Summer Bass Need Special Care

Summer Bass Need Special Care
By Vern Wagner
Conservation Director
Minnesota Bass Federation Nation

Organizers of summer bass tournaments – big and small – need to do a better job of caring for the fish. Many mortality problems are based on scale: The larger the tournament, the more fish to weigh, and the more difficult it is to keep those fish alive.  Small bass clubs that bring 30 to 60 fish to a weigh-in present fewer problems, because their catch can be weighed and released in a matter of minutes.

So, what needs to happen?  Should the DNR have the authority to modify tournament permits if weather conditions are that of extreme heat? Should tournament organizers be required to supply ice and livewell additives such as salt?  What about the weigh-in equipment and practices?  How long can we keep bass in plastic bags without fresh water or added oxygen?

The science and practices that support decreasing bass tournament mortality is growing.  So, when is it appropriate to hold tournament organizers responsible for applying the science? And what should be the official DNR responsibility in this?  These are the questions that myself and Ken Snow, conservation director of the Wisconsin Bass Federation, are asking.

As water temperature goes up, bass consume oxygen faster, and water holds less oxygen. It takes more aeration to keep bass alive in warm temperatures.  Ten pounds of bass in a bag containing only one to two gallons of water will reduce oxygen to lethal limits in two minutes.  The point? It’s vital (literally) to frequently exchange water while handling fish in summer.

Here’s why: a bass’s temperature tolerance depends on the temperature to which it is acclimated. This means that ice should be added to livewells and holding tanks to maintain water within plus or minus 5 degrees of the prevailing lake or river temperatures, especially in warmer weather.

Anglers also must consider survivability in light of fish diseases known to exist in certain areas. Largemouth bass virus has been identified in many pools of the Mississippi.  This disease first was seen in southern waters in the early ’90s and has resulted in significant post-tournament kills. Fortunately, LMBV has worked its way through southern bass populations without any long-term consequences and is likely to do so up north.  But questions remain.  While LMBV is still a comparatively minor threat in the Mississippi, is it appropriate to do DNR fish studies here?  Recent research studies in Wisconsin that held large concentrations of bass in trap nets resulted in very high mortality.  In light of recent tournament-related fish kills, are these studies detrimental to the overall population? S ince bass aren’t routinely kept for dinner plates, losing some fish may not be catastrophic.  But in the eyes of many, floating fish and large mortality rates create serious public relations problems for tournament anglers.  Bass tournament mortality entails more than fish weighed in dead or floaters found after a tournament.

Survivability is an ongoing process, influenced by age, disease, and injury.  Water quality, current flow in rivers, and dissolved oxygen levels also play a part, as does stress caused by hooking, handling and release.  Bass anglers frequently are asked if catch-and-release tournaments harm the fishery.  In fact, most lakes with a history of frequent tournaments don’t show signs of reduced density or lack of recruitment.  Habitat is key in determining fish populations.

Though all bass tournament anglers should take individual responsibility for keeping summer fish in good condition, the real need is for the large tournament circuits to lead the way. We can’t put all the responsibility on our state DNRs to police tournament ranks.  Leadership should come from tournament organizers rather than state mandates.  Nationally known tours conducted by the FLW and BASS – in league with their respective federations – already have a level of influence and credibility with tournament participants that state agencies may never approach. Organizers should make full use of existing science to make decisions on tournament procedure, because they are in the best position to experiment and quickly modify techniques used for the weigh-in process.

For example, bass tournaments during periods of high heat may require special modifications, such as perpetual weigh-in, and/or a reduced bag limits for that day. Many good publications exist that can help the tournament organizers cope with summer conditions.  Keeping Bass Alive is one example; using the Shimano Water Weigh-in is another.

While tournament organizers have the credibility, state agencies have the clout to mandate action and can move things along in a positive direction.  We see a need for these entities to work together, perhaps by moving bass tournaments to periods when water quality is optimal.
Individual bass anglers can also do their part to keep fish in prime condition. Everyone can: Keep livewells well aerated; run the pumps continuously, not just on a timer cycle; frequently exchange water; monitor water temperatures; and add ice and salt as needed.
What about the future? We see the next best step as creation of a tournament weighmaster certification program. Minnesota already has taken a first step in developing a weighmaster training curriculum for its clubs.

While summer bass tournament weigh-ins can present a challenge to tournament organizers, the science, experience and techniques to keep fish alive and successfully released already exist. We only need to apply what we already know.

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