December 20, 2023
This article originally appeared in the Dec-Jan-Feb 2022 issue of In-Fisherman.
Barotrauma, the physiological condition that results from rapid reduction of hydrostatic pressure experienced by fish caught from deep water, has been a long-recognized problem in marine fishes. It has emerged as a problem in freshwater fisheries, particularly for black bass, as catch and release—whether voluntary, required to comply with length limits, or to avoid penalties in tournaments—has increased. And the incidence will likely further increase as anglers now have electronics that can pinpoint deep-water structure, if not the fish themselves. A recent study by fishery scientists at Queen’s University in Ontario, Cana-da, provides strong evidence for how anglers can improve the survival of smallmouth bass caught from deep water.*
Barotrauma causes several problems, such as hemorrhaging and gas bubbles in the blood stream, but the most obvious is hyperbuoyancy—the fish is laying on its side with an overinflated swim bladder and unable to submerge. Two interventions are commonly employed to mitigate hyperbuoyancy. “Fizzing”—inserting a hypodermic needle through the flank of the fish and into the swim bladder to allow the air to escape—has been shown to be non-injurious to largemouth bass and is recommended by several state fishery agencies and tournament organizations to improve survival. An alternative technique used by some tournament anglers, that has not been scientifically evaluated, is clipping a weight to the bass’ anal fin to help the fish maintain a dorsal-up posture.
To test the effects of fizzing and fin clips, smallmouth bass were caught on artificial lures in water 20 to 49 feet deep in Lake Ontario during August and September; water temperature ranged from 67°F to 74°F. Only fish larger than 12 inches were used in the study. Upon landing and un-hooking, fish were immediately placed in livewells, and their health was measured with a RAMP (reflex action mortality predictor) test. This procedure, which has been validated as an effective predictor of mortality for several marine fishes, tests fish’s involuntary reflex responses to simple stimuli, such as ability to achieve a dorsal-up posture and startle response
Randomly selected fish were fizzed or fin weights attached immediately after the first RAMP test and placed in an aerated live well maintained at capture temperature. Reference fish (not fizzed or fin clips applied) were placed in similar livewells after the RAMP test. The RAMP tests were repeated after 20 minutes and one, two, and three hours post capture.
All smallmouths had high reflex impairment (high RAMP scores) immediately after capture. RAMP scores increased for the reference fish throughout the 3-hour testing period. RAMP scores of fizzed fish declined immediately after fizzing and remained low. RAMP scores of fin-weighted fish remained high for one hour and then declined, but some reflex impairment was still evident after three hours.
The study provides clear evidence that fizzing immediately after capture can benefit the survival of smallmouth bass caught from deep water, and this result probably applies to other black bass. Anglers not retaining smallmouth in livewells should unhook their fish and release them immediately. If the fish is able to swim down, no intervention is needed. If the fish is hyper-buoyant, fizzing should be done immediately.
Fizzing is not difficult, but you must have a 16- to 18-gauge hypodermic needle or a fizzing tool sized for bass. Fizz bass only through the side; do not fizz the through the throat. Many videos are out there, but a simple and correct procedure can be viewed at in-fisherman.com/editorial/fizzing-smallmouths/376955.
*Elliott, C. W., A. J. Row., and B. L. Tufts. 2021. Comparison of angler interventions for smallmouth bass experiencing barotrauma in catch-and-release angling tournaments. N. Am. J. Fish. Mgmt. 41:834-843.
The Outdoor Foundation and the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation report that 54.7 million Americans fished at least once in either freshwater or saltwater during 2020, the highest number recorded since participation tracking began in 2007, based on annual online surveys.* Participation rose to 18 percent of the U.S. population, the highest rate in over a decade and a nearly 9 percent gain over 2019. Despite higher angler numbers and increased participation rate, the number of fishing trips per participant continued its long-term decline to an average 18 trips in 2020, down from 22 in 2008.
According to the report, a “COVID bounce” brought total outings to 969 million, the highest number of outings since 2012 and a 10 percent increase from 2019. There was a net increase of 4.6 million fishing participants from 2019 to 2020, but was tempered by a loss of 8.8 million prior participants who chose not to fish in 2020, resulting in an annual percentage of lost participants of 17.5 percent. This threatens 2020’s gains if the industry cannot convert 2020’s new participants into repeat anglers.
In the freshwater fishing category, there were 42.6 million participants in 2020, 3.4 million more than in 2019. Freshwater participation rate increased to 14 percent, the highest rate since 2010. Freshwater participants had 677 million outings, a level not seen in a decade. The average number of freshwater outings per participant fell to 15.9, slightly below the 10-year average of 16.3.
*Outdoor Foundation and Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation. 2021. Special Report on Fishing. View the report at takemefishing.org/specialreport.