I have good friends on both sides of this debate, and both sides make compelling arguments. I don’t really know where I fall half of the time.
One camp suggests that nets are harmful for trout, and you shouldn’t mess with them. Some nets (like uncoated nylon) will damage the protective slime layer on a trout, leaving the susceptible to disease and so forth. Better to use wet hands, or even no hands at all. No air time, just pop the hook out of the fish’s mouth and move on. (Are many people still using the Ketchum Release? I lost mine, but now I use a little gizmo I fashioned out of an old saltwater hook and a ballpoint pen.)
The other camp says that you beat the fish up more by dinking and bumbling around with them, trying to grab them, or pulling them around by the tippet to remove the hook. Too much time… and too many break-offs, leaving flies hanging in the lips of caught trout. A nice rubberized mesh net (especially one with a fairly shallow basket) is perfectly fine for containing a caught fish, and they benefit from the efficiency a net affords during the release.
If I had to go on record, I’d say that where you are and what you’re fishing for factor into the discussion. For example, I won’t fish out of a drift boat or a raft without a rubber landing net. On the other hand, I’ve gotten away from landing steelhead and salmon (when I’m wading) by any other method than grabbing them by the tail.
Sure, we’re all entitled to fish however we are most comfortable. But since catch-and-release anglers essentially share a resource, do you think nets help that process, hurt it… or does it depend on the circumstances?
— Kirk Deeter