Why Do Fish Flop When They Are Out Of Water?

Whether you’re an avid fisherman or simply an amateur, there’s an exhilarating thrill when you finally feel that tug on the end of your line. Then, as you wrestle your fish and get it out of the water it can be a bit unnerving seeing it flop around.

Fish are meant to live in the water and there are many reasons for this bodily reaction to suddenly being on dry land.

While fish naturally live in water, there are times when they need to jump out of it, and if they aren’t careful, fish could end up on dry land, where they can be seen dramatically flip-flopping around.

Why do fish flop when they are out of water? Fish need water and without that support, they can’t survive. Furthermore, fish don’t have arms or legs, so they rely on the movements of their body to move. As they desperately search for water, these body movements can propel them back to safety.

Finally, the reason that drives fish to get back into their natural habitat is that they need water to survive. Even though fish need oxygen, just as humans do, they absorb oxygen from water that passes through their gills.

If you see a poor fish out of the water, especially one that has escaped from your fish tank, quickly put it back in the water for its best chance of survival.

Reasons Why Fish Flop When Out of Water

Reasons Why Fish Flop When Out of Water

Reason 1 – Fish are Designed to Float

Think about the last time you went swimming. It’s an incredible feeling to float and feel the water around you support you. Then, when it’s time to leave the water, your body suddenly feels heavy as you need to support yourself.

The same type of sensation happens to fish. They are built for water to support them, as it acts to prop them up.

As soon as fish leave the water, they need to support themselves completely. And, unlike humans, fish don’t have arms or legs, so they try their best by flopping around using their bodies.

Reason 2 – Fish Want to Get Back in Water

A fish’s natural habitat is the water and once they are on solid ground, they know something is wrong. Because fish don’t have arms or legs, they use their bodies to produce movements.

A lot of times, fish are actually quite successful in flip-flopping back toward the water. For those who have caught fish, you know that you can’t simply leave the fish alone on the surface of the dock or even the boat.

Fish are quite powerful and if you have caught a large fish, even more so. All those movements take a lot of energy. However, when it’s a matter of life or death, fish will do what it takes to survive.

Reason 3 – Fish Need Water to Breathe

One of the most basic instincts that enable fish to flop their way back to the water is that they can’t breathe while on dry land.

Even though fish need oxygen to survive, they can’t simply breathe in oxygen from the air around them. This is because fish have gills and not lungs.

In order to breathe, water must pass through a fish’s gills where oxygen is absorbed and carbon dioxide is passed back into the water and out through the gills.

Why Do Fish Jump Out of the Water?

There are many reasons why fish jump out of the water, and when they do, there is the hope they will land safely back in the water. This natural action happens in lakes, rivers, oceans, and even fish tanks.

One of the primary reasons that fish jump out of water is to get food. Fish often eat bugs such as crickets and flies. In fact, the best time to go fishing is in the morning or evening when fish are closer to the surface, looking for these tasty treats.

Another reason why fish jump out of water is to escape their predators. Natural predators include larger fish and mammals such as whales and sea lions.

If a fish can break the surface of the water, they are better able to confuse their predators. Thus, a quick jump out of the water can lead to a better chance of survival.

Interestingly, there are some species of fish that are particularly known for jumping out of the water. Asian carp jump in order to clear their gills from debris, and you will often find fishermen with nets in the air, just waiting for the fish to leap out of the water.



Fish won’t die right away if they are removed from the water, although this time is largely dependent on their species. Aquarium fish, which are a bit weaker, can only survive for 3 to 4 minutes. Meanwhile fish in the wild can survive for at least 10 minutes, and sometimes even for hours.

What’s quite amazing is that if a fish lands in a space where there is some water on the floor, it can survive for quite a while, as that water is able to sustain them.

How Do You Revive a Fish Out of Water

If you are worried about a fish who is flopping around, know that you can help them. Often, this is necessary for aquarium fish who mistakenly jump out of the tank.

First, you will want to support their body as they won’t have the water to do this job. You also don’t want them to flop too much, as this could damage them and even lead to them breaking their backs.

Water needs to flow through their gills so they can absorb oxygen. Then, gently place them back into the water, moving their tail to encourage them to start swimming.


Fish are curious creatures. They need to live in water to survive, so oxygen can be absorbed in their gills, but every now and then you can find them jumping out of that water.

Whether it’s to catch food or avoid predators, once they hit dry land, fish will naturally start to flip-flop, trying their best to return to water so they can survive.