Attention must be given to the recent Cayuga Lake Bass Pro Tour event, the most astonishing smallmouth tournament we’ve ever seen. With 25-pound stringers unable to make the final cut, Cayuga unveiled what may be the best bass fishery in the country.
Timing was right, for sure. Smallmouth are suckers when bedding – especially those in somewhat undiscovered fisheries. It surprising such places still exist, really.
Cayuga is sure to be a popular spot from now on.
But that’s OK. Perhaps the Finger Lakes region of New York needs a bump in tourism. It’s funny; when searching anything and everything about this part of the world, nowhere – anywhere – is bass fishing mentioned. There’s talk of wineries and waterfalls. Cocktail and dinner cruises, if you’re “water-oriented.” But nothing about boat ramps and five-fish limits. Comical.
Anglers will change that. In today’s bass world, we see great pilgrimages by anglers interested in getting in on a great bite. It’s happened forever, really, starting with trips to Florida in the '70s, Texas a decade later, then expanding to other regions of the South as the word got out. Kentucky Lake. Guntersville. Bronzeback purists took aim at Dale Hollow and Pickwick. Amistad and Falcon.
But it wan’t until the current millennium that hardcore bassers began traveling north to go fishing. This movement coincided with tournament interest across the region. Places like the 1000 Islands, Champlain and Lake Minnetonka were first, followed by St. Clair and Erie’s various basins. Mille Lacs and Grand Traverse grabbed attention, as did Sturgeon Bay – host of a mega-bag smallmouth event each spring.
Smallmouth bass fishing, and the bass themselves, have grown considerably. You’ll hear talk of the influence of round gobies on the overall size of these brown bombers, and gobies have played a considerable role in increasing the proportions of the bass. However, smallmouth bass seem to be getting larger everywhere, in lakes with gobies and without. Growing seasons are lengthening each year, perhaps that’s a variable. Modern catch and release helps. And anglers are better at finding and catching fish thanks to an ever-increasing skill set, better equipment and more advanced technologies that dial it in.
Here, I have to pause for comic relief. Is there anything more ironic than a bass boat carrying a $20,000 electronic package, captained by an angler using a traffic cone to find fish?
Moving on, there’s reasons to be concerned over the timing of this event and the impact on the fishery. Here is our most substantial subject matter (even more noteworthy than the traffic cone).
For years, bass season opened in the state of New York on the third Saturday in June. It was my understanding that the timing of this season was to allow bass to spawn without regard to human harvest. Traditionally, there was no catch-and-release season prior to the June starting date. In the early 2000s, a few trophy bass and catch-and-release seasons existed on select lakes, but for the most part, bass fishing was off the table in New York prior to the end of June.
Times changed. Bass fishing changed. In my youth, a trip to New York’s Chatauqua Lake found everybody keeping, and eating, a limit of bass. Today, 90 percent or more are released.
Managers took note and gathered more intel, deciding catch-and-release bass fishing in New York was an acceptable practice, even during the spawning season. Area anglers rejoiced. Gypsy fishermen booked hotels. More are on their way.
But is it that cut-and-dry? I offer two points of concern.
First, most of the data or common knowledge used to assess the impact of bass fishermen on spawning bass was gathered in dated studies that may not reflect current angling effort. To summarize, it’s thought that fishermen cannot make a sizable enough impact through fishing to affect an entire population of fish. Decades ago, that might have been true. But technology has advanced far beyond what was considered in studies of the time, leading to an astounding increase in overall angler efficiency and effort.
Second, managers are still learning about the impact of round gobies and their destruction of unoccupied bass nests. Due to this, I’m surprised by New York’s push for more fishing during the spawning season. Not long ago, I vividly remember watching video of gobies destroying bass nests as part of the state of Ohio’s movement to reduce bass angling during the spawn. I wonder, is this subject receiving the consideration it deserves?
Such brings up a glaring topic needing discussion: the advent of catch-and-immediate release bass tournaments. In the case of spawning events, especially those on these mega-smallmouth fisheries overrun with gobies, this format is a Godsend. The impact on the resource becomes negligible. In fact, if I were a resource manager, I’d consider making the format mandatory for early season tournaments. After all, catch and release is intended to be immediate.
Now let’s get something straight: in the case of weigh-in style tournaments, 40 or 80 guys hauling around five fish on Cayuga is not going to make much of an impact. I understand that. One pro-level event isn’t going to change the ecology of the lake. But that’s not the concern.
The problem exists once the Big Top packs up, taking with it the camera crews and live broadcasts. You see, it’s the rest of us who make the impact. I’ve seen it firsthand.
Once the bass fishing hotline starts to hum, the crowds show up for their share. First, it’s buddies on a catch-and-release vacation. Next, it’s their bass club for a Memorial Day derby. Many states make the mistake of allowing tournament exemptions for just about any rule: creel limits, size structures, seasons. But here, that would be a catastrophic mistake. For anyone coming to New York to fish for bass prior to the June start date (now decided as June 15 each year), it should be catch and release. As in, release right now.
The older I get, the more trouble I’m having with the idea of hauling bass around to hold them up hours later in front of people. But I understand that it’s a part of the sport that many fans and media associate with. And I can attest to the thrill of the stage. Just not in this case.
Cayuga’s bass have enough to worry about.
(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.)