- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 12, 2009

An argument that for years has raged among sport fishing fanatics concerns the potential damage that fishing tournaments might wreak on largemouth bass populations.

The participants in such contests are told by tournament organizers that their legal catches - usually five bass per participant - are to be kept alive in a small aerated tank known as a livewell. The fish are held in tight confinement for as many as eight hours, later are weighed, sometimes photographed, put into a basket, taken to a holding tank, then are released in adjacent waters, hopefully to survive and return to the areas in which they were caught.

If the water temperature in the fishing waters as well as the livewell tanks is high, say around 80 degrees, and the dissolved oxygen content necessary for survival is low, many of the bass become severely stressed. After being extensively handled and then released - even if they appear to be OK and swim off - will succumb a day or two later.

Precisely that occurred recently after an FLW Stren Series bass tournament was held out of Smallwood State Park in Charles County, Md. The stench of dead, decaying fish permeated the air.

Some 600 dead bass were found in a six-mile area of the Mattawoman Creek and Potomac River, believed to have been tournament fish that were released alive. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ Assistant Fisheries Director, Don Cosden, said there might even have been more dead bass that the tides carried away.

Sadly, while the bass appeared to be alive when first put into the water, a factor known as delayed mortality crept into the picture. After suffering serious stress, the fish died within a few days, some floating belly-up where they were counted by outraged onlookers and DNR fisheries crews. No one will ever know how many more sank to the river bottom, never to be counted.

Post-tournament deaths of released bass aren’t new. But the recent bass contest and a resulting fish kill was so clearly visible that more than one Maryland resident now is asking if the state’s natural resources officials have the courage to address this problem.

The DNR should never be thrown into the mix of Annapolis politics but sadly it is. Through the years, more than one DNR employee has confidentially told me that bass tournaments are to be officially welcomed because the governor’s office and state tourism officials believe large fishing contests that bring several hundred out-of-state residents will result in expanded income opportunities for local businesses.

After the recent bass kill, Maryland onlookers - whose taxes, fees and licenses actually pay for the state park facilities that host these mega bass contests - are venting their anger. They’re not only upset with the nonresident, for-profit tournament organizations that rake in juicy entry fees and sponsor dollars, they’re also mad at the states who sanction these events.

After observing many dead largemouths on the Mattawoman and Potomac, I talked with an agitated Baltimore fisherman, Doug Rapisarda, who saw the carnage and said: “There’s nothing like driving two hours to fish in one of the best places in Maryland and then seeing all these dead bass. It’s unbelievable.”

Reader Carl Brown wrote, “If I had my way, all anglers would have an approved scale on board, catch the fish, weigh it, take a digital picture, release it and be on the honor system, with the other guy on the boat as a witness.”

Cosden said the total mortality of bass after the FLW tournament ended was “unacceptably high.” Cosden will have tissue samples studied to see if they contain the debilitating largemouth bass virus, which might result in higher mortality after being kept in tight confinement because the fish would already be weak.

Joseph W. Love, the DNR’s black bass manager, will take a closer look at past tournament data to see if there’s a pattern that might result in better management guidelines. Unfortunately, the DNR data so far has only dealt with immediate bass deaths after release, not delayed mortality.

Local anglers upset with what they believe is the often-seen cavalier attitude by tournament organizers aren’t bashful about coming up with solutions: “Ban all tournaments,” Virginia’s Dick Fox said.

Professional bass fishing guide Andy Andrzejewski said: “Cancel all scheduled bass tournaments if the water temperature exceeds 78 degrees.”

And Lou Reimer, a Fairfax angler who regularly visits the Potomac River, added, “The states of Maryland and Virginia ought to be ashamed to stand by and allow precious resources to be destroyed - all in the name of money.”

As far as I’m concerned, professional bass tournaments are little more than “look how great I am” contests. They are no more related to true recreational fishing than commercial fish netting. Since it’s all about making money, the participants should be made to purchase commercial fishing licenses and the organizers should have to put up high-dollar revokable deposits in the event of fish kills such as the one experienced after the recent debacle.

• Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column Sunday and Wednesday and his Fishing Report on Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: gmueller@washingtontimes.com. Also check out Mueller’s detailed weekend fishing report and his Inside Outside blog at washingtontimes.com/sports.

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