Last week, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (www.tpwd.state.tx.us) reported the sad news via its Facebook page that one of its two ShareLunker bass caught and donated to the program this season had died.
"ShareLunker 559 has died of a bacterial infection resulting from a broken jaw," stated the TPWD post. "Remember to hold bass correctly – with two wet hands – to prevent broken jaws and help prevent damage to the protective slime coat."
Readers might remember that ShareLunker #559 is the 14.3-pound bass caught last month at La Perla Ranch in South Texas by Blair Schwarz. After Schwarz donated the bass to the TPWD ShareLunker program, DNA testing found that the fish was a pure Florida bass and it was going to be used in spawning purposes this spring at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens.
While it isn't common, the death of a ShareLunker-size bass isn't unheard of either. From the stress of being caught to being held in livewells to being handled by anglers, ShareLunkers do occasionally die according to the TPWD website. While the overall survival rate in the program a few years ago was 72 percent, that survival rate of donated SL bass has improved to 87 percent in more recent years.Keep in mind that those percentages are the actual known figures related to TPWD's ShareLunker program (www.tpwd.texas.gov/spdest/visitorcenters/tffc/sharelunker)
What is an unknown commodity is how many big bass succumb to injuries and stress when they are caught by a wide array of anglers varying from professional bass pros to weekend tournament warriors to a dad and his son sitting on the end of a dock with a cane pole.
The simple truth is that big fish do occasionally die, even if the bass successfully swims away and an angler doesn't know about it.
What all of this does is to reinforce the idea this spring that all fishermen at every level of the sport need to do their best to handle fish in as safe a manner as is possible if catch-and-release is the ultimate goal.
TPWD ShareLunker staff reinforced this idea with another Facebook post on the subject matter of ShareLunker #559: "Use a net whenever possible to land the fish. If none is available and you don't have someone to help, you may have to play the fish to the side of the boat so you can get a grip on the mouth with one hand while it is still in the water, lay the rod down, and then use both hands to lift it out of the water."
"Bottom line is if you handle a fish carefully and as little as possible, it is more likely to survive," the TPWD social media post ads.
With all of that in mind, here is a list of TPWD ShareLunker tips that the agency provides to help anglers know how to properly handle large, trophy sized bass.
While several of these items are obviously weighted towards Texas anglers who might be planning to donate the fish to the TPWD ShareLunker program, in general the principles found here are applicable wherever a big bass is caught this spring:
- Land the fish as quickly as possible. Playing a fish to exhaustion diminishes its chance of survival.
- If possible, refrain from using a dip net that has a mesh larger than ¼ inch and /or is not a smooth mesh. When using a net, always make sure it is wet before it touches the fish.
- Avoid excessive handling or dropping of the fish while removing the hook. The fish will benefit from remaining in water (boat livewell or a large cooler filled with water) while the hook is removed with needlenosed pliers. Hold the fish vertically by the lower lip while it is in the water so that the total weight of the fish doesn’t rest on the lower jaw.
- Take the fish to a marina or closest certified scales as soon as possible. Transport the fish in a properly aerated livewell or a large cooler equipped with an aerator.
- Before removing the fish from the transport container, have the certified scales ready for weighing. Try to arrange to hold the fish in the marina’s minnow vat after it is weighed.
- To reduce stress when removing the fish from the transport container for weighing, move the fish as close as possible to the scales and holding vat before removal. If everything is ready before the fish is removed from the transport container, weighing time can be less than one minute.
- It is best to sedate the fish in the transport container before weighing or taking pictures. Marinas and bait shops can supply the recommended chemicals. Wet your hands before handling the fish. Lift the fish from the water vertically by clamping your thumb on the bottom lip. To raise the fish into a horizontal position, support the fish’s weight by placing your off-hand under the fish just behind the anal fin. This method should also be used if the fish is not sedated. Don’t roll back the lip in an effort to paralyze the fish. This can damage the lower jaw and hinder or prevent the fish from feeding after being released. The fish should not be out of the water longer than 30 seconds. Persons taking pictures should have their cameras ready before the fish is removed from the holding container. Holding the fish out of the water two to three minutes, or holding it in a plastic bag without proper aeration, causes stress that can damage the eyes or cause a bacterial and/or fungal infection. Such damage could cause mortality even several weeks later. Note that stress is increased by extremes in temperatures and/or windy weather conditions.
- Ideal water temperature for holding fish is 55 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit, and the water temperature should not be changed more than five or six degrees per hour. If water is aerated and treated with bacterial/fungal retardant, low water temperature may not be crucial.
- Call Texas Parks and Wildlife Department as soon as possible with your name, where the fish is located, a telephone number where you can be reached and when and where you caught the fish. Be sure to include your area code when leaving a message on the pager. Every attempt will be made to collect the fish within 12 hours, sooner if possible.
- To request pickup of a ShareLunker (largemouth bass 13 pounds or over, legally caught in Texas waters between October 1 and April 30), call (903) 681-0550 or page 1 (888) 784-0600 and leave a number, including area code.
It doesn't take long when watching tournament weigh-ins, reading online fishing stories or examining social media posts that catching a trophy bass – especially a real bucketmouth that weighs into the double-digit range – is an exciting accomplishment for bass anglers from one side of the country to the other.
When we do so, we're all excited and we all want to share our good fortune with friends, family and fishing buddies.
By putting a little thought into how to properly handle such big fish and doing so when the opportunity arises on the water, every angler can help ensure that the opportunity to catch trophy sized bass exists for many, many years to come.