This week finds me competing in the Bassmaster Open event on Lake Erie, the place where smallmouth dreams are made and bass boats are broken.
Hopefully the weather will cooperate and competitors will all come back in one piece. As the summer turns to fall in the north country, fishing picks up, but often the winds do as well. I’ll cross my fingers, but realize that does no good when dealing with Mother Nature.
Recently, I embarked on a little insight into long-range fish transportation, fish care and concern over high numbers of dead (or likely to die) fish at big-water events. Maybe this week’s installment of Balog’s Bass War will help ensure higher survival at this week’s tournament.
While I don’t profess to be a master cranker like VanDam, and I could never flip with the likes of Biffle or Tharp, one thing I can do is keep bass alive. And today, we’re going to add a bit of “how to" to our story – something you’ll see very rarely in this column.
A little background: I did, at one time, convince myself that I would be a government fish head and earn a degree in fisheries science. When I could no longer stand working in a structured environment, I embarked on my own fishing career, traveling the country as part of the Hawg Trough seminar circuit. It was there that I learned to entertain, but I really learned a lot about bass and, specifically, how to keep them alive. Believe me, nothing ruins a sport show like a 5,000-gallon aquarium full of dead, stinking bass.
I remember once trucking a load of over 300 pounds of bass in a small tank in the back of a pick-up truck from New Orleans to Indianapolis. None died. Conversely, a lot of tournament anglers can’t seem to transport them to weigh-in.
Since my time serving as a fish guru at dog-and-pony shows, I have fished a lot of big-water events, as many of you know. And I pride myself in always bringing in very lively bass, even in summer, even on big water. I’ve written about this subject, given numerous seminars on it, and have had more than one recent request for more. So here, in bass fishing’s biggest forum, we’ll talk fish care.
There are a few major factors to understand when keeping bass alive in a livewell environment:
1. Oxygen is your friend,
2. Fish produce waste that must be flushed from the system periodically, and
3. If you beat your fish to death, they will, in fact, die.
First and foremost, the goal is to get a great deal of oxygen in the water. While commercial fish handlers use pure oxygen tanks (which many of us around Lake Erie have also used a great deal), this isn’t necessarily feasible for everyone. Also, add-on equipment like the Oxygenator has been proven to greatly increase oxygen in livewells, and I recommend them.
The best way to increase the amount of oxygen in water is to begin by cooling the water down. Cooling livewell water from 83 to, say, 68 will increase the oxygen-carrying capacity of the water by nearly 25 percent. In addition, fish in cool water have a lower metabolic rate, and therefore produce less waste (more about that in a minute).
Going the extra mile with fish care can help ensure a higher survival rate for bass.
Personally, I carry about 30 pounds of ice (three large bags) in my boat in an insulated cooler bag during summer events. Place one bag entirely in the livewell at a time. Leave the ice in the bag, as it will melt slower and buffer the water longer. Contrary to a popular, misguided belief among bass fisherman, ice is nearly chlorine-free and will not kill your fish. In addition, nearly all livewell additives contain a de-chlorinator that works immediately.
So, from the top, fill the wells with fresh water. Continue to run fresh water continuously through the day. When a large amount of fish are in the livewell, or a long run is going to be made, or just as the day heats up and the fish have been held for a while, we begin to set up our “happy place."
Be sure the wells are about three-quarters full (not to the top, as we need that spray from the aerator), and add a full bag of ice, as well as a livewell chemical additive.
I have, and always will, use livewell additives like the original Catch and Release solution, containing chemical tranquilizers. These additives are the same as used by fish-care professionals for decades. I want to keep my fish as tranquil and stress-free as possible, therefore slowing their metabolism and reducing the amount of waste product they expel. Like transporting a wild animal in a cage, I want to tranquilize the fish; stress alone can kill bass. For that reason, get the fish in the well, treat the water and leave them alone.
Also, these chemicals contain a slime regenerator and salts to help buffer the pH in the livewell, and further reduce stress caused by hooking, playing, and handling the bass. One of the original engineers of these compounds was the late Doug Hannon, considered by many to be on the level of genius in regard to bass biology.
Strive to create a nice, tranquil, cool place. After adding ice, switch the livewell water source from fresh water to recirculate. Once the “happy place” is created, the goal is to keep the water cool. But remember, the livewell must continue to spray water and create a bubbling effect. The harder the spray, the better. I have also used a bubble pump designed to keep live bait alive – in this case, a Frabill Aqua Life that plugs into my boat. While not as productive as pure oxygen, such a pump will greatly increase the oxygen level in a livewell.
Following an hour or so in this environment, the system must be flushed to remove wastes caused by the bass. This is a step I see a lot of anglers miss, and therefore kill their catch. Turn the system back to freshwater/aerate, and allow it to run while fishing until a complete water change is accomplished. Or, pump out about three-quarters of the livewell water, and refill. At that time, create the spa environment for your catch once again: Ice, additive, bubbles and spray.
Such an environment will create the best chance for fish survival in a livewell, provided anglers don’t then kill them with insane boat rides.
Tremendous damage can be done to the fish from sloshing around in livewells, especially those that are overfilled – where the fish can come in contact with the pumps and lids of the well. Fill wells to the overflow outlet, max. At that time, plug this overflow – a rough ride through big waves ensures most of the water would run out the overflow if not plugged. A normal bilge/boat plug fits most wells.
The question of fizzing bass also comes up often in big-water events. Personally, I do not fizz bass unless released/culled and unable to swim down properly. I leave fizzing to the experts.
The fish handlers on tournament release boats are experts in this area, and are in a far better surgical environment than I am when bouncing around in five-footers. If cared for properly, bass can remain upside down in a livewell and perfectly healthy, as long as they have adequate oxygen, a good environment, and do not have to succumb to a horrendous boat ride. I’m a believer in fizzing, but don’t view it as a cure all.
Another topic of concern is culling. When culling bass, to think that they can be tossed around on the dry carpet of a bass boat and remain unharmed is absurd. The best practice is to carry a large weigh-in bag in the boat. When going through the livewell to cull or weigh fish, get a good scoop of water in the bag, and place the fish in. Believe me, all of these steps to reduce the stress on the fish will greatly increase their survival rate.
Finally, when entering the weigh-in area, if the tournament bags are not perforated or mesh, fish held in bags will die. They may not die by the time they are weighed in, but findings of greatly increased delayed mortality of bagged fish are becoming more apparent. For that reason, in small events wait to bag fish until weigh-in lines go down, and, for major events with treated holding tubs, change the bag water with tub water when reaching the tubs.
I’m always amazed that major organizations provide those wonderful big tubs full of cool, clean, treated water, yet fisherman simply use them to float their bags in. Dump your water and refill, providing the tub water is cool.
In order to prevent this week’s column from transitioning from informative to ridiculously boring, I won’t go much further into the subject of fish care. However, I think the subject is just as important as any in our sport. Remember this the next time you watch a fishing show in which an angler catches and releases a bonefish, and contrast it with a scene of a bass pro boat-flipping a keeper.
Maybe this will help save a few fish – that’s my intention. For now, I’m off to my one-week version of big-money bass. Hopefully, the fishing will be productive, and the big waters of Erie calm. I’ll cross my fingers.
(Joe Balog is the often outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)