Protecting your bass from barotrauma
Black bass in New York is not an unlimited resource. We need to keep that in mind as we promote the Empire State’s stellar bass fisheries to the bass masses around the world. Lake Erie, the St. Lawrence River, Lake Champlain, Oneida Lake, Cayuga Lake, Chautauqua Lake – we could go on and on about the outstanding bass fisheries that we enjoy in our state.
The Bassmaster Elites invaded Clayton on the St. Lawrence River in July and like the experts predicted, the first-ever “all-smallmouth century club” – over 100 pounds of smallmouth – became a reality when 23-year-old Jay Przekurat of Stevens Point, Wis., weighed in 102 pounds, 9 ounces of bass for five bass per day over 4 days. In second place was Cory Johnston of Canada with 100 pounds, 5 ounces. Incredible!
The professional bass fishing circuits make regular stops here in New York, as do other amateur and semi-professional trails. It means big money for the communities that host these events, not just money spent on site but from the promotion they receive. If this envious resource suffered at all down the road, would those tournaments return?
Every effort should be made to protect these natural resources, especially with the fish the anglers are catching. Something called “barotrauma” occurs in these fish when they are pulled up from deep water. One technique that can be used to bring the fish back into equilibrium before the bass should be released back into the water is called “fizzing.”
“Fizzing is a technique for the relieving of excess gas in the fish by inserting a small needle into the swim bladder,” says Barb Elliott of Pulaski, a bass angler who developed a kit for her fellow anglers to allow the process to become a bit easier. “Your goal is to release enough gas so that you can return your fish to neutral buoyancy in its present environment, which is the live well in an angler’s boat.”
Elliott is a “Fizz-Ed” teacher of sorts, on a quest to educate as many people as possible, especially here in New York. “The litmus test is if a bass floats on its side or upside down in your livewell,” Elliott continued. “No matter how deep you caught that fish, you don’t know where it was 5 minutes before. If a fish is performing those actions, the swim bladder has not had time to equalize itself.”
Elliott believes that we need to do a better job in the U.S. monitoring the bass tournaments coming into New York. There should be some parameters or guidelines to follow for holding a tournament in our state. “If bass groups are going to come in and use our natural resources, we should at least follow the lead of our Canadian neighbors,” says Elliott. “The Ministry of Natural Resources requires Province of Ontario tournaments to monitor water temperature and dissolved oxygen readings when they hold fish for weighing. They must keep track of mortality of bass before and after weigh in. Canadian anglers are well-educated on how to take care of their bass when facing a barotrauma situation.”
Elliott pointed out that our big bass are special. “A 5-pound bass can take up to 15 years or more to grow to that size,” she says. “It’s not like down south where that same size fish can grow that big in just 5 years. Tournaments should stiffen up the dead fish penalties in the tournaments.”
Elliott is on a quest to educate as many bass anglers as she possibly can on proper fizzing techniques. “There is a lot of misinformation on the Internet,” insists Elliott. “Use the landmarks that are outlined in my kit through a waterproof, rip-proof diagram. Two needles are included, and I have devised a reamer that goes inside the needle to make sure the entry point is clear.”
So many times, bass fishermen have purchased one of these fizzing kits, but it ends up in a bag or the bottom of a storage locker. To help alleviate that problem with Bassmasters, Trip Weldon worked closely with Elliott to devise a strategy. A few years ago, when many of the Elite anglers moved to Major League Fishing, there was a fresh crop of anglers that became Elite fishermen. This was a perfect opportunity to educate the new professionals.
Elliott found that it was more important to connect with the anglers before a tournament started. Pros didn’t want to mess with fizzing during a contest when they had never done anything like that before. With the help of Weldon, they allowed tournament fishermen to bring in two bass during practice days. Elliott would show them how to fizz one bass; the pros would fizz one themselves. It worked great and many were excited.
“Most of them couldn’t believe how easy it was to fizz a bass,” said Elliott. “That first tournament we did it that way, we could see a paradigm shift in attitudes and usage. Hands-on instruction was important. It was so nice to see all the fish coming to the scales in such good shape.” New anglers are now required to see Barb when she attends a tournament, and she will be at the Bassmaster Elite contest in Clayton this week.
Elliott, who is the Conservation Director of the New York BASS Nation, has a strong science background that includes biology and zoology. It was around 10 or 12 years ago that she realized she needed a tool to be able to help these affected fish on the water.
“The hardest part is finding the neutral buoyancy,” says Elliott. “Every fish weighs differently. The amount of time it takes depends on the size of the fish. It could be 30 seconds, or it could be 45 seconds. When you have pushed the needle in, make sure you push the reamer in all the way to make sure the needle is clear. Tap the reamer down to the hub of the needle and them remove the reamer from the needle. It works.” Smallmouth and largemouth have slightly different areas to insert the needle.
Of course, Elliott admits that fizzing doesn’t fix everything. “You must take care of your livewell,” she emphasizes. “Try and keep the water cool and clean. Also make sure it is adequately oxygenated.”
While the focus of this article is on tournament anglers, anyone who bass fishes should be prepared to take care of a fish that presents signs of barotrauma.
Tournament anglers tend to get a bad rap when it comes to fish and fish survival. During DEC’s Lake Erie Fisheries Research Unit open lake angler survey from 2018-2020, biologists attempted to document tournament effort and catch as part of the creel. All documented tournaments were out of Buffalo Harbor, and they determined that less than 10 percent of bass angling effort involved tournament fishermen, producing about 8 percent of the total bass catch out of Buffalo. They estimated that the number of bass that died during tournaments (during weigh in and the release process) was nine times lower than the total number of bass harvested out of Buffalo (2,799 bass).
One thing to consider in Lake Erie is that barotrauma in this Great Lake is probably greater than other bodies of water because of the limited shallow water structure in late summer and early fall, as well as the increased depths involved catching bass. Limiting the amount of time that anglers hold the fish, such as changing to a catch-weigh-release format for tournaments would be more beneficial to fish survival.
If you would like to order a fizzing kit from Barb Elliott, she asks to be sent a message on Facebook (www.facebook.com/barb.elliott.127). Cost is $10 for the kit plus shipping. If you have questions, email Elliott at email@example.com.