River bass found dead after sizzling bass tournament


Harrisburg — Following the second hottest Pennsylvania summer in 122 years, some anglers are questioning whether fishing tournaments should have been permitted on the Susquehanna River.

Neighboring Maryland this year implemented new conservation rules for bass tournaments on the Potomac River – including those related to the release of fish – spurring thoughts about whether other states should follow suit, especially as Penn State University experts warn in their Pennsylvania Climate Impacts Assessment Update that summers will become sweatier.

For the past decade, the lower Susquehanna’s pollution-related woes have included young-of-year bass die-offs, diseased fish, algae blooms, and other problems, especially during hot, dry years.

This summer’s weather was extreme, according to Accu-Weather meteorologist Ed Vallee, who said high overnight lows helped drive the relentless heat that caused stressful conditions on fisheries like the Susquehanna in July, August, and early September.

“During a more normal summer, it gets hot during the day but then it cools off at night, which allows a river or lake to cool off as well,” said Vallee.

In addition, much of the state, including the central Pennsylvania counties through which the Susquehanna flows, received as little as half the rainfall of a typical summer, which added to poor conditions, Vallee said. “High flow can negate some of the effect of extreme heat, but precipitation was so below normal this summer, it only exacerbated the problem.”

A drought watch was declared for 34 Pennsylvania counties, including those in the Susquehanna watershed.

An angler fishing Shikellamy State Park in Union and Northumberland counties Sept. 12 snapped what he claims are photos of bass floating belly up near docks on an impounded part of the Susquehanna above Sunbury, and surmised they were the aftermath of a BASS Classic tournament that had been held two days earlier.

It was 92 degrees on tournament day, Sept. 10 – 15 degrees above normal – and the overnight low was 72, which was 17 degrees higher than average, Vallee said.

Water was pushing 80 degrees.

“Hope this makes you as mad as it does me,” wrote the angler, who did not want to be identified but provided photographs of the dead bass.

He said he called the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission but the agency shrugged off his concern. “Let’s have more tournaments when it’s in the mid-90s,” he added, with a note of sarcasm.

More than 90 boats competed in the tournament, which is held on the same date every year, and no thought was given to postponing because of conditions, according to Bob Herman, a spokesman for Pennsylvania BASS Nation, who admitted that water was so low, anglers had trouble getting to some of their favorite spots.

Herman said his club, Capitol City Bassmasters, holds most of its tournaments on the lower river, where the Fish & Boat commission requires immediate release of bass, but even three others it sponsors annually at Shikellamy – a healthier part of the Susquehanna, where harvest is allowed – are “paper,” or golden-rule competitions.

“But in a major tournament like the Classic,” he said, “you have to use a scale.”

Although anglers are encouraged to use aeration systems that continuously cycle fresh water through boat livewells, some mortality occurred in the recent Classic, Herman said, although he wouldn’t indicate how many fish were lost. As for delayed mortality, “that’s something we can’t control,” he said.

Fish & Boat Commission Executive Director John Arway said the complaint about Shikellamy, which he received only through this newspaper, was the first he has been made aware of all year, and “there’s no reason to believe there’s a larger problem.”

He said tournament anglers have every reason to handle fish with care, particularly since they face penalties for bringing dead fish to the scale, and research by major tournament organizations like the FLW and BASS indicate that the incidence of delayed mortality – of dead fish surfacing in the days following release – is small.

Yet recent studies by Maryland state biologists indicate that bass mortality in tournaments conducted on the Potomac River in late June or July can be as high as 19 to 25 percent of total catch, and that post-release mortality during summer may reach 34 percent of total catch.

More heavy bass tend to die than smaller bass during tournaments, the studies showed, and 70 percent of dead fish collected during tournaments were 15 inches or larger.

As a result, Maryland this year implemented new tournament rules for the Potomac and Upper Chesapeake Bay that include restricting the number of large bass that can be culled, and requiring tournament participants to recover bass after a competition and redistribute them to approved locations.

A study by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department found that the hotter the weather, the more difficult it is to keep bass from dying, especially in tournaments.

During summer months, the study showed, most mortality occurs not at weigh-ins but one to three days after bass are released back to the fishery.

In yet another study of summer tournaments by the Oklahoma Fishery Research Laboratory, bass mortality averaged 39 percent, with most dying between the third and sixth days after weigh-in. Water was 80 degrees when the organization conducted its study.

Recognizing this past summer’s extreme weather, the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission took steps to protect wild trout in Penns Creek, by posting two sections in Bald Eagle State Forest where fish were massing.

These temporary thermal-refuge areas are designed to keep trout safe from angling pressure and harassment.

However, it would be premature to consider restricting other fisheries for weather-related reasons, even with regard to extra angling pressure from tournaments, Arway said, noting that bass, a warmwater species, are far more able to tolerate high water temperatures than trout.

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