In lieu of my regular Wednesday column listing of all the tournaments that have applied for exemptions with the FWC in our county-wide lakes for the next 30 days, I am going to write about something that involves bass tournaments.

Last week I had the opportunity to talk to Leo Steffen, a resident of Lake Placid, Florida, who took the time to call me and chat about my column last week which listed tournaments from 7/14 to 8/11, courtesy of the FWC and Jim Reed.

His concern was over the fact that two different tournaments were scheduled to fish on Lake Clay on August 7th and 8th.

I have to admit, I share his concern. Lake Clay, as most fishermen know, is a relatively small body of water in the town of Lake Placid. Covering only 367 acres, this lake is incredibly small for two different tournaments, over one weekend. One applied for 30 permits and the other, 60 permits (In both cases, that would be the maximum number of anglers).

Those of you who read my column know that I am a tournament angler, or at least I have been most of my adult life. The last few years, as I’ve gotten older, and I’ve had some health issues, I haven’t been fishing tournaments very often. None-the-less, I am and I will continue to be a strong supporter and proponent of bass fishing tournaments, but I think it’s time we take a closer look at what is happening on many of our lakes.

I can remember a few times in the past, putting my boat into the water a day or two after a tournament was held on a particular lake and seeing a number of dead bass floating along the shoreline. If you’ve experienced a similar sight, it’s both sad and dis-heartening. The good news is, I haven’t witnessed it happening more recently.

The FWC, in granting exemptions, requires all fish receive minimal handling, and live release – not at the shoreline, but some 50 – 100 yards out into the lake. All dead fish must be reported, and a charity has to be listed that will receive those dead fish.

I’ve run a lot of tournaments. And as a tournament director, you can be held liable for any infractions that take place in your tournament. You can also lose your right to obtain exemptions from the state if violations are committed in your tournament.

I know quite a few tournament directors, and they take their responsibilities seriously. Even to the point of giving out warnings to any participant that violates these rules.

All tournaments require participant boats to have an aerated livewell.

Just a few weeks ago, in one of my columns, I provided a step-by-step process for setting up your livewell and keeping your fish alive and well, even during the hottest summer days. Of course, I have no idea if anyone actually does what I suggested. And I’ll be honest, during the many years I fished tournaments, I didn’t take the same precautions either, although in the summertime I did try to carry extra frozen bottles of ice to cool the water down.

All things considered, most tournament anglers do take great care to ensure the fish remain healthy, and ultimately are released alive.

But I’d like to make two very important points in this column. And it is not to point fingers or blame anyone.

At some point, we are the only ones who can take responsibility for the future of our lakes and whether our children and their children can enjoy fishing as much as we do.

First, I think bass clubs, tournament directors and everyone who participates in, or is a sponsor of bass tournaments should consider not scheduling tournaments on small lakes.

Lake Clay is just one example, but we have dozens of small lakes here in Highlands County and all over the state of Florida. Think about 90 fishermen on a 367-acre lake for 16 hours. Where are they all going to fish? They will literally be on top of each other. And how many fish will they catch? Even with proper care and handling, biologists will tell you there is always some mortality.

So, here’s my point. Why not stop fishing tournaments on lakes that are less than 1000 acres? That seems reasonable.

Lake Istokpoga has 28,000 acres, and hosts tournaments almost every weekend, and yet it still takes 25-30 pounds to win a tournament. That’s a five- or six-pound average of five fish. This lake, as well as other large lakes can accommodate even multiple tournaments on the same day.

Limiting our tournaments to just the larger lakes provide anglers much better options to fish an area that no-one else has already fished, and it doesn’t destroy the fish population.

Now I know, some of you are going to say, “but those little lakes are fun to fish and we know where the fish are.” I know, I feel the same way about some of the lakes I fish, but by not holding tournaments on these smaller lakes, they will continue to be great fishing lakes for you as well as the people who don’t fish bass tournaments.

I have no authority, and I’m not even suggesting that this become a law, or a statute. I just think Leo is right. It doesn’t make sense to have two bass tournaments on a small body of water on the same weekend.

It will be up to you as tournament directors, bass club members or bass tournament anglers to schedule your tournaments on the larger lakes if you agree with me.

The second point I’d like to make is, again, directed to tournament directors and tournament anglers.

Many bass clubs and tournament series run their tournaments through May or June. Some will run all year, but not schedule tournaments in July, August and September.

Summertime in South and Central Florida is a tough time to hold bass tournaments. Water temperatures quickly reach the high 80’s and low 90’s, and for many bass boats that simply pull surface water into their live-wells, that water is just too hot for bass to survive.

And it’s not only the hot water, but the jostling around, particularly if you have a 5 fish limit and each fish is struggling in the livewell with other fish. Cooling the water helps. So does adding chemicals like I suggested a few weeks ago, but it can be very hard on the fish.

And even with a live release, many bass may succumb to the life-threatening challenges of spending time in a livewell.

Over the last few years, some bass tournaments have gone to a catch-weigh-release program.

In this type of tournament, fish are caught, weighed or measured (and in some cases a picture is taken) and released.

I’m not a big fan of this type of tournament, simply because I enjoy seeing the weigh-in at the end of a tournament. But it does provide an alternative to storing the bass in an over-heated livewell during the hottest months of the year.

The simplest solution is to not schedule tournaments during the summer months.

I realize we all have different points of view, and everybody, including myself, have a right to our own opinion. We all share the same bodies of water, whether we fish tournaments or not.

As stewards of our lakes, we are the only ones who can make a difference.

Thanks for the call Leo.

Editor’s note: Don Norton, often referred to as “Red”, is a semi-retired bass fishing guide, custom rod builder and tournament bass fisherman. He was the owner of two local fishing tackle stores, REDS in Avon Park and REDS II in Sebring, and in addition to previously writing for Highlands Today the NEWS-SUN and the Coastal Angler, he also taught evening classes at the South Florida State College in Avon Park on bass fishing techniques and custom rod building. He is also the Co-Publisher of The Angler Magazine – Okeechobee Edition LLC. Don lives in Golf Hammock with his wife Lexie.

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