Non-tournament anglers won’t kill smallmouths caught deep if they follow a few simple rules. Release the fish quickly, at boatside, without bringing them out of the water. In our experience, that works almost 100 percent of the time.
But if smallmouths are overtaxed they might float back up. Have a needle handy and fizz them quickly. Fizzing, though controversial, gives a bloated smallmouth the best chance for survival it has at that point. And we now have two methods of fizzing, through the side and down the throat.
Gene Gilliland, Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation fisheries biologist, has fizzed thousands of bass. “Fish have amazing regenerative abilities,” he says. “Puncture wounds heal relatively quickly. Puncturing the liver or most other organs in the vicinity of the swim bladder will not be lethal in most cases. The kidney, which is right along the spine above the bladder, is a different story. But fizzing is still better than allowing the majority of barotraumatized bass to die.”
When fishing for smallmouths deeper than 18 feet, have an 18-gauge sterilized needle on board. “You can find them at any vet supply store,” Gilliland says. “Personally, I’m more comfortable going through the side of the fish, where I can see the results. I hold a smallmouth on its side, lay the pectoral fin flat, go to the very tip of the fin, measure 1/2 inch toward the tail, and puncture there. Push the needle in 1/2 inch deep and leave it in. Then I get the fish in the water without squeezing. You want to see bubbles coming out, but don’t squeeze the air out. Hold them until the bubbles quit, remove the needle, and let them go.
“It’s possible to let too much air out, and that’s one reason I like going through the side. Doing it this way, I can feel the fish relax in my hand and see it right itself when the correct amount of pressure has been relieved. You want the bass to be neutrally buoyant, so it doesn’t just sink to the bottom.”