Catch, Care and Release of Tournament Caught Bass

Thought it might be helpful to post about Catch, Care and Release of Tournament Caught Bass. We can all do a better job of caring for our catch, if we have more "how to" information. These are my personal suggestions, they aren't gospel, but as you can see some are strongly encouraged. The basic thing to remember is that the number of fish killed in a tournament is generally 2 to 3 times the number dead at the weigh-in. Stress kills bass. The stress we put them though is much more likely to kill them later, not sooner.

One of the best ways to reduce stress is to use salt or Catch and Release or Please Release Me in your livewell every time you have fish in the livewell. Salt works best and is cheaper, too. These chemicals calm the fish and reduce stress, while helping the fish reconstitute the slim layer that protects the fish. The largest stress factor is temperature, both high temperature and temperature shock. The higher the temperature the lower the dissolved oxygen carrying capacity of water. The higher the water temp is, the lower the oxygen content is.

Let me share a few facts I learned at the B.A.S.S. Wrangler Nationals last month with you. A change of over 5 degrees can stress a bass; a change of over 10 degrees can put a bass in temp shock that may ultimately kill the bass. This is true of changes going up or down in temperature. Water temps in the high 80's have little or no dissolved oxygen. Filling your livewell after your first morning run in warm or hot weather starts your day with cooler water in the livewell. (No need to carry the extra weight on the blast-off or chance filling your tank with different temp water or until you start catching fish.)

When you have fish in the livewell, run the aerator intermittently (to put fresh water in and get the used water out, as well as aerate) and run the recirculating pump every time you make a move from spot to spot 9 to keep oxygen content up). Run the recirculating pump constantly in hot weather. Fresh water and oxygen are necessities for reducing stress.

Use a small bottle of frozen water to slightly cool your livewell water in hot weather, especially as the day gets hotter. Take a few of these frozen bottles in your cooler (keeps the beverages cold, too) in hot weather. The warmer the weather, the more bottles you will need. Watch the surface temperature and the livewell temperature to avoid temp shock as fresh water is pumped into the livewell. Keep in mind the depth and the temperature at that depth for the fish you are catching. The water temp of fish caught deep in the summer is not the surface temp. Fresh, well oxygenated, slightly cooler water is key to long term fish survival.

Just as you would become stressed in a bag all day without fresh air and the build up of bad air and the fish are stressed in a live well with a build up of their wastes and low oxygen. Keep an eye on temp, the aerators running and fresh water flowing. Repeated handling of fish is a serious stress causing factor. Minimize handling by marking your catch when it is caught, not later in the day. Use a wet, rubber net on every keeper fish. Never let the fish touch the boat carpet. One of the major stress causes is the weigh-in. Try the "WET Weigh-in". Once you try it you'll like how much faster it is and better it is for the fish, too. Use 2 sinks and 2 Rubbermaid tubs (with holes drilled in them to drain water fast and achieve exact weight for both tubs) at your weigh-in. The tubs fit well into garage sinks commonly used at weigh-ins and give you the ability to handle only the big fish at weigh-ins.

All CDFG tournament permits require that fish not be in bags with water longer than 3 minutes. Fish should never be in a bag without water, except when being weighed. The best weigh masters use the wet weigh-in. One sink for dumping the fish into at weigh-in and a second hospital sink are all that is needed. Put a stopper in both sinks, fill both sinks half full before the weigh-in starts. Dump the bag with water and fish into the dump sink (with one tub in it), transfer the big fish to a second sink (also has a tub in it), which is in the hospital sink (has chemicals in it, i.e. the name hospital sink). Use the second tub to weigh the big fish, while measuring the smallest fish, if needed, using the marks on the bottom of the first tub and a board for close calls. Transfer the first tub to the hospital sink after checking size and while the big fish is weighed the second tub. Dump the big fish from the second tub back into the dump tub (which is now in the hospital sink) to weigh the entire catch. Put the second tub into the dumb sink and fill the bag back with water from the dump sink while the catch is being weighed. Put the fish back into the bag with water after the catch is weighed.

The dump sink saves the water for refilling the bag and the second hospital sink, with salt or chemicals to calm and treat the fish at weigh-in, makes the weigh-in go faster (calmer fish weigh faster). At Nationals, we were told that serious stress starts when the oxygen runs out on a limit in a bag of water. They said it takes only TWO minutes for the oxygen to run out in a water filled bag with a limit of fish. Put your catch back into the lake or a running livewell as soon as they are weighed. Never leave them in a bag until they are released. Use "On the water weigh-ins", if at all possible. Oxygenated tanks have a limited capacity to keep large numbers of large fish healthy. Dumping and refilling the tank with fresh water during the weigh-in is a must or fish will be lost at large tournaments. You would never consider keeping a large limit in your livewell without fresh water. Fish survival depends on fresh water AND oxygen. The build up in a tank of wastes and ammonia is a deadly fact.

Release fish away from docks and near shore. Keep someone there to be sure they swim off. Aid those in distress. Never leave fish on the surface after a weigh-in. Wastage violates CDFG codes. Consider using ice bottles in your sinks if the weigh-in is in hot weather or lasts a long time. We have posted about deep caught bass, but what are the basics. The most important thing, not stressed earlier, is to pop the fish within the first few minutes of catching it. A fish caught in 10 feet of water may have come from deeper water to take the bait. Check ALL your fish in the Winter (AND Summer when fishing near deep water) WITHIN THE FIRST 5 MINUTES of catching it and putting it in the livewell to be sure they don't have air bladder problems. Fish have permanent damage done to their circulatory system if their air bladder is not popped quickly.

Put the fish on it's side on a cool, WET Wil-E-Go board, holding the fish's jaw with one hand and the needle in the other hand. Insert a spinal needle into the fish to deflate the air bladder. Spit into the top of the needle, just as you would put spit in the valve of a tire to see if the valve leaks. The point of insertion is determined by drawing an imaginary line from the notch in the dorsal fins (between the soft and hard splines) and the anal opening. Lift the second or third scale on the imaginary line below the lateral line, inserting the needle under, not through the scale. Slant the top of the needle to the tail, inserting the needle point slanting toward the mouth. Watch for air bubbles in the top of the needle. Press lightly on the belly, away from the needle's point, to get all the air out of the bladder. Remove the needle, return the fish to the livewell and insert the plunger into the needle to keep it from stopping up. Spinal needles are encouraged because they are only a few dollars ($5 from CA B.A.S.S. Fed.) and last forever.

We in California lose an average of less than 10% of tournament caught fish. One to three percent are dead at the weigh-in and 2 to 3 times that are lost within the next 2 weeks, on average. The problem is that the national average is much, much higher (about one third in tournaments nation-wide) due mostly to higher temperatures. This is, of course, much better than the zero survival of fish raised to be eaten or caught by anglers not practicing Catch, Care and Release.

This information is shared to help make our tournament survival better. The more we know, the better job we can do for our sport and the fish. I readily concede, I haven't always done all these things, as an angler or as a tournament director, but I have learned more and do a better job as time and knowledge improve my ability. Hope this helps you do the same.

Keep tight lines,