The Problem: Gripping the lower lip (dentary), while holding the fish horizontal. Thus, forcing the entire body weight of the fish to be supported at the operculum fulcrum point [OFJ](jaw).
The Result: The muscles connecting to the OFJ are subjected to extreme flexion. At the minimum, severe muscle stress and strain, resulting in the inability to use these muscles for eating. This puts a fish at high risk of fatal release. At maximum, muscle and cartilage are damaged, along with the connecting tissue, with possible socket dislocation. This would be a broken jaw and a 100% post release mortality.
Cause of the PROBLEM: It’s a muscle thing. Bass (all sunfish) eat by sucking the prey into their buccal cavity (mouth). Open Jaw > Suck in water and prey > close Jaw > expel water out gills > swallow food. It is that simple. However, the force generated to perform the ’suck’, is considerable and requires a great deal of muscle strength. The muscles needed to do this are all jointly connected to the operculum fulcrum joint. That point where, in an improperly held fish, all the pressure of the fishes body weight – suspended without support – is focused. When those muscles are strained or injured; let alone torn; the ability to generate the suction necessary to capture prey is greatly reduced or eliminated.
Recovery time is proportionate to the severity of the injury. In studies conducted on the suction power generated during feeding, results have shown the stresses generated during the feeding process to be just short of resulting in injury themselves. Thus, a fish with an injured muscle or set of muscles, needed for feeding, is just not going to be able to eat. A fish that cannot eat is a dead fish. Compound this situation with a competitive population density for available prey, the mortality probability rises to unacceptable levels. This is a problem that can – and should – be totally avoided.
Solutions: There are several workable solutions to alleviate the problem inherent in the ‘lip grip’ technique.
- Simply holding the fish with two hands, in a horizontal position will work best.
- A purely vertical hold, by the lower lip (dentary) will work on smaller fish.
- Large bodied bass – actually all fish over >3lbs – suffer an elevated potential for internal damage from the vertical position and thus should be avoided.
- Use of mechanical lip-grip tools have been widely publicized. These tools work very well on restraining large fish – especially those with teeth that obviate a ‘lip grip’ by hand or to remove aggressive hooking methods (treble and barbed hooks) in fresh and saltwater. They are, however, not without their damage potential and controversy.
- Studies on popular sport angling fish species, like the tarpon and bone fish, have shown mortality rates as high as in the 80% range. Far too high to maintain any kind of a sustainable release population.
The best solution to the problem is:
- Minimize handling of the fish using a Lite-Touch  method
- Release in-the-water whenever possible (read: ALWAYS for big fish; safety for both fish and fisherman is primary with big, trophy sized fish. Big fish do damage to themselves, fishermen and tackle when removed from the water; a primary concern regarding the ‘toothed fish’. Avoidance should be the prime directive for any large fish.)
- Use barbless hooks for faster, easier removal
- Use protective coverings on hands (wet, or glove) to minimize skin-to-scale contact
- Keep the photo sessions short and in-the-water; when out-of-water photos are to be taken, do so with a full-body support hold; pre-wet your hands (dip your hands in the water BEFORE handling the fish – or better yet, wear protective holding gloves and pre-wet;
- Then quickly return the fish to water.
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