Throughout the Mid-South, the Alabama Rig produced big strings of big bass from late fall to pre-spawn.
“At Guntersville and Kentucky Lake, it was the No. 1 pattern,” said Dustin Evans, a Tennessee angler who fishes the Bassmaster Weekend Series and other circuits.
“It’s such an effective technique when the bass are lethargic,” he added. “It produces larger fish, too, with lots of 3 ½ to 5 pounders and 6 plus not that uncommon.”
That’s the plus side of the ‘Bama rig for winter fishing. The down side is that bass caught on this variation of the saltwater umbrella rig typically are suspended around shad in 20 feet of water or more. Pulled from such depths, they should be vented to prevent fatal barotrauma.
But proper fish care hasn’t kept up with effective fish catching, according to Evans, and Toby Lillard, another Tennessee tournament fisherman.
“Anglers need to do a much better job with venting as they use the Alabama rig more,” he said.
The two suspect that similar scenarios will occur during hot-weather fishing.
“The ‘Bama rig will play a role this summer with bass on the ledges,” Lillard said. “In 8 feet or deeper, they’ll be subject to barotrauma.”
Popularity adds to the problem caused by effectiveness of the rig, which is not allowed in the Elite Series.
“Most definitely there are more guys fishing the Alabama rig because it’s easy to gain confidence with,” Evans said. “But venting should be embraced too.
“Every angler should be responsible for venting his fish. And every tournament director should have someone who can do it.”
Gene Gilliland, an Oklahoma biologist and fish care expert, echoed their concern. “If the Alabama rig results in more fish being caught in deep water from June to August, then the odds will be higher for greater mortality. Anglers must realize what they should do to prevent that.
“If there are longer lines of 20-pound bags, both anglers and tournament directors need to brush up on their fizzing skills. Lots of them have never had to deal with this kind of thing before.”
As members of the Ventafish pro staff, both Evans and Lillard have made it their mission to educate other bass fishermen about barotrauma, and they have stepped up that effort with the advent of the ‘Bama rig. They set up instructional booths at tournament registrations and offer classes to bass clubs, as well as help fizz fish before they are released following weigh-ins.
“Untold numbers of fish don’t get fizzed at small tournaments and you see them floating down the lake,” Evans said. “Fizzing gives those fish a chance.”
Barotrauma typically results from a change in pressure when a fish is pulled up from 20 feet or more. The swim bladder inflates, often pushing into the throat, with bulging eyeballs another indicator. But fish taken from shallower water also can develop the condition.
“Many fish from less than 20 feet of water need to be fizzed,” Evans explained. “I believe that they are suspended fish and they stress out in the livewell and their gas bladder expands.”
Whatever the cause --- pressure change and/or stress--- anglers should recognize symptoms that may be more subtle than bulging bladder and eyes.
“If their tails or out or their heads are up (in the livewell), they’re losing the fight,” Evans explained. “In a couple of hours, they’ll be belly up. But fizzing can save their lives.”
He added that he doesn’t wait for visible signs when he catches bass that are deep and/or suspended. “I don’t even hesitate. I know from my experience ledge fishing that those fish need to be fizzed.”
Some anglers insist that they don’t need to vent their bass because they care for them so well in the livewells, providing plenty of cool, oxygenated water. But that cool water, which slows down the metabolism of cold-blooded bass, sometimes simply delays onset of barotrauma.
“When they’re dumped back into warm water, they’ll get stressed and need to be fizzed,” Evans said.
“I think that barotrauma is more depth related than temperature related,” Gilliland added. “But warmer temperatures can make it much, much worse.”
Still don’t want to fizz?
“Venting can make a huge difference in tournament outcomes in terms of dollars and earnings,” said Brian Jones, a tournament angler with a degree in fisheries management and the third member of the Ventafish team. “You get penalties for dead fish.
“And if a fish is stressed in your livewell, it is putting more ammonia into the water, which will stress all of the other fish. You can save a whole bag of fish by venting the ones that need it.”
How to Fizz
“I don’t endorse any particular product, but I endorse side venting only,” said Noreen Clough, National Conservation Director.
In addition Texas Parks and Wildlife Department offers an instructional video --- “Treating Barotrauma in Largemouth Bass (Fizzing)” --- on its Facebook page.
“It’s an easy method,” said Evans. “Just a pinprick in the side, and you hear the air come out.
“I tell people to try it on a keep fish in practice and see how easy it is.”
Lillard added, “With mouth venting, you could hit an organ and kill the fish. The key is the size target that you are aiming at. With side venting, you have a silver-dollar size target and all you’re sticking the needle in is white meat and the air bladder.”
(This article appeared originally in B.A.S.S. Times.)