It’s June and the waters where our sportfish live have warmed into the 80s. Although temperatures a little above 80 degrees approximate the preferred temperatures for bass, anglers intending to keep fish alive in livewells need to understand that these fish not only have to be given good conditions to survive livewell confinement, but they also have to recover from the stress of capture, primarily the oxygen debt that results from playing the fish until it can be landed.
Recent research has found that mortality does not increase at water temperatures up to 90 °F if the live well is properly managed. A livewell can be a good place for bass to recover from the stress of angling, or it can be a place that adds stress. Stress recovery leads to survival. More stress leads to death, either quickly or maybe several days later. There are simple things anglers and tournament organizers can do to keep survival high.
Modern bass boats have adequate livewell systems for keeping bass alive in any season. In cooler seasons — when the water temperature is below 75 degrees — just turn on the aerator pumps and let them run. Switch to recirculate mode when the boat is on plane. Run the aerator pumps continuously if you have more than 5 pounds of bass in the ‘well. No, it won’t drain your cranking battery. If it does, you needed a new one anyway.
When the water warms above 75 degrees, there are three simple things anglers need to do to keep their catch alive.
Step 1 - Control temperature
Fill the livewell first thing in the morning when the water is cool, switch to recirculate mode, and add ice.
Research at Mississippi State has proven that following these temperature recommendations in summer tournaments will reduce mortality by 50% compared to no temperature control. You will also find that bass from the temperature-controlled livewells are more vigorous and have a heavy slime coat, but the bass from the warm livewells are lethargic and feel dry and rough.
The best way to cool the livewell water is to add frozen half-gallon, water-filled plastic bottles, like a milk jug. The block of ice melts slowly and will keep the water temperature stable for a couple hours. Ten to 12 jugs are enough to control livewell temperature throughout a tournament day during the hottest conditions you will face in Mississippi if your livewell is insulated. Add a fresh jug of ice as needed, and do not cool the water below the suggested temperature.
Is there chlorine in the ice? Maybe, but it won’t mix with the livewell water if you leave the cap on the jug.
The cooler in your top-end bass boat won’t hold 12 half-gallon milk jugs? Mine won’t either. Empty one of your aft dry storage compartments and use it as a cooler. You’ll have plenty of ice to keep your bass healthy, and you can carry extra cold drinks to keep you happy. And hey, how much tackle do you need in the summer — a couple topwaters, a Carolina rig, a jig, and a few deep-diving crankbaits gets it done.
Step 2 - Provide plenty of oxygen
High levels of oxygen are needed to keep the bass alive and to help them recover from the stress of capture.
There are several add-on aeration devices on the market, but pumped-water aeration systems that are standard equipment in modern bass boats are adequate for catches up to 20 pounds if you run the aerators (recirculation pumps) continuously and you cool the water.
It is not possible to over-aerate livewell water with a pumped-water aeration system. The levels of supersaturation of dissolved oxygen that may be achieved by constant aeration are not harmful.
Cooling the water provides comfortable conditions for the bass, but it also helps provide adequate oxygen. Cooler water holds more oxygen, and bass in cooler water need less oxygen and consume less oxygen. Bottom line — cooling the water and continuous operation of the recirculation pumps is the best way to provide sufficient oxygen.
Step 3 - Provide fresh water every four hours
Bass excrete ammonia. If you have more than 10 pounds of bass in the livewell, ammonia can increase to toxic levels before weigh in. To avoid toxic ammonia, give the fish fresh water. Pump out and refill or flush the livewell, turn the livewell back to recirculate mode, and add ice to bring the temperature to the desired range.
Good fish handling, better fishing
Conservation-minded anglers should land fish quickly, protect the bass’ slime coat by handling the fish with wet hands, not let them flop on the carpet, and get them back in water ASAP.
A recent study in Florida provides an answer to the debate of how to hold fish. Studying bass weighing 2 to 8 pounds, the researchers found holding the fish vertically by the lower jaw or with two hands is the way to go. Do not hold bass horizontally by the lower jaw.
Summer tournaments pose fish care challenges, but they can be easily met. The three, simple steps described above don’t cost anything and take less than 5 minutes out of a fishing day. That’s a pretty small investment for better bass fishing and no dead-fish penalties at weigh in.