We need to have a serious discussion before we examine the topic of handling a musky without a net, so consider this introduction a disclaimer.
Handling a musky without a net is dangerous business, do so at your own risk. A large fish like a musky with a mouth full of treble hooks can be dangerous to handle, and you can find yourself in a very bad situation very quickly with one quick movement of the fish while your hand is in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Every angler in the pursuit of muskies should have the proper tools like a deep bag next to safely net the fish and leave it in the water beside the boat for both you and the fishes safety, along with long needle nose pliers, a heavy-duty hook cutter, and a fish safe jaw spreader for starters.
Catching muskies on accident happens, while you’re out bass fishing or in pursuit of another species, so at times this may be unavoidable, and not having the proper release gear is understandable if your not fishing for muskies in the first place.
So You Caught a Musky
Now what? You don’t have the proper gear to handle this fish, so what do you do in this situation?
Well if you call yourself an angler in any capacity you will at least have needle-nose pliers to unhook fish of any species and if you don’t you need to get one immediately.
The easiest and safest way to deal with a hooked musky is to leave it in the water beside the boat and simply reach down with your pliers and pop the hook out without the fish leaving the water, this method is the safest for both you and the well being of the fish.
Boatside Release Isn’t Possible?
So what should you do if the hook isn’t accessible to get while the fish is in the water? If this is the case then it’s time to get serious.
Get the musky up next to the boat after fighting it, it should be somewhat calm in most cases if it’s played out and is catching its breath, if you know that you can’t simply pop the hook out boat side, you’re going to have to get the fish by hand.
If it’s a larger fish (40 inches or more), you will have to grab it gingerly under the gill plate and lift its head up to perform some oral surgery.
If you have gloves now is the time to use them, if not, be careful of the gill rakers. Gill rakers are razor-sharp teeth that line the jaw bone and if you aren’t properly holding the fish they will cut your fingers.
Carefully put your hand under the gill plate, ensuring that you are not grabbing or harming the muskie’s gills. Done properly, your hand should have very limited contact with the gills.
Get a firm grip of the fish’s gill plate area and lift it so its head is vertical, and use a jaw spreader to open the mouth. From there you can use pliers to unhook the fish, but hold on tight! The last thing we want to happen is the fish escaping your grasp and swimming away with the jaw spreader in its mouth still.
If you dont have a jaw spreader your life will be much harder, you have to get that muskie’s mouth open without harming the fish or yourself, depending on how the fish is hooked, it might voluntarily help you in this venture.
Why Not Bring the Musky in the Boat?
Bringing the musky into the boat should be a last resort. The reason for this being the last resort is due to the safe release of the fish and your own physical safety.
With the proper net and tools, musky anglers leave the fish safe and in the net as it is still in the water, essentially turning the net into a temporary live well.
Only after the fish has been un-hooked while still being in the net will musky anglers take the fish out of the water and while properly holding them in a horizontal hold, take a quick picture or two before safely releasing them into the water.
Bringing the musky into the boat has a few major downsides. If it’s still hooked you run the chance of hooking yourself due to the writhing and thrashing of the fish, which could result in a hospital trip.
The other major downside is that you either lose your grip and the fish falls onto the deck or floor of the boat, or you lay it down on the deck, which is very bad when it comes to post-release survival.
Laying the fish down on a dry boat floor or deck, which in many cases has carpet, removes the protective slime coating from the fish. This slime coating protects the fish from harmful bacteria and infection and works similar to the way that blood helps our wounds heal.
Removing the slime coating from a musky can cause serious life-threatening situations for the fish, and can drastically reduce its chances of survival after you successfully release the fish.
Many of us musky anglers have been seriously hooked due to an ornery musky, I personally have a couple of times, and I remember one incident vividly of my father losing his grip on a thrashing fish and somehow catching one of its top teeth, resulting in a surgically clean cut that ran from the tip of his thumb to his wrist, resulting in a ton of blood and around 20 stitches.
Mutual safety is the reason that it’s imperative that anglers fishing in pike and musky country always have the minimal proper tools to release these fish in the event they are caught whether on purpose or accidental, and these same tools can work for other species like bass and walleye as well.