So you’re all set with your equipment and ready to rock. You’re on the water and you put the hooks into the biggest bug eyed beast you’ve ever seen. Let’s talk fish handling and steps to ensure a clean healthy release.
The first thing to do is set the bass down inside the boat, preferably at the lowest point in the boat so there’s no chance of it flopping out. If you keep a slight tension on the net, most fish will simply lay there not moving. If you relax the tension on the net, that’s when they are likely to start flopping. So get the bass in the boat, keep some tension on the net, then grab the bass firmly by the lower jaw. Use your thumb inside the lip and your other four fingers (curled up to a half fist) outside the jaw to get a firm grasp. Never grab a big bass using only your thumb and forefinger, they will flop and you’ll be left with a scraped up hand and possibly a wounded bass. Get your pliers out if need be and get the hook out of the bass. If the hook is around the gills, it may be better to cut the line and pull the hook out from the back. Use your best judgment.
Now is the best time to weigh the bass. After the fight, the bass is tired and will usually be pretty docile. If you put the bass in the livewell and take it out later, it will have rested and will probably go berserk. On some scales, the hook on the scale is large enough to place it between the jaw and the first gill raker. On other scales the hook is too small and you’ll need to poke a hole right inside the lower jaw bone at its center point. If you use that method, consider sharpening the hook on your scale for easy insertion without tearing. When I used to use a Stren 50lb scale, that is what I did to make things smooth and not tear the jaw unnecessarily. Continue to hold the bass firmly with one hand while you put the hook in place. Then, hold the bass out no more than a foot or two above the ground and slowly gently release your grip on the fish. If you let go quickly, the bass is probably going to start flopping. If you take it nice and slow it will usually just hang there. If the fish starts flopping, either grip the lip again quickly or lower the bass immediately toward the deck. The worst thing you can do is relax your grip with the fish dangling 4 or 5 feet in the air and drop it!
Minimizing time out of water is one of the number one keys to keeping the bass healthy, so once you have the weight, get your firm grip on the jaw again and dip the fish over the side in the water or in to the livewell so that it can breathe. If you’re having scale problems, keep the bass wet while you figure things out. Once that is done you’re ready for some photographs. If you’re with someone, have them take the pics. If you’re by yourself you’re ready to get set up and use the self timer feature on your camera. If you don’t know how to use the self timer, it’s a good thing you’re reading this article because when you’re done reading it the first thing you’re going to do is go learn how it works and take some practice shots :). Self timers are easy to use … once you know how to use them. Take time to practice and you’ll be happy you did when you get that big bass in the boat.
Now comes the part that I always forget which is measuring the bass. Put the camera and scale away and lay the tape measure down and get a length, then get a girth. Keep your hands around the bass while getting girth in case it starts flopping, and always release your grip on the bass slowly and gently.
90% of the time when I’m not fishing tournaments I release fish immediately after weighing and photographing. The entire process should only take a few minutes when you have your system down. Occasionally if I’m fishing cooler water (like less than 65 degrees) I will keep fish in the livewell for a short period. I’ll do that if I’m in the middle of a hot bite or if I’m concerned about spooking school fish by releasing a hooked fish. If you are keeping fish in your livewell just remember the basics which are fresh water and oxygenation. Running fresh water from the lake is always best for the fish. Running water on recirculate is also good because it helps oxygenate but is not as good as fresh. When the water is 50 or below, adding fresh water every 15-30 minutes is fine. As the water gets warmer, you need to change or recirculate the water more often. If you’re in a tournament and the water is pushing 80 degrees, you need to run the water almost constantly.
This brings me to another point I would like to make about livewells. Many bass fishermen I’ve met seem to be under the impression that running the water 100% of the time is always best for the fish irregardless of water temperature. I do not prescribe to this theory. When water temps are cool, don’t run the livewell 100% of the time, all you are doing is shooting water on the fish and causing them more stress. You’ll know if you’re not putting enough fresh water or oxygenated water in the livewell when you look in because the bass will appear to be gasping. Bass that are running out of air also tend to jump and whack their heads on the roof of the livewell trying to get out of their unpleasant situation. If your bass is jumping around after being quiet for a long time, check on the fish to see what is happening. There is a balance between too much water and not enough and if you just pay attention to the fish and check them regularly, you’ll learn to read the signs of stress vs. healthy bass.