Montana Brown Trout

To net, or not to net, that is the question

Oh, to own a boat! Then using a net is not a question, because fly fishing nets with a rubber/silicon bag are a fish saving, time saving device on the water. A well-designed net allows you to land fish so much faster than hand landing, saving the trout’s energy for the best release. You’re back in the game much faster, because you’re not fighting a fish for 5 extra minutes better spent catching another fish you need a net for. The shallower rubber bag is the perfect platform for hook removal, and the unused hopper or dropper won’t stick in the bag as you remove the fly that worked from the trout’s mouth. In short, nets save time, reduce fish mortality and simplify hopper/dropper release. Fishing Nets makes a great holding pen before taking a picture- keep the net/fish in the water until ready to shoot, sweep the trout up and snap your shot. A healthier fish goes back to the river.

Despite all the positives a net has, the net can create as many annoyances as it does solutions for the wading angler. I remember struggling to carry a net in my youth. Attached to my vest under my left arm or on my back, the net bag found every branch and shrub along the river. When I carried it in easy reach, it was in the way as I fished. When I carried it where it wasn’t in the way, then I couldn’t reach it when needed. Net carrying was a dilemma. Then I learned about The Brookie, made by the Brodin Company, famous for their oil rubbed wooden nets. The Brookie was approximately 13” in length, and was advertised to hold a 20” fish due to the size of the net bag. Perfect! Tiny to carry, and it holds huge fish!

Well do I remember the first time I went to use that net on a big fish. I got the fish close, whipped out the net, and then just stared at it. The opening of the net was about 6” across- the fish was about 17” long. Not a good fit. In order to get the fish properly led into the net, I was going to have to fight it to exhaustion. I stared at this silly piece of tackle for a second more, then dropped it (couldn’t throw it as it was attached with a magnet/bungee- more on that later) and landed the fish the old fashioned way. Never used that net again.

It was a lesson learned. You don’t often truly need a net when fishing. Most of the fish we catch can be brought to hand quickly and released easily. But when you need a net, you need a NET. Not some tiny piece of tackle designed for easy carry, but a net that can easily swoop up a thrashing 18” fish. The bigger the opening, the more effective a net is. And therein lies the rub. The bigger the fly fishing net, the trickier it is to carry. That’s been made trickier by the new sling packs and fanny packs.

When I started fishing, anglers used a vest. The conventional spot for a net was on the back of the vest, handle down or handle up. Each had their proponents, and many clips/magnets were designed to hold the net while not in use, with a piece of bungee cord holding the net to the clip. You quickly learned to stop bushwacking when you felt a tug on the back of your vest. Take two more steps, and the net freed itself from whatever separated it from clip, and came ripping into the back of your head propelled by the bunjee cord. These different clips are still in use today, and other than the bushwacking thing, work very well.

But with sling packs and fanny packs, carrying a fishing net has become trickier. Net manufacturers build wading nets with longer handles that balance better when stuck into a belt. I’ve not mastered the sling pack yet, but they have net attachment points and I know anglers who use them with their slings. They make it work because having a net is important to them.

You can get a rubber bagged wading net starting about $35, and they go up from there. The less expensive nets for fly fishing are made of wood and then varnished. The varnish protects the wood from water, right up until you chip the varnish and then the net falls apart due to water damage. An oil finished wooden net lasts much longer, but needs some off season maintenance. Now the better nets are being made from graphite and tubular aluminum, and are completely impervious to water. Those will last until you lose them.

So let’s talk about losing tackle on the water. We all do it, and many of us find things on the water as well. Fly boxes, sometimes a vest or rod/reel but mostly gink and forceps. 99% of the tackle lost on a river doesn’t have a name or phone number on it! I know if most anglers found a fly box or vest with a name and number on it, they would get it back to the owner. But without that info, who’s going to go to every shop in town and put up a notice- tackle found.


A box with 40 flies in it is worth $150. Fishing Nets can be $250 for a boat model and we all know how much rods and reels are. Take a piece of masking tape and a sharpie and put your number on the expensive stuff. It will come back to you. But without that info, it’s gone for good. Something to think about, especially with nets. They get put down while releasing fish, or put down because you’re working a run and don’t need to carry it and next thing, it’s forgotten. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!

I carried a net with me for the first 20 years of my fly fishing career. I carried it until the negatives outweighed the positives. How did I define that? As I started fly fishing, my fish were few and far between. When I hooked one, I wanted to land it- I wanted to touch it and hold it up to look at it. I wanted it caught, and a net gave me such an advantage in that area. Especially the rare larger fish that I didn’t have much experience with. The net made sure I didn’t lose it at my feet, when the fight got real- I could net it when it was merely frantic, not ballistic from me grabbing it. It was so worth having a net with me.

As I gained more experience, and found myself actually learning to play fish to a point of release, I found myself going less and less to the net. I was able to handle larger fish safely and quick without a net, and over time, the net became less and less useful, until I finally stopped carrying one. Which is not to say that about twice a season, when faced with a fish much larger than I usually see, I don’t wish I had a net with me. But I’ve made that decision, and I might not land that fish. It’s on me. It’s a balance of comfort on the water versus the few times I really want it, and I’ve made my choice. I still have multiple nets I could pull out and use- I just don’t.

That’s the mathematics of carrying a net for fly fishing. They make landing fish a snap, especially big ones. If you want the photo op, a net is a critical piece of equipment. It’s a bit inconvenient, but then, really, what in fly fishing isn’t! Experiment with different ways of carrying it- Missoulian Angler has a few different net attachment implements. PUT YOUR NAME ON IT. It’s going to get forgotten at least once- give yourself a chance to get it back. The fish will thank you for carrying a net, it makes their lives easier.

Final thought. If you fish with a buddy who doesn’t carry a net, and you do, make sure you fish far enough away so you can’t hear them yell, ”Hey, I need this fish netted!”