Each time you cast a lure from a pier, there’s the underlying thrill of catching the unknown. Everything from small surfperch along the Pacific Coast to giant red drum on the East Coast is a possibility. Which means you need to be ready for anything.
While we all love planning for success, the wise angler prepares for failure too. And there is no time when failure is more likely to occur than when it’s time to land your big fish. Landing large fish from a pier that sits high off the water is an often overlooked challenge that you should definitely master.
We’ve lost our fair share of big fish from our local piers. To save you the chaos and pain of finding yourself unable to land your big catch, we are willing to share everything we’ve learned about landing fish from a pier. Whether you pier fish solo or with friends, by the end of this post you’ll be able to land any fish like a boss.
How do you land big fish from a pier
Hook into your first big fish on a pier and it becomes quite apparent that using your rod to yank it up isn’t going to cut it. If you want to catch big fish from a pier, you’ll need the right tools and the know-how to use them.
Use a quality landing net
The easiest way to land big fish from an elevated fishing pier is with a landing net. A landing net, also called a bridge net or drop net, is a net attached to a metal ring and lowered vertically to the water by a rope. Once the net is submerged, steer the fish over the net and hoist it up.
There are many landing nets to choose from but not all have the durability to handle the strain of heavy fish. We recommend only two different landing nets. These are quality nets designed for hard use by pier fishing die-hards.
The first is the Promar Hoop Net. It’s a dual purpose net that works for catching crab or lobster but truly excels as a landing net. The 36 inch ring and extra deep net holds all but the biggest fish likely to bite your lure.
A slightly cheaper alternative to the Promar is the Frabill Pier Net. This is a net explicitly designed with pier anglers in mind. It’s a simple, no frills landing net. The 36 inch ring and 36 inch net depth swallows up any fish without letting them get away.
Regardless of which net you end up getting, we suggest you replace the rope immediately. Both come with polypropylene line that’s super stiff and hard on the hands. You are better off tying on a large diameter nylon rope that makes hoisting up heavy fish less of a chore.
Landing fish solo
Now that you have a landing net, let’s figure out how to use it. It’s one thing to imagine how you’ll land a fish solo with a net, but another thing to actually do it in practice.
Not only do you need to fight the fish and keep it from snagging pilings and another nearby lines, you also need to drop the net while simultaneously steering the fish into it so you can pull it up. Sound hard? Well, it can be unless you have a well practiced strategy. Here are the steps we use to get it done with as little fumbling as possible.
Step 1: Get your landing net ready first
Before you even start fishing, drop the net into the water to see how much rope is required. Then, tie off the net to the pier railing, giving yourself 6 to 8 feet of extra rope to account for tide changes. Tying off the net allows you to quickly throw it over while fighting fish without worrying about hanging onto it.
Step 2: Drop your net at the right time
Avoid dropping your net down immediately after hooking into a big fish. With the net hanging in the water, there is a good chance the fish will tangle in it during the initial fight. Instead, tire the fish out and wait to lower the net until the fish lays on it’s side, which indicates the fight is just about over.
Step 3: Guide the fish to the net
Now you can start steering the fish towards the net. Once positioned over the net, use your free hand to start lifting the net slowly up to the fish. This is the part that is easier said than done. Remember, your net should be submerged a few feet if you have the right amount of rope tied off. Keep tension on your line with the rod the entire time until the fish is securely in the net.
Step 4: Start hoisting up the fish
Pulling up the net the first few feet is the hardest part but once the fish is securely inside, you can set the rod down and start pulling it up with two hands. Get the net up to the rail and rest the nearest edge of the ring on the rail. Now you can readjust your hands to grab the ring and lift it over the side.
Landing fish with two anglers
Landing fish from a pier is infinitely easier if you’re fishing with a buddy. It is difficult to manage a rod and net at the same time with only two hands. A second set of hands is hugely beneficial.
It’s a good idea to keep your net prepped and ready to go as we described above but now one of you can fight the fish while the other stands ready with the net.
Just be aware that you still don’t want to drop the net down too soon. As the one fighting the fish, be sure to clearly communicate to your partner when you are ready to have the net deployed.
In the rare instance when you have a double header, things can get a little dicey. The best course of action is to decide who’s fish is bigger and steer that one into the net first. Then swing it over to the next fish. It will probably end up being pure chaos but it can be done.
Landing fish without a net
Of course, smaller fish are a piece of cake to flip onto the pier with the right gear. You can easily yank up fish weighing several pounds without a net. However, if there is any chance you will hook into something big, don’t even walk onto the pier without a landing net. There might be other anglers willing to help you out and let you use their nets, but don’t count on it.
You can also walk big fish back towards shore along the pier but chances are you’ll be boxed in by other anglers who will be less than enthusiastic about reeling up their gear to get out of your way.
If you ignore our advice and hook into something big without a net on hand, your only option may be to cut your line. Although, that should always be a last resort. Spare yourself the trouble and just get a landing net.
What about pier fishing gaffs
Aside from landing nets, there is one other way to land big fish from a pier. And that is with a pier fishing gaff. It’s essentially a giant treble hook on a rope. You lower it down to the water and jerk it into the fish to hoist it up.
With a little practice, they work fine and are actually slightly more manageable for the solo angler than a landing net. But they have one major draw back. They are fatal to the fish, rendering catch and release impossible.
Don’t use a pier gaff on species with size restrictions or listed as unlawful to retain. Even if you are confident in your species identification and size estimations, it’s not worth it. Forego the gaff and use a net instead.
Landing fish demands the right gear
Without a way to get your hands on flailing fish far below you, having the right gear is crucial.
Staying in control when fighting fish from elevated piers starts with the right rod. A 7 to 9 foot rod ranging from medium to heavy power helps steer fish away from pilings and has the backbone needed to hoist them out of the water or lead them over to a landing net.
Equally important is a quality reel. At a minimum, a 3500 or 4000 size spinning reel or a stout level wind reel with a solid drag system is a must. And pair it up with appropriate line too. Hooking into a big drum with 12 pound test is not going to end well.
Even if you are only targeting smaller fish like mackerel, sea trout, sheepshead or whiting, these toothy fish demand heavy, abrasion resistant line. 30 to 50 pound test leaders are a good starting point.
At a minimum, spool up with at least 20 pound test line and make it braid if you want more line on your reel.
Finally, if you want to land smaller fish from a pier without a net, make sure to use heavier gauge hooks with razor sharp points. Fish thrash like crazy when hoisted out of the water and small hooks tear out easily. Plus, a super sharp hook will pin fish in place so they can’t throw your hook.
Oh, and don’t forget to tie strong knots and check for frayed leaders constantly. I guarantee poorly tied knots and neglected leaders are the leading cause of lost fish on saltwater piers.
How do you release fish from a pier
Releasing fish from a pier isn’t always as simple as just tossing them back into the water. It’s important to use ethical fishing practices and there are definitely improper ways of releasing fish from a pier that garner some serious criticism.
In general, if you used a pier net to land the fish, then use the net to release it too. When you plan on releasing fish, limit your handling time. Quickly get them back in the net and lowered into the water. Give the fish a chance to recover and swim out of the net.
Never drop big fish into the water from piers over 6-8 feet off the water. Chances are the impact will stun them or possibly cause lethal trauma.
Always use a landing net to release large fish. Smaller fish tend to survive better when dropped back into the water but be gentle about it. At the very least, drop fish head first so they hit with less surface impact.
Landing fish from a fishing pier is fairly straight forward but even so there is still a learning curve to doing it right. Now that you are armed with some of our hard-won wisdom, hopefully you too can land more fish from piers like a boss.
Need more pier fishing advice and how-to guides? Be sure to check out our complete guide on how to be a pier fishing expert next.