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October 25, 2001

A Weighty Decision

Hand-held scales provide means for a quick weigh-and-release.

There's no denying it. In our sport, size matters. Fishermen are more weight-conscious than the dainty models who flaunt their sleek figures in fashion shows, but with one substantial difference. Most anglers aren't so preoccupied with their own weight (though some of us probably should be) - they want you to know exactly how much their best fish weighed.
Whether you're after a world record or merely want to establish bragging rights, it's hardly necessary to haul a dead fish back to the dock to guarantee accurate weighing. Hand-held scales provide the means for a quick weigh-and-release, quantifying an angler's achievement without having to sacrifice the fish. Capt. Tony NeSotas (The Water's Edge Fishing Charters in Florida's Brevard County) always carries a BogaGrip to weigh clients' redfish, snook, trout or tarpon. The BogaGrip, a hand-held tube scale with strong pincers that lock onto the fish's lower jaw, makes landing and weighing fish a one-step operation. "I can weigh and release a fish without ever touching it," says NeSotas.

Spring vs. Strain Gauge
Scales are either mechanical or electronic. Mechanical scales, also called spring or tube scales, rely on metal springs for basic operation. Placing an object on the scale puts the spring under load, causing it to either compact (compression spring) or stretch (extension spring). An indicator follows the spring's movement and points to the object's weight.
The heart of a digital (electronic) scale is a strain gauge. This device determines the flex of a small piece of metal when a load is applied, measuring the almost imperceptible movement in microns (thousandths of a millimeter). A microprocessor then computes the weight and produces a digital readout.
When properly cared for, both tube and digital scales withstand the punishment inherent in a normal day's fishing: exposure to sunlight, salt spray and vibrations. Components of stainless steel, cadmium-plated steel, brass and aluminum give tube scales longevity, while tough plastic shells protect the sensitive innards of digital scales.
Corrosion is a tube scale's worst enemy, restricting the spring's normal movement and producing inaccurate readings. Two experts give conflicting advice on how to protect these scales from the salt. Gary Alldredge, an owner of Eastaboga Tackle in Eastaboga, Alabama, which manufactures the BogaGrip, recommends a freshwater rinse and spraying with a lubricant such as WD-40. Wendell Dyke, manager of West Weigh Scale Company in San Diego, California, maintains that lubricant sprays can accumulate on the spring and interfere with its smooth functioning. One thing both men agree on: Wipe tube scales down with penetrating oil to fight corrosion.

Which Is Best?
Each type of scale has different advantages and disadvantages. If a tube scale falls overboard, a quick rinse and an oily wipe down will keep it in fine working order. Digital scales rarely survive prolonged dunkings. "Our scales' circuitry receives a silicone coating to prevent damage from moisture," explains Rick Stanfield, vice president of Advanced Fishing Technologies, which manufactures the Stren 50-Pound and Cul-M-Rite digital scales. "These scales are water-resistant. They aren't completely waterproof because the weigh chain passes through an opening in the shell."
The all-mechanical functioning of tube scales means they're always ready to weigh your fish. Digital scales require batteries, and batteries sometimes die, despite the fact that many models now include an auto shutoff feature.
On the other hand, tube scales can be difficult to read precisely. Trying to figure out if the indicator is hovering at the 1/4-pound or 1/2-pound mark wastes precious time as a bouncing, twisting fish hangs by its jaw, awaiting release. Maximum weight indicators are usually sliding collars that stop at the mark an object registers on the scale and remain marking that weight after the fish is taken off. This makes it possible to quickly weigh and release a fish and not worry about the precise reading until afterwards.
Digital scales offer an advantage in providing rapid, plainly visible readouts - often legible in photographs of anglers with fish - that expedite world-record applications.
In fact, precision is the digital scale's greatest asset when compared to its tubular counterparts. Large numerals indicate the fish's weight in pounds, ounces and sometimes tenths of an ounce - an exactness unattainable by spring scales. For example, a fish that weighs 7 pounds, 12 ounces on a digital scale could produce readings of 7-1/2 or 8 pounds on a tube scale, because most scales of this type limit readings to 1/2- or 1/4-pound increments.
Tournament anglers rely heavily on the digital precision of their scales. When guiding clients for snook and redfish, Capt. Dan Latham of Charlotte Harbor, Florida, uses a tube scale. But when he fishes in release tournaments like the Red-Snook, he uses a digital scale faithfully.
Not to be confused with precision, accuracy is the single most important quality in any scale: Does the scale indicate the true weight of the fish? In today's computer-dependent, statistics-conscious world, digital scales tend to instill more confidence than "old-fashioned" tube scales, but in reality, the two types are equally accurate. Jim Brown, who oversees the scale certification program at the International Game Fish Association in Dania Beach, Florida, has tested more than 1,000 scales for IGFA members over the last five years. "There is no difference in accuracy when digital scales are compared to spring scales," Brown maintains.

Weighing Your Fish
Wasted time while weighing can spell death for an exhausted fish. Latham, who urges his clients to release large snook, revives tired fish both before and after weighing them to help ensure their survival.
Always allow a struggling fish to settle down before weighing. Calm the fish by covering its eyes, then pull your hand away for a quick reading. NeSotas strongly recommends using a wrist tether to prevent a flopping fish from shaking the scale out of your hand: "When you drop a tube scale in the water, it goes to the bottom, and fast." Stanfield also agrees with using a tether on digital scales, pointing out that "most of the scales returned to us for servicing were damaged by falling overboard or in the live well."
Brown says the most common error he sees in the weighing of fish for world-record applications is failure to deduct the weight of a tail chain or basket holding the fish. The tare knob, available on some tube scales, resets the indicator to zero to compensate for the basket or net before weighing the fish. When using a digital scale, place any basket or net on the hook before turning the scale on - it will automatically reset to zero when powered up.
Don't try to weigh the fish from a boat when underway, at anchor or drifting in any but flat-calm conditions. Such an unstable platform will provide inconsistent readings. You can use your scale while on calm water if you're only interested in getting a quick approximate reading before releasing a fish. But for world-record purposes, Brown says, "Weighing fish in a boat doesn't wash with IGFA."
The IGFA requires the weighing of fish on solid ground or from structures embedded in the ground. Several approaches allow you to weigh a potential record and still release it safely. Flats fishermen can stand in the shallows while holding the scale. If the fish fits in a live well, you can take it back to weigh on the dock before releasing it. Brown cited one case in which a resourceful angler stopped his boat to hang a scale and weigh a possible record fish from a firmly planted channel marker. The fish immediately went back into the water, and IGFA eventually recognized the catch as a new world record.
Stop "eyeballing" your fish and find out exactly how much that trophy weighs. But before you buy, know your specific needs and consider the features available in digital and tube scales. Then, weigh your decision carefully.