By Steve Scepaniak
I have relived a moment from long ago one thousand times in my mind. It involved two brothers coming aboard my boat for an evening of muskie and pike fishing with a new fish cradle in hand.
I told them that, with all due respect, I did not want to use it and I didn’t want it on my boat. I told them of what I’d seen and of horror stories I’d heard from other guides. But they insisted on using it and that the customer is always … well, you know.
I reluctantly agreed and we started to cast for pike on one of my favorite big-pike spots. I suggested to one of them that he let his spinnerbait sink for a few seconds longer into the strike zone where I’d seen a nice pike two days earlier. Upon his second cast, he hooked a true giant of a pike, and the fight was on.
The excitement and action were intense as the pike thrashed and jumped from the water a number of times. After a long fought battle, the pike showed signs of submission as it was slowly steered to the boat.
I was about to grab the cradle when the brother without the fish took it from my hands and told me he was going to take the fish.
I watched as he dropped the cradle into the water and stared at the giant pike. Then it happened.
It was like slow motion as I watched the pike being maneuvered into the cradle. Just as the huge head started to enter the cradle, the back treble hook on the lure, which was dangling from the corner of fish’s mouth, snagged on the mesh of the cradle and the fish stopped dead. One explosive thrash later and a 46-inch trophy of a lifetime sank into the abyss.
The brother who lost the monster threw his rod and reel down and sat on a boat seat, his head in his hands, and proceeded to cry uncontrollably for several minutes.
Yes, I’ll never forget that evening. Cradles remain popular with many anglers, but there is a skill that must be mastered to use them correctly.
Cradles can rock
Most cradles are made of a rubber-coated fine-mesh material that is hook-proof and user-friendly. They’re also good for the fish: Fins can’t split and gills don’t get caught.
The theory of the cradle is to gently support the fish and keep it from thrashing and possibly hurting itself. When properly used, the cradle does a good job of avoiding fish injury.
But there are precautions that must be taken when using a cradle. The person holding the cradle is usually at eye level with the fish being steered to it. If the hooks come out of the fish, they are aimed right at the face of the person holding the cradle. Eye protection must be worn.
If there are any hooks hanging out of the fish’s mouth, they could easily get snagged on the cradle when the fish enters it and thrashes free. This can be avoided with a couple of easy steps.
The person holding the cradle must assess the situation. As the fish is being played, look for any hooks not in the fish’s mouth. Remember where those hooks are and to adjust the cradle accordingly.
If it’s a big fish, expect a final show of power and determination to get away. Wait until the fish is done thrashing and subdued. Once that’s achieved then and only then is the fish ready to be cradled. While wearing protective gloves, quickly reach down with the cradle, adjust the cradle depth to accommodate the exposed hooks, and cradle the fish as it is gently steered into it.
Once the fish is in the cradle, close it tightly by putting the handles together. The fish is yours and unharmed. Leave the fish in the water to unhook it or bring it aboard your boat. The first option is better.
Be careful when choosing a net. A lot of nets are not fish-friendly regarding hook-snagging material and wider mesh. Fish can split their fins and bleed in wider-mesh material and often will get their gills caught in it, which ensures their demise.
Spend a little extra money for a user-friendly net. Get a rubber-coated net in which hooks won’t get caught and a tighter mesh so that fish don’t split their fins and can easily be removed.
Unlike the cradle, the beauty of the net is that you don’t have to wear the fish out to net it. And you can reach out much farther to get it.
There are steps you should take and thing to learn about netting a fish of any size. The person holding the net must assess the situation. Are there are hooks sticking out of the fish’s mouth to be concerned about? If a predator is caught (walleye, pike, or muskie), be careful of the sharp teeth and gills.
If an extended handle net is being used, lock the handle securely into position before using it.
If your net has a long bag, get in the habit of holding onto the bag. I have seen long-bag nets placed in the water and a hooked fish snagged on the outside of the bag. With net bag in hand, wait until the last moment before dropping the bag and netting the fish. This ensures your fish won’t accidentally get snagged on the outside of the net as it makes runs close to the boat.
If a large predator is netted, quickly grab the top of the net bag and try to close the bag as tight to the fish as possible. This helps subdue the fish and keep it from rolling or thrashing around in it. This is where a tight-mesh bag will pay for itself with the easy removal of any fish.
And have the proper tools to handle and unhook fish. That’s another story, though.