By C.C. McCotter

With the advent of so many summer bass tournaments and tournament series around the state some anglers have become concerned with the mortality rate of the caught and “released” fish.

Unfortunately, by the end of the day or event three-hour event, a number of bass do perish. When they float around the release site, it’s a black-eye for the sport, not to mention the effect on the fishery

While some of the event’s catch are inevitably hooked deep and cannot be released alive (this happens no matter the time of year), it is the fish that die due to heat stress, low livewell oxygen levels and the symptoms of rapid decompression that can be often eliminated with a few conscientious steps.

If you fish in the summer consider taking the following steps prior to your next hot weather. Remember, catch-and-release tournaments only work if you take special care to ensure your catch’s survival. And just because you release a stressed or injured fish and it swims away, doesn’t mean that after a week it will still be alive.

To marginalize the number of tournament caught fish (or any caught and released bass) that suffer from delayed mortality, it’s important to understand what circumstances cause damage and what you can do to alleviate as many of the problems as possible.

Perhaps the number one cause of delayed mortality among summer time caught fish is stress. This can come in any number of forms, the top four being heat, low oxygen, handling stress and decompression.

Heat Stress
When summer time water temperatures reach 80+ degrees on the surface your livewell becomes uncomfortable for fish in it. This is because once you fill up the livewell in the morning the water heats up all day. The livewell pumps add heat and the decks absorb heat and it adds up to potentially lethal temperatures for bass.

You can avoid heat stressing and killing your fish by filling your livewell first thing in the morning, then adding several frozen water bottles. No matter if your water is chlorinated or not, the bottle keeps it separated from the fish and the ice cools the surrounding water. Those blue ice packs are good, too, because they take longer to melt. You’ll also want to pump out or drain half of the livewell’s water at midday and then re-fill and re-treat during events marketed by especially hot conditions. You’d be amazed at how much healthier your fish are at weigh-in after taking just this simple step.

Low Oxygen Stress
Bass are pretty tough critters evidenced by the variety of water in which they thrive. They do not, however, thrive in a hot livewell with too little oxygen. Fish “breathe” the water in which they swim. If the amount of dissolved oxygen is too low, they suffocate. Nothing’s worse then opening up your livewell to see two fish belly-up and the other three with eyes going dead because you forgot to turn on your automatic aeration control.

Look, if you are going to fish tournaments, you’d better have a properly functioning livewell. Remember those quick livewell checks at the start of your event? In the beginning they were used not to see if you have fish in them, but rather to see if your livewell works. Tournament directors might be advised to implement this practice again.

You can avoid low oxygen stress on your catch by turning on your aeration to manual and leaving it on for 10 minutes after you fill it in the morning and add the ice bottles. This cooled water will hold more oxygen than hot water and will offer calming surroundings for keeper number one.

After you put that first fish into the livewell, don’t rely on your memory to cut the manual switch on and off. Put it into automatic mode and leave it. You might even consider switching it back into manual when you run from spot to spot.

If you do not have a livewell that can recycle the existing water and instead pumps in water from outside each time it cycles, this can be an issue. This type of older or basic livewell can kill your fish in minutes. By 2 pm it’s pumping water that has risen sometimes 10 degrees since morning into your livewell. Consider more ice or adding a recycling or re-circulating pump if you are experiencing mortality.

Handling Stress
Ever caught a bass with a “burn” mark on its lower jaw. It’s usually a reddish spot that looks raw. They are common on our fisheries where catch and release tournaments are held. These fish have been caught and released after being lipped by an angler with a dry hand. The thumb and index finger removed the protective slime (mucous) layer from the fish’s jaw and it’s slowly succumbing to a bacterial infection.

You can avoid “burning” your fish by handling them only with wetted hands. This is especially important when you pose for that first place photo.

Fish also generally freak out right after you place them in a livewell. Wouldn’t you? It probably stinks, it’s hot and the water tastes funny. There are a number of commercial marketed livewell treatments for bass. Rejuvenade is one of the most popular livewell treatments and had become the official product of most of the major tournament trails around the country.

Its crystallized formula is said to revitalize, replenish and re-energize bass thus preparing them for a healthy release. All you do in the morning is mix one cap per 20 gallons of livewell water and you will be amazed at the results. See your local tackle retailer for this product or go to .

Beating Decompression
This is just a fancy way of describing what happens to a bass when you catch it off a deep brushpile in the summer. If you hook one on a worm deeper than 20’ down, it will most likely turn belly up in the livewell after just a few minutes. If the fish it turned loose immediately it can usually get back down before the effect of decompression manifest themselves. However, in the livewell some interesting things occur.

First your bass’ air bladder will begin to expand because the pressure of being down 20’ or more has been quickly removed. Under this new condition, a bass’ air bladder cannot adjust and it swells, pushing out its belly and often pushing internal organs into the back of the throat. While these fish might live in your livewell until release, they will not be able to relieve the air bladder swelling and will die slowly as the sun bakes their skin.

There is hope for a bass in this condition, however.
Once the swim bladders of bass you take from deep water expand, you will have to manually deflate them with a hypodermic needle. While the effectiveness of the tactic long term is not certain, it will allow a bass that would otherwise die, the ability to go back deep and try to reacclimatize.

Artificially deflating the swim bladder of bass when done properly is quick, fairly simple and should not add additional stress to fish. The only gear necessary is a large hypodermic needle – at least 18 gauge and 2-1/2” long. If you have trouble locating the proper needle, try your local veterinary office.

When sticking a bass with your needle, you want to miss the other internal organs and puncture the bladder on your first try. Because the swim bladder tends to inflate more toward the rear of the fish, making it look like a squash, attempting to deflate it through the more expanded portion works best (See accompanying graphic.).

To determine where the needle should enter, trace an imaginary line from the anal opening to the space between the spiny and soft ray portions of the dorsal fin. Locate the middle of that line, and while holding the bass firmly, remove a single scale with your pliers. (A sharp needle will go right through one, making removal unnecessary).

Then, with a swift smooth motion, insert the hypodermic through the flesh at a 45-degree angle toward the head of the fish. Lightly press on the bass’s stomach until you hear air escaping and continue until it stops. You can hold the fish slightly under the water to actually see the air bubbles leak out when you reach the swim bladder.

The main problem you will come across when deflating a bladder is a clogged needle. If you do not hear any air on your first try, or the bass still won’t swim normally when you finish, blow out the obstruction and repeat the process.

These bass handling steps are part of being a responsible angler. Once mastered, they could be taught/spread by tournament directors or just concerned anglers (members of the Concerned Bass Anglers of Virginia – CBAV) so tournament entrants can learn them.

CBAV Secretary C.C. McCotter notes he’d and his fellow members be happy to attend central Virginia area weigh-ins or meet with tournament directors to bring up proper summertime bass handling awareness.
You can contact him at 540.894.5960.

Caption: To release air from the over-inflated swim bladder of a bass caught in deep water, remove a single scale from the midpoint of an imaginary line between the anal opening and the space between the spiny and soft ray portions of the dorsal fin. Insert a hypodermic needle at a 45-degree angle and exert pressure on the fish’s stomach.