It's been a good day; you're doing something right. You boat a big one that could take a prize at weigh-in. After showing off the brutish bass, he goes back in the water. But what happens to that big bass after weigh-in?
Do fish sulk on the bottom? Do they hang around the boat ramps, or do they go home? It's been the subject of speculation, and more recently, scientific research.
Two studies involving radio telemetry shed some light on the question. Telemetry involves surgically implanting tiny radios that emit signals unique to individual fish. Biologists with a radio receiver listen and follow at the other end. The surgical procedure is proven and safe. The transmitters typically weigh less than two percent of the fish's weight. Scientists at Ontario's Harkness Laboratory of Fisheries Research looked at smallmouth bass behavior, while biologists at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources looked at largemouth.
Ontario scientists put radios in 18 smallmouths in Lake Opeongo and displaced them in a manner similar to actual tournament releases. Smallmouths were released about four miles from their capture site and then followed. Fifteen of the bass returned to their original home while two stayed at the release site; one died. The 15 that made tracks stayed at the release site on average about eight days and made the return trip home in about four days. They swam about 1.5 miles a day, rarely beyond 70 feet off shore, avoiding open water altogether.
Largemouth bass in Chesapeake Bay also have a strong urge to get back home. Maryland biologists, over the course of two years, followed 82 largemouths displaced up to 13 miles from home.
Over 43 percent of the bass traveled the 13 miles to get home. The return trip home took anywhere from five days to two years. Fish may move farther in the short term than you think--one largemouth moved over five miles in one day.
The time of year that the fish were caught made a difference. On average, largemouths caught and released in the springtime got home in 65 days. Those caught in the autumn took much longer, about 228 days. Water temperature probably dictated the difference. Most of the fish only traveled back home when the water was 53 to 72 degrees. It was just slower going in the colder months.
Both of these studies lead to the conclusion that displacement via tournament releases does not stockpile fish at the release sites on the long-term. Moreover, both species of bass have a very strong sense of direction, even after being taken out of the lake and moved overland. That sense of direction and the urge to get back home assures that more often than not, fish that are handled well by considerate sportsmen and women will continue to contribute to the fishery.
Just how bass, or any fish for that matter, are able to find their way through miles of water remains truly a captivating mystery of the natural world. Maryland DNR biologist, Alan Heft, offered some speculation on the phenomenon but admitted he doesn't know for sure.
"It is possible largemouths use some mechanisms that are suspected for other fish species that have homing behavior: salmon, herring, and shad. The prevailing wisdom suggests that it is a mixture of several senses including smell, magnetism and chemical clues," said Heft. But he also points out that bass in laboratories have learned routes and landmarks for navigation. Perhaps that explains the smallmouth bass hanging tight to shore; they could have been navigating by landmarks. One thing is certain, 13 miles is a long trek and the speed at which some fish swam home seems to show some deliberateness--an urge to be somewhere.
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