Coverage of the Lake Murray Bass Pro Tour event left me dreaming of a road trip. Hometown hero Anthony Gagliardi added to his win list, but just as big of a story was the lake itself. The fishing was simply incredible.
As I watched, Chris Lane caught caught a 4-pound bass and while weighing it was immediately surrounded by massive schoolers. Quickly grabbing another rod and slinging an underhand cast, Lane then boated a 5-pounder just seconds later.
At the same time, Ott Defoe was hand-lining a 7-pounder out from under a stump in just inches of water. The drama was intense.
From what I witnessed, Lake Murray may be the best tournament venue in the country right now. The Bassmaster Elite Series recently confirmed, with 4-pound-plus averages for nine of the Top-10 competitors.
Murray, as we all were educated, is a lake benefitting from a large population of blueback herring. From what I see, it’s that cut-and-dried. Take a big reservoir, add herring and come out with a fishery of a lifetime. Right?
As you likely think, it may not be that simple. I consulted with Steven Bardin, MLF’s Fisheries Management Division leader, to get the scoop. Bardin is one part bass angler and one part fish geek, a master’s degree in fisheries science proving his advanced intellect. He quickly keyed me in on everything blueback.
These herring, I found out, are native to much of the East Coast of the United States. And while they initially were diadromous, meaning they inhabited both fresh and saltwater during different life stages, and don’t naturally exist in reservoirs, blueback herring adapt to these environments well. The massive herring population of lakes like Murray and Hartwell are proof. Bluebacks have also been found in many lakes in New York, including Lake Ontario (posing a major fisheries concern), have been stocked in Texas and introduced into the Chesapeake Bay basin in Pennsylvania. Bardin noted that once blueback herring populations are established, they are impossible to eradicate. Interesting.
Blueback herring grow extremely fast and are high in caloric density – higher than many baitfish, according to Bardin – making herring a very good food fish for predators. In essence, they provide a good meal to quickly fatten up bass.
Blueback herring are more pelagic than their threadfin shad cousins, meaning that blueback herring spend a larger amount of time traveling vast sections of open water. As a result, fish that are also somewhat pelagic, like stripers, hybrids and, to some extent, Alabama spotted bass, benefit greatly from herring as a prey fish. It should be noted that, despite the current vogue to term open-water largemouths as “pelagic”, they are not. While largemouth bass will inhabit open water for large periods of time, as a species, they are shoreline-based.
Here’s where many of you might sense a bit of an issue, and you’d be correct in assuming. According to Bardin, open-water species will take advantage of large blueback populations, often displacing largemouth and frequently reducing largemouth numbers. This is likely what is happening on Lake Norman.
Another consideration is the blueback herring as a competitor for small bass. Unique to this baitfish specie compared to most others, bluebacks forage exclusively on large zooplankton, the same invertebrates consumed by growing fingerling bass and other predator fish just before they begin feeding on other fish.
For that reason, it’s been noted that blueback herring can stunt the growth patterns of bass when they’re very small. Doing so reduces the success of those bass fingerlings, keeping them little longer, and making them more susceptible to predation themselves. In essence, the overall success of a bass spawn may be impacted by blueback herring.
Now, once those little bass get big enough to eat little blueback herring, it’s game on. Then the benefit of the herring comes into play, resulting in a big boom to the bass population. Herring reproduce later than bass, too, leaving lots of little herring in the environment at a time when bass can clean up as part of their summer feeding routine.
So, essentially, those are the downsides of blueback herring. Competition with fingerling bass for food, and a trend to bump up populations of true pelagic, predator fish. “Nobody has come up with another downfall”, according to Bardin.
Is that reason to proclaim blueback herring as the best thing to ever happen to reservoirs all across the eastern seaboard? Does that make them candidates for stocking all across America? I hope not.
Granted, the tournament on Lake Murray sure raised a few eyebrows. When things are going right, blueback herring can really bump up a fishery. I mean, who wouldn’t want to have that place a short drive away?
But it’s foolish for us to think that we can paint across America with a broad brush. We’re seeing this more and more lately, concern over fish initially brought out of their natural range to supposedly help a lake. Often, we end up regretting such hasty stockings in the long run.
I fall in the category of not attempting to out-think nature. Because, more often than not, human beings are a poor match for the master. In the meantime, I’ll continue to monitor the dynamic nature of these super-charged fisheries and consult the experts for all sides of the story. I'm sure there’s still a lot to learn.
(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.)