Over the last 30 years, bass anglers have made great strides to reduce bass mortality. Boat makers build bass boats with aerated livewells to keep fish alive throughout the day. Tournament officials also have imposed stiff penalties for dead fish as encouragement for bass care.
These accomplishments can be diminised by negative publicity if care of the species is not primary.
Anglers fishing in Wal-Mart FLW, EverStart, and Red Man tournaments will see many changes this coming season. Tournament directors will double their efforts to promote catch care and to expedite speedy release of bass after the weigh-in. New tournament rules in EverStart and Red Man events will impose a half-pound dead bass penalty – the stiffest penalty of any national tournament trail! The Wal-Mart FLW Tour will adopt the rule in 2000. You can avoid the weigh-in penalties by caring for your caught bass.
You got a limit. A few casts later, another fish comes aboard. Frantically, you cull out the smallest bass in the livewell. But, the culling process is perhaps one of the worst times during a bass’s trip to the weigh-in.
Some anglers cull their fish with the “floor system.” With this culling system, the angler yanks the bass from the livewell and tosses them on the boat floor. As each bass is measured and weighed, the remaining un-checked fish flop helplessly about the boat floor loosing their precious slime coat with each flip. These rug-burned fish are very susceptible to infection and delayed mortality after the final weigh-in.
Tournament anglers must use alternative culling methods, like pre-measuring or weighing bass before putting them in the livewell. Several manufacturers produce bass-friendly culling tools, such as fish markers, portable scales, and measuring boards to make the pre-measuring process easier. These tools are inexpensive and worth their weight in gold for their abilities to reduce bass mortality.
Sadly, one culling tool may do more harm than good. Many tournament anglers use a balance beam for culling. To cull, two bass are suspended on opposite ends of a foot-long metal bar. The angler holds the bar in the air by a small ring at the bar’s midpoint. The heavier bass will tilt the bar downward.
After the lighter fish is released, the heavier bass – along with the metal balance beam still attached to its lip – is tossed back into the livewell. The clipped bass thrashes around the livewell attempting to shake off the metal bar. With each jump and thrash, the metal bar cuts and bruises the other bass in the livewell.
The preferred method for culling fish is to measure or weigh each bass as soon as it is caught. Then, clip a colored ring through the bass’s jaw. Use a different color ring for each bass. With this method, when you catch a larger bass, the small cull fish is easy to locate by the colored rings. Simply unclip the ring and gently slip the runt bass back into the lake.
During the culling process, it is very important to limit the amount of time a bass is out of the water. After all, how long can you hold your breath? Also, air exposure is dangerous on extremely cold days when fins can freeze. Hot days are deadly too because the fins and slime coat can dry out.
If you didn’t pre-measure your bass, take extra care to minimize the time that your bass are out of the water. A safe way to reduce air exposure when culling bass is to temporarily hold your catch in a water-filled weigh-in bag. This bag system can be a little awkward, but the bass would much rather go through this experience than to flop on the boat carpet.
Additionally, as you handle the fish, keep your hands wet. Dry human skin can scrape the slime coating off a bass as easily as boat carpet. By dipping your hands in water before handling fish, you can reduce slime coat damage.
Bass tournaments created a nationwide acceptance of the “catch & release” ethic. Prior to organized bass tournaments, only a very few anglers concerned themselves with releasing fish. Today, this philosophy has spread throughout the entire sportfishing world from the offshore tuna hunters to the farm pond bluegill canepolers.
In the early days of tournament fishing, anglers brought their dead catch to the scales on stringers. Some of the old tournament photographs show piles of dead bass lying on the ground near the tournament scales. Most anglers and tournament organizers realized that such wholesale slaughter would soon deplete the supply of bass.
During the early 1970s, tournament rules were changed to demand live release of the bass. The rule change sent bass anglers into a panic. Fortunately, Mickey Wood of Ranger Boats developed a unique livewell system.
Wood’s simple livewell design began with a small bilge pump and plastic box. The pump was secured to the bottom of the “livewell” box. A garden hose ran from the pump up to a garden sprinkler suspended above the water line in the livewell. When the pump was turned on, the sprinkler sent out an aerating spray of water that increased the oxygen level within the livewell.
Today, livewells are more advanced with timer systems, dual pumps, and aerators, but the basic design function of Ranger’s first livewell remains largely unchanged.
Imagine yourself locked in a dark-colored car on a hot summer day. That car has a few technical problems too – the air conditioner and power windows are broken. You would probably smash a window after spending 10 minutes in that car.
Your bass face a similar situation in the livewell. But the poor bass cannot break a window or open the livewell lid. They must endure the heat and lack of oxygen – the two deadliest livewell conditions.
Hot weather will stress livewell-confined bass. As heat stress increases, the bass consume more oxygen as they attempt to control their body temperature. The bass also start to flop around in the livewell in a vain attempt to get oxygen and find more comfortable conditions. Bass splashing around in your livewell should give you a clue that the fish are becoming stressed.
The “tournament” grade livewell systems are better able to counteract heat stress. These livewell systems usually have two pumps: one “filling” pump to take water from the lake and spray it into the livewell and a second “recycle” pump which recirculates the water within the livewell.
During the cooler seasons, the “filling” pump is capable of sustaining livewell bass throughout the tournament day. But in hot weather, the lake surface water temperature can easily exceed the water temperature in the livewell. By pumping this hot surface water into the livewell, you may overstress – and kill – the bass. Under these hot weather conditions, use the “recycle” pump instead of the “filling” pump.
As a way to beat the heat, some savvy bass conservationists put ice into the livewell to cool the water. While many consider the ice option expensive, the 8 ounce dead fish penalty in a tournament can be costly. Besides, a live bass is worth much more than 8 ounces! The fish’s true value is in repeated catches.
The low oxygen problem is a little difficult to solve. Livewells only hold 10 to 25 gallons of water. If you had a good day, a limit of bass can quickly deplete the oxygen within the livewell. One remedy for low oxygen levels is to add fish-saving chemicals to the livewell water.
Several chemical companies offer such products, like Live-N-Well and Jungle’s “Catch and Release” or Sure-Life’s “Please Release Me.” Chemical additives are often concoctions of salts, peroxides, sedatives, and antibiotics. The chemical blends calm the bass, protect it from infection and increase the oxygen supply in the livewell. With our “keep them alive” ethic, chemical use should be mandatory. Using the additives throughout the tournament day greatly decreases delayed mortality.
Another alternative for increasing oxygen livewell levels is the “Oxygen Edge” from Oxygen Systems. According to Dave Kinser, owner and technical expert at the company, lack of oxygen is the primary cause of bass death in livewells.
Chemically, the air we breathe has approximately 21 percent oxygen. In extremely well oxygenated water, the oxygen content is only 8 to 12 parts per million (PPM). Your bass will begin to suffocate when livewell oxygen levels fall below 6.5 PPM.
Standard livewell aeration systems use the 21 percent atmospheric air to replenish the livewell oxygen. Unfortunately, oxygen and water do not mix well, especially during hot weather. Therefore, the “recycle” pumps are not very efficient at mixing oxygen into the water. Even with the best “recycle” pumps, livewell oxygen levels will drop below 6.5 PPM when the water temperature increases above 90 degrees!
The Oxygen Edge, which is similar to the oxygen bottles used in hospitals, dispenses pure oxygen gas from a storage bottle into the livewell water. With this system, oxygen levels in the livewell have been recorded above 20 PPM! Now, even on the hottest days, the oxygen levels remain high enough to keep bass alive.
Perhaps the most stressful time for the bass occurs on the trip between the boat and the scale. At this time, bass are removed from the livewell and placed in a large plastic bag. The poor bass often remain in this bag for extended periods of time.
Don’t go to the weigh-in ahead of schedule. Instead, keep the bass in the livewell as long as possible. When you are called, be sure to fill the bag with enough water to sustain the bass throughout the weigh-in process.
If you are in a tournament that uses porous bags, wet the bag before dropping your bass into it. The moisture will prevent scale loss and slime coat damage. With either bag type, walk quickly to the weigh-in holding tanks.
Care of your bass catch is important to both the public image and the future of the sport. The Wal-Mart FLW Tour, EverStart Series, and Red Man tournament directors make every attempt to get your bass weighed and back into the water quickly, but the ultimate catch and release responsibility lies with you.
166 Seven Oaks Road
Leland, MS 38756
Oxygenation Systems of Texas,
P.O. Box 383, Anahuac, Texas, 77514. (409) 267-6458.
c/o Professional Sporting Goods,
P.O. Box 602, Schertz, Texas, 78154. (800) 835-2248.
P.O. Box 590, Seguin, Texas, 78156. (800) 846-6524.
Editors Note: During the 1999 Wal-Mart FLW Tour, Uniroyal will be promoting the Uniroyal Live Release Program. If a 98 percent live release rate is maintained throughout the 1999 Wal-Mart FLW Tour season, Uniroyal will donate $25,000 to the Children’s Miracle Network.