I have been fortunate to win two B.A.S.S. tournaments and qualify for six Bassmaster Classics, but one of the crowning achievements of my 17-year career as a full-time professional angler is my record on fish care. Of the several thousand fish that I’ve weighed in, only three died. I believe that’s a testament to the incredible job that B.A.S.S. does, the rapidly evolving technology available to us, as well as to my own vigilance about taking care of my fish.
While that 99% plus release rate is strong, the untold story is that those three fish-care penalties cost me a combined $37,000. Ouch! While it pinches me in the wallet every day, it’s a good reminder of one of the many reasons we need to be extra careful, especially during the summer, when fish are most vulnerable.
I’ve fished under all sorts of extreme conditions, and I’ve targeted bass at every depth under those varied scenarios. Without a doubt, heat is the most challenging factor when it comes to fish care.
There are some simple ways to make sure that fish don’t expire this summer, and a lot of that revolves around oxygen. You have to make sure that the livewell water maintains a certain percentage of oxygen, and one easy way to do that — if you’re fortunate enough to have a big limit — is to split them up between your boat’s two livewells. Another simple thing to do is to add some sort of oxygenator to your boat in advance. It’s a small investment that can pay off in a big way.
Modern livewells are bigger than the ones we had in the early years, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need to be mindful of their operation. All boats are different, but the bottom line is that you need to have repeated freshwater intake. When I catch a fish, I turn the livewell on to a setting of continuous fill, transitioning to a timer which starts up again every three minutes. I also put my recirculating aerator pumps on manual and never shut them off, as well as turning on my oxygenators. Those steps alone equal tremendous success, but they’re not always enough.
A lot of anglers are inclined to put ice into their livewells on scorching hot days, but you really have to be careful when you go down that route. If you alter the temperature more than 5 or 10 degrees in one fell swoop it can shock your fish, and they may die when placed back into warmer lake water after the weigh-in. Your best bet is to follow the guideline the B.A.S.S. booklet Keeping Bass Alive.
There are also a variety of additives on the market, and most of them help. Be sure to read the recommendations on the label to ensure that you are using the proper amount and that they don’t conflict with other measures you are taking.
No matter where you live, you should also learn to “fizz” a fish by deflating an over-inflated swim bladder. Any fish that can’t stay upright on its own needs to be fizzed — period. While it typically happens to fish brought up quickly from the deep, I’ve seen it happen to shallow fish as well. It’s a matter of the bladder putting pressure on their organs, which stresses them out and causes major problems if not addressed quickly. There are clips available to keep them upright, but those alone don’t decrease the pressure and the stress.
Sticking the needle through their side is the simplest and most effective strategy by far. There are two great videos on the Bassmaster.com that you can watch at home to learn how to fizz both smallmouth and largemouth bass. These videos also describe the proper needle — one that allows you to clear it while inserted in the fish and that is long enough to give you a solid grip while inserted.
B.A.S.S. has always gone above and beyond in ensuring that we leave our fisheries as healthy as we find them, and the organization has been a leader in developing a set of best practices. That involves close monitoring of the holding tanks and a top-flight live release boat. We have an example to set for the rest of the anglers out there, and while we’re not perfect, with a little bit of effort from everyone we can get remarkably close to perfection.