Enhanced fish care planned for Classic

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Shane Durrance

Fish care is a high priority at Bassmaster tournaments, and it will be increasingly relevant at the 2021 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Huk.

B.A.S.S. and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department are partnering to ensure bass caught during the hot weather will be healthy when released back into Lake Ray Roberts. How they will do that is by implementing a fish care plan developed specifically for the north Texas warm, summer weather. 

Between the Classic launch site and Dickies Arena in Fort Worth the distance is 60 miles. With normal afternoon traffic the drive time is 1 hour 20 minutes. That is not an uncommonly far distance or travel timeline between Classic fisheries and arena venues. Previous Classics held in Houston, Birmingham and Greenville, S.C., had similar travel logistics as the Fort Worth event. 

Those Classics were held during early spring, when ambient lake water temperatures were cooler and retained desired levels of oxygen in the livewells used for transporting angler catches. The need to change the process was recognized when the upcoming Classic was moved from March to June.

“We know that moving the Classic to June presents issues with warm water, compounding the potential stress on the fish in transport,” said Gene Gilliland, B.A.S.S. conservation director.

Gilliland, a former fisheries biologist and assistant chief of fisheries for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, collaborated on a first-of-its kind fish care plan with his peers at Texas Parks and Wildlife. Included on the planning committee were B.A.S.S. tournament managers having extensive experience with long-distance transport of bass and related tournament logistics. Following thorough discussions, an enhanced fish care plan was agreed upon for the June 11-13 competition days.

Most notable, the number of bass transported round trip from the lake to the arena will be reduced by 50% when the full field competes on Friday and Saturday.

“Reducing the transportable catch by one half on those days allows us to maintain a traditional Classic arena experience for the fans and TV, while prioritizing conservation of the catch during the warm weather,” said Gilliland.

On Friday and Saturday, the anglers will return to the launch site at the Ray Roberts State Park’s Isle du Bois Unit, which will be closed to public access during the afternoon. The boats will be trailered and moved to a weigh-in station near the ramp. The anglers will bag their catch and have it immediately weighed. The weight will not be shared with anyone until the anglers arrive at the arena. 

“Every fish will be weighed on the same scale, unlike other catch-weigh-release tournaments that use a separate handheld scale for each angler,” said Gilliland. “We are doing that to maintain the integrity of the Classic, to avoid any weight discrepancies in bass fishing’s world championship event.”

To expedite the weigh-in process, there will be no emcee, spectators or live media coverage at the remote site, although B.A.S.S. camera crews will capture footage of the lakeside process to show fans in the arena.

Each angler will be allowed to transport the largest two bass from their five-bass limit to Dickies Arena. Immediately after being weighed, the remaining fish will be loaded onto one of B.A.S.S.’ Yamaha/AFTCO live release boats. Water temperature and oxygen levels in the transport tanks aboard the boats will be monitored and maintained to prepare the fish for release back into the lake following the weigh-in. 

Texas Parks and Wildlife biologists will be at the remote location to assist preparing the fish for transport back to the arena. Water temperatures in the anglers’ livewells will be monitored, oxygen will be added as needed, and calculated amounts of ice will be added to reduce stress and slow metabolism.

In Fort Worth, more Texas Parks and Wildlife biologists will assess the fish upon their arrival in the outdoor staging area. Oxygen and ice will be added as needed to livewells while the boats wait to enter the arena. 

Anglers will display up to two bass to the fans as the official weight determined at the lake is revealed. After a few quick photos, the fish will be taken backstage where awaiting Texas Parks and Wildlife biologists will load the fish into aerated hatchery trailers for transport back to Ray Roberts. B.A.S.S. staff will be waiting with the release boat to assist TPWD in releasing the fish.

On Championship Sunday, the 25 finalists will bring up to a five-bass limit back to the arena, following the same fish care protocol as the previous days. The catches will be weighed on stage, and the fish transported back to Ray Roberts for release.

“Texas Parks and Wildlife was very involved in every step of this plan. We will be supporting their efforts to ensure the fish caught from Ray Roberts, will be returned to Ray Roberts, to be caught again by Texas anglers,” said Gilliland.