When I was a youngster fishing my then-home waters in the Midwest, if we caught a keeper fish we’d usually hang it on a stringer and put it back in the water to keep it alive and fresh until we were done fishing.
If we were fishing from shore, we’d look for a convenient overhanging tree limb as a tie-off for the stringer or we might drive a stick into the bank to use as an anchoring stake. On occasions when neither sticks or limbs were handy, we’d sometimes tie the end of the stringer around a rock — which was hopefully heavy enough to keep our prize catch from dragging it into the water.
When fishing from a boat, it was easier to string fish because there was almost always a handy cleat or a thwart or something to which a stringer could be affixed. This was the way most everybody kept their fish. Almost no one carried a fish cooler with them.
Most of our stringers were made of galvanized steel chain on which multiple fish clips were mounted. The clips were of a safety pin arrangement which could be unclipped, stuck through the lower jaw of a fish, then clipped closed. These were supposed to hold one fish per clip, but when fishing was good we’d sometimes double them up. “Filling the stringer” was a mental milestone that was similar to “catching our limit.”
We also sometimes used rope stringers which had a metal spike on one end and a metal ring on the other. When hanging the first fish of the day on one of these rope stringers, you’d stick that spike through the inside of the lower jaw, push it through the ring on the other end of the stringer and pull the resulting loop down tight around the fish’s jaw. Subsequent fish were quicker to string because you’d just stick the spike end through the lower jaw and slide them on down towards that first, anchoring fish.
If the first fish was pretty small and the next was really large, you might want to start over so the bigger fish was the anchor fish. I have seen really small fish get pulled right through the jaw membrane of a much larger stringer-mate. This is really disappointing, because it’s the big one that gets away when this happens. The rope stringers were easier to store and to handle — but boy, could a batch of frisky fish knot them into a snarled mess after a few hours in the water.
Sometimes when we were fishing for plentiful smaller fish such as bluegill or crappie or white bass it would be a pain to stop and hang each of them on a stringer. So instead of a stringer, we’d use a fish basket. These collapsible baskets were made of a galvanized steel chain mail, similar to the chain mail shirts worn by medieval knights.
At the top there was a spring-loaded lid that made it easy to drop a fish in but hopefully impossible for the fish to escape (though it seemed like everybody had stories about fish mysteriously escaping from fish baskets). The whole contraption would be hung in the water and pulled up to the surface to add new fish.
I own a few stringers and I even still have an old near-antique fish basket somewhere in the garage, but they don’t see much use these days. One of my learning curve items when my family relocated from the Midwest to Southwest Florida was discovering that stringers are not such a great way to keep fish down here.
For one thing, the water here can exceed 90 degrees during the heat of the summer, so it’s not keeping your fish chilled at all. And some of the fish we catch here simply won’t stay alive on a stringer. Putting a Spanish mackerel on a stringer is a sure way to have a dead, spoiled fish in short order.
But there’s another issue too: There are critters here which are big and bad enough to eat those fish right off your stringer. We figured this out pretty quickly after a few summertime trout fishing trips when the blacktips were on the flats. Pulling up a stringer of trout heads is an experience which drives home that point pretty emphatically.
Next time: More on stringers and keeping fish.
Let’s go fishing!
Capt. Ralph Allen runs the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing charter boats located at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer, and is a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Contact him at 941-639-2628 or Captain@KingFisherFleet.com.