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When I was eight or nine years old, my dad and I filled our boat’s live well with saugeye. As a strange and curious child, I wanted to grab one of the fish. Fortunately, my dad informed me of a hard lesson that one of those fish could have taught me in a much worse way: saugeye have teeth. They have sharp teeth.
Over the years, most anglers become aware of the fact that certain species have teeth that could cause damage to the human body. Simply put, you don’t want to get bit by a saugeye, sauger, walleye, muskie, or northern pike. It’s a well-known fact that their mouths are full of razor-sharp teeth.
But here’s a question for you: do bass have teeth?
Do Bass Have Teeth?
It may come as a surprise to some anglers, but the answer is yes, bass do have teeth.
Now, before you worry about placing your hand in a bass’ mouth, it is important to note that not all fish teeth are created equal.
Both largemouth bass and smallmouth bass have small, inward-facing teeth on their lips. These teeth are needle-like and, unlike the larger and sharper teeth on fish like walleye or muskie, are incapable of doing significant damage to anglers.
That said, if you handle bass on a regular basis, you may experience a condition known as bass thumb.
Fortunately, holding a bass is not like holding a muskie. Bass thumb may be a nuisance, but you aren’t going to lose any fingers in the process.
What is Bass Thumb?
In the video above, you will notice some reddening on the woman’s thumbs. These markings are more of an abrasion than the type of cuts you would get from being bit by a saugeye or northern pike, however.
Since bass do have teeth, they are capable of wearing down the skin with time as their mouths have a sandpaper-like texture.
Rest assured, however, that bass thumb is only a minor injury and will heal with time. Since it usually indicates a good day or stretch of fishing, consider wearing it as a badge of pride.
Is Bass Thumb Dangerous?
In almost every case, bass thumb is not a direct threat to your health and safety.
Yes, some websites have reported stories of bass thumb leading to infections. And there have probably been a couple instances where they did.
If you develop a case of bass thumb and are worried about irritation or infection, however, you can always try the following:
- Neosporin: Using brand name or generic topical antibiotics can assist with the healing process. They also reduce bacteria and help treat minor skin infections.
- Petroleum Jelly: Using a product like Vasoline can also assist with the healing process.
- Band-Aids: If you are worried about accumulating more damage to your thumb, consider covering it. Slapping a rubber bandage over your thumb can help prevent additional abrasion. It also dulls some of the discomfort when you make contact with uncomfortable objects – like a bass’ teeth.
If you have a gnarly case of bass thumb, you may also want to give it a few days before hitting the water again.
Related: Want to learn how to catch whopper bass all year using Swimbaits?
Proper Technique for Holding and Handling a Bass
Since bass do not have dangerous teeth (at least to humans), getting a safe and firm grip on them is fairly easy. They also have large, wide mouths, so slipping a thumb in to compress the tongue and dentary (lower lip) shouldn’t be difficult. You can use your index finger (and the support of your other fingers) to help tighten the grip.
To avoid contracting bass thumb and reduce risk of injuring the fish, there are two primary holds that are recommended:
- The Horizontal Hold: You will apply mild pressure to the dentary (lower lip) while supporting the fish’s weight by placing your fingers (for bass generally weighing three pounds or less) or your palm (for heavier fish) on the fish’s stomach between the pelvic and anal fins. For heavier or longer fish, you can also place one or two fingers behind the anal fin. The fish’s body should remain relatively straight with support resting on your hand to prevent the tail-end dropping to a potentially dangerous angle. For a visual example, see the photo above.
Most agree that the horizontal hold – sometimes known as the “hand, lip, grip hold,” is the safest for the fish.
It is also the hold most likely to prevent a nasty case of bass thumb.
- The Vertical Hold: Likewise, you can safely hold most bass by pinching inside the dentary (lower lip) and placing your index and other fingers on the outside of the lip to secure your grip. The fish’s lower lip should not tilt at more than 10 degrees from its upper lip (premaxillary). Holding a fish at more than a 10 degree angle can lead to injury that compromises its ability to eat. This can lead to increased rates of mortality.
When using the vertical hold, keep in mind that the gravity is still causing the weight of the fish to rest entirely in your fingers. This hold can still cause damage.
Also, if the bass is able to move while your are holding it vertically, you run a higher chance of having the jagged teeth scrape your finger.
What’s The Wrong Way to Hold a Bass?
Perhaps the most controversial hold that is used regularly is the “lip grip.”
Everyone from beginners to amateur anglers to some pros have used this technique. Spend enough time on social media, and you’re bound to see someone holding a bass by the lip at an angle.
In the photo above, you can see that the dentary (lower lip) dips well below the premaxillary (upper lip). The fish’s body also does not follow a straight, vertical line.
While this is a relatively light largemouth bass, the pressure placed on the jaw here can cause the fish to lose its ability to create suction when feeding.
And if the bass can’t eat, it’s probably not going to survive. It might not even strike your lures after a while.
To cut down on your chances of harming a fish, consider the following:
- The Fish’s Weight: If you are handling a bass that is five or more pounds, the horizontal hold is probably the safest. While these big bucket-mouth lunkers can survive a proper vertical hold, the chance for injury increases with higher weights.
- Practice “CPR”: In the fishing world, CPR stands for “catch, photo, release.” If we are sending a fish back to the water, the goal is to always do it quickly. Absolutely get your photo, but try to make the process speedy. That said, don’t let a quick release jeopardize proper handling techniques.