WFF in Spotlight, Behind Scenes at Bassmaster Classic

By DAVID RAINER,
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

The Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division was both enjoying the spotlight and working behind the curtains during last week’s 50th Bassmaster Classic weigh-in at the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center (BJCC).

Spencer Truitt of the WFF hatchery staff dumps the lively largemouth bass into the holding tanks during the Classic weigh-in. Photo by Billy Pope

The Classic, with Academy Sports + Outdoors as its title sponsor, pitted the world’s best bass anglers on one of the nation’s top bass impoundments – Lake Guntersville in northeast Alabama.

After an opening-round with an impressive 29-plus pounds of largemouth bass, Hank Cherry of North Carolina cruised to a wire-to-wire victory to win the top prize of $300,000.

During Saturday’s weigh-in ceremonies at BJCC’s Legacy Arena, one of WFF’s conservation enforcement officers, Sergeant Bill Freeman, was spotlighted in an oversized Academy chair as the honored first responder.

A veteran of the U.S. Army, Freeman transitioned recently from full-time patrol officer to head of WFF outreach. He was recognized by Academy for the following reasons:

WFF’s Bill Freeman is joined by several members of his youth groups as he is recognized as a first responder at the Bassmaster Classic. Photo by Billy Pope

“He consistently goes above and beyond his required duties and provided quality enforcement of game and fish regulations and is an asset to public safety to the residents of Bullock County, Alabama, and the surrounding areas. In 2019, Freeman received a promotion to sergeant for his exemplary service to the people of Alabama. In his new role as a sergeant, Freeman’s duties were expanded to lead the effort to recruit youth, college and high school students into hunting and fishing. Sergeant Freeman’s methods and success in recruiting college and high school students across Alabama have garnered nationwide attention. His efforts have highlighted the Department as the leader in minority recruitment and retention by the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies for the past two years.”

A feature of the award was a $500 shopping spree at the Academy store in Hoover, where Freeman and two colleagues loaded up on fishing equipment to be used in the WFF outreach programs.

Freeman was able to share the oversized chair and spotlight with youths that participate in his outreach programs. One group of youngsters were from Bullock County and the KAMO (Kids and Mentors Outdoors) program. A few of the kids were from the Barbour County Youth Hunt and Blue Springs Fishing Derby, which are held in cooperation with the Barbour County Lions Club. Other events on Freeman’s schedule include a large hunter education class at Auburn University with the Wildlife Society, the Bullock County Fishing Derby and Outdoor Alabama Experience events at Oak Mountain State Park and Lake Lurleen State Park.

“The kids absolutely loved it,” Freeman said. “It’s been all over Facebook. That was a great experience. I really appreciated being recognized for our Department (Conservation and Natural Resources). Anything I can do for the kids is just a great experience. They really had a ball.

“It’s just nice to know people support what we do.”

WFF Sergeant Bill Freeman and his guests had a ringside seat for the Bassmaster Classic Weigh-In, courtesy of Academy Sports + Oudoors. Photo by Billy Pope

While Freeman and his youth were in the spotlight, a crew from WFF’s hatchery operations was steadily working backstage to ensure the bass weighed in each day at the Classic received the best care possible in order to return the fish to Lake Guntersville, the Classic site, and Lay Lake, where the high school and college tournaments were held.

After Bassmaster Tournament Director Trip Weldon weighed the fish, he handed a basket through a trap door in the stage floor to a runner, who hurriedly transported the fish to large holding tanks on WFF vehicles.

WFF Hatchery, Supervisor Brian Rinehard, who oversees all three hatcheries in the state (Eastaboga, Marion and Carbon Hill), teamed up with Gene Gilliland, B.A.S.S. Conservation Director, to determine how many tanker trucks would be needed during the Classic to transport the bass from the arena. The fish eventually ended up in either Lake Guntersville or Lay Lake after a visit to the Eastaboga hatchery in Calhoun County.

“Gene gave me an estimate of how big and how many fish they expected to be weighed in each day of the Classic,” Rinehard said. “We made sure we had trucks to easily handle that capacity.”

The trucks from the different hatcheries went to Eastaboga and were filled with spring water and a specific amount of salt to ease the stress on the fish. The tanks are equipped with oxygen diffusers to keep the water at the desired saturation level. The trucks then travel to BJCC, where they are staged to receive the weighed fish.

“…520 bass that weighed 1,662 pounds from the Classic were successfully returned to Lake Guntersville…”

Classic anglers transported the fish from Lake Guntersville to Legacy Arena in the livewells of the tournament boats. The fish were placed in bags before being brought onstage to be weighed. After weighing, the fish were quickly placed in the WFF hatchery tanks until the weigh-in was completed.

“We keep up with how many pounds of bass were on the truck at one time,” Rinehard said Saturday. “When we reach a certain limit, we switch to another truck. We can safely handle fish on two pounds per gallon of water. For one of our 600-gallon tanks, we could hold as many as 1,200 pounds of fish. The first day’s total was 600 pounds of fish. We were prepared to handle a lot more fish if needed.”

Once each weigh-in was over, the hatchery truck headed to the Eastaboga Hatchery.

“When we get the fish to Eastaboga, we temper the fish. We transition them from the temperature of the tank to the spring water at the hatchery,” Rinehard said. “We had the temperature of the tanks cooled to match the temperature at Lake Guntersville. When we got back to the hatchery, we had to raise the temperature.

“The fish won’t all go to one boat ramp,” Rinehard said.

“We have 1,500-gallon raceways with spring water and oxygen to slowly raise the temperature. You don’t want to shock the fish with a temperature change. It causes too much stress, so we raise it slowly. Then we watch their swimming habits. When you confine bass, they start jumping, trying to get out, so we have covers on the holding tanks so they won’t be disturbed. We keep them as quiet as we can to calm them down.”

The bass, both from Lake Guntersville and Lay Lake, were held at Eastaboga until Monday morning when the WFF hatchery trucks were filled with water and loaded with a certain amount of bass to be transported back to the lake of origin.

“The fish won’t all go to one boat ramp,” Rinehard said. “We will transport the fish to different state boat ramps around the lakes. We will spread the fish out as best we can.”

Rinehard said holding the Classic and other large tournaments in the early spring make it a lot easier for fisheries managers to return healthy fish to the lakes compared to tournaments held during the heat of the summer.

“Heat puts a lot of stress on the fish,” he said. “You can handle a lot more fish and heavier fish when the water is cold, and Guntersville is world-renowned for its large fish, especially in the springtime.

“Livewells on bass boats are a lot better than they used to be. But handling the fish still causes stress. When we get them in our tanks, we limit the stress by giving them a lot more space, and we’re running oxygen.”

As it turns out, the effort to care for the fish was well worth it. Rinehard said 520 bass that weighed 1,662 pounds from the Classic were successfully returned to Lake Guntersville on Monday. Another 88 bass were returned to Lay Lake. Only five fish did not survive.

“We did everything we could to keep the mortality rate as low as possible,” he said.

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