August 16, 2010

Bass Mortality At Small Tournaments A Concern for Anglers, Biologists

The dog days of August make fishing during the day miserable. After warming the air all summer, the late summer sun seems the hottest from now until the first weeks of September.

The heat forces bass tournaments into the dark hours at this time of year, but the stresses on the bass caught in those tournaments do not diminish just because its night time. Late summer into early fall presents considerable stresses to black bass just trying to survive.

"The fish are stressed before they get caught from the high water temperatures, especially with the hot summer we've had," said Chris Hickey, black bass biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. "The ordeal of catching the fish, fighting it, placing it in a livewell for hours, weighing it in and releasing the fish by the marina or ramp into water warmer than where they were is really hard on a bass. They try to make it back home and may not have enough stamina left. Sometimes, they don't ever recover."



Keeping trophy largemouth bass, like this one caught by Keith Brown of Farmington, Kentucky from Kentucky Lake, in a livewell for hours in a late summer bass tournament causes great stress on the fish.
Anglers recently voiced concerns to Kentucky Fish and Wildlife after they found several 4 to 7-pound bass floating dead following a recent bass tournament at Ken Lake Marina on Kentucky Lake.

"Those tournament anglers could legally take six largemouth, smallmouth or spotted (Kentucky) bass in aggregate daily," said Gerry Buynak, assistant director of fisheries for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife. "By releasing these fish, a good number likely survived."

Larger bass are at greater risk of dying from the stresses of tournament fishing.

"Their oxygen requirements are much higher" Hickey said. "The big ones stay out of the water longest for photos, showing off and such. Those 6-pound fish are more likely to die from stress than a 16-incher. When people see several large bass floating near a ramp or marina after a tournament, they get really upset."

The larger tournament trails do a great job of employing strategies such as placing the fish in salted, oxygenated tanks while waiting for their fish to be weighed. They also use release boats to distribute bass all over the lake and not stockpile them at the weigh-in site. They limit the time bass are out of the water.

Smaller bass tournaments such as those put on by clubs or by your workplace don't have the resources that large tournament organizations possess. However, some simple strategies will keep more bass alive and limit mortality.

"There are some simple things small tournament organizers can do to reduce mortality," Buynak said.

Buynak explained that tournament organizers can shorten the length of tournaments held in summer into early fall. For example, shorten the time frame from 8 hours to 4 hours. They can adopt a paper tournament format such as musky anglers do by calling an observer to validate the catch and take digital photo for further proof. They can also stage multiple weigh-ins, one halfway through and one at the end of the tournament, to reduce the time bass slosh around in a livewell.

Anglers fishing the tournament can also employ some simple tactics to reduce stress on the bass.

• Play the bass quickly after it's hooked. Don't use underpowered rods and line for tournament fishing, forcing you to play the fish for a long time before landing it.

• Wet your hands before handling the fish as this helps protect the vital slime coat on a bass. The slime coat is the bass' protection from infection, parasites and disease.

• Also, don't let the bass flop around on the boat deck. The hot boat deck makes bass flop around after contact. The deck's carpet removes the vital slime coat of a bass. Fight the fish and remove the hooks quickly; don't let it flop around on the boat's deck. Get the bass in the boat's livewell as quickly as possible.

• Cooling the water in your livewell is one of the most important things to do when surface water temperatures rise above 75 degrees. Some area lakes have water temperatures pushing 90 degrees right now. Cooler water holds more dissolved oxygen than warmer water. Cool the water no more than 10 degrees.

• Adding 1/3 cup of non-iodized or rock salt for every 5 gallons of water in the livewell also aides in reducing stress on the bass. Non-iodized salt works as an anesthetic for bass and makes them more comfortable.

• Salt also helps bass regenerate their protective coating slime that protects them from infection and disease. Commercial livewell additives such as Please Release Me provide about the same benefits as salt.

• Run the livewell aerator continuously in hot weather and whenever more than five pounds of bass are in it. This reduces stress on the bass by keeping the livewell water brimming with dissolved oxygen that fish need to breathe.

• Exchange one-half the water in the livewell every 2 to 3 hours. Add the proper amount of salt and cool the water again.

Late summer and early fall bass fishing usually means fishing deep. If you catch a bass from a depth of 20 feet or more, you may have to "fizz" the bass. Bass possess an expandable bladder in their abdomens that allows them greater buoyancy when needed. When an angler pulls a bass from deep water, the fish often have this bladder extended. They float belly up in the livewell and strain desperately to right themselves.

You'll have to deflate the bladder with a hypodermic needle with the plunger removed. Draw a line from the split between the dorsal fins along the bass' back to its anal vent. Insert the needle at a 45-degree angle toward the fish's head about four rows of scales below where this line meets the lateral line. Listen for a hissing sound and submerge the fish and needle. Wait until the bubbles stop and release the bass. Do not squeeze it. If you remove too much air, the bass will sink to the bottom like a rock.

"Just because it swims away after you release it doesn't mean it is fine," said Gerry Buynak, assistant director of fisheries for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife. "Bass may die the next day or a few days later from the stress. But, fizzing and the other precautions will increase chances for survival."

Tournament angling is popular in Kentucky during the summer. The money spent by tournament anglers helps drive the economy near our major and minor lakes. The excise taxes paid by tournament anglers purchasing motorboat fuel and fishing equipment fund the construction of new boat ramps as well as fisheries management. Their purchase of annual fishing licenses helps provide the money needed to operate Kentucky Fish and Wildlife.

Bass tournament anglers are an important group. Following these precautions will help ensure healthy fish after your bass tournament.

--Lee McClellan

McClellan is an award-winning associate editor for Kentucky Afield magazine, the official publication of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. He is a life-long hunter and angler, with a passion for smallmouth bass fishing.
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