BASS Times: Live release boats: recovery room or coffin?

Live release boats or trailer-mounted hauling tanks that are used to relocate bass following tournament weigh-ins have a Jekyll and Hyde personality. When used properly, these rigs can serve as recovery tanks where fish can recuperate from the stress of livewell confinement and the weigh-in process. And they can help prevent stockpiling of bass in overused release sites.

Unfortunately, a number of fish kills have been linked to the improper use of release boats or trailers. In most cases, investigations have revealed "operator error" as the culprit behind the kills. Overloading or lack of proper aeration resulted in the boat tanks serving as a coffin rather than a live release tool.

 So what can be done to ensure a release boat is a benefit and not a detriment?

 Rule #1: Be realistic.

Some fish will die because of tournaments. Resource managers know and accept this fact. Anglers and tournament directors must accept it, too. You can't save every fish. The key is knowing which fish to keep and which to release. Dr. Hal Schramm, co-author of Keeping Bass Alive, defines a live bass worthy of release as one that (1) can maintain an upright position without assistance; (2) exhibits regular gill movement — i.e., it is breathing; and (3) responds to handling by trying to swim away if you touch it.

 Fish that do not meet all three of these criteria should not be released. It is better to be conservative and keep fish that may die rather than hoping they will live and have them float up a few days later. As it states in the live release booklet, "Don't put marginal fish in the release boat or trailer." These fish need to go straight into a cooler on ice so they can be utilized and eaten by someone.

 Rule #2: Don't overload the tank.

 Track the weight of all fish being weighed and when the maximum load for your tank is reached, stop the weigh-in; or, if a second tank is available, continue loading into the other tank. Biologists recommend a maximum load of 1 pound of fish per gallon of water.

 Some tournament directors think that every fish must be relocated so the "meat fishermen" won't get them. This is not true. If a second tank is unavailable, as long as water quality is acceptable, it is all right to release some of the fish at dockside or shoreline.

Rule #3: Watch the oxygen.

Maintain dissolved oxygen levels in the tank at 5.0 parts per million or greater to keep fish healthy. Pressurized oxygen systems are often the only way to provide sufficient oxygen to these tanks in warmer weather or with large loads.

 Rule #4: Regulate tank water temperature.

 Maintaining the temperature in the tank may be a challenge on hot, sunny days, and ice should be available in large quantities to regulate the temperature in 300 or 500 gallons of water, especially if the tank is not insulated.

 Rule #5: Treat bass properly.

 The tournament staff should be trained to recognize swim bladder overinflation and know how to deal with it. First aid may be required for some bass. Fizzing is a commonly used practice to relieve the pressure on the bass' swim bladders when they have come from deep water. But remember, if you have to give a fish mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, it's a "goner." Put it in the cooler.

A number of angling organizations are currently raising money or applying for grants to build release trailers or boats. This is a good cause — but only if there is also a plan in place to train the operators.

 Simply having a boat or trailer, adding water, then adding fish is a recipe for disaster. Operators must be trained properly and they must understand the consequences if a mistake happens. Nontournament anglers, lakeside homeowners, state agencies and regulating authorities are watching. There is no room for mistakes.

Organizations looking to build live release boats or trailers should consult their state fisheries management agency or the BASS conservation department for advice on tank sizing, plumbing, aeration and oxygen systems and other equipment.

Redundancy is always a good thing when trying to keep fish healthy and alive. Just like your bass boat, a live release system should have multiple aerator or recirculation pumps, built-in back-up systems for filling and aerating in case the primary systems break down. Invest in a dissolved oxygen/temperature meter and learn how to use it. It will make monitoring the water quality in the tanks much easier and more reliable.

Live release boats or trailer-mounted tanks don't solve all the problems associated with tournament weigh-ins. But they can be very beneficial for relocating large catches away from high traffic or frequently used weigh-in sites. The positive image this equipment projects shows the public that tournaments are being proactive in protecting our fisheries resources.

 ED — Gene Gilliland is a senior fisheries biologist for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.

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