This year is shaping up to be a good one for tournament bass fishing across the country – 2023 brings a number of venues that are really cranking out the lunkers. The Bass ProTour travels to Kissimmee, Caney Creek, Guntersville and St. Clair. The Elite Series adds Santee Cooper, Champlain and the St. Lawrence. All fish factories. Big catches and action-packed events are guaranteed.
But what if they weren’t? What if catch rates were mediocre, at best? Or seasons were closed for us anglers while commercial fishermen netted bass by the truckload?
Sound far off? Of course it does to most of us. But it wouldn’t if you were a saltwater fisherman.
You see, on the salty side of the angling table, there are continuous threats to nearly every popular fishery. At the time of this writing, I can honestly say that I’ve seen nothing but doom and gloom reported for nearly all the top game fish of the south Atlantic. Except sharks. There are plenty of sharks.
Combined with mismanagement, habitat loss is at a breaking point in many places. Commercial take is relentless for those species still sold in fish markets. Angling pressure of all types has never been higher or more sophisticated.
So, as bass fishermen, we have it good. The secret lies in the ultimate underlying principle of our beloved sport: catch and release. In the course of about 60 years, bass fishing has gone from a sustenance pursuit to a social game, thanks largely to the popularization of tournament fishing. I can’t overstate, as I read countless press releases of the collapse of beloved saltwater stocks; I can’t stress enough how important it is that we successfully release our bass. As early C&R pioneer Doug Hannon put it: “You don’t eat your golf balls.”
So we’re all set, right? Everything is gravy in our world.
Not exactly. While we’ve got it better than most, we must continue to be vigilant when confronting the threats to bass fishing. From time to time, I’ll be your warning signal. Through my work in the fishing industry, I keep tabs on a lot of issues posing particular problems to bass and bass fishing. This year, I’ll bring you news to keep you informed and let you know how to get involved.
I’m optimistic about our future. Recently, I’ve seen more interest from aquatic managers on ways to work with challenging aquatic grasses. I’ve read of reports of habitat enhancement through fish structures. We’ve seen agencies involved in once again stocking bass, improving spawning habitat and compiling studies on reproductive success. Tournament organizations are also partnering more with state game and fish agencies, a win for both sides.
But let’s continue to monitor the threats. Water policy and environmental regulation often seem out of reach for anglers on a day to day basis. Thankfully, we can continue to count on bass fishing’s major organizations to keep us up to speed on those big issues. Let's then discuss some of the grass-roots problems in our face, right now, and hope we can generate awareness.
1. Proper Catch and Release
You’ve heard me preach this before. To be blunt, if you carry bass around in your livewell all day, only to take them to weigh-in looking glossy-eyed and gasping for air, you might as well take those fish back afterwards and clean them. At least then you’d be putting the fish to good use.
Face it, lots of fish are dying from bass tournament weigh-ins, especially in the larger fisheries up North. Want a solution? Don’t be part of the problem. It’s the easiest way to combat the issue. There’s a bunch of resources out there that will educate you on proper ways to hold bass successfully in a livewell. Use them. Encourage others to do the same.
Here’s one that you’ll be hearing more of, from me and others who care. With the advent of forward-facing sonar and the ability to target bass in ultra-deep water, more fish are dying due to barotrauma than ever before. We are far behind the 8-ball on this one, and it’s going to get worse. It’s simply inhumane to bring a bass out of 60 feet of water, inflate its swim bladder to the breaking point and then cross our fingers upon release. I’ll be investigating this more in the upcoming months.
3. Aquatic Herbicide Use
I’ll get grief for this, I’m sure. But there has to be a better way to manage grass than what’s being done now. By this, I mean that the thought of relentlessly spraying weed-killer into the water, year after year, indifferent to the long-term environmental impacts, is absurd. I understand that budgets can only support so much. I get it that exotic species present unique challenges. But we need to continue to work with government agencies and the multitude of users that make up our communities. Education – most notably to the benefits of aquatic vegetation - will continue to be key. It will be up to us to bring awareness to this issue.
4. Tournament-Caught Bass Relocation
Here’s one I see little reporting on, but is still an elephant in the room. Quite simply, we can’t continue to haul thousands of bass to one location, week after week, and not understand that it will negatively impact a fishery. I’ve personally seen vast areas fished out due to this practice. Previous studies from Lake Champlain show drastic swings in populations in certain places, and very little long-term survival of bass hauled big distances. A multitude of solutions must be discussed on this one.
5. Exotic Species
I’m currently waist-deep into an exotic species problem in Florida. Area managers attempting to restore the habitat loss in the St. Johns River are finding that the biggest hurdle is often exotic fish. Other places, exotic vegetation is shading out native plants and changing fisheries forever. We need to recognize that these issues can be dealbreakers for our fisheries, and can’t be underestimated.
6. Spawning Failures Due to Angling Pressure
Like many issues, our data is only as good as our studies. Unfortunately, most studies on angling pressure, whether during the spawn or not, are becoming dated, especially when taking into consideration the growing number of bass anglers, and just how good they are at finding and catching bass. Some fisheries managers will argue that catching spawning bass has no negative effect on a population. And, while other factors often dictate the overall success or failure of recruitment in a lake, fishing for spawning bass, especially when they are hauled around after being caught, is impacting many fisheries, plain and simple. This is glaring in places new to the “bass boom”, where visiting anglers endlessly flog spawning smallmouth. It’s no coincidence that many fisheries with closed spring seasons have strong bass populations. We’ll likely never change the overall mentality on this one until it’s too late. So, as with other issues, it may be best to take a personal stance and enact your own guidelines.
Make no mistake, we’re doing well. In fact, each year I see an increase in awareness of many of these same concerns. But we can always do better. Stick with me. I’ll keep these issues front and center with those who need a reminder and report back with my findings.
(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.)