Though itís been nearly 20 years, it seems like just yesterday. It was a beautiful, sunny day in May. Lake Erieís glass-calm waters were giving up her bounty at this bass fishing Valhalla simply known to locals as ďRuggles."
Untold numbers of smallmouth moved into near-shore areas to spawn, inhabiting rock piles and reefs at various depths. The best range to target for the day was obvious, given away by a large group of bass boats. From there, it was often just a matter of getting a tube jig to the bottom, waiting a few seconds, and setting the hook.
A recent journey back sent my mind reeling to those glorious days. This trip would prove less fruitful, however. Not only did I not catch any bass, I never had a bite.
Time and again at sport shows, tournaments and gatherings in the fishing industry, Iím questioned as to my opinion on what happened to so many of Ohioís once world-class smallmouth hot spots. Where did all the fish go? Itís often surprising to many when I blame tournament relocation, rather than the easy outs of commercial netting, charter-boat harvest or round gobies.
Unfortunately, it appears the data points in a similar direction.
I recently reviewed a technical report prepared for the Lake Champlain Basin Program by members of the Lake Champlain Research Institute at SUNY-Plattsburgh. The report (click here to read the complete report) details specific movement characteristics, and lack thereof, of tournament-caught bass relocated to weigh-in areas.
I think it may help to explain some of the above mysteries.
Throughout the study detailed in the report, thousands of bass were tracked using a variety of methods over several years. The researchers expressed concern over a number of factors attributed to tournament angling pressure, most notably stresses placed on the fish and a lack of dispersal following release. Bass were found to stay within a major bay following release for months, and became very susceptible to angling pressure by shoreline fishermen in this highly populated and popular fishing spot.
I dove into the data a little further and found other details just as compelling and alarming. Consider the following:
> Over half of the largemouth used in the study were caught more than 25 miles from weigh-in. None were found to disperse even remotely close to that distance following release.
> Stress indicators on the fish increased greatly with prolonged boat rides to weigh-in areas.
> None of the studied fish, largemouth or smallmouth, dispersed south after release. Research indicates that the vast majority of tournament-caught largemouth on Lake Champlain are caught in the southern end of the lake.
> Only one of the 3,870 processed bass was reported returned at its initial capture site.
> Most studied fish utilized shoreline cover in the immediate proximity of release and were very susceptible to angling pressure.
What the data points to here, folks, isnít good. Essentially, the bass in Lake Champlain are being moved from their natural range to remote destinations, where they stockpile and are often caught and harvested.
I believe this may be a part of the reason for the declines weíve seen in certain areas of Lake Erie. Huge stockpiles of fish were caught and moved, never to return, through massive fishing pressure prior to Ohioís springtime catch-and-release laws being enacted. These fish were the best spawning stock, big females carefully selected by tournament anglers with cull beams. And they were dumped, for years, in the back end of a shallow, muddy bay, dozens of miles from their home range.
What will happen on fisheries like Champlain if similar practices continue? Are tournament anglers working against nature faster than she can replenish herself? Itís very possible.
In addition to the depletion of the resource in some locales, studies indicate that relocated fish do not contribute to the overall success of the bass species very well. In other words, those fish that are caught and moved often undergo such stress that reproduction is little or nothing at all.
So weíre taking huge stocks of bass out of natural ancestral areas and placing them under a great deal of stress while moving them to a foreign environment, where they are often caught and eaten, and likely wonít reproduce.
The report indicated that Lake Champlain hosted 95 bass tournaments in 2005 alone. And remember, this lake is frozen for about 5 months out of the year, unlike the bass capitals of the South.
Over the past few decades, weíve seen great advancements in care of tournament-caught bass. Live-release boats, advanced weigh-in technology, more attention to barotrauma and other stresses; these are all helping to reduce stress of tournament-caught fish. B.A.S.S. went even further by recently hiring Gene Gilliland, one of the most noted experts on tournament fish care in the world, as its head of conservation.
But perhaps weíre addressing the wrong problem. While itís imperative to take care of tournament-caught bass, their overall dispersal appears to be more important than their condition. Remember, the mentioned study concludes itís likely a 100% permanent move on these massive fisheries.
Whatís the answer? Iíll let you all brainstorm on that.
Regular readers are aware of my growing sentiment for creating tournament boundaries Ė as a care measure for fish, for safety reasons, and to combat rising tournament costs by regulating fuel and reducing outboard motor sizes. Or, assuming itís not feasible to cart the fish all the way back to their home range from a central weigh-in spot, maybe the answer lies in multiple weigh-in locations. Who knows?
One thing is for sure: We need to continue to investigate this issue through further study. Take it from me, itís sad to go to a place you once regarded as unmatchable and be defeated before you even make a cast.
(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.)