As conservation ethics take a deeper root in the recreational fishing community, I have become more aware of poor fish handling — mostly because I don’t see it as often as I used to. Today’s fishermen are better than ever before at treating their fish with care before release, doing their best to ensure those fish will survive.
However, there are some groups of fishermen that have been a little more resistant to making the small changes that would help their fish a lot. One of those groups is freshwater bass anglers.
Look at 100 random photos of people holding up bass, and you’ll see that almost everybody holds them by the lower jaw. That type of grip is bad for most species with extensible jaws (such as snook and trout), since it puts a lot of pressure on delicate tissues.
That pressure is caused by the weight of the fish itself. So let’s go back to those 100 bass pics, and we’ll see that most of the fish are less than 5 pounds. The heavier the fish, the more damage a lip-only lift can do. Fish under 5 pounds will probably have no worse than minor tissue stretching — the equivalent of bending your finger back just a little too far. Hurts a bit, but no lasting harm done.
With bigger fish, the potential for damage is higher. Perhaps worse, we have a tendency to keep bigger fish out of the water longer. Gotta get that perfect photo! A bass approaching 10 pounds will probably have significant stretching of the isthmus tendons, which allow the mouth to open quickly and create suction. Damaged tendons result is a slower movement of the jaw, making the fish somewhat less likely to succeed in catching prey.
I’ve mentioned this before with regards to snook. This is the reason we don’t publish photos of large jaw-held fish unless they were legally kept — too many of those fish suffer and die.
The good news is that bass are tougher than snook, so their tendons stretch less. They’re also not quite as dependent on suction feeding, so even if the tendons are damaged, the fish should be able to find food. (Of course, it would be better if they weren’t damaged.)
But take a look at the photo here. This bass is not just being held by the jaw. It’s being elevated partly to a horizontal position. Think about how much additional pressure is being put on that fragile jawbone, which is not meant to support any weight at all.
Many years ago, I learned the hard way what this kind of handling can do to a big bass. The fish was probably 8 or 9 pounds, caught from my grandparents’ farm pond on a live shiner. I lifted her up by the jaw, like I always did. Then I cranked her up to horizontal and shouted to my cousin back at the dock so she could see what I’d caught.
I’d been holding her for maybe 10 or 15 seconds when I heard (and felt) a sharp snap. Her weight shifted in my hand. I looked at her and realized that one side of her lower jaw had broken, right at the corner of the mouth.
Not sure what to do, I put her back in the water and revived her. (Grandma’s rule: We never kept big bass.) After 30 seconds, she kicked hard and I let her go, watching her swim off toward a bunch of cypress knees. At the time, I was relieved — if she swam away strong, she’ll be fine. But now I know better. That fish almost surely died, probably of starvation.
When I talked to the guy who had posted this photo on social media, here’s what he had to say: “People like you blow me away. Keep your negativity on your own page. I do this for a living and treat all fish with the utmost respect. I can assure you the fish swam away just fine and I’ll go catch her again tomorrow if I wanted.” Then he blocked me.
And he might be right. She might be fine. But the chances of breaking or dislocating the jaw of a big bass are pretty high with this type of handling. Most bass fishermen think it’s just fine because they see the tournament bigshots lifting their fish this way. Here’s the truth: They do it for the photos, not for the good of the fish.
I am a conservationist. That doesn’t mean I don’t kill fish, but does mean that when I release a fish, I want it to live. I want it to be just as healthy the next day as it was before I caught it. If it’s not, I take it as a personal failure.
If you feel the same way, then remember that best practices for fish handling are simple: Wet your hands, don’t abrade the skin with towels or other objects, never lay a fish on a hot dry surface, support the fish’s weight with two hands if at all possible, and at all times be gentle. It’s not hard — you just have to care.
Contact Capt. Josh Olive at 941-276-9657 or Publisher@WaterLineWeekly.com.