Lip grips are useful little tools when handling fish. Used correctly they can aid in quick, safe releases. Used incorrectly or on the wrong fish they can also harm and even kill fish. So the question is how and on what species should we use lip grips? Or should we use them at all?
Firstly a little “science”. Most fish are relatively sensitive to damage, which can lead to infections and other complications, as catch and release fishermen, our aim is to limit that to the greatest extent possible to do our best to ensure the post release survival of the fish we catch, so we can hopefully catch them again one day. Of course we are putting hooks in fish, so some level of damage is par for the course, good fish handling is about limiting that as much as possible. Poor fish handling can kill fish and good fish handling is something catch and release anglers should be acutely aware. The broader issue of good fish handling is a much bigger issue that we will discuss in detail in later posts. This post is mainly about lip grips. The main issue with lip grips is their metal jaws which distribute force over a small area and can damage the mouths of fish. That damage can be quite severe (especially if used incorrectly) and can open a doorway to infection. The worst case scenario of this damage is that it can cause a higher mortality in the fish we catch and release. For example, bonefish appear to be particularly susceptible with lip grips causing damage to 80% of bonefish held in the water and 100% of fish held in the air. Of these 40% of fish had serious injuries e.g. tongues separated from the mouth, splitting on the mandible (link here), many of which could have proved fatal. In barramundi, lip grips perforated the membranes in the lower jaw in 81% of fish handled with support and 100% of fish handled without support (link here). Both those studies suggest that lip grips may do more harm than good in some species. Using the precautionary principle it suggest we should probably avoid using them on a number of different species and should seriously consider not using them at all. That said, it would be nice to have studies like the ones above for all popular sport fish as lip grips may be fine in some species. However, until that data is available, it may be time to consider retiring your lip grips for a while…
Leaving the preachiness of that last sentence for a moment, lip grips can be very useful and there may still be cases where they have a place in the responsible catch and release anglers bag of tricks. For example, often when catch and release fishing, once I have a few photos for the blog, I quickly move to releasing fish without taking them out of the water or even putting a hand on them. This is the best method for handling fish when practicing catch and release, that is, handling them as little as possible to minimise stress and potential damage to the skin or slime on the fishes skin through contact with hands, hard, hot or dry surfaces etc etc. In this scenario, lip grips can make it easier to control a fish in the water while you take the hooks out so that it can quickly be released. Here lip grips may (in some cases) be an OK or even very good way of handling some fish. So there may be some scenarios where lip grips can still play a role when used responsibly. Added to that, new lip grip designs (plastic, larger surface areas etc) may cause less damage and be less harmful to fish. While the evidence on injury detailed above is bad, there may still be a role for lip grips, especially if fishing companies come up with new designs that address the issue of fish injury. While I believe that the original metal jawed lip grips should probably be phased out by most catch and release fishermen, lip grips overall probably aren’t dead and properly designed lip grips addressing some of the issues with the older designs may well have a role to play in the future.
I’ll leave the final decision as whether you chose to use lip grips or not up to you. There are of course some absolute no-nos with lip grips. The big one is NEVER lift a fish by the lip grips alone. Lip grips should not be used to lift fish EVER. While they are useful for controlling fish, lifting fish with lip grips can cause damage to vertebrae, mouths, jaws and tongues, potentially causing death. Lifting any fish out of the water, especially large fish, it is important to support the weight of the fish. Lip grips alone won’t do that. The same goes for lifting fish by the jaw or gills, just don’t do it if you plan of releasing your catch. Lips grips are primarily there to help you control fish, not to lift them. Use them as they are designed and support the weight of the fish in the mid section when lifting them out of the water (big fish especially). This will vastly reduce any potential injuries caused by the lip grips. The data from the bonefish and barramundi studies clearly shows that misused lip grips cause by far the most damage. If you are going to keep using lip grips, make sure you do it responsibly.
Now that may all seem a bit preachy, which isn’t the intention, like most, we have at times been guilty of sins against proper fish handling. It happens. What important is that we learn from those mistakes, educate ourselves through discussions with other angler and update our ideas when new science comes along so we can continually keep improving our fish handling techniques. On a personal note, I used to use lip grips. A few years ago after reading the bonefish study and a very unfortunate incident with a little barramundi I stopped (the unfortunate incident was trying to get a photo of a little barra, it kicked, I lost my grip on it, it fell, the leash detached from the lip grips and the fish with lip grips attached went over the side, leaving me feeling horrible). Most fish I catch can be quickly handled and released back into the water without them, so for me at least, I decided that the potential benefits weren’t worth the risk. My lip grips now form part of my carp arsenal, they mean I don’t have to carry a net and given in Victoria carp have to be humanely dispatched when caught, the issues about post release survival and damage simply aren’t a factor. In the end though the decision you make is up to you and we’d dearly love to know your thoughts on the issue though.
So what are your opinions on lip grips? Why do you use them? Why don’t you use them? Do they have a place in catch and release fishing? Or are they a tool that should be consigned to the dustbin of “well meaning” but ineffective gadgets? Some of the newer designs, made with plastic, with larger surface areas may be a lot better, should we move to those? Let us know your thoughts and stay tuned for a few more in depth posts on proper fish handling techniques.