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Bass are sensitive creatures that can be injured more easily than you might think.
Tips for handling fish before you put them in your livewell include the following common sense items:
 1. Keep the fish in water as much as possible. Bass can only hold their breathe as long as you can. Wind and other elements can damage their skin, too. Wet your hands before touching the fish so that you don't remove the slime coat that protects the fish from infections and fungus. Don't handle the fish any longer than you have to, and be gentle, don't drop the fish if you can keep from it. Bouncing off the carpet also destroys their protective slime.
 2. Never hold fish through the gills or stick your fingers in their eyes. Lip the fish gently and do not bend back the lower jaw as it can break easily, particularly in larger bass. For larger bass give support to the body under the wrist of the tail so that you are not holding the fish's weight balanced on it's own jawbone.
 3. Do not rip or tear out hooks. Gently remove by backing off the barb or use needle nose pliers. If the fish is deeply hooked just remove the lure portion (lizard or whatever) and cut the line at the hook and release the fish. The hook will rust out or tissue will grow around it and it will eventually come out. Some of the newer hooks will not rust, try to cut out as much of the hook as you are able, particularly the eye so that there is an open end that can come free. There are ways to remove deeply embedded hooks, but do not do this without having a demonstration beforehand. The barb has to be backed off by applying pressure back against it and on small fish this is tough to do as you can't get both hands in their mouths. Not all hooks deeply embedded can be removed, but don't necessarily kill the fish, however if you see dark colored tissue or entrails coming up through the throat you have gut-hooked the fish and should clean it for dinner. If the fish is not a legal size you will have to cut the line and release it anyway due to state law.
 4. Try to land the fish you catch quickly, don't wear them out by making them fight longer than they have to as this expends so much energy the bass can not recover and has no chance for survival if released.
 5. If you feel you must use a dip net try to purchase one specifically designed for fish. Nets can remove the slime coat and leave the fish open to infection.
 6. Gently release the fish back into the water. Do not throw or toss the fish.
 7. Don't use stringers for fish that will be released. Just as sticking your fingers in the gills is bad for them stringers can destroy their gill filaments. Regardless of where the stringer is placed in the fish, there is no good way to use one, all do damage to lips, gills, etc. How would it feel if someone stuck a stringer in your lungs? However, if fish is bleeding a little from gills because of a hook injury you have not necessarily killed that fish. Hold it in your livewell with a catch-and-release treatment (such as Please Release Me) in the water for several hours until the bleeding stops. Much like you pricking your finger, a little blood does not signify death in all cases.
 8. Once you have the fish in your livewell use the information provided in this package to assist you in proper care of that fish while in your possession. Don't just fill your livewell and forget about it.
 9. Treat the fish in your care as you would want your children treated and always use a catch-and-release product year-round, never be without it. This product carries medicine that can save the fish you catch from disease and death. It replaces slime knocked off during the catch, treats antibiotically to reduce fungus and infection that can occur after you have released the fish back into the lake, and it calms the fish so that it doesn't do more harm to itself in the livewell.
 10. If true catch and release is your goal follow these steps and others discussed in this package to the best of your ability. Delayed mortality is not generally seen by those who cause it, but shows a lack of respect for the bass by those who see it after you have gone. Live catch and release requires more than just the act of doing so.
Bass placed in livewells become stressed due to a number of factors. Improper livewell handling, being caught in deep water, or shock from being "played" for a long period of time can all affect fish. This information outlines livewell operation and the care and handling of stressed fish. Occasionally fish will die regardless of how they are handled, but with a little extra care on the part of anglers and tournament directors more fish can be saved. Survival of fish begins with their care in your possession.
Keep the water in your livewell cool. Five degrees cooler than the lake is preferable during hot months. Ice blocks, made with hot water or water that has had the chlorine removed, one-half gallon in size, will cool water approximately 8 degrees. Put the ice in the livewell as you begin to fill it or as water is replaced with fresh from the lake. Small (one quart) plastic soda bottles are best. If using larger bottles simply remove after well is full, replace ice bottle in well as water is changed or for short periods of time. An inexpensive thermometer can be purchased at aquarium shops to check the temperature in the livewell.
Aeration and fresh water are imperative. Make sure your livewell is functioning properly. The use of pure oxygen in the livewell is a new and potentially life-saving idea. There are now systems that, while fairly expensive ($300 plus), can add pure oxygen to the livewell. You could rig an oxygen system with a small portable bottle for about $100 on your own. Don't simply trust your automatic livewell timers. For less than seven pounds of fish in the livewell aerate every eight minutes, supply fresh water from the lake every three hours. For more than seven pounds of fish aerate constantly and supply fresh water every three hours. Cool water slightly as it comes into the livewell, but do not overuse ice. Only use ice if surface temps are above 70 degrees.
Livewell additives are a must. Please Release Me by Sure Life Labs is an excllent product. DO NOT OVERDOSE, follow directions on package. Keep water treated throughout the period fish are held in livewell. Replace Please Release me as new water is added. This product also removes chlorine if you use ice that has been made from water without the chlorine removed. Check the temperature again after changing and re-treating water.
Lack of oxygen and the presence of carbon dioxide and ammonia are deadly. Oxygen is added and carbon dioxide is removed by aeration, ammonia can be lessened only by supplying fresh water to the livewell. Check the fish in your livewell regularly to see how they're doing, if not looking well supply fresh water and Please Release Me and aerate constantly. Fish excrete ammonia from both gills and in urine and it builds up very quickly in the livewell.
Some tips from Steve Magnelia, Texas Parks & Wildlife biologist include adding a recirculating system to older boats. For $10 a 350 gallon per hour bilge pump hooked to a piece of automobile heater hose and a homemade PVC spray bar can be easily mounted in the livewell. This pump can also be used to drain the livewell by pulling the hose off the spray bar and putting it in the overflow.
Use of non-iodized salt in conjunction with Please Release Me creates an even better situation according to Magnelia. One-quarter pound per five gallons of water should be used. You can mark off the numbers of gallons in your livewell by adding five gallon buckets of water one at a time and using a permanent marker to mark the water line. Salt can be measured and stored in the boat. Salt helps to kill bacteria and restore electrolytes. It is safe, inexpensive, and hatcheries have always used it.
At tournaments a hospital tank should be made ready before anyone comes to weigh in. It's best to fill the tank just a few hours before weigh-in, treat with Please Release Me. Only unwell fish should be held for observation, possible air bladder relief, and treatment as necessary for about 30 minutes to an hour. If fish appears normal return to lake immediately, if not continue to hold and treat. This tank must also have both oxygen and aeration when possible. Pure oxygen must be used, not just aeration as the water must be supersaturated for fish with oxygen depletion. I gauge our oxygen bottle at 3 to 3.5 on the scale for a tank of about 100 gallons. If fish appear normal they can be returned immediately to the lake, but should the fish not take off for deeper water return fish to hospital tank. Return all healthy appearing fish to lake immediately, do not hold them, nor handle them more than necessary. Supersaturation with pure oxygen is not recommended for long periods of time, nor in any except extreme cases of stress.
Regardless of the reason for the fish's ill health if the gills are pale pink, no longer bright red in color, that fish cannot be saved. This fish should be removed from the hospital tank as it will put more ammonia and carbon dioxide into the hospital tank and harm the other fish. Be sure to maintain a temperature check on the hospital tank and don't fill it too soon before weigh in as the water temperature will change. It's preferable to use water from the lake to fill the tank, pumped in by bilge pump. Have an extra treated tank (Please Release Me & non-iodized salt) for anglers to fill bags before returning their fish to the lake because every moment of treatment counts. Fish not being held in water cannot breathe.
Though it is only my own theory, not proven scientific fact, I think fish caught in deep water are not the only ones that suffer air bladder expansion. When stressed I believe fish can inflate their air bladders like human adrenalin becomes increased upon stimulation. A fish can be determined to have an expanded air bladder when: the fish is trying to get deeper in the water but cannot, the fish is rolling over and over, or the fish is swimming in a nose-down position with tail elevated. Relieving the air bladder of these fish is controversial. It has not yet been fully studied, and even TP&W personnel differ on it's procedure. In some cases it won't be necessary if you treat with Please Release Me, and hold fish horizontally until it can hold itself up. Air bladder relief procedure is done only when it's obvious the fish will perish without one last effort to save it. TP&W has done no studies on the practice I use to hold fish upright, but in six years of fish care I have seen it help fish. If allowed to lay over in an unnatural position I firmly believe that fish will simply give up. We have had success with fish unable to hold themselves up by holding them in a normal position for 20 minutes to one hour, and in some cases relieving the air bladder.
It's preferable, especially with the larger bass of five pounds or more, to have someone hold the fish for you on a smooth wet surface or place the fish in a large landing net just under the surface of the water in the hospital tank. If this procedure is done in your boat do not hold fish on carpet, but place on wet weigh bag or other smooth surface. Place the fish's head on your left as this side presents the best location for the air bladder. It's best to have the person holding the fish "lip" it with their left hand and hold the wrist of the tail with their right hand. Small fish can be done by one person more easily than larger ones. Once the needle is inserted the fish must be held under water so you can see air bubbles escaping, preferably by the side of the boat rather than in the livewell.
A large biopsy or spinal tap needle is needed for this procedure, one that has an insert that can be removed to allow air to flow out. A single hollow needle will not work as it will become clogged with scales and skin immediately. Use a spinal needle no smaller than 18G31/2. Your veterinarian may be able to help you get these in an inexpensive disposable form, But, do not dispose of it after use, it's reusable. They simply cost a lot less than the ones vets or surgeons use. Your needle must be 16 to 20 gauge and at least two inches long. Spinal tap or biopsy needles are best, do not use anything else.
You must push the needle under the skin, this is best done at an angle between scales. Back needle out until just the tip of the needle in under the skin, redirect needle straight into fish about half the length of the needle. Remove plunger and allow air bubbles to escape for a count of 8 to 10 seconds. Do not remove all air, this is important. Remove only a small amount of air, then wait and see if fish is better. You can always remove more if necessary. Allow fish to go free and observe it's behavior. If fish resumes normal swimming, all is well. If fish goes to bottom and simply lies there, do not worry, yet. It's usually just tired from trying to get down and needs some rest. If fish recovers in 30 minutes or so, hold for another 30 minutes then release into lake. You've given that fish the best chance for survival.
Distinguishing air bladder inflation from livewell poisoning isn't easy. Fish appear to be doing the same things in some cases. With livewell poisoning and disorientation from being in the livewell for hours, fish will respond to being held in a correct position in fresh, oxygen saturated water until they can maintain balance for themselves. Fish that need air bladder relief show much more severe symptoms of distress.
The main difference for the fish in need of air bladder relief will be the reactions of the fish. This fish will appear extremely stressed, rolling, or trying to get deeper in the water without being able to, or in some cases will be "finning" while lying on it's side. That is, the fins behind the gill plate are trying to move, but the fish is not in the correct position to swim. They are very vulnerable if left to lie in an unnatural position.
My technique begins with observation of the fish. Once it has been placed in a treated hospital tank (Please release Me, non-iodized salt and pure oxygen) I allow it freedom of movement for about five minutes. If the fish begins to attempt to roll, swim nose-down, or cannot seem to gain balance I then hold the fish for a period of about 10 to 15 minutes in a position that would be correct for swimming. Sometimes they just need to rest and get revived from the oxygen and fresh water. Sometimes they are just disoriented from being in the livewell. If after 15 to 20 minutes fish is still struggling or lying on it's side, the air bladder relief procedure is done.
I only know my "gut feelings" on some of these applications, and that a fish in this condition will surely die without something being done. My own experiences have been that I have used the techniques described herein with success inasmuch as I have treated numerous fish in the same manner during big bass events at Lake Fork. At least three of these fish are recognizable by marks and/or deformations of the body and I have seen them more than once. What I do may continue to be controversial, but until studies are done to show me otherwise I believe I have saved many bass that would have otherwise died. The question of delayed mortality is still an unknown entity, however my experiences at Fork gives me reason to believe that my procedures should be studied further by the department. The last known study of air bladder relief was done in 1992, more should be done again and in broad spectrum. Everything you learn about fish care enhances the chances of survival for tournament caught fish.
I have used the knowledge I have gained from both to further educate myself on fish care. My position is such that I have the opportunity to try new ideas and am willing to do so in regards to the fact that with certainty some bass will die regardless of what's done to them or for them.I try new things because when you get to the point that some of these fish will most certainly die, it may be the only chance they have.
If catch and release is important to you and you wish to believe you are truly practicing it then it's up to you to assist the fish in your care as much as possible. Such things as supersaturation with pure oxygen are now coming into question as anglers find new products for use in their livewells appearing on the market. But, oxygen doesn't have to be used in massive quantities to help fish. Smaller amounts are preferable at this time simply because oxygen poisoning is even worse than doing nothing to help the fish at all. Use of ice or any other product such as Please Release Me must be done with moderation in mind, not overdose. Just because something is good you don't necessarily accomplish good by using more. Too few anglers realize that simply being out of the water is hard on fish. See how long you can hold your breathe, then figure how long bass must hold theirs when removed from water. Delayed mortality is the shame left behind as fish die days later, this too, can be corrected with just a little more care on the part of anglers. Common sense will help fish and help anglers truly practice catch and release.
Here's some questions that may arise at some point in your fish care.
Q. I inserted the needle just where indicated, but when I let out the plunger no air bubbles came out, what happened? What do I do?
A. All fish are different, if you feel you hit the air bladder but no air comes out, try pulling the needle out just a half or quarter of an inch or so then watch for bubbles. The fish must be completely under water for you to see the bubbles. If no air comes after trying this, remove needle, count two scales back, and one down and reinsert needle and try again. Air bladders don't have to be exactly where diagrams show them to be, especially in winter when fish are colder, they seem to tighten up. Too, if the fish has not been allowed to relax a little and been treated with Catch & Release it's muscles won't allow freedom of air removal. Wait 15 minutes, try again. If you feel rib cage bones while inserting the needle stop immediately and move back to locate insertion point further down fish's body by a couple of scales, over and down.
Q. I did the procedure just as shown, but when I let go of the fish it just went down to the bottom and laid on it's side. Will it die?
A. This reaction comes from either too much air being let out, or as in some cases the fish is simply exhausted from first being caught, then held in the livewell all day, then run across the lake, then handled through weigh in procedure. Allow fish to rest, but find a way to prop it up where it's not laying on it's side. A fish allowed to lay in an unnatural position for too long sometimes will just give up. Again, I can't stress the importance of not letting out too much air, the fish must have some air in it's bladder to assist it in remaining upright. Sometimes the fish was going to die anyway, much like CPR used on humans, "living" humans do not need CPR, only those who are not breathing, basically not alive. Only let out a small amount of air, you can't put back air removed, but you can always remove a little more if need be. Usually a count of eight to 10 seconds is enough to remove plenty of air to reduce pressure without it being too much so that it harms the fish.
Q. The fish started bleeding when I stuck the needle in it, will this cause the fish to die?
A. No more than when you cut your finger, fish bleed when cut, or in this case having a needle stuck into their skin. Normally there won't be any if much blood during the procedure. But, sometimes there is, it usually isn't serious unless that blood is coming from an organ, which only happens if you miss the air bladder. Sometimes a scale or two will come off during the operation, but if you gently push in the needle from behind the scale even this won't occur.

NOTE: read more on fish care ............. FIZZING BASS

Air bladder relief is like CPR. In CPR classes we are taught that the only person who needs CPR is a dead person. It is much the same with air bladder relief. Only fish that will die need have the procedure done for them. Fish in distress will die if it is not done for them.
You will not save every fish that is distressed, that would be impossible, however, learning the procedure properly and performing it correctly, only when necessary, will save the lives of many fish that might otherwise have died.
The only fish I do not try to save with these procedures are fish that have light pink gills, or have been mortally wounded in the gills by a hook, or those severely gut-hooked. The gill filaments are sensitive, but fish have survived with slightly torn gills, however gills lightening to pink from red signal death. A deeply hooked fish can be saved if the tissue and intestines have not been pulled out or damaged with the hook. Simply cut the line and remove the lure portion leaving the hook in place. The hook will eventually be discarded by the fish. There are ways to remove the hook without harming the fish, but this is a very tricky procedure and must be "seen" to be learned.

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