If you are wading, or fishing from a float tube, a livewell doesn't matter, but if you fish from a boat consistently your livewell can be very important to the fish you catch. You can keep fish alive in your livewell, and you can use it to do much more!

This statement seems so obvious but is it really? How do most fishers use a live well? Many use it to hold fish and keep them fresh until they are taken home and cleaned for the freezer or table. Some use livewells to keep bass alive until the weigh-in in search of fame and fortune. With some other not-so-obvious habits, you can use your live well to ensure a fish's survival before and after it has been released.

I have seen many years of bass tournaments with bass anglers competing in the low end so called "jon boat tournaments" all the way up to the pros. I saw a "weigh-in" one day at a favorite lake, which featured bass club members dumping weighed bass out of bags directly onto concrete launch ramps with only 6 inches of water covering them. The last insult to the bass and sport exhibited in full view. Unbelieveable! It is my belief that the entirety of tournament fishing has killed more bass than any other influence, period.

On closer inspection, many of these jon boat entrants had NO LIVEWELL!

Doug Hannon did what he could to try to protect tournament caught fish, but the process stressed the fish so that they died out of sight and out of mind of the public within two days of the weigh-ins.

In the past years I have seen an improvement in some tournaments with officials on each boat in constant communication with computers quickly weighing catches, reporting them to main headquarters, and releasing them immediately. They have gone so far as to penalize tournament fishers exhibiting poor landing and handling techniques. This is a huge improvement which saves countless fish.

Over many years of ultralight fly fishing, I have landed hundreds of large bass. Many fly fishers still reject the idea of using light to ultralight tackle to catch and play large fish, and common sense plays a major role here. Research indicates that light tackle doesn't kill fish in most cases. According to those who have actually researched the problem, it is the fisher's mishandling of the fish that kills it in most cases. These recommendations for catching a fish, landing, documenting that fish, and releasing the fish, is designed to ensure the fish's survival.

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FIRST, KNOW YOUR FISH SPECIES.SOME FISH WILL DIE IF PLACED IN A LIVEWELL.FOR EXAMPLE STRIPED BASS AND HYBRID BASS WILL NOT REVIVE IN A LIVEWELL. THEY WILL DIE. FOR THESE TYPES OF FISH, A GOOD "JUMP START" RELEASE AFTER MINIMAL HANDLING IS THE BEST WAY TO ENSURE THEIR SURVIVAL.

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Several years ago in a 3M/Scientific Anglers video featuring Doug Hannon, the "bass professor", Hannon showed the type of livewell he uses and described how to handle bass to aid their survival after release. After viewing the tape several times, I custom designed and built a 100 quart livewell for my 16 foot modified jon boat.

Acquisition of the large cooler with internal divider, a 600 gph through transom livewell pump (left), a 12 volt livewell controller, and the necessary tubing came first. Then came fitting the PVC pipe, fabricating an aerator tube, and mounting it overhead in the big livewell.

Fresh water is pumped in from the water source by the pump and stored in the well. An overflow tube (plug in stand pipe drain tube right) in the rear of the big live well well maintains the water level inside, while excess water flows out the overflow tube through the transom.

In addition, the 12 volt livewell controller turns on and off my through-transom livewell pump at timed intervals to keep the well filled and aerated to the proper level. The result is a constant supply of fully aerated fresh water. This huge freshwater aerated livewell has been used for several years, and not the first fish has died in it. If you wish to use salted water, build your livewell water circulation system so that after it is filled with water and salt, it can run as a closed circuit aerated livewell, or fill it and turn off your pump. Otherwise the salt solution will be flushed out the overflow.

The fill tube on the transom (right) turns down to the water at 90 degrees. When the small straight piece of pvc pipe that contacts the water is cut crosswise at 45 degrees, when you are running on plane, it will scoop fresh water and pump it into the livewell.

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Here's my two minute drill for big fish.

(1) Lead the fish to the deepest available water.

(2) Play the fish gently to land it as quickly as possible.

(3) Lip the fish and get it into the livewell as soon as you can.

(4) Give the fish fifteen to twenty minutes in a dark livewell before disturbing it.

(5) Weigh, measure and photograph the fish very quickly,then put the fish back in the livewell for at least 20 minutes of undisturbed recovery.

(6) Quietly motor to the spot where you caught the fish and release it where you caught it.

(7) Gently handle the fish only with wet hands, and support it carefully. Handle it as little as possible.

(8) Lip a fish vertically -- don't crank its jaw over until its tongue sticks out. You could injure the cartilage in its jaw and make it difficult for the fish's mouth to function properly hurting the fish's odds of survival.

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Dr. John Grizzle, fish Pathologist at Auburn University, believes that we can't over emphasize the importance of carefully handling fish that are to be released. Grizzle told me "...its far more important how that fish is handled after it is landed. WET YOUR HANDS, AND SUPPORT THE FISH (left). How long it is out of the water, what the air temperature is, how many times its slammed against the side of the boat, how much the gills are injured when they pick it up incorrectly -- those sorts of issues are much more important as far as whether the fish is going to survive or not."

In a recent interview, Doug Hannon, told me "...when people are landing a fish, if they are calm and try to get the fish to hand gently...they will land the fish quicker causing less fear and stress for the fish." Hannon cautions us to use knotless catch-and-release nets and he suggests that we not lift the fish out of the water with the net, so the fish's weight isn't on the mesh of the net. Just let the fish swim in the net, and lip it out of the net vertically. Then gently release the fish.

According to Dr. Bob Reinert, fish biology professor at the University of Georgia, the stress response that fish exhibit after being caught is caused when hormones known as catecholamines and corticosteroids are generated in the fish's body. They dramatically increase the fish's blood flow in the gills and muscles which imbalances the fish's blood electrolytes. When this happens, lactic acid builds up in the fish's blood. At a certain level of concentration, the blood becomes too acidic and osmotic shock can set in, killing the fish. If osmotic shock doesn't kill the fish, four or five days later after the fish's immune system has shut down from the stress, it will die from disease.

For humans and fish alike, the biggest problem is the loss of salts from the blood, and in humans electrolyte rebalancing chemicals are ingested by drinking sport drinks like Gatorade. In the old days, sports participants took salt tablets to accomplish the same thing. With fish, simply adding approximately 1.3 ounces of regular table salt per gallon of water in your livewell will help replenish the fish's salts and aid in his long term survival. According to Dr. Reinert, there are commercially prepared water conditioners which contain "an anaesthetic, antibiotics, a dechlorinator, a water coloring agent, and a variety of dissolved salts." These solutions help to stabilize the fish's electrolytes, guard against infection, and calm the fish. Resting in a dark livewell by itself, undisturbed for a few minutes will greatly help the fish recover for release. In effective catch and release fishing, the livewell shouldn't just be a place to throw your fish to cull the small ones.

For a stressed fish, your livewell can be an emergency room. Used properly, it is there to calm the fish, rebalance the electrolytes in its blood, and help it overcome its stress reactions for a successful release, and a healthy life.

First, carefully play and immediately release fish without handling them if at all possible. The Boga grip (right) is designed to lift a fish vertically and subdue it. Kept in the water, you don't have to touch the fish to release it. If you wish to document the catch, use your livewell to give the fish rest periods of at least twenty minutes to help the fish overcome the stresses of being caught. Leave the fish undisturbed in these recuperation periods. If you are releasing the fish to let it grow up to be bigger and reproduce, gently release in the spot where you caught it. That way stress will be minimal and it will probably live to fight another day.


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