Every bass fisherman fishes for the same reason, in hopes of catching a ten-pound-plus bass. This dream will not be fulfilled if bass fishermen, as a brotherhood, do not practice catch and release.
America’s love affair with the catch-and-release ethic has had a profound impact on the sport of bass fishing over the past thirty years. Quite simply, it recycles the resource. But improper care and the handling by anglers can jeopardize this valuable natural resource.
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Without question, the mishandling of fish before they are returned to the water can prove fatal. Extensive research has been conducted by state fisheries agencies nationwide looking at the phenomenon of delayed mortality, and scientists have concluded that the biggest factor resulting in delayed mortality relates directly to the care that fish are given immediately after the catch is made and in the hours that follow while they are confined inside a boat’s live well.
Clear Lake, California is known for its huge Florida-strain bass. The chances of catching a ten-pound-plus bass are higher than average. Clear Lake houses hundreds of tournaments every year; honestly, there is at least, one tournament every weekend of the year. The enormous amount of pressure placed on this lake can have a tremendous effect on the fish. Clear lake is only one of the thousands of lakes with this type of problem.
There have been cases of trashcans full of dead bass from tournaments. Seeing those fish dead in a can for only about a one-thousand-dollar purse in a tournament is disgusting. If fish are not released right after being caught, their chances of survival are slim.
When the bass is caught and kept, it reduces the number of fish in the lake and if it is a big fish, it eliminates a fish with “big bass genes.” All big fish have big bass genes. If a big bass is caught and immediately released, it is then able to reproduce and its offspring will carry those genes along with them through the generations. Big bass, usual females, are targets for trophy-fish fishermen. Any fish eight pounds and over would be considered a lunker or big bass worthy of being mounted on a wall. Rich Holland, Western Outdoors writer, says the problem is “eighty per cent of big bass are females” (69).
During the spring when bass spawn, female bass are swollen with eggs and are more vulnerable than in other seasons. Female bass nest in one to four feet of water and eat anything in sight, unfortunately falling victim to many fishermen. Depending on the fishermen’s respect, dignity, and sportsmanship these fish can either be kept or released. There are other factors to the decrease of fish in lakes, such as fish-eating birds, poachers and viruses, but the main factor is human ignorance.
Bass anglers are lucky that most of our fisheries are self -sustaining. In fact, wildlife resource managers would rather us keep smaller fish at many lakes to reduce competition for food and allow for faster growth of the remaining bass population.
What is damaging our depleting bass resource is not only keeping the fish but also releasing the bass at the end of a tournament. Delayed mortality means that the bass seems fine when released after weigh-in but die days later because of stress, injuries and infections.
Then there are those, including some Bass Angles Sportsman Society (B.A.S.S.) members, who believe theses high mortality rates suggest dire consequences. In a letter to BASSMASTER magazine, one member said, “Tournament fishing is not ‘catch and release’ and is a detriment to the resource”(10). Gene Gilliland, an Oklahoma fisheries biologist who pioneered techniques for reducing delayed mortality and a tournament angler himself, concedes that high rates of delayed mortality might present a biological problem on some lakes, depending on fishing pressure, reproduction rates and other variables (Montgomery10).
Releasing fish immediately after being caught is the only solution to preserving these beautiful trophies. “Handling the fish for about a minute or so would not have any negative side effects,” says Denny Brauer, a professional bass fisherman (Montgomery 8). Catching fish and handling them for about a minute, either admiring their beauty or taking pictures and measuring it for a record should be just fine; upon release, they should swim away with a smile every time. Brauer speaks from experience.
Is there a single angler who can resist the temptation to brag a little about the real monster he landed last summer? Is there one among us who does not long for a trophy class mount to hang on the wall, the amount that will remind us of the time, the place, the battle and the thrill of the landing? If that trophy mount happens to provide an opening to retell, once again the story our friends and family know by heart. That has been one of the drawbacks in the current move towards catch-and-release. It leaves the angler with nothing but his memories and perhaps a certificate attesting to the fact that he caught and released a dream fish.
Few anglers have problems with the idea of keeping only the fish they really want to eat and releasing the others to spawn again. But the fish of a lifetime is another matter. The fisherman’s language even has a word for that very special fish. It is called “Wall-Hanger.” Unfortunately, producing a wall-hanger has meant killing the fish and having it preserved through conventional taxidermy. “Now, after considerable research, we have made tremendous improvements in the quality of the product we can offer to the angler. The angler can now release his trophy and have a beautiful life-like replica on the wall”(qtd. in realfishhp).
Taking pictures can be an alternative to keeping the fish. Making sure to carry a camera on every fishing trip in case of catching a big fish. B.A.S.S. recommends taking pictures of our bass, from every angle, for taxidermy purposes (Montgomery 8). Instead of taking real, live fish home, all we have to do is send pictures and measurements to a Taxidermist for an exact fibreglass replica of our fish. These replicas stay in mint condition forever instead of for ten to fifteen years if the original fish is used.
As for tournament fishing, the solution is to decrease the decline of fish suffering from delayed mortality. Changing the competition format is one way to do so. Stage tournaments at night instead of the heat of the day. Reduce fish limits and tournament hours so bass will be less crowded and less stressed. Impose stiffer penalties for dead fish. Try a paper tournament in which fish are measured, recorded and immediately released. Another way is to take better care of fish before weigh-in. “If bass isn’t cared for in the Livewell, the treatment you give them at the weigh-in won’t matter,” says Gilliland. “There’s a direct relationship between temperature and mortality”(Montgomery10).
Kevin Vandam, a professional bass fisherman and 1999 Bass Angler of the year, says, “I place two bags of ice in each Livewell because the colder the water equals less stress for the bass”(qtd. in tackleboxhp). Other anglers practice this method of stress relief along with using different chemicals to preserve the thin layer of slime bass have all over their body for protection against disease and infection. These methods are not one hundred per cent effective. Even though applied, bass can still die. Catch and immediate release, are the only means of helping these fish survive after being caught.
These guidelines are somewhat generic but remembering them will give all species of fish a greater chance of survival. The most important survival factors are:
Hook location – It would be ideal if all fish were hooked in either the upper or lower lip; unfortunately, this is not always the case. When fishing with small lures or live bait the chance for hooking a fish deep in the gullet or in the gills is very high. Never pull on the line when the hook is lodged deep in the gullet. Cutting the line and returning the fish to the water as quickly as possible will give it its greatest chance of survival. The longer a fish is out of the water and the more surgical practice techniques, the less the fish has a chance to live.
Depth – When fishing depths of over thirty feet, the fish should be brought up slowly to the boat. This allows the fish to decompress (adjust to the change of water pressure). Pause while reeling the fish in and allow the air bubbles from the fishes decompression tom rise to the surface. Fish can get the “bends” almost like people. If a fish is reeled in too quickly it will die.
Water temperature – Playing a fish for an extended amount period of time in warm water increases its chance of dying. When the water temperature is high, fish tire much more rapidly due to the increase of lactic acid that builds up in their system. When fishing warm water get the fish to the boat as soon as possible, use a heavier line test than usual or do not fish that day.
Line test – Always use the heaviest line possible for each species of fish. Again: the longer a fish is fought, the more lactic acid is built up, the more exhausted it becomes and the greater the chance it will die.
Livewell Temp – A few aeration steps can be taken to improve the environment for bass stored all day in a livewell. Running the aerator ensures bass receive the right amount of oxygen inside the livewell. When the lake’s water temperature is below seventy degrees, use intermittent aeration and recalculate occasionally. If the water temperature hovers between seventy and eighty degrees, fill the livewell early in the morning and aerate continuously. Delayed mortality risks are the greatest when the water temperature climbs above eighty-five degrees, so run the aerator and recalculating pump continuously and add ice to the livewell to cool the water. Add an eight-pound block of ice to a thirty-gallon livewell three times a day during a tournament.
Additives – Placing additives in the livewell helps restore a fish’s protective slime coat. It also heals wounds and removes harmful chlorine from melting ice. Use recommended dosages of live-release formulas or add a 1/3-cup of “noniodized” salt per five gallons of water. Note the emphasis on “noniodized salt”- iodized salt will actually harm the fish. Dump the water out of the livewell periodically throughout the day to remove the built-up ammonia and fish waste products. Add another dose of salt or chemicals after recirculating. Before the weigh-in, pour another pre-measured cap of live-release formula into the water. This will help calm the fish.
Out of the livewell – Pump-out systems and dip nets ease the process of removing fish from the livewell. If these devices are unavailable, dip the weigh-in bag inside the livewell and herd the fish into it, head first. Gripping a bass by its lower jaw is another safe way to pull the fish out of the livewell.
The release – Never carelessly drop a fish from extreme heights or toss it a long distance across the water. The best way to release a bass is to gently lower it into the water by its lower jaw. Watch to see that it swims off safely. If not, carefully move the fish back and forth through the water by hand to assist with the flow of oxygen across its gills.
Holding a catch – When handling a fish, grasp it by its lower jaw to avoid touching the rest of its body. This prevents the accidental removal of its protective slime coat, which fends off infection and skin lesions. But with larger, trophy-sized bass, two hands are needed to support the weight of the fish. Too much stress placed on the lower jaw can actually injure the fish’s mouth, preventing it from feeding once it is released back into the water. If an extra hand is needed to remove a treble hook, for instance, try to grab the fish near its head to avoid touching the slime coating along its body.
Note – Use barbless hooks or pinch the barb flat with pliers. If using a net, use one made of cotton mesh. It is less harmful to the fish scales, gills and eyes. Wet hands when handling fish. Dry hands and gloves will remove its protective coating. Do not beach a fish or let it flop around the deck of the boat. Try not to remove the fish from the water. If a must, be quick and gentle. Do not squeeze the fish. Do not hold the fish near the gills. Needle nose pliers or hemostats will speed up the removal of a deep hook set.
To revive a fish, hold it under the belly and keep it in an upright position underwater. (This is the time to get a measurement and take a photo.) If fishing in a river or a stream, hold the fish facing the current so that it receives running oxygen through its gills. Be patient and give the fish as much time as it needs to recover and swim away on its own.
Fishermen should not mount their bass-of-a-lifetime. It is a strong recommendation that they take many photos. They are what will bring happiness in the days and years after the catch. For some, knowing that the fish in their photos are still swimming, heightens the pleasure and helps reassure them that they are helping sustain the sport so many love.
Do to the fact they aren’t there to see the carcasses, some tournament fishermen refuse to believe so many fatalities occur. “There’s a lot of denial,” says Gilliland. “A lot of tournament fishermen have never seen dead fish,” he adds. “They weigh-in and go home. But we didn’t invent anything. This is really happening” (Montgomery10).
B.A.S.S. National Conservation Director, Bruce Shupp, and most others with a vested interest in the survival of bass are adamant that the popularization of bass fishing through tournaments has done far more to benefit the sport than harm it (Stout 20).
Such testimony, however, will likely do little to shift the perceptions of those who have seen dead bass in the aftermath of a tournament and/or oppose tournament angling for any number of reasons. “It is a social problem we have to deal with,” says Gilliland (Montgomery10).
Almost every state in America has lakes with either largemouth, small-mouth, or spotted bass. These lakes are fished daily and have more traffic during the weekend. Tournament bass fishing has been around since the early 1960’s. Ray Scott, B.A.S.S. founder says, “I started the federation in 1965 and know the result of these tournaments and I do know that a lot of the bass do die” (Neporadny6).
Bass fishing is a billion-dollar industry that is still growing. With more fishermen on the water and more tournaments being held, more fish will be caught. B.A.S.S. being the foundation of bass fishing promotes and supports catch and release. Bass fishermen as a brotherhood should understand the immediate attention this nation-wide emergency needs. They should further support the preservation of America’s favourite sport-fish, the largemouth bass.
Holland, Rich R. “Spring time.” Western Outdoors Mar. 1998: 68-70. Montgomery, Robert P. “Making Memories, Preserving Trophies.” Bassmaster Magazine Apr. 2000: 8.
Montgomery, Robert P. “Conservation.” Bassmaster magazine July 2000: 10.
Stout, Louie. “Springtime Bass Fishing.” B.A.S.S. Times 30.5 (2000): 19-22. Tacklebox Notes . Home page. 21 Sep. 2000. Tacklebox Notes. 24 Nov. 2000 <http: //www.tacklebox.com/>
Mounts of Distinction. Home page. 24 Nov. 2000. Mounts of Distinction. 12 Dec. 2000 <http://www.realfish.net/>
Neporadny, John “With Scott.” Bassmaster magazine Sep 2000: 6.
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