In light of the recent heat wave here in Ohio, I wanted to share some of my past advice on taking care of your fish this time of year. Whether you are a tournament angler, or just hitting the local pond for a couple hours of bass fishing, here are some tips for making sure your fish are released alive and well this summer.
Tournament Fish Care Tips
You see it all the time at both the professional and amateur levels. A guy brings 5 nice ones to the scale and takes over the lead…but wait…he has a dead one. And that dead fish just cost him a thousand dollars in purse money!
As we approach July, the bass here in Ohio are officially through the spawn and have settled into both post-spawn and full-out summer patterns. The driving factor in determining the seasonal pattern for these fish is water temperature. With water temperatures reaching the high 70’s and low 80’s, it is extremely important to take care of your bass. Mortality rates reach much higher levels with water temperatures in this range, and as tournament fishermen know, dead bass equal lost money in a tournament. Depending on the tournament, I have seen dead fish penalties ranging from a 4 ounce reduction in your weight, all the way to having to cull your largest fish.
There are several steps you can take on the water to increase the chances that your fish won’t perish during a long 8 hour tournament in July or August. These measures do not take a lot of time, and can save you much heartache at weigh-in time.
Step 1: Cool Water Temperature and Run Livewell Pumps
If you can remember to bring ice with you, try to cool your livewell water down 10 degrees. Cooler water holds more oxygen. I know a guy who even uses a small aquarium thermometer to make sure he gets water temperatures cooled to the appropriate level. If you don’t feel like bringing bags of ice, simply freeze some plastic water bottles and throw them into the livewell.
Once the water has been cooled, put the livewell pump on recirculate. Every 2-3 hours replace at least half of the water by pumping out the old and pumping in the new. After new water has been pumped in, re-cool it. Replacing your water will restore oxygen levels and will remove ammonia from the water. High ammonia levels can kill your fish. If possible, fill your livewell with water from the main lake, as this part of the lake is usually cooler and has higher oxygen levels in the summer. Avoid filling your livewell in shallow backwaters. This water is often low in oxygen this time of year. Also, definitely avoid filling your livewell near boat ramps. It doesn’t take a scientist to guess that these areas have high pollutant levels.
Step 2: Livewell Additives
Livewell additives can help stressed fish recover during their stay in your livewell by increasing oxygen levels in your water, and adding much needed electrolytes and nutrients. Preferred livewell additives include Rejuvenade, Please Release Me, and simple hydrogen peroxide. Before using any of these additives be sure to thoroughly read the directions, as over application can actually harm your fish. There are several good websites on using hydrogen peroxide. Just Google it.
Step 3: Handling Your Catch
At all times your catch should be handled gently. Try to minimize the amount of contact you make with your fish. Every time you put your hands on a bass you are removing its protective slime, which can lead to infection. When I catch a keeper during a tournament I try to get it into the livewell as soon as possible, which reduces the amount of stress you are putting on your fish. The same goes for culling your fish. Try to cull as quickly as possible (using culling clips will help, see below).
Step 4: Weighing-In
Before I transfer my fish to my weigh bag I take a look at the weigh-in line. If the line is long, I wait to bag my fish. The less time your fish are in the weigh bag, the better your chances of weighing in 5 alive. Before transferring your catch from your livewell to your weigh bag, make sure that there is plenty of water in the bag. Filling the bag with the appropriate amount of water is very important. Putting 5 fish in a bag with barely enough water in it to cover their backs causes serious stress on your fish. The water quickly becomes oxygen depleted, leading to higher mortality rates. After the fish are bagged, avoid placing the bag on the hot blacktop while waiting your turn in the weigh-in line.
Although following these steps does not guarantee that you won’t lose any fish due to the heat, it will certainly help your chances. We work too hard to catch bass here in Ohio to let them die on us!
Culling Clip Advice
Over the past few years the use of “culling clips” by tournament anglers has become fairly common. When used properly, culling clips are a useful tool that simplify the culling process and save anglers valuable time during competition. They can also greatly reduce the amount of stress put on a bass compared to the traditional method of fumbling around your livewell with your hands. My favorite culling system is the Ardent SmartCull Professional Culling System. The floats on the Ardent clips allow you to dial in the size of the fish on the top, which can save you some serious time on the water.
But when used improperly, culling clips can be harmful and even fatal to bass. Anyone who has spent some time fishing on Ohio’s public reservoirs has probably noticed more of our bass are suffering from the telltale signs of cull clip misuse – a 3 or 4 inch slit in the soft tissue of their throats, starting several inches below the lower jaw and running up to the jawbone. These injuries can cause a number of health issues for bass, including infection and mal-nourishment due to the inability of the bass to feed.
Culling clips should always be inserted through the soft tissue as close in proximity as possible to the lower jawbone of the bass. This keeps the clip from tearing the skin when pressure is exerted on the float-end of the clip. Once the clip has been inserted, the best practice is to follow the clip from the bobber to the mouth of the fish, and then grab the fish by its lip rather than pulling the fish from the water by the clip. Lifting a fish out of the livewell will usually tear the skin. One way to avoid injuring the fish altogether is to use “alligator” style clips, such as the Accu Cull system. These clips never penetrate the throat, but instead grip the jawbone. The one disadvantage of alligator clips is that they easily become detached from the fish.
Finally, culling clips should not be used on large bass, as the weight of the fish’s body can easily break the jaw if the fish is lifted up by the clip. Here is a great video that illustrates the proper way to insert a culling clip (advance the video to the 1:20 mark) http://youtu.be/KEsQaoVbO5E
Fizzing a Deep Caught Bass
With much of Ohio’s bass population living deep in the water column to avoid the summer heat, I thought this would be an appropriate time to discuss the topic of treating a deep-caught bass that is suffering from “the bends”.
Bass, both largemouth and smallmouth, use an internal gas-filled organ known as the swim bladder to maintain neutral buoyancy in the water. Sometimes when a bass is hooked in deep water and rapidly reeled to the surface, the abrupt change in pressure causes the swim bladder to become over-inflated. If the bass is then placed in the shallow water of a livewell (in a tournament setting), it may be unable to maintain its buoyancy - a case of “the bends”. There are several telltale signs that a fish is suffering from this condition. The most common is that they go belly or side-up in your livewell. Although still alive, they cannot right themselves. The second is that a golf-ball sized lump may appear on the fish’s side. And the third is that the swim bladder may protrude from the fish’s mouth. If not treated quickly, the fish will often die.
The most common method to aid a fish that is suffering from a mis-inflated swim bladder is to “fizz” the fish. Fizzing involves piercing the swim bladder by inserting a specially designed needle into the fish’s side. Tackle Warehouse sells a fizzing needle called the “Bends Mender” for $3.99. We’ve used it before, and it works great (and it is a lot cheaper than some other models).
Laying the bass parallel to the surface of the water, count three scales behind the pectoral fin, towards the tail. Remove the scale (which will grow back in time), and insert the needle into the fish at a 90 degree angle while holding the fish under water. The excess air should bubble out (hence the term “fizz”), and the fish will be able to right itself. Check out this great video from Bass Resource that demonstrates how to Fizz a Bass!
I’ve caught and seen others catch bass that have needed to be fizzed on a number of Ohio fisheries, including Alum Creek Reservoir, Clear Fork Reservoir, and Mosquito Creek Reservoir. On most occasions, the fish were caught off the bottom in 15 to 20 feet of water.