Few things are as divisive within the fishing community as bass tournaments. It seems anglers either love them or hate them. Critics claim that the increase in number of small and large tournaments on lakes and rivers all over the country are having a negative impact on our bass fisheries. In short, they are.
Numerous studies have examined tournament mortality and their overall impact on fish populations. Despite a near total catch-and-release ethic, tournament anglers do indeed kill fish, lots of them at times. The mortality factor varies with the season, according to a study conducted in Oklahoma. Specifically, an average of 6 percent of all bass caught in spring tournaments died. That’s a statistically low number and one that has little or no effect on the total population of bass in any lake.
Summer tournaments, however, are indeed hard on bass and result in a considerably higher mortality rate. The same Oklahoma study found that in water with temperatures above 80 degrees and with low dissolved oxygen levels, an average of 39 percent of all bass caught died within six days. The mortality rate was considerably higher for bass over three pounds. Researchers determined that anglers participating in warm-weather contests could reduce mortality by more than half by constantly running their livewell’s aerator and adding ice and salt. Simply running the aerator throughout the day reduced mortality significantly, as well. That’s one reason major bass fishing organizations like FLW and BASS have shifted their tournament season away from the warmer months and into the spring and fall when mortality rates are far lower.
Even if tournament anglers are responsible for killing bass, they aren’t alone. Nor are they contributing to a decrease in a lake’s total bass population. A study conducted on Sam Rayburn Reservoir, a sprawling, bass-rich lake in east Texas that is a popular spot for tournaments, found that non-tournament anglers kill just as many bass as those who put them in a livewell, cart them around all day, weigh them and then turn the fish loose. The study, conducted by Texas Parks and Wildlife biologist Todd Driscoll, found that tournament mortality varied from 6 to 28 percent of all angling mortality. In other words, if all bass anglers—tournament, harvest and catch-and-release—kill a total of 100 bass, tournament anglers are responsible for the deaths of 6 to 28, depending on such factors as water temperature, fish size and handling methods. Catch-and-release anglers contributed to the death of between 10 and 31 percent of all bass killed, and anglers who intentionally harvest bass account for the rest of all angling mortality. Why are catch-and-release anglers killing just as many fish as tournament anglers?
“There are many more non-tournament anglers than tournament anglers on Rayburn on any given day, even though 52 percent of all anglers questioned in our creel surveys said they participate in tournaments,” said Driscoll. “Overall, tournament angling accounted for just 19 percent of total angling effort for black bass.”
Driscoll determined that the effect of tournament-related mortality on Rayburn’s bass population as a whole was negligible. Overall, tournament anglers were responsible for the death of anywhere from just 1 to 6 percent of the reservoir’s total bass population. Catch-and-release anglers accounted for the death of the same percentages. Anglers who kept bass, either for the table or for the wall, were responsible for a slightly higher mortality rate, which varied between 6 and 14 percent of the lake’s total bass population.
Driscoll said he suspects that overall, tournaments do have a more significant impact on larger bass (over four pounds) because as a general rule, tournament anglers tend to target bigger bass and they certainly keep the largest fish they catch.
“I don’t know if we could ever conduct a scientific experiment to study that,” he noted.
Anglers who argue that tournament anglers are killing bass are correct. However, based on various studies that examined the tournament effect, anglers who fish for money or prizes aren’t having a significant impact on a lake’s overall bass population. At least, they aren’t killing any more bass than the other user groups who share the same water.