According to Google: “A natural resource is anything that people can use which comes from nature.”
We are led to believe that bass, and other game fish, fit into this definition. But it’s important to scrutinize the accepted wording here: anything people can use.
Therefore I ask: Who’s using this resource, and for whom shall it be managed?
It’s also commonly accepted that the groups responsible for such management are state organizations like the DNR (Department of Natural Resources) or Game and Fish agencies. In Michigan, the final decision-maker on fish and wildlife laws is the Natural Resource Commission, or NRC.
And so begins our story.
As many of you may have heard, the statewide bass season in Michigan recently changed, finally correcting an archaic system built on tradition rather than science. Beginning this spring, bass can be caught and released year-round. The harvest season remains the same.
Such change was brought about, primarily, by organized grass-roots bass tournament organizations. Throughout the process, these organizations were met by strong opposition; some of their leaders even received threats of bodily harm.
Local fishing guides created an uproar, celebrity fishermen weighed in with their views, and the local media added a spin full of so many untruths I quit counting.
But why? What's all the fuss about?
Because tournaments, commonly viewed as the primary shareholders in the world of bass by those of us on the inside, still aren’t so widely accepted in the eyes of the public.
Let’s back up and reveal what I believe to be the facts behind the tumultuous chain of events that occurred recently in Michigan.
Several years ago, a proposal was turned in by a group of bass fishing organizations recommending a change in Michigan’s catch and release bass season dates. Suffice to say the groups were interested in being able to legally target bass year-round. Committees were formed, a number of advisory boards were consulted, and the proposal made its way through the process.
The governing bodies interjected their viewpoints based on both scientific and social concerns, and held a number of meetings throughout the state.
Dan Kimmel, the conservation director for both the Michigan B.A.S.S. Nation and The Bass Federation of Michigan, attended those meetings. He was sad to see the lack of turnout. “The highest turnout at any of the meetings was 15 people,” he remembered. A couple thousand recipients answered an online survey about their viewpoints on a season change; a few hundred more did so by mail.
A number of proposals were then drawn up to better match the bass season to those apparently interested. As is often the case with issues like this, the proposals were working bodies, changing throughout the process due to so many “cooks in the kitchen." What finally materialized were several options for the Michigan bass season, ranging from no change at all to year-round fishing, even some with the option to allow keeping bass all year.
Data collected across the country suggests most bass are released by those catching them, regardless of time of year or purpose, whether during a “release” season or not. With that in mind, and given the limited set of options offered by the governing bodies once things were hashed out, the tournament organizations voiced support for year-round catch and release, and an earlier overall bass season each spring, thus allowing tournaments.
Then the roof caved in.
Suddenly, all those non-interested were vocal. Those who had fished for bass fewer times than my 9-year-old nephew suddenly became experts, voicing their opinions in whatever medium was available, from front-page scare tactics based on irrelevant examples to courtroom-like testimony at 5-hour public meetings.
Sensing the growing concern, a final resolution was suggested: catch and release all spring, with exemptions for tournaments. This, too, fell flat on its face.
Followers could sense the public’s outcry: How audacious! Just who do these tournament fishermen think they are? Let them go back to Indiana, or wherever they came from; places where they’ve already ruined the bass fishing.
Even Kevin VanDam, often portrayed by Michigan’s outdoor media as God himself, weighed in on the thought of spring tournaments; his views quickly spun into a voice against events on St Clair.
Nowhere had the Michigan locals ever heard of such a ruling; to take special interest in one user group over the feelings of what they viewed as the majority was considered blasphemy. Nowhere had they come across an instance where hot shots in tournaments were given special consideration above and beyond the law.
Evidently, they had never been to Florida.
I did a little investigating on areas of the country that offer tournament exemptions, and Florida, often referred to as the bass fishing capital of the world, took center stage. On many bodies of water there, game laws prohibit keeping more than one trophy bass, yet allow tournament anglers to bring a limit of big ‘uns back to weigh-in, as long as strict requirements are met.
Florida FWC biologist Eric Johnson educated me on tournament exemptions and the special permitting process, and I reviewed a series of guidelines that must be met in order to legally operate bass tournaments in Florida. They included providing a specified list of anglers, rules for handling, weighing and releasing fish, and even regulations detailing how long a bass can remain in a weigh-in bag.
Conversely, throughout a season’s fishing on St Clair, I watch in horror as visiting “catch and release” anglers hold their fish out of the water for several minutes, while previously gut-hooked bass float dead by the dozens nearby. In addition, once the tournament season begins, visiting clubs do the worst job I have ever witnessed caring for their fish. As I’ve expressed here in the past, I would wager that overall bass mortality at such events is a majority, not a minority.
So I ask myself, who is doing more harm to the resource? Florida’s regulated tournament anglers or the catch-and-release fishermen killing all the bass?
Obviously, other factors must be considered in such a dynamic case. Nest predation, delayed mortality, stockpiling of released fish and enforcement of handling rules must be discussed. But it’s important to do so in a scientific manner, rather than one of sensationalism, as we’ve seen in the Michigan case. For instance, predation of bass eggs by gobies was often used as an example by those opposed to early tournaments here in Detroit. Yet, on Lake St Clair, where most of the controversy started, it’s a proven scientific fact that gobies are not major nest predators, as their numbers are nowhere near what they are on the other Great Lakes due to differing habitat.
My point is this: More so than ever, our governing bodies are working toward the best interest of their user groups. Bass fishing trends are changing, and harvest regulations need to be changed accordingly. And, like many things in America, people never want to work toward change, they just want to complain about it when it happens.
Will there ever be a time when tournament exemptions are the majority – accepted as common practice in the bass fishing regulations of our society? Maybe. But that time won’t be anytime soon in Michigan, it appears.
With such adamant opposition, you’d think more than 15 people would have showed at the meeting.
(Editor's note: Readers interested in discussing this subject at length are encouraged to post their viewpoints on the author's Millennium Promotions Facebook page.)
(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.)