Seven years ago on a sweltering August day in Alabama, I watched professional bass fishermen put ice in their livewells before they put an iced drink to their lips.
For them, killing a fish was unthinkable, and not just because they would be penalized by Bassmaster Classic officials and jeopardize their chance to win $200,000. They also knew that sloppy fish handling would diminish their standing as sportsmen.
No matter where it happens, a fish kill also is a black eye for the tournament, the sponsors, the state natural resources agency charged with protecting fish and the reputation of the body of water.
Maryland is wrestling with that problem now, with the matter expected to come up at the July 20 meeting of the Sport Fisheries Advisory Commission. Tournaments - now largely unregulated - might have some hoops to jump through next season.
Anglers fishing the Potomac River in late June reported seeing hundreds of dead fish along a six-mile stretch of water. The report came after a weekend when four tournaments based at Smallwood State Park used the Potomac and Mattawoman Creek, a tributary.
We've had reports of fish kills after other large tournaments - say 100 to 150 fish - but nothing of this magnitude. Department of Natural Resources biologists found 600 dead largemouth bass, 247 catfish and some gizzard shad and bluegills.
"This is a pretty serious event," says Dr. Joe Love, a DNR biologist brought on board this year to get a better handle on Maryland's bass population.
As luck would have, Love and colleagues Mary Gross and Ray Borras and I were all at Smallwood the weekend before the fish kill. I was there to cover the FLW College Fishing series, which had four Maryland anglers competing. The biologists were measuring and tagging some of the tournament fish for a mortality study.
"Everything was on a par with what other tournaments do. There was nothing suspicious," Love says of how the fish were handled from the bass boats to the weigh-in scales to the release boat that returned the fish to the river.
Nothing looked amiss from my perspective, either.
Water quality in the Potomac and Mattawoman was fine. The only blip was that water temperature during that weekend was 83 degrees, slightly above pre- and post-tournament levels.
Love expected his 50 tagged fish, which were placed in a holding pen, to die. One purpose of the study is to look at the role water temperature plays in mortality and to chart the rate of decomposition - a detail that ends up being important in the investigation of the fish kill.
Three days later while counting the dead bass bobbing in the Potomac, Love noticed that they all had the same level of decomposition as the fish in his net pen. And all were of legal size.
That meant the bass "most likely" were tournament fish, Love says. But just to be sure, the state sent out tissue samples to check for disease and a virus found in some largemouth bass.
It's possible, he says, that the temperature in the release boat livewell was lower than the Potomac and fish were stressed by the sudden change, "which aggravated mortality."
Tournament directors have been in constant contact with Love and Gross to see what they can do to ensure fish health. More importantly, anglers have contacted Love as well.
"They're very concerned that DNR is not playing a strong enough role in these tournaments," Love says. "We do need to pay attention to anglers on the water. ... We need to minimize fish kills now so that we don't see that level of mortality in the future."
The annual fall survey of the Potomac shows a healthy population and size structure. Most folks would like to keep it that way.
But right now the only major control mechanism on Potomac River tournaments, besides minimum length (15 inches from March 1 to June 15, 12 inches the rest of the year) and a five-fish limit, is parking capacity at Smallwood State Park. That is controlled by the Maryland Park Service.
Love is working on recommendations, which he declined to discuss.
Anglers already have some suggestions: It might be time to make tournament organizers register so that the Fisheries Service can get a handle on the number of anglers chasing fish. Perhaps DNR needs to hire seasonal help to monitor weigh-ins and releases both at Smallwood State Park and in the upper Chesapeake Bay tributaries, where tournament activity is growing. Maybe the larger tournaments need to be scheduled outside the summer's hottest period.
"The one thing everyone has in common is that we all want to protect the bass population," Love says. "That is where we can all come together."