BUFORD - The sun quickly fading behind the trees surrounding Lake Lanier, a 30-foot pontoon boat tools around the mostly empty waterway.
The three men on this boat have no reels, no lures, no rods - they've just arrived, but they're already carrying the day's catch.
A pair of Forrest L. Wood tournament directors and a representative from Georgia's Department of Natural Resources man this expedition, aimed at returning hundreds of spotted bass to the waters they were plucked from just hours earlier.
Lake Lanier and the FLW Cup, the nation's premier professional bass fishing tournament, will have hosted 78 fishermen for four days by Sunday. The assumption for many is that the hundreds of fish they catch will die and be discarded.
But this tournament is about conservation, too.
"We usually go on the lake for fun," Anthony Wright, one of the tournament directors, said Thursday night. "But on these trips it's all business."
The quest for conservation begins the moment "keepers" are caught.
Anglers put their bass in bags or coolers with plenty of water (and occasionally some ice) to keep them alive. An eight-ounce penalty for any dead fish weighed in necessitates this.
Once the fishermen arrive at Arena at Gwinnett Center for weigh-in, they line up along a series of vats behind the main stage. They hold the bags full of their day's catch in these vats, filled with circulated, oxygenated water, as they wait for their name to be called.
After each individual weigh-in, the bass-laden bag is swept off by an assembly line of workers. The bag is handed up to a worker atop the pontoon (dubbed the "release boat") before the bass are dumped in specialized water-filled containers.
After the boat has reached its maximum load, it's back to the lake.
"Conservation is very important," said Chris Looney, a natural resource technician with DNR. "There's a lot of fish (in Lanier), but you don't want to bleed the lake dry."
Each of two release boats takes half of the catch back to the water.
This one is specially souped up with four large boxes. Replenished with fresh water upon arrival on the water, the boxes, besides fish, are filled with high-oxygen water and a solution of a chemical called Rejuvenate.
"You see them belly up in there?" Robert Evans, another tournament director on the boat, asks, opening one of the pools. "That's just their air bladder. They're usually caught deep, and then when they come up their air bladder expands."
Finding a spot at least 25 feet deep, the $50,000 boat camps out. Hand-loading bass a dozen or so at a time into a basket, they're lowered (basket opening down) deep into the water.
Back at home, the vast majority of fish will live on to try to evade the same fishermen the next day.
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