As the tournament world settles into preparation for next season, it’s a good time to take a step back and focus on important issues in our sport. Several areas of concern always need to be considered when discussing bass fishing and our future direction. While the economy, consumer base and tournament regulations are frequently the focus, we mustn’t forget the most important ingredient of all: the fish.
A recent article on the Bassmaster site piqued my interest. Researchers in New Hampshire’s Squam Lake region have been studying bass, more specifically tournament-caught bass, and the ability of those fish to return to their capture location after being transported several miles to a designated weigh-in site.
Fisheries managers are particularly concerned because most of the fish caught in bass tournaments on this chain of lakes are caught in Big Squam, but then forced to undergo a relocation to Little Squam Lake for weigh-in. Distances here run around 6 to 8 miles.
Findings of the ongoing research have been interesting. At first glance, it appears the majority of tournament-caught bass are, in fact, returning to, or at least toward, their capture location. However, closer scrutiny may be needed when considering the overall impact to the fishery, long-term effects and public perception. In addition, I’ve done a little “research” of my own you may find interesting.
Let’s start by looking at the numbers and addressing a few areas of concern. Of the 33 tagged bass being studied, the story indicates that 23 have been detectable. Data is then offered to suggest that the vast majority of these “detectable” fish have made their migration back into Big Squam Lake, giving us the impression that tournament influence has been negligible.
Whoa, back up a bit.
Twenty-three of 33 are detectable? What happened to the other 10 bass? That’s 30 percent of the sample.
Several of these fish are thought to have been harvested by anglers fishing the release area, which brings up a second area of concern. While it has been proven that bass will, in fact, migrate long distances after release, most studies, including this one, show that the majority of these fish do so after spending considerable time in the immediate release area. Fisheries managers have long been concerned with this issue; in fact, some have recommended that release areas be moved away from areas of intense angling pressure, including that from shoreline fishermen.
It’s important to remember that we’re viewing data from a very small sample base (33 fish), in which case only a few were caught and kept. But the impact of such a practice when considering an entire tournament sample size – sometimes thousands of bass – could have great impact on the fishery.
In-depth science coupled with speculation examines this further. Several studies, most often those of private individuals, indicates relocated bass are much more easily caught than those in their home range. The late bass scholar Doug Hannon performed several of these tests in Florida decades ago, in which lunkers caught around the state were tagged and brought back to his home lake. In an overwhelming number of cases, he found such relocation “to be a death sentence to the fish." Almost immediately, the big bass were recaptured by other anglers – and usually harvested.
I found similar results as a kid. A spring-fed pond on my parents’ property was home to a bunch of nice bass, but the population was boosted further by our introduction of lunker largemouth and smallmouth caught in New York. Being careful catch-and-release advocates on our own waters, it became nearly comical how many times friends and I could catch and re-catch those same bass, often distinguished by “stringer marks” in their lower jaws. In the end, when sight-fishing in the clear waters, we’d purposely avoid fishing for those handful of giants, feeling sorry for them due to dozens of hook marks in their mouths.
It’s believed that such behavior is due to the inability of the bass to hunt successfully outside of its home range. Bass likely become intricately familiar with the minute details of their immediate environment and take advantage of them for feeding, spawning and daily activities. The most successful members of the species – the biggest bass – likely follow this routine the closest. Relocating those fish outside of their natural areas then leads to their downfall.
Spawning must also be considered. Years ago, researchers were baffled to learn that many salmon and trout species spawn in the exact location of their birth by following the Detritic Code to their ancestral grounds. But, as we learn more about fish and wildlife as a whole, we’re finding more members of the animal kingdom follow this exact routine, through means totally unknown to man. Do bass?
I can attest to the overall destruction of bass stocks on ancestral spawning and feeding grounds on Lake Erie due, I believe, to the massive relocation of tournament-caught bass. It’s simply the only variable that makes sense in many instances. Luckily, after a decade or so without fishing pressure, we’re seeing a few of these areas bounce back.
What does this lead us to consider? Sure, nearly all bass caught these days are released. But organized, educated fishing pressure on these fish is greater than ever, and overwhelmingly greater than any other species in the U.S.
Perhaps the answers lie in mandatory release boats for tournament-caught bass, which then carry the fish relatively close to their reported capture sites. This really wouldn’t be that tough.
In order to keep up with such pressure, we need to constantly consider the variables and stress we put on bass. Without them, weekends would just be reserved for yard work. And nobody wants that.
(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.)