Three bass flipped their tails lazily along the shallows of the glass-topped morning water of the lake. The two largest of the three knew that lake well and were respected by all who swam in the water. The third bass wasn't quite up to size but he was large enough that he would fear only one predator on the lake.
As the three watched the hull move in closer, Henry, the older of the two mature bass was the first to speak. He warned the youngster of the trio.
“You may see something that looks like food anytime now, kid, but don’t you believe it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just be still and do like he says if you want to get to your full growth.” Max had less patience than Henry. “If you don’t listen you’ll end up in that hull wishing for water across your gills.”
There was a soft plop of something hitting the water. The three instinctively looked toward the sound. Something indistinguishable, but shiny, was diving hard toward the bottom. It stopped the descent and drifted casually upward before diving again and swimming fast toward the deep water. These actions repeated until the object disappeared near the hull.
“Did you see that kid? Watch and it will be back.”
Sure enough, there was another soft plop and then, what appeared to be a little fish, dove down and drifted back up again. The cycle repeated over and over until the object disappeared near the hull again.
“It’s crank bait, kid. If you hit that and don’t blow it out in time then you’re done. There is nothing that anybody can do for you. You’ll disappear near that hull right along with it.”
“Yeah, but the difference is that you won’t come back again the way that crank bait does.” Max had to add his opinion.
“It looked real. How do you know that it’s bait?”
“That’s a good question, kid.” Max liked to educate the newcomers to deep water. “Think about it. Before you were even a small fry, did you ever head for deep water?”
“Well no, one of you guys might have mistaken me for a shad.”
“Exactly and, just so you know kid, there is no mistake about it. Big fish eat little fish. That’s just the way that it is.”
The crank bait plopped another time. This time as the bait stopped diving and then raised toward the surface a small bass, that the others had not seen, darted out of the shadows and hit the bait. The line, unseen by any of the fish, snapped and set the hook into the mouth of the little bass.
The little fish tugged and pulled against the line but he was no match the force that drew him to the surface. Just as the older fish had warned, the bass disappeared near the hull.
“What did we tell you, kid? That could have been you.”
There was big plop as the fish re-entered the water. He darted for the nearest shallows and disappeared. The kid was excited to see him return.
“Look though, he came back. You said that he would be gone forever.”
“Go ahead, kid. When the crank bait drops again, take it. See what happens,” warned Max.
“That bass was too small to keep, kid. You, however, are big enough to be keeper. The only way that you’ll get away is by catch and release.”
“Just because you saw that little guy back in the water doesn't mean that he’ll be okay, either. He could have been injured while they had him out of the water or he simply may have been out of the water too long. More than a minute without oxygen can be the difference between living and dying in the next couple of days.” Again, Henry had more patience with the kid than Max did.
“What is catch and release?”
The hull passed by and the soft vibration of the trolling motor faded into the distance. The three fish swam in the opposite direction. The two older fishes explained what catch and release was and shared their knowledge of how to survive in the deep water. Henry started off.
“Catch and release is how, so called, sport fisherman enjoy the thrill of catching one of us without filleting our side meat into a frying pan. The trouble is that some of them don’t have a flip of common sense on how to handle a fish without killing it. Oh yeah, they let the fish go. The trouble is that, after a fish has fought to get free, and then is kept out of the water gasping for oxygen they don’t have much of a chance to survive.”
“So that little guy that we saw get thrown back probably went off and died in the shallows?”
“In his case, maybe not, as long as they didn't him hurt badly. He didn't have to fight too long before being pulled out. Then he was back in the water pretty quickly so that he could get some water across his gills right away.”
“Have either of you ever been caught and then released?” Max answered this one. His sarcastic tone wasn't there when he spoke this time.
“It happened to me once. I have never felt so helpless in my life. No matter how hard I tried to get away, I just couldn't. I was lucky though. The guy that caught me didn't play me long enough to wear me out badly. Then when he had me at the hull, he didn't take me out of the water. He had the hook barb pinched off so that he could simply reach into the water and slip the hook from my mouth easily and I was on my way. I’m telling you, my tail did some fast and hard flips to put distance between that hull and me.”
“It must have really scared you, huh?”
“Yes and no. I was scared half to death at the thought being pulled from the water. Once I was free, though, it was a rush like I've never felt before or since then.”
“If you got right back into the water then it wouldn't be so bad, would it?” Henry took over again on this one.
“That’s a big if, kid. When they get you out of the water you don’t know what they’re going to do or how long it’s going to take. Sometimes they want to take photos so they can brag to their buddies. If you’re out of the water for 2-3 minutes it can mess up your brain so bad that you’re just going to die anyway.”
“The other thing that you don’t realize,” added Max, “is that our bodies are not built to bear our weight out of the water. We were designed by the maker to suspend in the water. For the land crawlers it would be much like floating in the air.”
“Now imagine that you’re hanging by a hook stuck in your jaw while those clowns take bragging photos. There isn't a one of those fishermen that could survive being hung by their jaw, yet, they think nothing of doing it to us.”
The kid was paying attention, though, some of this was hard for him to imagine, having never been pulled from the water. The two bass went on telling him more.
“I used to know an old northern, which lived over on the west side. He went through the worst of catch and release that one could get and still survive. His skin was never right because of the rough handling that he had. It made it easy for fungi and parasites to get at him. He still carried the hook in the back of his mouth. The land crawlers just cut him loose and left the hook for fear of tearing him up when they took it out. That could have been avoided if the land crawlers had pinched the barb off before casting out the lure. He’s just lucky that it wasn't a treble hook. That would have killed him for sure.”
“Worse than that, I once knew another large mouth that was laid in the bottom of the hull and a boot was put to his belly to hold him while they fought the hook from his jaw. It messed up his innards so bad that he died of internal bleeding within a few hours of being released.”
The kid was soaking it all in. He turned to Max.
“Was it crank-bait that got you caught?”
“Nah, it was a popper. The guy was good. He was flipping the popper out and dragging back on top of the water and parallel to the shoreline just like a frog might do. I was fooled and took the bait.”
Just then there was a plop followed by bloop, bloop, bloop as a popper hit the water and was dragged along the shoreline. The kid was certain that it was a frog and tensed up to make the hit.
“Don’t do it, kid.” Maxed warned him. “It’s a popper like I was just telling you about.”
“How do you know? It looks like a frog to me.”
“I know because I've been up close personal with one, kid. You don’t forget a thing like that.”
Just then, something darted in on the popper. It was another large mouth, about the same size as the kid. He hit the popper. A few moments later he was gone.
“What did I tell you, kid? That’s twice that we saved your tail today.”
“There was no hull!”
“Not all of the land crawlers have hulls. Some of them work from the shore.”
The kid was very quiet.
“Is something wrong, kid? You look like you just lost your best friend.”
“I did, more or less. That bass that just took the bait was in school with me when we were smaller.”
The other two felt badly but there was nothing that could be done. That bass wasn't coming back into the water now, unless he was on the end of a stringer. Henry finally spoke.
“Let’s go deeper to the cooler water. It’s warming up too much here. I can hardly breathe.”
Learn more about proper catch and release technique here.