Professional Tournament Fish Care

By Scott Stankowski - August 4, 2015
With any fishing tournament during the summer months, locals are always concerned with the amount of pressure put on the fish. On a catch and release tournament where the fish are brought into a weigh in the anxiety increases.

With the Bassmasters college national circuit rolling into town and fishing on the DuBay flowage those not in the know where quick to speculate, including me. Instead of rolling my eyes and making assumptions I dug deeper to find out what goes on behind the scenes to bring this exclusive article to you. I am going to take you from hook to live well, to weigh in and back into the lake with plenty of information to put your mind at ease.

The first question was why? Certainly the fish could have been weighed at the Tiki Bar on Lake Dubay. Yes it could have, but after what I saw there was no difference. Second, how is it legal to transport live fish in the state when I privately cannot? This is a tough one tied up in some gritty political bs. The guys working for Bassmasters and tending the fish did not know we had that rule and it is the only time that they had ever heard of such. Bottom line is, if it involves money and the DNR, all bets are off.

Russ Bradshaw a CTA which is a private contractor for BASS took plenty of time with me to show me the ins and outs. Russ is a retired carpenter from Tennessee. The crew he worked with helped set everything up from microphones to stage to weigh ins and everything in between. They not only take care of the fish but everything to run this very efficient tournament made for national tv.

Russ told me that this venue was a piece of cake. The cold water of Wisconsin was a blessing compared to what he sometimes has to deal with. In the summer months in southern states water temperatures are warmer and the days are hot. Holding tank water needs to constantly be iced to keep a steady temperature in line with the lake water.

In addition those lakes hold fish in deeper colder water. Those fish when brought up often times have air bladder problems. Russ then has to 'fizz' them. This means he takes a hypodermic needle and inserts it into the fish to remove the air, remove too much he says and the fish will die. It is a delicate procedure that he says every southern fisherman should have. I thought it would be a good thing for ice fisherman in deep lakes of Wisconsin that want to catch and release.

As the fisherman took off they were required to show proof that their live well was operational. As they caught fish and added them to the live well they had to make sure the fish stayed alive, a dead fish was penalized at weigh in. Fisherman constantly recirculated their water and added ice as the day proceeded. Once the boats came off the water, there was an official that looked in each live well to make sure the fish were legal by the BASS golden ruler. He also made sure the fish were alive. They checked the fisherman in and sent a message to the base camp at UW - Stevens Point.

Upon arrival the fisherman put their fish in provided Trilene mesh bags and transported them into holding tanks under a shaded tent. These holding tanks were plastic and had tap water. They were treated with chemicals to get rid of any chlorine, and another chemical was added to aid the fish. Much like what a person would add to their aquarium to protect the fish including their important slime coat. The teams would wait in line for their turn to go on stage for weigh in. The tanks were oxygenated with air to keep the fish lively.

The only significant time out of the water was weigh in. If participants had big fish they held them up to the audience and they were really lively and colorful. Russ mentioned that the college participants take great care in what they are doing and help protect the fish, as you move up to the level of some of the elite fisherman that is lost in translation. Money talks.

After weigh in the fish go to Russ. He sits atop a huge pontoon boat parked back stage. This is where I got to see first-hand what occurred on the rig. Russ is a busy man, the tri-axle trailer had three bum tires that needed replacing during the tournament this day, so he had to be on his toes.

The boat has four huge holding tanks and depending on preliminary estimates he decides how many tanks to fill based off of total weight of fish. The tanks are filled with lake water and treated with a chemical again to help with the stress and slime coat. The chemical contains a dye so that officials know the water had been treated, it looked like that pond water you see at fancy golf courses a brilliant turquoise color.

The holding tanks have a bubbling stone on the bottom that is connected to pure oxygen tanks. Russ monitors the amount of oxygen going into each tank and scientifically determines whether he needs to add more or less depending on the load.

As the fish come in he dumps them into the tank. The fish immediately swim to the bottom and cannot be seen. As I sat there with him and he kept loading fish in, there was one smallmouth bass in particular that would always rise and hang out near the surface but upon putting more fish in would dive back down.

As soon as weigh in was over, Russ and a couple of others would drive the pontoon back to the orginal lake and not necessarily the same boat landing. They would then drive the pontoon out into the lake and pull a lever. This opened up a hole in the bottom of the holding tank. Much like flushing a toilet the water and fish would be swept back into the lake. The boat was shut off for this portion and the crew would spend about five minutes watching for floating fish.

At this tournament they did not lose a fish. One fish came into the registration dead and it was donated to the University for studies. Russ said in many tournaments they give the fish to bank fisherman nearby. You could tell he takes great pride in ensuring the survivability of the fish.

The fishery did not get hammered; for instance only 75 fish were registered on day 2 and 4 were registered for day three.

The final three days were held on the Stevens Point flowage with weigh in at Bukolt park. It provided a much less shorter drive for the crew but the same procedures would be followed, seeing as there were only 8 competitors the maximum number of fish each day would only be 24. Piece of cake for Russ and the crew, at some tournaments weigh-ins are over 30 miles from the lake and they use the equivalent of a gas station ice container to keep the water at a cool temperature.

I for one am glad BASS allowed me the exclusive behind the scenes tribute to the care of our local fishery. There is no doubt in my mind that their professionalism in fish care was second to none.

Author Scott Stankowski
Scott Stankowski
Scott Stankowski is the senior outdoor writer for centralwisconsinsports.net and produces weekly articles, typically highlighting getting kids active in the outdoors. His family prides itself on living off of the land. Scott also takes the mantra into the classroom where he teaches environmental science at Wisconsin Rapids Lincoln High School. Scott and his sons have won numerous titles in turkey and deer calling at the state level. Scott and his sons have a national outdoor television show titled Growin' Up Wild and can be found on Facebook.