BASS National Conservation Director Gene Gilliland says the enhanced fish care initiative implemented at the 2021 Bassmaster Classic held June 11-13 on Lake Ray Roberts near Denton came off without a hitch.
The first-of-its-kind program was built around 54 anglers who qualified to compete in what many consider to be pro bass fishing’s marquee event.
Here’s how it worked:
Contestants weighed their daily catches (up to five bass) after check-in at the Isle Du Bois boat ramp during the opening two rounds, but were allowed to trailer only two fish to the formal weigh-in at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, about 90 minutes away. Others were released before leaving the lake.
The field cut to the Top 25 for the final round. Anglers were allowed to bring a full limit to Fort Worth for the final weigh-in. Livewells were prepped and monitored for optimum water qualitywith assistance from Texas Parks and Wildlife Department fisheries experts.
BASS opted for the modified fish care approach after the ‘Classic dates shifted from mid-March to early June due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic.
The idea was to help reduce potential stress issues that might occur as the result of warmer water temperatures, reduced oxygen levels and long drives in the big city traffic.
Gilliland, a former fisheries biologist with Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, said it was all part of a pre-tournament conservation plan developed in close correspondence with TPWD inland fisheries biologists.
“The plan was executed to perfection, and the results exceeded expectations,” Gilliland said in a bassmaster.com release. “Despite the heat, the distance, the traffic and the logistics that are inherent to the Bassmaster Classic, the team returned over 98 percent of the bass weighed during the 51st Classic to the lake where they were caught. To see these results in Texas in the early summer was amazing — and a testimony to both the anglers and our fish care crew doing everything right.”
Fisheries biologist Todd Driscoll coordinated the fish care effort for TPWD. He was well satisfied with the 98.4 percent live release rate.
“We did everything we possibly could in terms of keeping these fish healthy and getting them back to the lake, from icing the livewells to adding pure oxygen,” Driscoll said. “Kudos go out to the anglers, too. The fish were in their care the majority of the time before we got our hands got on them and they are were in great shape. Fish care could not have gone any better.”
Driscoll knows plenty about livewell science. An avid tournament angler himself, he also knows the potential consequences of showing up for derby weigh-in with a dead fish or two the box.
Most tournament circuits assess penalties for dead fish, and culling of dead fish is grounds for disqualification. BASS and Major League Fishing deduct four ounces in weight for every dead fish an angler brings to the scales.
Penalties are even more severe in other leagues. Texas-based Bass Champs charges anglers a six-ounce penalty. The dead fish penalty in Texas Team Trail events is eight ounces.
The loss of a few ounces may not sound like much, but it can be.
Perhaps the most costly dead fish penalty ever assessed in pro fishing goes back to August 1997, when Alabama angler Dalton Bobo lost the Bassmaster Classic on Logan Martin Lake to Missouri pro Dion Hibdon.
Bobo qualified for bass fishing’s Super Bowl via BASS’ grassroots amateur league, B.A.S.S. Nation. Out of vacation time, he quit his day job to compete in the three-day derby.
On day two, he deep hooked a fish on a Texas-rig worm. The bass died before weigh-in and Bobo took a four-ounce hit.
The dead fish penalty came back to bite Bobo a day later at the final weigh-in. He lost to Hibdon by a single ounce, the closest margin ever recorded in ‘Classic history.
That one dead fish meant the difference in Bobo winning $101,000 for first place and $16,000 for second. It also cost him a shot at the lucrative sponsor endorsements that often accompany a Bassmaster Classic title.
All the money and fame aside, it never feels good turning over a lifeless or sickly bass to the guy at the fish handling table. While some mortalities can’t be helped, others can be prevented by giving the fish a little extra love.
Several factors including excessive blood loss from deep hooking, gill damage or hyperbuoyancy (an over inflated air bladder), can cause an otherwise healthy bass to expire well before its time.
Another common denominator that scientists have linked to bass mortality -- particularly in tournament-caught fish -- are the stressors associated with being placed in a livewell equipped with an aeration system that isn’t generating enough oxygen to keep up with demand.
Driscoll says the problem occurs most frequently during the heat of summer, when water temperatures on some lakes to soar into the 80s and 90s.
Interestingly, Texas researchers have learned that summer oxygen levels on many reservoirs may exceed 100 percent saturation. They say this is due to healthy algae populations that produces gobs of oxygen through a biological process called photosynthesis. That's a good thing.
Just the opposite happens when the warm lake water is pumped into a livewell. The photosynthesis process shuts down without sunlight.
Add a limit of bass to the equation and the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water can be depleted much quicker than in cooler water, even with both aeration pumps running full bore. That’s because bass naturally consume more oxygen in warm water. Plus, ammonia build-up from fish waste in livewells becomes more toxic.
"Nearly all of the livewell-related mortality of bass is caused by inadequate oxygen," Driscoll said. "A top-notch livewell will usually maintain an oxygen level good enough to keep fish alive so long as the pumps run continuously. But those fish are still going to be stressed, because the oxygen can't be maintained at the optimum level. The problem is compounded if you factor in a big fish or two."
Bass are prone to stress with insufficient oxygen. According to Driscoll, stress is the primary mechanism that sometimes causes bass to die before, or soon after being released following a derby weigh-in. The latter is called “delayed mortality.”
Results from nine-month study conducted several years ago on tournament-caught bass at Lake Amistad showed delayed mortality rates were significantly higher when water temperatures exceeded 79 degrees as opposed to 65 degrees or less.
Helping the Cause
There are several things anglers can do maintain sufficient oxygen levels and good water quality in their livewells. TPWD research has shown that injecting 100 percent oxygen into livewells in combination with correct dosages of stock salt, occasional icing to reduce water temperatures and performing partial water exchanges a couple of times a day may be the most efficient methods of all.
Fisheries biologist Randy Myers of San Antonio and his staff spent months studying the impacts of oxygen injection versus standard aeration systems on summer-caught bass at several South Texas lakes.
The study showed that oxygen injection is hands down the best way to go. Researchers even designed an effective system anglers can build at home for a nominal cost.
“It is such an efficient system that it raises the oxygen level above the saturation point, even in hot water,” Myers said. “It essentially gets the fish drunk on oxygen."
Once the study was complete, Myers made a PowerPoint slideshow presentation that includes a review of the study results, along with an informative how-to guide anglers can use build their own oxygen injection system. You can view it at www.slideshare.net/raminlandfish/livewell-oxygen-injection-8773301.
Pass the Salt and Add Some Ice
According to Driscoll, adding stock salt (available at feed stores) at a rate of one cup per 15 gallons of gallons of water can be a huge benefit.
The stock salt replenishes electrolytes that are naturally excreted when the bass are stressed. Driscoll warned against using stock salt in combination with a livewell accessory called The OXYGENATOR. He said the device actually separates the water molecules and produces lethal chlorine gas if used with salt.
Adding ice is another way to improve water quality in livewells, so long as it is done in moderation. Driscoll prefers to use ice when surface temps are 75 degrees or warmer. He carries frozen bottles of water in a small cooler and adds them periodically to maintain a water temperature in his livewells that is 5-10 degrees cooler than the surface temperature.
“It’s also a good idea to exchange about half the livewell water every three hours to prevent ammonia build-up,” Driscoll added. “Additional ice and salt need to be added when water is exchanged. As a rule, eight pounds of ice will cool the typical livewell 5-10 degrees for three hours.”
Whether fishing at the bass club or pro level, tournament anglers owe it to the resource provide the best fish care possible. A little love goes a long way to during the heat of summer.
Matt Williams is a freelance writer based in Nacogdoches. He can be reached by e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org.