When Bass Don’t React by Donovan Kelley

Many readers will have had the unhappy experience of catching a nice bass which gives only token resistance to the rod; more like a cod, say, or a ray, than a tough, hard-fighting predator capable of tremendous bursts of speed. Why do they do it? Is it possible to judge when it is likely to happen, and perhaps refrain from fishing for them at the season, or in the conditions, when it is likely?

In an attempt to identify the features which give rise to these disappointing displays I have been through my diaries and analysed the apparent causes of unusually poor performance (and unusually good). I have never recorded what I might term normal behaviour, but I have certainly done so for the exceptionally powerful fish and the exceptionally sluggish ones. To keep the exercise within bounds I ignored fish under 3lbs.

This is what I found. Altogether there were 108 unusually good performers, chiefly in August to November; and 32 unusually poor ones, chiefly in May and June. The apparent causes for the poor performances were –

  • 24 “spawning” cases (5 ripe; 4 running; 3 part-spent; 11 fully spent; 1 – captured in 1963 after the terrible winter – which had resorbed ova);
  • 3 “swallowed hook” cases;
  • 2 large males (8¼ and 6lbs);
  • 1 case of very poor growth, indicative of poor condition;
  • 1 case of low and still-falling water-temperature, in late November;
  • 1 case for which no cause could be discerned.

That last one was the most remarkable; a fish of 5½ lb caught on a trout rod which I simply wound up to the net. My diary gives no clue, merely expresses astonishment at how poorly it compared with the smaller fish of 1½ to 2lb which immediately preceded it. It was caught in September so had nothing to do with spawning. Although it happened 40 years ago the memory of it is still fresh.

The dominance of “spawning” as the major cause came as no surprise – it was what I had always suspected. They were caught in May, June and early July. But that does not mean that one might seriously consider stopping fishing then. In the same period there were 35 very good performers! – and many many more which were merely “normal”. The difficulty is that the period when spawning throws them out of condition is a short one – and it does not occur at the same time, every year and in every area; and individual fish seem to vary in their reaction.

I have found that recently spawned bass often make poor eating. Even, harmful eating: I recall a friend to whom I gave one of my fish, a spent 5-pounder which had shown little fight, being quite ill after eating it. That was an unusual case – he may have been allergic – but it suggests that it might be better to return good-sized bass caught in May and June alive to the sea. But how do we identify spent fish without gutting them? The only available method in the field is to calculate the condition factor, i.e. maximum girth / fork-length. A spent bass will usually be between 0.52 and 0.55. If you find this low CF in a bass caught in May and June which has put up little resistance to the rod, you almost certainly have an out-of-condition spent fish on your hands: a candidate for return to the water.

I am of course writing with hindsight now. This sort of conclusion does not hit one until one has a lot of relevant data and finds the time to analyse it. It was brought home to me very forcibly in 1984 when we did a follow-up to the original Anglesey tagging study. We were experimenting then with double-tagging: paired Petersen discs on the back and Carlin-Ritchie pennants underneath. The object was to get round the problem of tag-rejection, a draw-back to which all tags used singly are subject. Recapture rates of those 1984 fish were –

Month of tagging No. tagged No. recaptured
June 19 2 = 10%
July 12 3 = 25%
Oct – Dec 16 6 = 38%

Even more informative was an analysis of the June figures by condition-factors –

Low condition (under 0.55): 14 tagged, none recaptured = 0%
Moderate condition (av. 0.59): 5 tagged, 2 recaptured = 40%

The lesson for us was that double-tagging should not be attempted in future, in the immediate post-spawning period. This was in fact the first case, in some 2,000 adult taggings, where there was a strong presumption that there had been a degree of tagging mortality.

In all tagging exercises each bass is given a rough condition rating, G, M or P, on the basis of the alacrity with which it swims off when released after tagging. Of the 14 June cases that yielded no recaptures 8 were rated poor, 6 moderate. Bass are normally a very robust fish, able to shrug off the trauma of tagging very quickly. We have repeatedly been astonished at the way the occasional “poor” case eventually gets recaptured. One tagged at the mouth of the Tamar estuary was in such poor shape that I took it along to some nearby quayside steps so that I could help it to recover. About twenty minutes later it drifted past where we were fishing, on its side and to all appearances dead. A year later it was recaptured in Plymouth Sound, in good condition. In another case, in Anglesey, a bass was having difficulty in reviving and I waded out to retrieve it and if necessary write it off. An untimely wave took it out of my reach and it drifted away on the surface. We ourselves recaptured it on our next visit a month later, in good condition.

But none of those June 1984 bass, moderate as well as poor, was ever recaptured, and we have never again attempted double-tagging in June.

One last word, about those 108 powerful fish. The true figure was a good deal higher. Many other hard fighters were lost. That is what light tackle is all about: it gives the fish a chance – one of which the bass is not slow to take advantage.

From ‘Life with Bass’ by Donovan Kelley

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