How To Unhook A Saltwater Catfish With Or Without Touching It [VIDEO]

By: Luke Simonds on June 16, 2016
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how to unhook a catfish

It’s saltwater catfish time!

And yes, this post is really is about the fish that we have continued to bash and avoid catching here at Salt Strong… the catfish.

But it is inevitable that if you spend enough time inshore fishing, you will catch some unwanted catfish.

Here is why catfish are among my least favorite fish in the entire ocean to catch:

  1. They have very sharp spines dorsal (top) and pectoral (sides) that can cause a lot of pain
  2. They are prone to slime up your line, your hands, and your boat/kayak
  3. If you do NOT have a DeHooker on board the boat or in your tackle box, these slimeballs can be a real pain to unhook sometimes.

The reason we decided to put this article and video together was to help ensure that anglers don’t make a costly mistake while unhooking one of these slimy fish.

I also wanted to share a cool catfish release tip I have been using to avoid touching these slimeballs (where you do not need a catfish DeHooker).

Because one brief mistake can lead to a lot of pain since their 3 core spines are not only very sharp, but they’re also poisonous.

sharp catfish spines

So if you’re not 100% comfortable in unhooking catfish, then be sure to continue reading this article and watch the video at the bottom.

Best of all, one of the unhooking tactics explained below allows you to get them off without even touching them.

Want to catch MORE Redfish and LESS Catfish?

Then join the only Inshore Fishing Club guaranteed to help you catch more fish.

Apply for free here.

How To Unhook A Catfish Without Touching It

There are many ways to unhook a catfish.

Some catfish release methods require lots of slime on the hands, some require lots of slime on your pliers, and some require no slime at all…

That’s right, there is a tried and true way to take a hook out of a catfish without touching it… just so happens that it is my favorite method to release these pesky catfish (especially if you don’t have a dehooker).

Although this method requires a piece of rope or line, that usually isn’t that tough to find while fishing (if not, another method is explained below).

This method uses a strand of line or rope to hold the bend of the hook up so that gravity can step in and do the dirty work for you…

Note: There is a video below with all of the steps.

Here’s how it works:

Step 1: Loop the rope around your fishing line that is attached to the catfish

catfish wrap rope around line

The purpose of this is to ensure that the rope will slide down your line and onto the shank of the hook as you’ll see in the next step.

Step 2: Slide the rope to the shank of the hook

catfish slide rope to hook

This is done by lifting the rope up while pulling your fishing line off to the side… the rope will slide down the line and finally end up on the hook as shown in the above picture.

Step 3: Rotate hook until it’s point is pointing downward

catfish rotate hook point down

This position is achieved by pulling the rope up while moving the line down. The purpose is to get the hook point facing downward so that gravity pulls the fish off of the hook.

The purpose is to get the hook point facing downward so that gravity pulls the fish off of the hook.

Important Note: Be sure to never pull the fishing line all the way below the catfish because it then will fall onto your hand once it falls off of the hook.

Final Step: Shake rope until the fish falls off of the hook

Once the hook point is facing down, the only thing holding the fish on the hook is the hook’s barb, so some slight shakes are typically all that is needed to have the fish fall of off the hook.

Note: Hold fish over the water during this last step so that it falls straight in the water once freed from the hook unless you’ll be using it for bait.

See video below to see exactly how this unhooking method works.

Want to catch MORE Redfish and LESS Catfish?

Then join the only Inshore Fishing Club guaranteed to help you catch more fish.

Apply for free here.

How To Grab A Catfish Like A “Real Fisherman”

Although the “hands-free” catfish method is highly effective, unfortunately, it does not work 100% of the time (catfish hooked too deep, tougher with circle hooks, etc.)…

So it’s important to know how to grab ahold of a catfish with your hand because that will be required.

There is no reason you should have to cut your line, re-tie your line, or lose a nice hook or lure due to being afraid of grabbing a catfish.

Grabbing a catfish isn’t very difficult because there are only three barbs on the fish that will hurt you.

So you just need to be mindful of those three points when going in for the grab… here are the steps:

Step 1: Position your hand for the grab

Grabbing Catfish

Since the top and both sides of a catfish each have a spine, the safest side to grab a catfish from is the bottom/back.

And since the spines can only get you from the point, it’s best to slide your fingers under the side spines and while hugging the side of the fish so that your hand is safe even if the fish starts shaking.

Step 2: Grab and hold onto the fish

holding catfish

Once you get your fingers under the spines, just slide up your hand up the side of the fish and grab onto it so that it won’t slip if it starts thrashing.

As you can see, the two pectoral fins are kept at an outward position away from your hand since you’re fingers are below them.

And the top fin is completely out of harm’s way because it’s on the complete other side and further down the fish.

Best of all, even if the catfish thrashes, it is very tough to lose hold of the fish because its side fins are very strong and they will support it’s body, so a vertical hold will almost ensure it doesn’t get dropped.

Once in this safe position, you then can unhook the fish using your other hand or any type of pliers or hook remover you like to use.

Step 3: Release the fish

The final step in unhooking a catfish with your hand is to release the fish once the hook is out.

To do so, simply move it in a forward motion away from you right before loosening your grip and pulling your hand back.

This will ensure that your hand gets away while moving in the opposite direction of the catfish spines.

Unhooking Catfish [VIDEO]

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Although saltwater catfish aren’t typically a desired catch, it’s very important to know how to handle them so that your fun day out on the water isn’t interrupted by a very painful injury.

Because even a small prick from a catfish can be extremely painful.

But the great news is that they really aren’t too difficult to safely take off of the hook… it’s all about being aware of their three sharp spines.

My personal recommendation is to get used to grabbing them right away because the hand’s free approach doesn’t always work, and it is slightly more dangerous if you accidentally move your bottom hand too far down below the fish when it comes off.

Related Post: Saltwater Catfish: The Worst Fish Ever OR Amazing Tarpon & Cobia Bait?

Want to catch MORE Redfish and LESS Catfish?

Then join the only Inshore Fishing Club guaranteed to help you catch more fish.

Apply for free here.

P.S. – Please share this with any of your friends who enjoy saltwater fishing because they’ll likely be faced with having to take a catfish off their hook and this post could very well save them some pain.

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John Bowman
1 year ago

I was removing the hook from one using a long dehooker with one hand while controlling the catfish with a li0 grip tool with the other. It still managed to flop around and stick my finger with the back spine. The pain was intense. Then the sting got an infection that required 8 weeks of IV antibiotics. The Dr. told me there was a possibility of nerve damage to my hand for up to another year. IMO, handling these things is just begging for trouble. I got one of those fish grabbers with 2 jaws and I use it to hold them securely for dehooking.

Darius Villa
Darius Villa
2 years ago

I’ve heard about freshwater catfish and bullheads having the sharp dorsal and pectoral spines. But I have never heard about saltwater catfish. And I’m not surprised that those cats sting too. So I could handle a saltwater catfish in the same way as a freshwater fishing book said to hold a bulkhead to avoid those poisonous spines.

2 years ago

all i do is put the fillets on the grill and blacken them. when eating just add lemon

Tom Cavanaugh
3 years ago

I did do a similar hold with fingers under fins but from the other side. I will share what i did and what not to do. I was lazy so i was holding the catfish by the line just dangling over thewater and took my pliers to the hook. I began twisting and shaking the hook to pull it out. The fish thrashed and the right spine went through the underside of my finger and out of the top of my finger right next to the bone and the spine was sticking out about one and a half inches out of the top of my forefinger. (I have the scars to prove it!) I had a two pound fish dangling by the spine in my finger. It hurt so bad there was no time to think so with my left hand i grabbed the fish and while pulling the fish in one direction and the other hand in the other direction with speed and force, it came out with tons of blood. That was my first cast of day but that did not stop my fishing. I walked to shore and saw a napkin on the ground , folded it to wrap aroumd my finger and fished for six more hours. My partner moved away from me for fear of shark coming our way to due to all the blood! The funny thing is the finger healed fast but the other hand was swollen and infected for two weeks. Why? The oozing blood from the finger got rid of the poison but i got about less than a one eight inch cut, not deep and no blood, in the crease of my middle finger holding fish so thepoison must have stayed in. Moral of the story….put some bandaids in the tackle box!

Laura McDonald
4 years ago

This is probably some kind of politically incorrect statement, but we keep ours and clean them. They are actually very tasty when fried up fresh and crisp. The meat isn’t fishy, but very light and flaky. Not much different than freshwater catfish, which we love. They are extremely slimy in a kayak and require careful handling because of those spines. My husband had a very unpleasant encounter with one that involved a lot of Bactine spray and a bandaid.. .and some bad words.

4 years ago
Reply to  Laura McDonald

The best way is to lip them like a Bass. That way you avoid the pectoral fins and use your other hand to remove the hook with a pair of pliers.

zack charbonneau
4 years ago

Also make sure that the catfish doesn’t fall on one top of your foot!!

Reynold Palmer
4 years ago

Now you show me how to unhook a CAT with some string, after I spent $8.00 for a tool that does that! LOL.