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Relieving Air Bladder Distress

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I recently ran a tournament at Kerr Lake where most of the quality fish came from deep water. The sad part about summer patterns is the stress deep-water patterns cause the fish. During this tournament we had eight fish in severe distress and unfortunately there was no one at the tournament that knew how to relieve the air bladder pressure and save the fish. After the tournament, a spectator gathered the floating fish and took just a few seconds with each fish before he sent them on their way, safely back into the depths of the lake. Right then, I decided to learn how he did that.

All fish have an air bladder they regulate to maintain equilibrium at varying depths. They vary the amount of air in the air bladder as they go from one depth to another. The problem comes when they are rapidly taken from deep water to the surface, as happens when they get caught. The air in the bladder expands rapidly with the decreased pressure at the surface, and the fish is unable to expel the air. It becomes trapped and prevents the fish from regaining his balance. If left untreated, the fish will die. But, there is a way for you to help.

I found two sources of information on the Internet. First is at bassresource.com, quoting an article in Honey Hole magazine. The second is from an article in the library at Northern California Bass Fishing's site, ncbf.com.

The first thing you need is a suitable needle. You can obtain a biopsy needle from your veterinarian. Don't try to use your standard insulin needle, they will get clogged with flesh and scales and could be construed as drug paraphernalia. The biopsy needle is a large gauge needle. There are two schools of thought on where to place the needle.

Texas Parks and Wildlife recommends you "picture a line on the bass from the dorsal notch to the anal opening. The dorsal notch is the notch between the spiny dorsal fin and the soft rayed dorsal fin. Locate the sensor line above the lateral line and count down 5-7 scale rows along the imaginary line."

"David Campbell of the TP&W recommends a slightly different procedure. Draw an imaginary line from the fourth spline (dorsal fin points) straight down to meet an area even with the point of the gill flap and straight with the center of the tail. This is your starting point. "

With the first location, if you miss you could puncture a kidney, which is fatal for the fish.

"Gently lift a scale and insert the needle into the flesh. Be sure to tilt the needle so that it enters the bass at a 45-degree angle - The needle should be penetrating towards the front of the bass." When you feel you are in the air bladder, hold the fish in the livewell or over the side of the boat and observe whether there are air bubbles coming out the needle. Allow the air to escape for no more than about 10 seconds, as it is just as bad to let out too much air.

Now treat the bass with a catch and release formula for a few minutes, and if he is swimming upright you can release him. Sometimes you will need to deflate the fish twice, but keep in mind that you cannot put air back in if you let out too much.

Gary Conner

American Bass Anglers Tournaments of Virginia
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