Everything You Never Wanted to Know About Fly Fishing Nets
By Chris Opfer
If you’ve been fishing for more than 30 years, you have probably seen (or done yourself) someone hook a fish and drag it up to the bank. The fish is now out of the water, covered in sand and leaves. This was, and still is, called banking the fish. When you kept the fish, it wasn’t a big deal. Maybe you even saw that guy throw the sandy trout into a creel (now we’re going way back).
Today, most of us prefer to put the fish back so we can harass it again and again. Unless you’re like my buddy Chad who insists upon hand-landing his trout while struggling with his 10’ Euro nymph rod in the middle of a run, you’re going to need a net.
Before we dive into nets, there are a few things you need to know about trout. That slime that covers your hands and reminds you of your trophy catch for days is actually part of the trout’s immune system. When we scrape it off, with our hands, sand, or even a net, we run the risk of that fish getting sick and even dying. Have you ever seen a fish with this weird white growth on it? There ya have it.
I even once saw a fish that had a white growth in the perfect shape of a hand; I hope it was worth the photo for that angler. You’ve probably heard anglers say “keep ‘em wet.” This helps the trout survive and we always need to wet our hands before handling a fish to decrease the chances of removing that slime. So, why do we care about fish slime and immune systems in relation to nets? Well, nets help us keep the fish wet, allowing it to breathe and reduce the handling stress, but it doesn’t end there.
Selfishly, we also land more fish because we aren’t trying to grab them with our hands or fling them onto land. It’s “better for the gram, brah!”
Your first net, and maybe the one you have in the back of your overly-stickered Toyota 4 Runner has a nylon “bag.” The bag, just so we’re all on the same page, is the actual “net” part. It’s what the fish sits in when you scoop it up. Does this material really matter? Absolutely it does. If the bag is made of an abrasive string-like material, this too can remove the protective slime from a fish.
Not only does that hurt the fish, your net will smell like fish for the rest of the time you own it. Even if you get over harming the fish and the smell in the back of your new Toyota, you won’t get over the hooks that get caught in there, because they stay in there.
So, what are the preferable materials? You’ll want either a silicone or rubber-coated bag. The best-known is Fishpond in this area. They make their Nomad brand nets (they acquired Nomad many years ago). I’ll get into the handle material momentarily, but Fishpond makes all their Nomad nets with silicone rubber mesh. These are very gentle on the fish and are not easily pierced by hooks when that brown trout does the death roll once you netted him. A rubber-coated mesh is also good. Simms and Orvis both make these nets. They’re durable and a little lighter weight than the Nomad bags. They are also not easily pierced by those thrashing hooks.
As far as bag material, find one that is either rubber, or silicone, or both. Better for the fish. Less lost hooks. Less air fresheners required.
Yes, this matters and yes we’re going to leave all the sexual innuendos untouched in this article. Maybe you read the first section and you threw your phone to the side and ran into the nearest big box store. In there, you are likely to find a wooden net (again, we’ll discuss the material in a minute) with a silicone bag labeled as a “fly fishing net.” You did it! You passed the net test for fly fishing! Not really. You see, these bags are REALLY shallow. As in 7” shallow. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never met a fish that is just happy chilling in a net after it’s been caught.
They thrash and roll and flip and flop. When your net is only 7” deep (I think they technically advertise them as 12” deep which simply isn’t true . . . still steering clear of the jokes), your personal best rainbow of 14” will flop out of there faster than you can say Kelly Galloup. Your chance for a photo is gone and your three Instagram followers will not know the epic day you had.
If you look at all the major fly fishing brands (Fishpond, Orvis, and Simms), you’ll notice that all the bags are deeper, even on the smaller handheld nets. Why? Because the designers were actually fly fishers. Fishpond even makes some silly-deep bags that you can replace yours with. You may not need it unless you’re a guide, you’re a guide, you’re a guide, you are fishing to huge fish, or you’re a guide. Anyway, just make sure you get a net with a moderately deep bag. In addition to keeping the fish in, the deep bags allow you to keep the fish in the water while you ready your phone.
Net Frame Material
There are three basic types of frames built for fly fishing nets; composite, metal (usually aluminum), and wood. Composites encompass carbon fiber, carbon composite, and Kevlar. These are light, tough, and usually float. The oldest and some would argue the most aesthetically pleasing to look at are the wood nets. Bodin is a big manufacturer of wood nets. You can also find some really great custom wood nets like the ones we have in our Lone Tree shop right now.
Are there really substantial pros and cons between the three types of nets? Yes and no. They all function pretty much the same, but here are some thoughts on each. The composite nets are very light and tough, but if you fall on them wrong, they can snap. It’s never happened to me, but I’ve heard stories. How light they are really makes a difference throughout the day.
As far as the aluminum nets, they are very tough as well, but noticeably heavier. You can get them in fun colors, so there’s that. Wood kind of splits the difference. Again, they can be some of the “prettiest” nets. They aren’t overly light but aren’t usually as heavy as aluminum. The wood nets are tough, but when the finish wears down, you start to have issues.
One last thing to think about is that you want a net that floats because you will, I promise, drop it in the river more than once. If it floats, like the Fishpond or wood nets, you at least have a shot of retrieving them as you frantically chase it downstream.
There’s no right or wrong with any of these. I personally fish and guide with composite and wood. The last thing I’ll say about frame material is that good nets aren’t cheap and cheap nets aren’t good. This is a buy-once-cry-once scenario. The quality frames allow you to replace the bag so these could easily last you for the rest of your fishing career.
Net Frame Length
This is a big one. Really? Yup. So many of us start out with the itty bitty little hand nets. That are maybe 18” in overall length. We attach it with a clip to our vest (I’m sure you’re already seeing two problems here) and we’re pleased as punch to have it tap our backside all day. I’m not totally dogging on short nets. They have their place. If you’re wanting or needing a really compact setup, these are okay. We will call these hand nets as that is really what they are.
Next is a long-hand net. There aren’t many manufacturers of these, but they do exist. Fishpond makes the Emerger, you could almost put Orvis’ hand net in this category, and I know Frabill makes one as well. These usually have slightly longer handles and longer mouths. They give you a bit more reach but aren’t so big that they are cumbersome.
Third in the lineup is the mid-length net. I’d say over the last few years, these have become the most common. The bag and net opening are often the same size, but the handle itself will be around 18” to 24”. Why are these so popular? Well, they really give you that extra reach so you can slide that sweet buttery brown into your net. These truly make landing fish so much easier. Plus, the long handle fits into most packs’ net pockets or you can even shove it in your wading belt or waist pack. Don’t try to hang these from the back of your vest though; you’ll just look silly.
The fourth category is a “guide” net. No, you don’t automatically become a guide if you buy one of these and you may even get made fun of if you carry them but don’t worry, there is a time and a place for these. Guide nets are generally VERY long and have a huge bag. Why? Losing fish, and therefore bragging rights to for a client to his buddies is not an option. Guides will often have different nets for different stretches of river. Levi Lambert, our head guide out of our Lone Tree shop has recently been seen sporting an extendable aluminum net; he barely has to get in the water anymore. Kidding . . . not really.
The fifth and final category is a boat net. These cross over with guide nets. They generally have very long handles and larger bags. They are great for reaching out of a boat to net your fish. They also make great wading staffs. If you’re the guy who wants the “biggest and baddest” to show off to your friends, you’ll actually probably regret buying a boat net (or even a guide net) for your everyday fishing. Why? They are big and cumbersome.
Remember, in a boat you’re usually letting the net lay on the floor or shoving it between packs and bags. A guide isn’t usually fishing next to you. These really long nets are also terrible to bushwhack with and they don’t really fit into any packs well. If you’re flying solo with average to large fish, a mid-length will be the Goldilocks net. If you’ve broken down like so many of us and bought a drift boat or raft so you can crash down rivers once or twice a year, you’ll be happy you had a boat net.
I personally keep the long-handled El Jefe from Fishpond in my boat 24/7 and I will sometimes throw a Fishpond Emerger net in there for when I decide to wade a ways away from my boat.
Just as with anything in fly fishing, there are ALWAYS add-ons and trinkets for you to demonstrate to others your commitment to the fly fishing hobby that we too-often call a sport.
The first is the net clip. These have been around since I was a wee lad in neoprene waders. This is simply a clip that you clip the end of your net to a loop or something else on your pack or vest. These are a pain to use when you’re worried about that buttery brown popping off your size 22 Parachute Adams. I’ve never seen anyone use these clips gracefully or efficiently. Instead, they fumble around their back until the fish shakes loose or they take off their whole vest to net the fish.
The second is the net retractor. These are basically huge zingers that you attach to your vest or pack and then to the net. They allow you to pull the net out to net that fish and then let go to have it rocket to your backside. These are nice for smaller nets as you always know where they are, you generally won’t lose it, and you can let go of the net without it dropping into the current. One of the drawbacks is that, depending on your net weight, the zingers aren’t always strong enough. Plus, they don’t always reach as far as you’d like.
The third is a magnetic net keeper. This has the same basic logic as the zinger, except there are two magnets that release and then you have a bungee tether. These are nice because you generally get a longer reach, but sometimes mating the two magnets back together can be a bit of a pain.
The GoPro mount. Yes, this is a thing and it’s great for getting those Instagram reels. It also makes it so your net no longer fits anywhere and we all know what you’re doing on the river.
The fifth item in our lineup is the butt-cap grip. These are actually quite nice for walking as they don’t wear down the end of your net. The downside is that they no longer slide into a pack or net holster anymore.
Oh, the net holster, the thing that’s awesome until something else fails. They are quite literally what they sound like. They are holsters that go on your pack or wading belt that allows your net to slide in. These can be great, but often aren’t because of how we use them in reality. First, these usually mount on your belt. Great idea, except that most wading bets are thin and/or too stretchy. This means that your net is flopping all over the place. This will be short-lived unless you use a firm and wide wading belt.
Second is that, when used on your belt, these holsters keep your net vertical, but low, causing them to hit you in the back of the legs. The same thing happens when you hang a long net from a zinger. It’s an annoyance to say the least. Don’t get me wrong though, they definitely have their place. Just things about using a shorter handled net or sliding the holster off to the side.
Well, that about sums up all you needed to know and more than you ever wanted to know about nets. Every net size has its place and I have all the sizes hanging in my garage right now. I’d encourage you, if you’re in the market, to come by our shop, bring your pack/vest/etc. and try out a few different nets. I’d start with the assumption that you want a mid-length net and then move up or down from there depending on your needs, goals, and the type of fishing that you’ll be doing mostly.