3 Humane Ways to Kill Fish

Earlier this year, Meateater published an article questioning why hunters go to great lengths to kill game as quickly and painlessly as possible, while many anglers (often the same people) simply toss their fish on shore to suffocate.

This has bothered me since I was little, and even though growing up I rarely kept what I caught, when I did I always took care to dispatch the fish as soon as I landed it.

Since then, I’ve started keeping fish more regularly. We enjoy bringing panfish home from the lake, or frying up a trout on a camping trip. I still try to kill fish as efficiently as possible, and want to share a few ways of doing so.

A small rainbow trout with a fly in its mouth.

1. A quick blow to the head

Probably one of the oldest and simplest techniques there is, a strong bonk to the head will quickly kill a fish. Since it’s an instantaneous kill, the fish does not suffer for several minutes on shore before dying, as with some other methods. This technique is relatively painless, and also clean for the angler.

If you’re out in the field without gadgets, a rock will do the trick. Try to find one that is heavy enough but easy to grip, and hit the fish on the top of the head just behind the eyes.

Some fishermen also use a fishing priest. A priest is a small wooden bat used to hit the fish in the same spot as the rock. It does the same job, but is easier to hold and maneuver. The priest gets its name from the idea of giving a fish its last rites before dispatching it.

2. Break the neck

This is another good technique if you’re stuck in the river with nothing but your hands to kill the fish. It’s also best used on smaller fish with large enough mouths. This wouldn’t be a good technique for a lunker bass or a small-mouthed bluegill. But, it’s perfect for eatin’ size trout.

To do it, place your hand under the fish and put your pointer finger in one gill, and middle finger in the other. Then, using your palm and the base of your thumb for leverage, pull the fish’s head up and back until its neck breaks.

This can feel a little alarming the first time you do it, since you’re very connected to the fish while it dies. However, it’s a very quick kill with little room for error if you pull back strongly and smoothy. In addition to being humane, it’s convenient since the only tool required is your hands.

A dead rainbow trout sits on the ground.

3. Sever the spinal cord

While the previous two methods don’t require much apart from what you’ll have available in nature, this method does require a knife. That said, this is my preferred method for small to medium fish, assuming I do have a knife available. It’s especially good for very thin fish like panfish, since the other methods can be awkward or impossible with fish of that shape.

Several panfish sit on a cutting board next to a fillet knife.

This one’s pretty simple. Just lay the fish on its side on a hard surface, and use the end of your knife to cut down through the spinal cord behind the eyes until you’ve reached the hard surface below. It can be a little messy, but is very quick and effective. It’s also consistent. With the “bonk on the head” method, it’s possible to aim poorly and miss the sweet spot, leading to a second attempt. Using a knife instead is very targeted and hard to get wrong.

Next time you’re thinking of taking a few home for the frying pan, make sure you fulfill your responsibility as an angler and kill your catch quickly and efficiently. Any of these techniques will give you the results you want, while also ensuring as little suffering as possible to the fish.

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This is a list I made and use for my own trips, and I think any backcountry angler will find it handy.