Flailing away furiously at the surface, just out of reach of the mesh, it was the biggest cat we had ever attempted to net. What's worse, the wind had kicked up and we found ourselves pursuing the behemoth in the open waters of the reservoir, exposed to the full fury of the 15-knot breeze. I had no control of the cat, which appeared to be making a beeline for the far shore, and could only pull the pontoon alongside the beast as my wife tried to get the hoop under her bewhiskered target that swam just out of reach.
Suddenly, I realized the net was a model sent to me for testing, designed for landing crappies from high-profile boats like our pontoon boat, and featured a telescoping handle! As I manned the helm, I yelled to my wife Maria to point the hoop my way and release the handle with the twist.
It worked! The net's handle expanded to nearly double in length and locked in place. Maria slipped the net into the water ahead of her quarry and I could tell by the bulge in her biceps that she had connected as I brought the boat alongside the cat. Hand over hand, she hoisted the catch as I slowed the boat to idle speed. With all her might she swung the cat over the rail and deposited the mass of flailing mesh and wet fur onto deck.
Yep, fur. For this was no mere bullhead, shovelhead or channel cat, but pure tabby; the real thing: the family cat.
We learned several lessons that day, not the least of which was that there is absolutely no reason to take a cat aboard a small craft: they don't like it and will abandon ship at the first opportunity. At least that's how ours reacted to its maiden sea voyage. More important, we got to practice some netting skills that are well worth knowing when faced with boating more conventional catches from the deck of our pontoon boat.
Glide, Don't Jab
One of the first rules of netting a fish is to avoid jabbing the net into the water and attempting to nab a hooked fish, or chasing the fish with the net. The quick movement can startle the fish, causing it to flail or jump and tear free of the hook. Instead, the netter should submerge the net slowly and quietly and wait for the fish to swim or the angler to lead the fish over the submerged hoop, which is then raised to envelope the catch from below. The fish should always be brought to the net, rather than vice-versa.
You should also never attempt to net a fish tail-first, as the hoop or net coming into contact with the fish's tail of fins will startle it and the fish will lunge ahead unexpectedly. A common result is the hook tearing free from the sudden surge, catching in the mesh with the same result, or both. Instead, bring the fish over the submerged hoop head-first and lift the net with the arc of the hoop in front of its head a little higher than the back edge of the hoop, so that if the fish does suddenly come to life, it will swim right into the net and its mesh, rather than out of it.
Handle High and Hand-Over-Hand
Once a large fish is in the net and still in the water, you want to enclose it in the mesh by lifting the handle straight up, so the butt end points to the sky. Using a long-handled net while fishing off high-profile craft such as deck and pontoon boats makes this much easier. This vertical lift closes the mesh above the fish and gives you the leverage to lift the net hand-over-hand up onto the deck. The majority of nets you see with bent or broken handles are the result of an inexperienced angler trying to muscle a catch over the side while keeping the net horizontal. Net handles are usually made of aluminum tubing and not made for supporting weights from that angle, and will buckle under the pressure, bend or break at the hoop connection.
Had Maria attempted to lift and swing the family cat over the side while holding the net horizontally, I fear our pet might have suffered a second plunge. As it was, after her lone dunking, kitty kept to the center of the playpen for the duration of our recent voyage-when she wasn't in my lap at the helm, purring contentedly and soaking my shorts to the bilge.