I remember seeing an old, black-and-white photo my dad held onto from an early trip to the bass mecca of Florida. Featured was a much younger and thinner version of dad’s fishing buddy, a man I grew to call “Uncle Gary," holding two giant, dead largemouth bass.
The photo was taken on the shores of the then newly flooded, world-renowned Rodman Reservoir in the 1970s and portrays another successful guide trip for the tourists. The bass in the photo were likely just two of thousands of 10-pounders taken from Florida waters that year – and never returned.
Boy, if Florida could have those days back!
I was intrigued to read of Florida’s interest in imposing a statewide maximum size restriction on largemouth bass recently. Apparently, the Sunshine State is considering taking a more proactive approach to managing for trophy bass.
I decided to look further into Florida’s current approach to managing its fisheries and discovered its incredibly detailed, fascinating Black Bass Management Plan (BBMP), drafted a few years ago and now being implemented throughout the state. The purpose of the plan is very clear in its publicized goal: “Ensure Florida is the undisputed Bass Fishing Capital of the World." Included is a four-tier approach: collect data, and manage habitat, fish and people.
Dying to know more, I contacted Bill Pouder, the freshwater fisheries administrator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission’s (FWC) Southwest District. Pouder was quick to point out that the proposed size limit that I initially read about was simply in the discussion stage and the FWC was currently gathering public opinion on the option.
Such data collection is imperative to the BBMP and has been an integral step since its inception. To back up a bit, let’s look at some of the historic and unique difficulties Florida has faced regarding its famed fisheries.
Without question, Florida has the potential to be a bass fisherman's heaven on earth. Nearly the entire state is water filled with great bass habitat, the growing season for largemouth bass is at or near year-round and those bass have proven to be members of a biologically superior species.
That’s a pretty good recipe.
However, over the last 50 or so years, Florida has faced supreme challenges to managing for trophy bass. Incredible amounts of habitat have been degraded due to flood control and development. Florida’s fragile sub-tropical ecosystem requires periods of natural drought and flooding, and that simply doesn’t fit into the plans of the golf course developers and luxury homebuilders. Such “stabilization," combined with exploitation by exotic vegetation, has led to many waters becoming a mucky mess, with little hope for strong bass spawning and year classes. A few waterways have even been labeled “dead."
Other waters, once remote destinations filled with untouched giants, have simply dried up due to the changing water table, where vital runoff formally given by the heavens to recharge wetlands is now immediately evaporated on the never-ending blacktop.
Add to these environmental challenges the mentality of catch-and-keep fishing for trophy bass, and it’s easy to see the reason for an overall downturn in large fish. Where we see a greater trend toward release of all bass in many places (as I mentioned in a previous column on Lake Fork), I doubt that’s as popular with the once-a-year Florida guide clients who are taking a quick break from a week at Disneyworld.
Faced with the concerns of population growth, habitat loss and an overall decline in the numbers of trophy bass within the state, Florida implemented the BBMP. As Pouder noted, it brought together all of the agencies in Florida working on bass and gave them a united, single goal.
As mentioned earlier, the plan includes a great deal of public input through surveys. And what the FWC found through the public’s voice is that Florida fishermen want more big bass and less confusing regulations.
In recent times, Florida has maintained as many as 23 different regulations on largemouth bass harvest throughout the state. Anglers felt this was far too many, not to mention quite confusing. Lakes across the street from one another often had different size and bag limits.
The current proposal (the one the state is gathering public opinion on) consists of a five-fish bag limit, but only one fish may measure over 16 inches in length. The regulation would be statewide.
It’s immediately apparent that such regulations (provided they are enforced) would likely greatly increase the number of large bass in each system. Removing smaller fish (under 16 inches for catch-and-keepers) will often help as much as requiring release of large fish.
But it’s also evident that such regulation would drastically impact guides and tournaments. Pouder pointed out that many guides in this day and age are requiring release of all bass, trophy or not, so managing for one fish shouldn’t be too difficult.
But where does that leave us with tournaments?
Naturally, tournaments will be exempt, right, since they don’t kill many fish?
There’s where the hiccup may lie. Certainly Florida officials realize the economic impact of tournaments, especially in publicizing their prized fisheries as they rebound (look at the recent publicity for Okeechobee). But those surveyed fishermen are greatly concerned with the impact tournaments have on the overall fishery.
Through further investigation, I noted that the publicized data being used in the BBMP is from a previous study by Gene Wilde, citing “tournament-associated mortality has been found to average 26-28%."
While I’m not questioning the data, and I’m a huge proponent of considering delayed mortality when studying tournament-caught bass, such numbers are certain to alarm the public. And that’s a public whose opinions are being used to direct the BBMP’s path.
Contrast this with the malarkey-filled numbers reported to the Maryland DNR that I recently came across in BASS Times, claiming a 98 percent survival rate for fish weighed in and released in tournaments across the state. Such a monumental difference in overall reporting and opinion could drastically sway Florida locals away from rolling out the red carpet and giving special consideration to traveling tournament trails.
(Just to clear the air on the above statement, it is scientifically impossible to obtain a 98-percent, year-long, statewide survival rate. Reporting that does an injustice to the fragility of the resource and the impact we, as tournament fishermen, have on it).
In any case, another glaring consideration within the plan reports of further research needed to determine the effects of bed-fishing. In fact, the FWC has research personnel working on that very subject right now. I plan to interview them to learn more and I'll report back soon.
Also, I need to investigate and report further on Florida’s “Trophy Catch” program. In order to ensure release of all trophy bass, the program reportedly awards incredible prize packages and a free fiberglass replica to just about anyone who signs up and catches a giant. What could be better?
As regular readers, you all know I’m a huge fan of Florida bass fishing, the lore and the world-famous exploits of its early trophy hunters. But I, like many, often dream of what Florida was back before development and the impacts of man.
While we’ll never know, with the state now invested in a long-term goal, we may someday get a better glimpse.
(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.)