Fishing at Lake Amistad, Joe Ford hadn’t intended to keep the 10-pound bass that he caught on a Senko. But he placed it in the livewell because it was deep hooked, and the fish died there.
As he was dressing it out, he noted a big plastic mass in its stomach. That mass turned out to be 12 plastic baits of assorted sizes and colors.
“Most of them were large,” says Ford, a Colorado angler who competed in three Federation championships.
“There were no hooks in there. Just the baits.”
During his 35 to 40 years of bass fishing, Ford says that he has caught several bass with worms in their throats or hanging out of their mouths, and even some with baits “sticking out of their butt.”
But he never had seen anything like this. “It was amazing to see all of those worms in there,” he says. “I don’t know how it was going to pass them.”
I agree with Ford. And what most disturbs me about this is that anglers don’t normally keep and cut open 10-pound bass --- even 5-pound bass, for that matter. Yes, that one large bass at Lake Amistad could have been a rarity.
More likely, it is not, and, because of our catch-and-release ethic, we just don’t realize how much ingestion of plastic is occurring below the surface of our lakes and rivers. Maybe the fish that we set free have plastic in their stomachs as well, and they suffer no ill consequences.
Or maybe some of them die from intestinal blockages and we never know about it. Odds are, some of them do. Passing a dozen plastic baits through its digestive system can be no easy task for a bass, no matter how large it is.
“Bass may or may not be able to pass or spit out a plastic bait,” says Gene Gilliland, assistant chief of fisheries for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.
Having collected thousands of bass via electrofishing for display at outdoor shows, the fisheries biologist is all too familiar with the unhealthy connection between bass and plastic.
Captured fish are kept out of the public eye for a couple of days, before being moved to the show tanks. That way, they can purge their systems and are not as likely to foul the tanks.
Often, Gilliland and the other biologists see plastic baits on the bottom. “Either they throw them up or they come out the other end,” he explains.
“What really surprised me is that there are almost no hooks. These fish are eating and throwing up torn or ripped baits that someone discarded.”
Almost certainly, though, not all baits are expelled --- through one end or the other. A long bait, like a worm, could work its way into the intestine and stay there, Gilliland says. The bass then may try to feed, but whatever it eats is not going anywhere. “When that’s happened to a fish, it will look really skinny,” he adds.
I’ve seen plenty of skinny bass. I’ll bet that you have too. But before Gilliland told me about this, I usually thought “spawned out” or “too many bass and not enough forage,” not “intestinal blockage.”
Salt-impregnated baits can be even more lethal because they swell up in the water.
“Those fish that we are holding had picked plastic baits up off the bottom,” the biologist says. “Scent attractants put in the baits make them seem like something good to eat.”
Based on Ford’s experience and what Gilliland sees year after year in the tanks, it’s logical, then, to wonder just how many plastic baits are lying at the bottom of our lakes and rivers, and how many bass die each year from ingesting them.
How those baits get to the bottom, however, isn’t a subject for speculation. Too many anglers tear worn baits off their hooks and toss them over the side.
Either they do so without thinking about it, or they believe that a little plastic can’t hurt anything. They are wrong.
“If anyone I’m fishing with throws a bait overboard, I pitch a fit,” Gilliland says. “When you drop a bait in the water, it’s going to stay there. Most baits are not biodegradable.”
The biologist says that he’s seen angler behavior improve a bit over the years. But still too many of them toss discarded plastic baits into the water.
“We know bass eat plastic,” Gilliland says. “This is a behavior that we are certain of.
“What we need to do now is get fishermen to not throw baits overboard.”
Put another way: Catch-and-release was a good first step toward protecting the resource. Properly disposing of discarded plastic baits is an easy second.