Lynn Burkhead — Summer heat demands extra care in catch-and-release fishing

Staff Writer
Herald Democrat
As the summertime weather and local lake water temps heat up, proper fish care is vital. Done properly, an angler can get a strong "See you later!" splash from a departing bass as well as the satisfaction of knowing that a key investment is being made in securing the future success of Texas' legendary angling resources.

Going through a box of old files in the garage the other day, I came across some notes from a magazine story I did a number of years ago.

The notes came from an interview with my old friend, Dr. Bill Harvey, a retired Texas Parks and Wildlife Department fisheries biologist who now lives on the Texas Gulf Coast and uses his digital camera to make a living.

Harvey is one of the best fishing minds I’ve ever met, a man with a keen sense of humor, a great way of teaching, and someone who has forgotten more about fishing than I’ll ever understand.

The rest of the notes came from another Texas fishing legend, the late David Campbell, the man who for many years coordinated the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s ShareLunker program and served as facilities manager at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens.

Given the recent weather trends, the notes — which dealt on proper fish care during the summer’s hottest weather —brought a smile to my face as well as well as the thought that I needed to turn a former magazine piece into this week’s newspaper column.

What did those notes show? In general, that unless you plan on keeping a few fish for the dinner table, pay close attention to proper and safe catch-and-release practices to help ensure that the fish you’re releasing doesn’t go belly up a day or two later.

For starters, skip the ultra-light tackle during the summer months if you plan on catch-and-release.

That advice came from Harvey, a serious saltwater fly fisherman who was quiet good at chasing redfish and speckled trout in the inshore waters of the Texas Gulf Coast.

Harvey, who once spent a weekend in Texomaland teaching fly fishing techniques to the local Red River Fly Fishers group, recommended using the stoutest tackle that an angler can get away with during the heat of the summer, choosing the released fish’s health over the fun associated with a light tackle fight.

“In summer, I’ll almost exclusively use an eight-weight (fly rod) because the water is warmer and there is less oxygen in the water,” said Harvey. “It’s much more stressful (on the fish) in the warmer water with less oxygen.”

“I hear of people fishing with four-weight rods and in my view, it takes longer to get the fish in, and it will stress them more. In the fall, when the water is cooler and there is more oxygen, lighter tackle is fine.”

Whether you’re a budding fly angler or not, Harvey’s advice applies across the board when it comes to summertime fishing. Use stout tackle so that you can quickly play the fish to the boat, revive it, and release it if that’s your intention.

But there’s more to summer fish safety concerns than just winning the fight quickly according to the late Campbell.

“Hot weather is really hard on the fish, but there are other circumstances that can make it just as hard, including cold weather,” said the late Campbell, who was inducted into the Texas Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in 2011 and the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in 2013.

But heat is particularly dangerous to a fish because of the warmth and low humidity that summer can bring. Because of that, anglers should avoid taking the fish out of its aquatic habitat if at all possible.

“Keep fish in the water as much as possible,” said Campbell, who handled more than 500 largemouth bass weighing 13-pounds or more from the time of Mark Stevenson’s state record catch of the legendary Ethel at Lake Fork in November 1986 to his retirement in 2012.

“When I pick up a fish, I watch my time and never keep it out of the water for more than 25 seconds at a time.”

Campbell mentioned to me in that interview a few years back that one way to keep track of that timeframe is for an angler to simply hold their own breath as long as they have a fish out of the water. When an angler needs a breath, so does the fish – get it back in the water promptly.

“That’s a good deal,” Campbell agreed. “Most people can’t hold their breath more than 20 or 25 seconds.”

Want a photo of your trophy bass? That’s fine, but please follow the ShareLunker legend’s advice in getting that selfie.

“If you catch a big fish, sure, you want to handle it and take pictures,” noted Campbell. “But have those pictures lined up before you take them out of the water.”

In addition to keeping the fish in the water as long as possible, anglers should also make sure that their own hands are wet before handling a fish; avoid using a net to prevent harming the fish’s protective slime coating; being sure that the fish doesn’t come in contact with clothing, boat carpet or dry measuring boards, again to protect the slime coating on a fish; and by using needle nose pliers to gently disengage hooks.

Also avoid “lipping-and-gripping” a fish when possible. That practice can actually prove to be harmful to bigger fish - especially bass - whose jaws can be damaged by the practice.

“Hold one hand in the lip and support the fish’s body with your other hand, of course being sure to have your hands wet,” said the late Campbell. “I’ve actually seen fish die for the fact that they couldn’t close their mouths (after being injured).”

If you’re planning on transporting a largemouth bass back to a marina or to a fishing tournament headquarters to have it weighed, there are still a few more precautions to take including putting it in a well aerated live-well. That can help increase oxygen to the fish and also help to reduce its stress of being caught and handled.

Should keeping the live-well water at the same temperature as the water the bass was just pulled from prove to be troublesome, an angler can use small amounts of non-chlorinated block ice to help regulate the water temperature.

Just keep in mind that while it can be acceptable to have the live-well water slightly cooler than the water from which the bass came from, don’t introduce the fish into water that is significantly cooler.

“Don’t cool it by more than 10 degrees,” Campbell urged in our interview. “If you cool it by more than 10 degrees, you’re looking at shocking (and potentially killing) the fish.”

The former ShareLunker coordinator also recommended the use of live-well chemical-additives that are designed for catch-and-release bass anglers. Such chemicals can help reduce stress on a bass and reduce ammonia levels in the water. As with any such product, be sure to closely follow the manufacturer’s directions.

Finally, before releasing any fish back into the water this summer, gently revive it by using a soft back-and-forth motion with its tail to help push oxygen-giving water across the fish’s gills.

When the fish is ready to swim away on its own power, it will do so, often with a “see-you-later” splash.

All of this careful attention to the fish and its needs can help increase the odds that a fish will survive long after it has been caught-and-released.

“If you’re practicing catch-and-release, you should do everything you can for the benefit of the fish,” said Campbell.

As one of the sport’s most legendary figures in the Lone Star State, the late biologist obviously knew what he was talking about as any glance at the TPWD record books will prove.

Follow his advice this summer and you can be assured that you’re doing your part to help keep the Lone Star State’s bass fishing the best in the country.

Catch that big bass, treat it carefully, get a quick photo, and then release it to fight another day. Our state’s treasured bass fishing resource demands nothing less.