BUFFALO, N.Y. — Crashing around 12-foot waves that inundate their boats, several of the Bassmaster Elite Series pro anglers have confessed that they've been afraid for their lives this week on Lake Erie. But while they risk their own necks to win the Empire Chase presented by Mahindra Tractors, they still have to take uncommon measures on this lake to keep their bass alive once they're in the boat.
"Smallmouths are a bit more fragile, a bit needier than the largemouth," pro Kenyon Hill said. Just about everyone is sacking smallmouths in this tournament, and under conditions that make caring for fish care at least as tough as catching them.
Erie presents several risks for a caught fish. The most immediate of those is rapid decompression for fish pulled from depths of 40 or 50 feet, where several anglers are catching them. "You got to remember, you're pulling these fish up pretty quickly out of those deep waters up to the surface," angler Charlie Hartley said.
The effects of that rapid rise are no more pleasant for a fish than "the bends" are for a human. The fish's gas bladder (with which the animal controls its buoyancy) may swell, causing the fish to bloat, or a reddish color may appear on the mouth, tail or dorsal fin. "If the fish is red," angler Rick Clunn said, "it could really be in trouble."
To help the fish survive, anglers sometimes use a method called "fizzing" — basically, sticking a hypodermic needle down the fish's throat to puncture and deflate the gas bladder.
"I keep needles on my boat when it's absolutely necessary," veteran angler Paul Elias said.
But not every angler employs the practice. Mark Tyler thinks educating anglers on the risks and teaching them the right way to fizz could help keep more fish alive.
"Personally, I'm just not comfortable fizzing fish," Tyler said.
Fish wrenched from cool, deep water also fare better when anglers add ice to the water in their livewells. "A good ice bath is key," angler Jason Quinn said. "You never want to add surface water that's found in a marina."
Bass anglers weren't always so concerned with keeping fish alive. Around 1967, Ray Scott, founder of BASS, started to realize the importance of fish conservation both on the national level and at tournaments.
"Before livewells, anglers would turn up big limit stringers full of dead fish," Clunn said. And while the fish were usually given to local charities for fish fries, "it wasn't exactly a P.R. coup when these out-of-towners came in with a bunch of their dead fish. The rules really began to change in the early '70s when Forrest Wood originated the bass boat with a livewell."
Today BASS hits its Elite Series anglers with increasing penalties for each dead fish, beginning with a 4-ounce deduction from the angler's catch. For every subsequent dead fish, the penalty deduction grows by 2 ounces per fish. Two dead fish bring a total penalty of 10 ounces, three dead is an 18-ounce deduction, four dead costs 28 ounces, and five dead fish means a full 2 pounds, 8 ounces is subtracted from the day's weight.
During the Empire Chase, a number of anglers racked up multiple penalties. Hardest-hit may have been rookie Bryan Hudgins, whose four dead fish dropped him to 18th place from the ninth position he would have held with five live fish.
With the stakes as high as they are at Elite Series tournaments, anglers now rely on multiple technologies to keep fish from going belly-up.
To preserve the life of a bass, aerators in modern livewells add oxygen to the water while pumps circulate fresh water into the box. Many anglers also add revitalizing chemicals to increase the oxygen content in the water. "I use Bass Medics, the same stuff we use in the wells before weigh-in," angler Byron Velvick said.
Livewells also contain plug drains that allow anglers to empty poisonous waste water. Kept closed, those plug drains hold water in the box as the waves pitch a boat about, as they have on this Great Lake.
"Bouncing around out here, you really want to make sure your plug drains are closed," self-proclaimed fish-care expert Charley Hartley said.
Anglers also must protect fish from sheer physical strain. During this tournament, many anglers take long runs, often up to 40 miles each way. Just as the anglers are beaten up by heavy surf and heat, a fish in the box shares the same voyage. "You've got to keep those livewells full of water, especially when you're running in this chop," Ray Sedgwick said.
The real challenge becomes going slow enough to cushion the blow of the surf, yet fast enough to arrive at the weigh-in on time. "It took us about five hours to get back on Day One," John Murray said. "We just took our time with those waves, as big as they were."
Kotaro Kiriyama will often stop for a few minutes to check on his fish and give them a chance to relax whenever he feels the fish may need a break from sloshing about the box. "I took four hours to get back the other day and we weren't that far away," Kiriyama said. "We stopped a lot for the fish."
Even with that degree of attention, many of the fish reach the stage with obvious injuries, usually whitish-pink gashes where the fish's scales have been knocked away. The whole ordeal is rough on a bass, certainly, but it sure beats sleeping with the fishes.