Spring is in the air around my part of the world. The Great Lakes have awoken fully from there monumental winter slumber, open water is finally available, and that water is warming fast.
Each spring, thousands of anglers from all over the country travel to my region to pursue our world famous smallmouth bass. Once a secret destination for adventure-seekers, the massive waters of the "Big Five," along with the interconnected St. Clair system, now are routine stopping points for many who trade in their winter trips down south for long drives in the opposite direction. They watch the temperatures drop the whole way, but are full of anticipation nonetheless.
Years ago, the smallmouth destinations of the north were known as “numbers fisheries," where tourists could expect to catch incredible quantities of 2-pounders. Despite the lore contained in the stories of old-timers, in reality, back in the early tournament days of the late '80s, 15 pounds was a nice bag of fish, and 4-pounders were true trophies.
The whole system changed, however, in the early '90s with the introduction of the round goby, the ugly, exotic fish found along the floor of nearly every inch of the Great Lakes system, responsible for ballooning smallmouth bass to previously unheard of proportions. Four-pounders are now often culled in winning tournament strings. True 7s are common in certain areas. Legit 8s are caught each spring.
With such an increase in trophy fish, anglers often talk of how “beneficial” gobies have been for the system’s bass population. I recently read an article describing the spread of gobies to new locations outside of the Great Lakes, and the interviewed bass guide claimed: “Gobies have been a huge plus in Lake Ontario." Anticipation almost seemed high for the arrival of the invader once scorned by the aquatic community. After reading that, I shook my head in disbelief, wondering what fools we bass anglers must look like to the scientific community.
I’ve been witness to the leading edge of the goby invasion through my years on the Great Lakes. My teenage stomping ground of the Western Basin of Lake Erie was the place where regurgitated gobies were first noticed by smallmouth anglers. I developed the first goby lure, as many of you know. And fellow Erie anglers and myself were the first to witness the incredible growth, yet lessening numbers, of smallmouth bass in our home waters.
One would assume that, with the incredible stringers that are now caught all across the north in places like Thousand Islands, Green, Saginaw and Sturgeon bays, Buffalo and others, gobies would be regarded as the best thing since sliced bread. But be forewarned, we could be on the edge of disaster.
In what now seems a previous life, I earned a degree in fisheries science, and since have spent considerable time with some of the country’s most noted ichthyologists (fish scientists). In addition, I’ve kept abreast of issues surrounding Great Lakes water quality, and how the round goby continues to impact the system. And, believe me, all is not “coming up roses."
As a product of man’s ignorance and so-called progress, much of the watershed of the Great Lakes suffers from contamination. And, although great strides have been taken in the area of reducing active discharges of toxic chemicals, unfortunately high levels persist, most notably in the soil and what scientists term “benthic organisms."
Benthic organisms are those that live on the bottom of the lakes, including fish, invertebrates and, most notably, mussels.
A quick step back in our informal lesson reminds us all of the area’s first controversial exotic specie: the zebra mussel. Zebras, and now quagga mussels, have completely taken over the Great Lakes as a whole, and many surrounding waters. Like the goby, these mussels have also received nominal praise by the fishing community for “cleaning up” the water, although they simply reduce particulates, mainly plankton, through filter feeding and don’t truly improve the quality of the water in most cases.
Due to their filtering habits of Great Lakes water, these mussels are accumulating very high levels of toxins within their make-up. Such toxins are then passed to whatever organism eats these mussels, and often in higher levels due to a biological factor called biomagnification.
These mussels are the No. 1 item on the plate of the round goby, and scientists are now finding that gobies contain very high levels of toxins in their bodies.
In addition, throughout the system, there have been a number of massive fish and bird kills over the past few seasons, portrayed as “somewhat mysterious” to scientists and linked to botulism bacteria. The bacteria responsible for botulism, Clostridium botulinum, is one of the most lethal toxins known to man, and appears to be linked to the death of the birds and fish from ingestion of gobies that previously preyed upon the contaminated mussels.
I did a few quick Google searches on the subject recently and found hundreds of sources, many scientific reports by some of the country’s leading scientists and government organizations working in the Great Lakes, and nearly all pointed the finger at benthic organisms. Most warned of large kills in the future.
Yet, as I flip through a leading publication in the bass market, I read of nothing but praise for the gobies, how much they’ve “helped” the lakes, and how our beloved smallmouth are bigger and better than ever.
My purpose for this column is to help better address both sides of the story. As we bass anglers grin ear to ear while tossing out our goby-imitating dropshots, the scientific community lies awake at night over the potential collapse of the country’s largest inland fishery, and the safety and health hazards of the commercial fish within. The future is quite uncertain, and the problem is not going away, as toxic chemicals last for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years in our water system.
In addition, studies indicate that many contaminants, such as Mercury, are now occurring in the highest levels in bass and walleye, more so than salmon, trout and even carp, as once publicized.
This may very well be on the increase as a result of biomagnification through their food source, most notably gobies.
Also, it’s been well documented that gobies are wreaking havoc on nesting bass, and are likely responsible for the decline in overall numbers of fish in many of the country’s largest bodies of water.
So before we high-five each other for what seems like an endless bull market, we may want to consider the underlying reasons, and consider the real possibilities of a crash. In nearly all cases of introduced exotic species, there are both benefits and drawbacks. I just hope that, when the dust settles and we realize the latter, it’s not too late.
(Joe Balog is the often outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)