Conservation | Fishing | Voices from the river

Handy

By Dean Finnerty

My son really wanted this fish.

He’d put in a lot of hours standing in the cold, winter flows of an Oregon coastal stream, plying its waters day after day, waiting for that tug. While he had caught steelhead before, when this tug finally came, on the other end was a fish fully 8 or 9 pounds heavier than the average native winter steelhead that call this river home.

“No pressure, Dad,” I thought to myself, as my son eased the monster buck into the shallows below him.

Hunter Finnerty working his first steelhead caught on the swing.

I eased my left hand around the wrist of the buck’s tail—a new mesh “fish grip glove” gave me extra confidence in executing this tricky maneuver. I gently turned the fish’s head toward my open hand, then cradled the fish in the shallows.

A moment later my son had removed the bunny leech and its barbless trailer hook from the maxillary of his biggest steelhead to date. We spent another moment looking with awe on this massive male, then I released my grip and we watched it slip back into the “steelhead green” waters. 

Bringing feisty wild steelhead into the shallows (especially big ones) so they can be unhooked is one of the biggest challenges of steelhead fishing. Fish can injure themselves thrashing in the shallow water or if they flop onto the bank. Getting a fish under control quickly is crucial for a safe release. 

Carrying and using bulky nets, especially when you’re covering a lot of ground, thrashing through brush on the banks and wading and swinging flies as you step down a run, is difficult if not impossible. So I’ve tried a number of other devices intended to make landing fish quicker and safer for the fish.

Hunter’s first steelhead on a swung fly.

Several years ago I came across this mesh mitt, designed to be worn on an angler’s hand and to allow sufficient grip on the wrist (just above the tail) of powerful salmon and steelhead for landing and unhooking them without damaging the slime and scales that protect these fish from fungus and bacteria in the river. Jim Teeny makes a good version of this product now.

This little mitt can be easily stuffed in a wader or jacket pocket and deployed in a matter of seconds.  The ol’ adage, “It won’t do you any good if you don’t have it handy,” always crosses my mind when I consider what sort of gear I really need to carry when I’m doing the sometimes difficult hiking and wading required to fish wild steelhead rivers. 

I was sure glad to have that little mesh mitt with me that day for my son’s monster buck steelhead, and now I never leave home without one stuffed in my wader pocket. It makes the challenge of tailing a wild fish in shallow water much safer and easier—and giving our best to a magnificent fish that always gives their best to us is something we should all strive for.

Dean Finnerty of Oregon, a longtime steelhead and salmon guide, is director of TU’s Wild Steelhead Initiative and northwest regional director for TU’s Sportsmen’s Conservation Project.