EDITOR'S NOTE: Hal Schramm, a resident of Starkville, is a professor at Mississippi State University and leader of the USGS Mississippi Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. He has done fisheries research for 30 years, and has been an avid multi-species angler longer than that. His column on freshwater fisheries will appear monthly.

With very rare exceptions, bass caught in tournaments are brought to a single weigh-in site. Fishery managers and anglers have wondered what happens after the fish are released.

The question of dispersal has been addressed many times in many locations. The results are mixed. A couple studies found the released bass dispersed, but most found the bass stayed within a couple miles of the release site for at least several months.

A big deal?

The main interest in dispersal of tournament-caught bass is stockpiling bass near the release site. On many waters, most tournaments, especially large tournaments, are held at one, maybe two, sites. It's not uncommon for popular tournament lakes to have 50 or more tournaments annually. That's a lot of bass released in one spot.

Some biologists are concerned that this growing concentration of bass will deplete the local forage supply, and bass health or growth will decline. There may be some merit to this reasoning, but I would expect hunger to motivate bass movement. Although not measured, the presence of good habitat and ample forage would explain why bass hang around the release site.

Another concern is the harvest of the high-density bass. While tournament anglers practice catch-and-release, other anglers don't. If I were looking for a quick limit to clean, I'd go fish where the most fish are. Connecting the dots, repeated live-release tournaments at a single site may actually increase bass exploitation if harvest-oriented anglers fish near the release sites.

A new wrinkle

The Tenn-Tom Waterway in Northeast Mississippi is a series of lock-and-dam reservoirs connecting the Tennessee and Alabama rivers. Many bass tournaments, particularly larger events, on the waterway allow anglers to fish several of the pools. Most tournaments are held at Columbus Marina, where a six-lane ramp and ample parking are available. Many anglers fishing these tournaments fish Columbus Lake, but also many "lock down" to Aliceville Lake or "lock up" to Aberdeen Lake.

This situation is not unique to the waterway. The same scenario repeats on the Alabama and Black Warrior rivers in Alabama, the Arkansas River in Arkansas and Oklahoma, the Red River in Louisiana and the Tennessee River in Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee. Although the tournaments are live release, are anglers really achieving the benefits of live release when bass are actually harvested from one lake to be released in another?

A study by Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks biologist Larry Pugh took a look at post-tournament dispersal in the waterway. Pugh, himself a tournament bass angler, wanted to find out if any of these released fish made their way back to their home reservoir.

From March to June 2002, Pugh and MDWFP biologists applied numbered tags to 421 tournament-caught largemouth bass prior to release. Working with the tournament anglers, the home lake for each bass was noted. Signs and public-information efforts encouraged anglers to notify MDWFP when they caught tagged bass. Biologists looked for tagged bass during routine lake assessments, and also attended tournament weigh-ins to check for tagged fish.

One-quarter of the tagged bass were recaptured in the next 20 months. Of 94 recaptures for which anglers also reported recapture location, 88 were in Columbus Lake, six in Aliceville Lake and none in Aberdeen Lake. Three-fourths of the bass recaptured in Columbus Lake were recaptured within three miles of the release site. Of the six bass recaptured in Aliceville, three originated in Aliceville and three were caught in Columbus before being tagged.

The results of this study, like the majority of similar studies, indicate the bass hang around the release site. That's a pretty heavy "stocking" of adult bass.

The few bass that moved into Aliceville could have locked through or passed through the Columbus Dam after a heavy rainfall event. There are various bits of information available in the fisheries technical literature indicating that largemouth bass can navigate. In other words, those Aliceville bass may have found their way back home. On the other hand, the same number of Columbus bass also moved downstream.

Be the solution

The general failure of bass to return to their home lake is not a problem, at least not yet. Last I heard, bass are still being caught at Aberdeen and Aliceville.

The concentration of bass near Columbus Marina may not be a problem either, but distribution of the bass after the tournament can only make fishing better throughout the reservoir. A live-release boat seems like an attractive solution to the problem. While a live-release boat might solve the stockpiling problem, they are expensive, and they only contribute to high bass survival when used correctly by skilled and knowledgeable people. And a live-release boat would only solve the bass-crowding issue if many hours were spent spreading the bass among various good habitats.

Another simple solution is to have every angler load his catch back into his boat's aerated livewell and take the fish for a boat ride.

While large tournaments will continue to be held from a select few marinas, bass club anglers can benefit the bass resource and their own fishing by holding small tournaments at the smaller and less-used ramps.