Dead Bass Numbers Rise with the Temperature

Mike Jolley, TWRA Region III fisheries biologist and his crew monitor the health of the Chickamauga Lake bass population routinely. Jolley says that so far they have seen no ill effects from the intensive fishing and bass tournament pressure on Chickamauga. (Photo: Richard Simms)

It happens every year as water temperatures on area lakes climb into the 80’s. On Facebook or other Internet discussion forums folks complain about dead bass floating near area boat ramps following bass tournaments. On any given Saturday there are bass tournaments out of nearly every major ramp, plus numerous evening and nighttime “dogfight” style tournaments throughout the week.

Most major bass tournaments go to extensive lengths – providing cooled and aerated holding tanks where anglers keep their fish before weigh-ins – to care for bass the anglers catch and insuring they can be released in good health. However few smaller bass tournaments have the resources to provide such care. (Photo: Richard Simms)

Bass tournament anglers pride themselves on catch & release practices. However in the heat of the summer some describe those practices as “catch & waste.” Research across multiple states has shown that as many as 50 percent of all bass released following summertime tournaments will die. Biologists refer to it as “delayed mortality,” meaning the fish might look healthy to the average angler when released, however the fish has been stressed to the point that it won’t survive – even if it seemingly swims away healthy.

One acquaintance messaged me recently, writing, “One fish that the individual was holding [in a Facebook photo] had a sore on it and looked the same as the eleven dead fish that were floating at the ramp the next day at Chester Frost. It is concerning and very sad, especially for the little people coming up after us.”

A document posted by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency on caring for tournament-caught bass says, “Occasionally fish die during [or following] a tournament. Biologists understand these consequences but studies have shown that tournaments generally have negligible impact on bass populations. However, it is without a doubt, in tournament anglers’ best interests to do everything they can to maximize the survival of released fish – both to protect the resource and to project a positive image that will ensure the future of the sport.”

Dennis Tumlin, who heads up the marketing campaign in Rhea County, subscribes to that theory.

“Of course we’re actively promoting bass tournaments in Dayton, but I don’t actively solicit any tournaments in July or August and if they choose to come on their own during any summer month we request that they adhere to a maximum 3-bass limit,” said Tumlin. “As a fishermen it just makes sense to me that it’s easier to keep three fish alive than it is five.”

However others, including me, point out that the legal creel limit is five largemouth per person per day. That means if they wanted to, every bass fisherman on the lake could legally take five largemouth home and eat them. And according to TWRA, that would not hurt the bass population.

“That’s true,” said Mike Jolley, TWRA Region III fisheries biologist. “It was bass fishermen themselves who came up with catch & release. Typically tournament guys are bringing in bigger fish that they want to see go back in the lake and reproduce.”

Proper livewell management and fish care is a critical component for bass tournament competitors, especially during the summer months when water temperatures climb above 75 degrees. Anglers are penalized in the competition if they bring a dead bass to the weigh-in stand. However research shows that many summertime tournament-caught bass will die after the fact, even when they seem healthy when initially released. (Photo: Richard Simms)

Jolley admits, however, that the popularity and intense bass fishing pressure on Chickamauga Lake is of some concern. So far, however, Jolley says their research and data is showing no ill effect.

“When or if our data shows some reduction or changes in population structure we might need to look at some adjustments,” he said.

It is work and extra effort, but there are many things that tournament anglers can do to insure their fish can be released. In this video, professional bass angler Jon Henry provides a step-by-step guide of his livewell management method for keeping bass alive and healthy during and following a tournament.

Or follow these guidelines suggested by TWRA.

— Fill your live well at your first fishing spot using water from open areas of the lake.

— Turn on your recirculating pump immediately and leave it on all day (set pump switch to manual for continuous operation). If the aerator must run on a timer, run as often as possible as oxygen depletion occurs quickly when the pump is off. Make sure aeration system provides proper aeration while boat is moving or on a trailer. If you don’t have a recirculating system, add one.

— Only pump in fresh water when lake surface water temperatures are below 75 degrees.

— When water temperatures are above 75 degrees, recirculate livewell water continuously, but do not pump in hot water from the lake. Use ice to cool the water and slow fish metabolism (block ice melts slower) and try to maintain water 10 degrees cooler than lake. Don’t overcool the water which can also be stressful to fish. Use only non-chlorinated block or bagged ice.

— Use non-iodized salt (available at feed stores) to maintain electrolyte balance and reduce effects of stress. Salt should be added at 1/3 cup per 5 gallons of water. Premeasure and store in ziplock bags. Commercial livewell additives may also be added as directed. Don’t oversalt if using both.

— Drain half of the livewell water every three hours to remove toxic waste products (carbon dioxide and ammonia). Add 1/2 the amount of ice, salt, and commercial livewell additive each time. Keep fish in rear livewells, evenly distributed between compartments. Fish in forward livewells are more likely to be injured from bouncing on rough water.

— Land fish with knotless nylon or rubber nets. Land fish quickly and avoid damage to slime coating. Grasp fish by lower jaw only, holding them vertically. Support large fish with a wet hand under the belly. Do not allow fish to touch boat or carpet and rub off protective slime.

— Remove hooks quickly with as little tissue damage as possible. Remove deep hooks carefully with pliers or hemostats. When attempts fail, cut line five or six inches above the hook.

— Do not keep fish out of water longer than you can hold your breath.

— Do not use live wells when you are not competing. Practice catch and immediate release or selective harvest by keeping smaller fish (for the kitchen on ice) and immediately releasing large fish.

— Install an oxygen delivery system which delivers oxygen directly into livewells from a pressurized tank through air-stones or hose. The system must have a regulator or pressure valve and the tank must be securely mounted. The system is better than simple aeration (air is only 21% oxygen) and solves oxygen demand problems. Although less need for water temperature adjustments is usually required, flushing with freshwater every 2-3 hours is still essential.

As for me, if tournament anglers have summer-caught bass that are clearly stressed, I would prefer they take them home and eat them. It is a far better option than having folks looking at them floating dead at the ramp.

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Richard Simms is a professional journalist and fishing guide in Chattanooga. (See He is also a former wildlife officer for TWRA, a book author and a self-proclaimed "River Rat" with a sincere desire for spreading the message about our bountiful natural resources and the people charged with using, or protecting them.


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