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Dealing With Deep Caught Bass
By Brian Sak

January/February 1999

Don't Stress Bass Under Pressure

The idea and acceptance of the catch-and-release ethic by anglers is certainly one of the most important developments to modern bass fishing. Without it, the tremendous fishing pressure that lakes and reservoirs receive day-in and day-out would decimate bass populations, with waters eventually getting so bad that catching legal size fish would be difficult.

Luckily, it didn't take long for word about the benefits of catch-and-release to spread once the fire was lit, and its practice steadily grew. Today, the majority of anglers fishing for bass release every fish they land while it's alive.

If catch-and-release is going to be successful, however, you must take special care when handling fish to ensure their survival. Don't think that a bass darting off when let go will be fine, just because it looks lively. There is often a delay - sometimes up to a week - between the release of a seriously injured fish and its death.

To minimize the number of 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.

Catching Deep Bass

Catching bass from deep water is probably the most common situation where you will injure fish, and the serious damage that may result presents a problem when practicing catch-and-release. Consequently, it's important to understand why and how injuries occur and what you can do to minimize the number of fish that die as a result of landing bass from the depths.

Fish that adapt to deep water are under greater pressure than those living in relatively shallow water. At 30 feet, for example, the pressure is about twice that at the surface and at 60 feet almost three times the surface pressure. The sudden reduction in pressure when you crank in a bass from deep water has the potential to cause critical injuries.

The most obvious effect of rapidly de-pressurizing bass is an expansion of their swim bladder and their inability to swim vertically and submerge. Fish use their bladder to provide the additional buoyancy necessary to remain neutral (not sinking or floating), by removing from or adding gas to this organ as they move shallower or deeper.

The fish swim bladder system is too complex to discuss in detail here. In general, it's comparable to a gas filled balloon with its opening tied off, and gasses diffuse in or out of the bladder from blood flowing around it. This method of gas exchange is where the problems arise because it's slow. When bass make large changes in depth, they must go through a decompression or recompression process that is time consuming.

When you catch bass deep water, the depth change is too rapid for fish to compensate and the compressed air in their bladder expands - they float! This condition is worse in summer when fish also experience an increase in water temperature at the surface.

Depending on how you catch bass, it may take one to several days for fish to sufficiently reduce the volume of air on their own so they can submerge. When you release these bass, they have virtually no chance at survival. While floating helplessly at the surface they are exposed to the heat of the sun, battering waves and a reduced ability to breathe because one side of their head is usually out of the water. If that doesn't kill them, they will most likely make an easy meal for a hungry bird.

An over-inflated swim bladder is not the only problem that bass may experience when they make a quick ascent from deep water. Gas bubbles often form in blood vessels, gills, the brain and under the skin. There can be internal bleeding. At times, stomachs push up through the throat and out the mouth or tissues and organs burst.

It's not a pretty picture and you can see why fish that develop one or more of these manifestations have a poor chance of survival. In fact, if you catch bass at 60 feet or deeper, they will most likely suffer from all of these symptoms and eventually die - even if the fish look healthy when you release them.

How Deep Is Deep?

The degree of injury to the bass you catch depends upon what depth they are acclimated to, with the extent of injury, with the effects generally increasing the deeper you go.

An important question often brought up when it comes to hurting bass is what depths are considered deep? There is no absolute answer because deep is relative to the body of water you're fishing. A bass caught from a creek channel at 10 feet is deep if the average depth of the lake is eight feet. The same fish, however, would be relatively shallow if it came from a reservoir averaging 100 feet.

This doesn't mean that bass caught from 10 feet in a deep reservoir will show no adverse effects. Fish that acclimate to 10 feet can still show signs of injury when brought to the surface, although they have a better chance at survival than those caught from 40 feet.

It's also important to consider that just because you're catching bass at 10 feet does not mean they are living at that depth. There is a vertical zone in which fish can comfortably migrate up and down without negative pressure effects. Bass can also make short runs out of that zone as long as they quickly get back to the depth they are acclimated to.

A bass living at 30 feet can swim up to 10 feet and back when making a meal out of a helpless baitfish wandering by. If that meal happens to be your lure, the bass will show the effects of being caught in water 30, rather than 10 feet deep.

Helping Deep Bass

Don't despair! With slight modifications in your angling techniques and knowing how to deal with deep caught bass, many fish will survive a rapid ascent from the depths. Proper handling, from the time you set the hook to the time you release the bass, will give each fish its best chance.

Regardless of time of year or the prevailing conditions, there are always some bass in shallow water. Start your day by fishing near the surface, increasing the depths you target a little at a time until you find fish. Do not jump straight down to 30 or 40 feet if you don't have to. If you do move to deep water, try shallow again later as bass often make shoreward feeding runs throughout the day.

Bass will have the best chance at survival if you release them immediately, because the fish's physiology allows them to hold their bladder in for short periods of time - up to five minutes according to some studies. The stress of carrying bass around in a livewell all day, however, will result in a boat full of floating fish.

There are several steps you can take to reduce stress on bass you catch when holding onto them during a tournament. Start by using one of the commercial water additives in your livewell to help relax fish. When you hook bass, get them up from depth, unhooked and in your livewell quickly - the longer you play fish and hold them out of the water, the more stress they must endure.

Once the swim bladders of bass you take from deep water over-inflate, you must manually deflate them with a hypodermic needle. There is controversy among biologists as to the effectiveness of this technique, but until someone develops a better solution, it's the only thing available.

Artificially deflating the swim bladder of bass is quick, simple and should not add additional stress to fish when you do it properly. The only equipment necessary is a large hypodermic needle - use one that's at least 18 gauge and 2 1/2 inches 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.

Draw 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. 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.

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 bass still don't swim normally when you finish, blow out the obstruction and repeat the process.

Catch-and-release is extremely important to maintaining healthy bass populations, and properly handling your catch is vital for their survival. There is no way to save every bass you catch from deep water, but by fishing as shallow as possible, retrieving and releasing bass quickly and properly taking care of fish you have to keep in your livewell, you can reduce stress and give every bass a fighting chance. Swim Bladder Deflation 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.

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