The most popular game fish across most of the country is the black bass, which includes largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, spotted bass and a couple other subspecies. They have become so popular, regardless of them being quite tasty after the frying pan and on the plate, catching one and keeping it is a major sin in the eyes of many sportsmen.
If you catch a bass, whether it’s a nine-incher or a nine-pounder, get it unhooked and back into the water as soon as possible. Okay, if it’s a nine-pounder, get it back in the water as soon as you’ve snapped a photo of it to post on Facebook and your favorite bass fishing websites, then release it, then pick up your phone and start tweeting away.
And there-in lies the rub, or at least the appearance of the rub. Mixed in with the follow-up posts with all the oohs and aahs from your fellow anglers congratulating you, asking where you are fishing, what the fish bit, inevitably will come a post admonishing you for posing the fish with a lip-grip.
You’ve seen it a thousand times. Big time bassin’ guy sinks the hook into fine specimen, cranks it close to the boat and adroitly reaches down, grasps the fish with his thumb inside the fish’s mouth, pincher fingers on the outside, under the mouth and once the lip-grip is applied the bass is lifted from the water and shown off to the camera.
It’s not a bad way to grip a bass from the fisherman’s angle. Tilting the lip-gripped bass back a bit forces the mouth open so the hook can be removed and also seems to quiet the fish. It’s much safer and much easier removing the hook from a non-flopping fish than one still fighting for its life. It makes it much easier to photograph, as well.
But does it hurt the fish? That’s the question Mr. Rain-on-Your-Parade answers. “Don’t you know holding a bass by its lower jaw can kill or injure the fish?” he will post.
Do you know it? Is Mr. Rain correct? Have you, me and thousands of others been killing or torturing bass all along?
A team of fish scientists decided to check out the claims and set all of us bass fishermen straight. They caught some bass, handled them three different ways, then released the fish to see how long it took for the fish to swim off and resume normal activities.
The first method was to use a tool instead of thumb and fingers to latch onto the bass’s lower lip. The second way was to lift and tilt the fish, one handed, bare handed and the third way used either fingers or a tool to grab the fish, but the angler used his or her other hand to support the fish with the second hand under the fish’s belly.
The anti-lip-gripper claims holding a bass in a tilted grip by the jaw raises concern about potential damage to jaw musculature and tendons. They weren’t put on fish as a built-in handle, and don’t support the fish’s body weight adequately when the fish is held out of water. They also claim the problem increases as the size of the bass increases. It might be fine for a nine-incher, not so fine for a nine-pounder.
They can put their concerns aside, say the researchers. They conducted their experiment with largemouth bass and evaluated the relative differences in survival, jaw mechanics, and feeding success on the caught and released bass after using all three common handling treatments. Results suggested no evidence of handling-specific differences in fish feeding behavior, jaw adjustments and mortality after release.
The results weren’t identical. The fish resumed normal behavior more quickly after being handled using the two-handed method than if they’d been handled with the tool or with only a lip-grip. Either way, however, they soon went back to a normal life.
The practice of catch and release as an alternative to harvest undoubtedly reduces direct mortality. How the fish is held is less important than how long the fish is out of the water.
So keep that camera ready and close at hand. Snap away and do it quickly. Don’t worry about the guy worrying about the fish. He’s at home, you are out fishing.