – always safer to put it back in the sling for transport. The fish should be returned with great care, keep the body position upright and allow the fish to gain its composure before letting it swim off. Once back in the water I remove the sling and gently support the fish upright by loosely holding around the wrist of its tail. This allows the fish to waft all its fins, get some water moving through its gills again and after a short time it will regain its composure, give a kick of the tail and shoot off back to the deep – often soaking you in the process, but that’s all part of the experience!

8. Take care on returning the fish and allow it to recover

Once the fish has been returned it’s easy to get caught up in the moment but you just need to spend a few minutes getting everything sorted and ready for the next one! Give your landing net a quick rinse and place back by your rods, make sure the sling and mat are back where they should be and any implements used during unhooking, weighing and photographing are back in there rightful positions, that way, when the next fish comes along you are ready to repeat the process all over again with the minimum amount of fuss.

Returning a carp to the lake


9. Job Done! Now you can relax sort your gear out and catch another!

Like most things in fishing, it’s about common sense. It’s simply a case of having everything ready and in the right place at the right time, and when you do land a specimen, make sure you treat it with the care and respect it deserves.

Tight Lines…

Julian Grattidge

Happy Carp Angler

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