With bass stocks at a critical tipping point it is good to see that more and more people are starting to practise catch and release. Of course, it goes without saying you can’t have 100 per cent control of the condition of the fish when landed, but there are a number of things you can do to increase the chances of a safe and healthy release.
Some of these steps may already be second nature to you, but I wanted to go over a few things that I have found really help to keep these stunning creatures in tiptop shape to be released and fight another day.
There are four key areas to look at when thinking about the welfare of the fish: Tackle, fighting the fish, landing it and then the release itself. Ideally try and analyse all these areas and see where they can be improved, but even tweaking one or two will greatly enhance the condition of the bass when returned.
Preparing your kit
I have touched upon this before in some articles but it fits in perfectly here, so bear with me. Most bass plugs now come equipped with three trebles and for me this is simply too much hardware flying about during a thrashing fight. To make life a bit easier for the bass, I tend to remove one treble hook. For most lures this doesn’t effect the balance; however, if the swimming action is altered then the addition of a few extra split rings in place of the treble soon sorts that out.
Now I have stripped down to two hooks I will crush the barbs as they really aren’t needed, especially when most of us are using braided lines and are always in hard contact with the fish. Not only does it make for easier removal from the fish but also from yourself if a stray hook gets wedged into your hand when unhooking. Put simply, barbless is better for everyone!
You can go one step further by completely removing the trebles and replacing with dedicated lure singles. Now, a lot of people will say: “You’ll miss hooks-ups because you only have three hook points and not nine.” Well, I fish a lot with soft lures, which have only one hook point, and I never have any issues with bass shaking off.
In fact, I would say your hook-set and holds are much better with fewer points, as the initial power in the hook-set is being focused on a smaller surface area per hook point. It is simple physics – if you have ‘x’ amount of pressure exerted on three points it will be greater than when spread over nine, resulting in a deeper and stronger hook-set.
Switching over to singles can play havoc with the actions of some lures, though, especially those with a sloped or slanted face and not a conventional bib. It really comes down to trial and error, but I would encourage you to try it and see what works on your gear. Decoy, Vanfook, VMC and Gamakatsu all make dedicated single plugging hooks.
The last point I will make here is to ensure you are going with sensibly rated gear for the task in hand. If you’re heading out to target big bass then don’t be hitting the coast with 16lb braid and a 12lb leader, because you will a) likely get smashed up by the fish or b) end up fighting it beyond exhaustion, resulting in a potentially fatal end. Use gear that will allow you to put proper pressure on the fish and get it in without stressing it too much.
Of course, don’t go for overkill, though – enjoy the sport and the fight, but there is a balance out there between sport and sense.
Always locate a good landing spot before you start.
Let’s pretend we’re hooked up…
Now, imagine a nice 6lb bass has smashed into your plug, rigged with single hooks, and it’s starting to do the classic headshakes before all hell breaks loose. We are now into phase two – the fight.
I did some research for an article I wrote for the Bass Anglers’ Sportfishing Society (BASS) about the causes of stress and fish mortality. Much of it is relevant here, so I will drop a bit in from my findings.
To help increase the survival rate of a released bass it is important to understand the underlying cause of stress. Once entering into a fight with an angler its muscles will begin to release lactic acid – much like a human. Now we all know that when too much lactic acid builds up we get cramps, but this pain usually passes as the lactic acid levels are dispersed at a fast rate. However, fish aren’t so lucky.
A build-up of lactic acid in fish can lead to acidosis, a condition that can lead to psychological imbalance, muscle failure and death. (Larger bass are more susceptible to acidosis.)
I spoke above about using proper rated tackle for the job and this is why – a decent setup will allow you to exert solid pressure on the fish and won’t unnecessarily tire it out during the battle.
Many may not agree with my approach of fighting a bass hard from the start – landing them ‘green’, as some people would say. I set a tight drag to prevent huge reel-screaming runs that benefit no-one but the angler’s ear. I would much rather land a fish that is still lively and will release with no issues than prolong the fight and risk the life of the bass.
I have witnessed too many freshwater anglers saying “the fish isn’t ready” and waiting until it has rolled over on to its side, presenting itself to the net before it is landed – by this stage the fish is well and truly burnt out due to overstressed muscles and fatigue.
How do I land this slab of silver?
The bass is now under your feet and the nerve-racking part of landing the fish is about to happen. The first step is to make sure you have picked out a few workable spots to undertake the landing. This should preferably be done in advance of even casting a lure, because once it all kicks off it can be a bit hectic to find a decent spot.
The ideal places to look out for are areas with the least amount of obstacles – sandy patches are great, or maybe places where the swell will bring the fish into a rockpool and as the wave recedes it will trap the fish. Whatever you do, don’t skulldrag the fish over bare rock, as it will only destroy their scales and protective coating!
It goes without saying that you also need to be aware of your own personal safety. I have been caught in the past when I was so focused on landing a fish that I wasn’t aware of a rogue wave rolling in and copped a ton of water over my head – thankfully I was in a safe spot, but it taught me a valuable lesson! Always be aware of what’s going on with the water and never turn your back on it when you go to land a fish, just in case.
Personally, I carry a boga grip when bassing with hard lures. Now I know this tool causes some controversy, but I firmly believe that with proper handling it can be an invaluable tool for a healthy and safe release. Like many other tools they are very effective if used as intended and with proper handling.
The biggest error I see when people use a boga is to use it to lift the fish out of the water unsupported. This will only put undue pressure on the spine as the fish has no means of supporting itself.
Don’t use a boga as a means of weighing a fish, for the same reasons. Perhaps use a rubber-mesh landing net or a wet carrier bag if you want to know the weight of your catch. I don’t bother weighing my fish now, instead I use a simple tape length to record my catches.
What you want to do when the fish has been secured firmly by the lip is keep it in the water, with its head and gills submerged to enable it to breathe. Then when you are ready with your pliers, keep the fish in the water, elevate its head slightly and unhook. Once you have removed the hooks place the fish back under the water, and at this point you can either get the camera out for a quick snap or prepare for the release.
Supporting fish in a rock pool can help them revive.
Time to fight another day
By this stage the fish is ready to be set free to head back and terrorise some more helpless little fish. Depending on the condition of the bass you may be able to simply let it swim off instantly, or in some cases it will take a moment or two to revive.
Either way, look for a suitable spot where you can hold the fish in the water fully submerged and make sure you are supporting the entire fish as you do. It is important not to pull the fish backwards through the water as their gill system only functions one way.
Areas of well-oxygenated water are best for releasing bass for obvious reasons . These are often in at the edge where waves crash into rocks or along the surf on a beach. If you are lucky to have a strong current then face the bass into the flow and this will make it easier for them to process the oxygen from the moving water.
The boga is useful at this point, or a pair neoprene gloves, to ensure a firm grip is maintained on the bass. Allow the fish to regain energy and once it starts to thrash or kick simply loosen your grip and guide it off in the right direction.
In my opinion there are fewer sights more perfect than watching a bass cruise off over a shallow reef as it heads back to fight another day. It has proved an admirable adversary, you have treated it with respect and now it’s time to let it head off on the next leg of its adventure.
Single hooks work fine on these lures – so why not use them on plugs?
Looking after the future of bass
These are just some of the steps that we can take as recreational anglers to help preserve the future of our bass stocks. I know a lot of people will be of the opinion that we do no damage and that it is all down to commercial pressure. I agree that the commercial sector certainly is to blame for the bulk of the damage; however, we have a responsibility to do our bit as well. In my opinion we can’t point the finger unless our own house is in order.
It is evident here in Ireland that a commercial ban and some fairly progressive measures in the past decade or so have ensured a healthy, recreational fishery and it would be nice to see that continue. The fisheries in Ireland used socio-economic studies to prove that, as a species, the bass was worth more recreationally than commercially and thus used this information to have a set of proper measures put in place to reflect the true value of this wonderful species to the country, especially with regards to angling tourism.
It would be great to see similar initiatives here in the UK and with some proper management we could hopefully ensure a solid bass fishery for the generations to come.
Having the ability to release fish is hugely important.
The new measures released for 2016 certainly caused a stir, and with the latest ICES report proposing a moratorium for 2017 the fate of our bass angling hangs in the balance at the moment.
As recreational anglers, though, we must keep pressing and to do this we must pool our resources and voices together into one strong, cohesive force. I continue to urge those passionate about bass to check out and join BASS and Save Our Sea Bass (SOSB) – both are doing fantastic work and with more support and resources they can get the best deal not only for bass, but also for recreational anglers.
As you read this my lure season for bass will be drawing to a close, but as always my head is churning with ideas and thoughts on what next season may hold. Maybe we won’t be able to target bass at all, but I am remaining optimistic that after some proper consultation and lobbying we will see some reasonable measures in place.
The gear won’t be packed away too deep in the cupboard, as you just never know when the weather decides to play ball, and if conditions look right there will always be a chance of silver on a lure 12 months of the year – I’m always the optimist!
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