Do fish die if you touch them? (Catch and Release Fishing)

All anglers will come in contact with fish when landing the fish, removing the hook, or when putting the fish back in the water. Touching fish is just the nature of fishing and can’t be avoided.

A common concern among catch-and-release anglers is do fish die if you touch them? A fish will not die when you touch them. By touching fish what is happening is that you are removing fish’s protective slime coating. The slime coating has many different functions but its most important function is to provide the fish with protection against toxins and parasites. The longer an angler handles a fish, more of the protective slime coating is removed which increases the risk of the fish to become ill.

Cool Fact: Some fish can use their protective slime coating as a way to defend against predators. Hagfish will secrete excessive amounts of slime as a defensive mechanism when attacked. Check out this video from National Geographic where a shark ended up gagging on a hagfish’s slime.

It is so important as a catch-and-release angler to minimize the amount of time you handle a fish in order to maintain the fish’s protective slime coating. That is why I can’t up with 5 tips on how you can reduce the amount of slime being removed when handling the fish.

Holding Fish Underwater

Keep The Fish In The Water

Whenever possible always try to remove a hook from a fish in the water. Fish secretes a certain type of protein when it comes in contact with water will create the slime protective layer. By keeping the fish in the water will help the fish maintain their slime layer. Also, the water lubricates your skin which will naturally help reduce the amount of slime being removed.

When a fish is out of the water the slime layer is slowly drying up and being removed by your skin. This increases the fish’s risk to not survive once released back in the water.

Pick The Proper Fishing Net

Fish that are too big to be handled in the water needs to be brought out of the water to remove the hook. This is typically done by using a net but not any net will do. That is of course if your goal is to minimize the amount of slime being removed.

Nets made from rough and hard material with a narrow mesh should be avoided. Instead, use a fishing net made from soft material, rubber will work great here, with a wide mesh. Make sure to get these nets wet before use as it will further minimize the amount of slime removed by reducing the friction between the net and the fish.

Wear Them Silly Orange Rubber Gloves

Dry skin will for sure rub off the protective slime layer. In fact, you can feel it on your hands after you are done handling the fish. So at the very least make sure your hands are wet before handling the fish.

Wearing those bright orange rubber gloves works great when trying to minimize removing a fish’s protective slime layer. Just like with the rubber netting make sure to get the gloves wet before handling.

Never Place Fish On Dry Surfaces

You netted and landed the fish. Great!

Now you need to place the fish somewhere to remove the hook but where should you place the fish?

If you are fishing onshore then you should never place a fish on dry surfaces or on the ground (dirt, rocks, twigs, etc) directly. There are small sharp objects that could cut into a fish’s body which could cause them an infection. Remember, fish are not used to bacteria from the surface.

This is less of an issue on a boat because there are really not sharp objects that can cut a fish. Depending on the style of boat, like an open V type aluminum boat, where the floor can easily become wet will help reduce the friction.

A solution if you are fishing onshore or on a boat is to place a wet towel or cloth on your working surface to lay the fish on. If you place a fish on a bench, then take all the precautions to ensure you don’t lose control of the fish when it moves and have it drop onto the floor.

3 … 2 … 1 Say “Cheese!

Any angler wants to take a QUICK photo of their catch of the day. This is only natural but notice how QUICK is emphasized here. Remember the longer you handle the fish and keep it out of the water the more harm you are causing the fish. So make sure you are not taking several photos with different angles and poses looking for that great shot.

If you must take a photo make sure you have wet hands or are wearing rubber gloves.

Is The Slime Safe For Me … What I Need To Know

Angler knows that cuts and scrapes are part of the territory with fishing. Many of the injuries go unnoticed until you get in contact with some lemon juice.

Anglers have been known to develop what is referred to as “Fish-Handler’s Disease“. This happens with an Angler comes in contact with the fish’s slime while having cuts on their hands that are not properly cleaned. According to this research abstract, it showed that a bacteria called Erysipelothrix was found in a fish’s slime. Erysipelothrix is one of two types of bacteria that can cause Fish-Handler’s Disease.

Fish-Handler’s Disease has many different names and can even be caused by handling shellfish or any other aquatic marine life.

Symptoms will typically develop two to seven days after infection. A red-purple circular area will appear around the infected area and will grow in size after each day. Other symptoms include:

  • joint stiffness,
  • lymph node swelling,
  • pain, burning,
  • itching,
  • and swelling.

If you believe that you are having symptoms make sure to go see a doctor right away for treatment.

To avoid infections make sure to thoroughly wash your hands with warm water and soap. If you have a bunch of cuts and want to be on the safe side then sterilize your hands with rubbing alcohol.

This short article from talks more in-depth about this infection. However, with proper hand hygiene, the risk of developing Fish-Handler’s Disease is very small.

With all my years of fishing and knowing others who have been fishing even longer have never had this occurred before.

Other Interest Facts About Fish Slime

After doing some research I found an article that dove more in-depth about a fish’s slime. Below is some interesting information that I personally thought was pretty cool.

Allows Fish To Swim Faster & Reduces Turbulence

The fish’s slime coating provides lubrication between the fish’s body and the water. There is friction between the fish and water as the fish swims around. This extra lubrication reduces the amount of energy used to swim around and allows the water to travel around the fish more smoother.

This allows the fish to swim faster and to be able to conserve energy.


The slime helps fish regulate what is called Osmoregulation. This is the process where fish can regulate salts and water being absorbed through the slime coating.

Freshwater fish tends to have bodies contains more salt than what is in the surrounding water. This causes freshwater fish needing to absorb more water to balance out the amounts of salts in the body.

Saltwater fish naturally holds less salt than what is in the saltwater. Therefore, the fish will need to absorb more salts from the water to balance out the amount of water in their body.

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