It's a crying shame to keep a bass alive throughout the fishing day only to have it die at a tournament weigh-in station. And yet, for a bass that has endured a long day in a livewell, this is where the balance of life or death often hangs. Any excessive handling or neglect in these final stages can be critical.
That was not well understood in the early days of tournament fishing. In the old days, contestants, eager to show off their prize fish and/or eye the catch of their competitors, would customarily transfer their day's catch into clear weigh-in bags almost immediately upon check-in.
Afterward they carried their fish about, swapping fishing tales on their way to the weigh-in stand with no real sense of urgency. Meanwhile the bass in the bag, exposed to the hot sun and already hyperventilating, lay gasping for oxygen. By the time the bass were finally offered up for weighing, one or more of the bass had already rolled belly up. Others succumbed later. In some cases, death tolls exceeded 70 percent.
Thanks to angler education programs and the ready support of tournament organizers, sponsors, bass clubs, and state conservation agencies, we've come a long way. But we can do better.
The main thing is to remember to keep all weigh-in processing steps to a minimum. Perhaps most critical is the waiting time between check-in and weigh-in. If the tournament field is large, divide the anglers into staggered weigh-in times.
This keeps waiting time to a minimum. Many tournaments do this already, and it's good to practice. Where possible, keep the bass in their respective livewells until the last minute, avoiding the use of weigh-in bags altogether. It would also help if fresh, clean, cool, well aerated, chemically treated water were made available as the contestants reported in.
If weigh-in bags must be used, then minimize the time the fish spend in the bags. Studies have shown that ten pounds of largemouths held in a plastic bag with two gallons of water at 86°F will reduce oxygen levels to near lethal levels in less than two minutes. When you know that delays will extend more than five minutes, split the fish into multiple bags to avoid oxygen depletion.
Consider using bottled oxygen at the bagging site. Using this method, I have successfully shipped adult bass across the country, with transport times extending well beyond twelve hours. With or without the oxygen, set up a shaded tank with chilled water for floating the bags while the contestants await weigh-in.
Finally, remember that certain times of the year are more stressful to bass than others. Historically, the hot days of summer cause the greatest heat stress and hence tournament moralities.
By all means have the summer tournaments, but consider shorter fishing days. The same should be said for tournaments held during the spawning season (typically April to May in most parts of the
country). The rigors of spawning are themselves stressful to bass.
In short, anything anglers can do to further reduce bass moralities will better ensure more healthy bass fisheries for the future and a sound reputation as conservationists.