Bass Mortality and the Tournament Angler: How to Keep Your Catch Alive
Bill Hutcheson, WON Bass Tournament Director
Quite a bit has changed since the inception of organized bass fishing tournaments in the late 1960’s. Equipment, techniques and the tournaments themselves have all taken quantum leaps forward into their present day form. Perhaps the most significant and beneficial change to the face of bass fishing has been the angler’s stewardship of the resource itself. From the club level all the way up to the largest of national events, ‘catch and release’ has not only become a standard practice among tournaments but has been mandated by most Fish and Game agencies in order to obtain tournament permits.
Further attention to catch and release has been brought about by the increased media coverage of modern day fishing and has further exacerbated the issue by shining a blinding light on the tournaments themselves. Animal rights groups like PETA and other special interests have subsequently thrown their hats into the fray to try and limit or disrupt tournament fishing.
Fortunately, bass anglers have remained one step ahead of these animal rights organizations and have gone to the utmost extent to insure that they are leaving as small a footprint on the resource as possible.
But are we really doing enough?
Few would question the dedication of the average bass angler and/or tournament organization’s efforts to insure live release. That being said, there are many factors involved which drastically affect tournament bass mortality.
One of the first in depth analysis conducted to determine the effects of catch and release on bass mortality was done by a group of Texas Tech University professors led by Gene R Wilde. From 1972 to 1996, they reviewed 20 different studies conducted at 130 tournaments of various sizes to determine the long-term effects of catch and release. Their study was ground breaking and has served as fodder for the B.A.S.S. booklet called Keeping Bass Alive which since its release in 2002 has set the standard for tournaments and anglers. The Texas Tech paper and subsequent studies have also contributed to many of the State imposed special conditions that event organizers must obey when conducting a tournament.
Initial Mortality vs. Delayed Mortality
The Texas Tech study recognized two types of tournament bass mortality; initial and delayed. Initial mortality, as it implies, refers to fish that are dead at the time they reach the scales or are dead prior to their release. According to the studies, early bass tournaments experienced initial mortality rates around 20 percent. As time progressed, a combination of improved live wells, angler education and advances in fish handling at tournaments dropped the initial mortality number to seven percent. On the other hand, delayed mortality represents the number of fish that died after release.
The Texas Tech paper revealed that smaller tournaments had a greater amount of initial mortality; perhaps due to less sophisticated equipment while larger tournaments had the lowest initial mortality rates. Conversely, delayed mortality increased proportionately with tournament size. Amazingly enough, depending on the size of the tournament, delayed mortality sometimes reached over 50 percent. However, the report noted that delayed mortality has remained steady and averaged around 25 percent over the course of the study.
Water Temperature and Oxygen
While there are a variety of factors influencing whether captured fish live or die, the number one culprit in initial mortality is water temperature and associated oxygen levels according to the Texas Tech synopsis. The reason for this relates to the metabolism of the bass and dissolved oxygen in the water. As water temperature increases, so does the fish’s metabolism. Unfortunately, there is an inverse relationship between water temp and dissolved oxygen. Increased metabolism results in increased oxygen consumption on the part of the fish. However, the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water decreases as the temp increases. A minimum dissolved oxygen level in the live well should be five parts per million (ppm). Dissolved oxygen levels of less than three parts per million are lethal to bass.
Picture this: You’re walking down the street and minding your own business. All of a sudden, a big dog comes around the corner barking at you and you begin to run. The dog chases you for a couple of blocks – I’m assuming you’re a fast runner and the dog is slow – and then goes away. Odds are that the adrenaline rush has your heart beating fast and breathing heavy. It’s going to take you a few minutes or more to catch your breath and lower your heartbeat. Now, imagine that you‘ve just done this, and to escape the dog, you jump into a hot sauna. Odds are you’re going to struggle to catch your breath and could possibly even die from the heat and lack of oxygen.
Apply that same concept to fishing. You’re a bass that has just put up a fight and been yanked out of the water after eating what you though was an innocent baitfish. You’re now thrown into a live well where the water is 10 degrees warmer than normal. Likewise, the oxygen level is less than normal. This will place a tremendous amount of strain on you and could prove potentially fatal.
Oxygen and water temperature are the two most significant factors in determining initial bass mortality.
er water retains dissolved oxygen better than warm water. As such, the cooler months of the year do not pose as great a threat to fish in the live well as do the summer months.
Anglers can counter the lethal effects of elevated water temperatures by taking the following steps.
Fill your live wells at the first stop of the day when the surface water is still relatively cool. This water will contain higher levels of dissolved oxygen. Be sure to fill your live wells from an area that is not stagnant or polluted. If it’s going to be a hot day, freeze a couple of plastic milk jugs to create a sealed ice block that you can place in your live well. Two half-gallon milk jugs are capable of reducing the water temperature in a typical live well around 10 degrees. Leave the jugs sealed though and don’t pour the tap water into the live well as the chlorine surge from the tap water can also prove fatal to your catch. Run your aeration system full time on hot days since the warmer the water, the less oxygen you will be introducing to the water.
A new product that has just hit the market called FishBreath also offers some real benefits to bass anglers as it increases the levels of dissolved oxygen in the water of your livewell. This device is about six inches long and looks like an old school quill style bobber so it’s large enough that it will not flow through your livewell discharge drain. The FishBreath unit is made of volcanic rocks encased in a hard polycarbonate case. While the science of this unit would take an additional 3,000 words to convey, in a nutshell tests have shown that the amalgamation of volcanic rock increases the levels of dissolved oxygen. Another method of upping the O2 levels in your livewell involves using the the old standby – dissolving oxygen tabs. This method is not as clean nor is it reusable like the FishBreath unit.
As a result of the correlation between initial mortality and water temperature, many agencies including the California Department of Fish and Game have placed special restrictions on organized bass events occurring during the warmer summer months. Presently, the California DFG limits all bass tournaments held from June 15th to September 1st to a six hour day. Likewise, the DFG has also notified all organizations operating in California that it will be paying special attention to events to ensure that all tournaments are complying with rules set forth for organized bass tournaments.
One of the other variables in fish mortality which anglers have control over is fish handling. Actions that are taken out on the water can have an impact on the levels on initial and delayed mortality.
When fighting the fish, many anglers chose to bounce smaller fish. While this is an effective time saving technique, it is actually very hard on the bass itself. Not only are you damaging the slime coat of the fish, but you are also placing it on a hot deck, which can cause injury. Instead, try to grab smaller fish by the lower lip and release them as quickly as possible.
For larger fish that require netting, the best way to reduce injury is to use a rubber mesh net. There are many advantages to a rubber mesh net. They tangle less with other items in your boat, hooks from your baits do not stick in them, and most importantly, they do not damage the exterior of the fish as does a nylon net.
Once you do have your fish in the boat, get them into the live well as quickly as possible. Likewise, the live well should already be filled in preparation for the first fish. Don’t flop your fish into an empty live well and then turn on the water as this too can damage the fish.
When it comes to fish mortality, one of the advantages that tournament anglers have over others is the exclusive use of artificial baits. For the most part, the fish end up getting hooked in the cartilaginous mouth area, providing a boon to survival rates. Should you end up with a deeply hooked fish the odds of survival for that fish are simply not in your favor. There are still two viewpoints related to deeply hooked fish; those who say you should leave the hook in and those who say to remove the hook.
In the past, hooks did not have the same corrosion resistant alloys and coatings that are found in today’s modern hooks. As such, the school of thought that the hook will dissolve has lost some credibility. Your best course of action is to expose the barb if possible and cut off the hook point. Back the hook out of the gullet or other deeply hooked area and hope for the best. Fortunately, this is seldom a problem with bass caught during daytime tournaments.
Most modern boats have dual live wells with an approximate capacity of 20 to 40 gallons. The current thinking is that it takes one gallon of water for every pound of fish in order for most modern aeration systems to ensure a five part per million oxygen mixtures – a mixture considered as the minimum standard for fish survival.
Additionally, most modern boats have dual live wells in the back of the boat with dividing wave attenuators inside. The reason for this is that the live well positioning will allow for the boat to run over moderate chop with a minimum amount of sloshing inside the live well. The wave attenuators also act to reduce water movement while the boat is underway.
An important aspect of your live well is the pH level of the water inside. While most of us are unlikely to reprise Adam Sandlers’ roll in the “Waterboy” to control every aspect of our live well, there are a few small steps that can be taken to manage the bulk of the work.
In addition to dissolved oxygen levels, bass metabolize waste through their system in the form of ammonia, CO2 and trace heavy metals. A buildup of these in the live well can create a toxic soup that will also prove fatal to the fish over time. Good bass retailers will have several aftermarket additives that will help the slime coat, reduce the pH levels in the live well, increase dissolved oxygen content and perform a variety of other lifesaving functions. One of the best available to tournament anglers is created by Sure-life Laboratories and marketed under the name of Catch and Release (www.sure-life.com
). This additive, in combination with proper water temperatures and oxygen levels, with provide your catch with the optimal conditions while in captivity.
It’s also detrimental for your catch to make your live well a dual-purpose container by using it as a garbage can for your cans or bottles. The more your fish contacts rough objects, the more likely they will damage their skin and ultimately become a victim of delayed mortality.
Decompression and Popping / Fizzing
Most fish utilize an internal organ known as a swim bladder to regulate their buoyancy. Bass are no exception. Unfortunately, bass caught out of deeper water cannot quickly regulate their swim bladders leading to an imbalance that causes them to roll over or go “belly up”. Nearly everyone who has spent any time around bass has seen this occur.
There are only two ways to remedy this potentially fatal situation. The first involves returning the fish to a depth of 30 feet and allowing the swim bladder time to compensate for the changes in depth. Live release boats can do this via fish cages that are lowered on a rope and held at depth for a few minutes. While this is far and away the preferred method, it is for all practical purposes an option that is not available to an angler in the midst of a competition.
The second method is to relieve the pressure on the swim bladder by what is commonly known as “popping” or “fizzing” the swim bladder. This is accomplished by inserting a needle through the side of the fish. Some anglers opt to release the pressure on the swim bladder by inserting a needle through the mouth of the fish. To maximize the odds of survival, tournament caught fish should be fizzed immediately once the angler notices signs of distress.
Many anglers will spend hours perfecting a technique such a flippin’ or pitchin’, but few will spend the few minutes it takes to learn how to properly “fizz” a bass. If you’re one of the group of anglers who is not familiar with this process, it’s recommended that you hang around the live release boat at a local or major tournament. Fish and Game personnel, tournament staff or volunteers operating the boats are more than happy to teach all those interested how to perform this function.
If you do not have such an opportunity, there are numerous websites that detail how to fizz your fish. Performed under water, on the live release boat or in your live well, the standard methodology involves visually drawing a line from the saddle in the dorsal fin down to the anus. A secondary line should be drawn from the fork in the tail to the tip of the pectoral fin. Where these lines intersect, lift a scale and insert the needle straight into the body cavity. Allow the bubbles to escape from the fish without squeezing them out of the fish. Once the bubbles have stopped, remove the needle and the fish should be able to right itself.
Fizzing needles can easily be obtained at most feed and tack or veterinarian supply houses. The optimal needle is 16 to 18 gauge. The cost for these is minimal so it’s recommended that you purchase several. Through use, the needles will become dull and should be replaced. Likewise, you’re likely to run into some fishermen who may not have needles and it’s perfectly okay to share your needles by giving one to an angler in need. Unlike us humans, it’s okay for a bass to share his needle with another bass.
While few anglers on the west coast would think twice about it, the practice of fizzing is actually considered controversial by many agencies throughout the U.S. and Canada. Concerns of damage to other internal organs, infection and delayed mortality have brought the practice of fizzing into question. Until a definitive study is completed and as long as it is sanctioned by the California Department of Fish and Game, fizzing will continue to be practiced as a method of mitigating the symptoms of bass caught in deep water.
The weigh-in is typically the highlight of every bass tournament. It’s also the highest profile time of the event for both the angler and the tournament organization to demonstrate their proper care and handling of the catch. As such, there are several things that the anglers and tournament organizers must do to make the process go smoothly.
First and foremost is prepping the fish to make the transition from the boat to the holding tanks or scales themselves. This is one area where the author as a tournament director has a bone to pick. Fishermen will spend $75,000 for a truck and bass boat, $200 for a rod, $200 for a reel, $50 for a swimbait. They won’t however spend $25 on a couple of heavy duty tournament bags and will instead trust their tournament catch to a 50 cent bag provided by one of the sponsor’s lowest bidder. They then get peeved when the bag leaks, or worse, breaks! This should be a required item for every angler who fishes in a tournament.
This being said, anglers would be served well to purchase a few heavy duty weigh bags from any of the dozens of manufacturers who produce them. Bag-Em Products of Flint, Michigan www.bag-em.com
is the manufacturer whose bag is most popular amongst the major circuits. Heavy bags may also be obtained through various mail order retailers like Bass Pro Shops.
When bringing the fish to the scales, California Fish and Game demands that anglers use a single bag for each fish over five pounds. Furthermore, they actually require a single bag for each cumulative weigh of fish over five pounds. Thus, if you have two, two and a half pound bass, they will require their own bag. The reason for this again relates back to the oxygen consumption and metabolized waste generated by the fish. DFG has determined that delayed mortality rates increase dramatically when fish are held in the small quantity of water contained within the weigh bag for more than three minutes without an exchange of water.
Potentially, anglers competing at a big fish venue such as the Delta or Clear Lake may need five bags to bring their catch to the scales. Additionally, anglers can speed up the weigh-in process by placing their big fish in a separate bag instead of guessing what fish it might be when all five bass are dumped into the sorting bin.
When bringing your fish to the weigh-in area the bag should contain at least enough water to submerge the fish with at least one inch to spare. Once the fish are in the weigh bag and ready to go to the holding tank, get them there as quickly as possible. If there is any type of delay in getting to the scales, be sure to exchange water in your weigh bag with the water in the holding tank. This can be done by punching several small holes with a hole punch in the mid to upper area of your weigh bag and submerging it in the holding tank.
Once the fish have been weighed, get water back in the bag(s) as quickly as possible and return the fish to the live release boat or your live well in preparation for release back into the lake.
While the popularity of competitive bass fishing has continued to grow, anglers and tournament organizations have come under greater scrutiny by State and Federal Fish and Game agencies regarding their fish handling practices. Add to the mix various conservation and animal rights groups and it should be apparent to all involved that bass tournaments are under the “resource microscope”. All of the information mentioned above is easy implemented by most anglers and should become standard practice when hitting the water for tournaments or pleasure fishing.
Bill Hutcheson is the Tournament Director for the WON BASS circuit and has conducted weigh-ins with a total of 50,000+ fish weighing more than 40 tons during his tenure.