Are smallmouth bass more mobile in large lakes than once thought?
That was the question posed by a recent study conducted on Lake Erie by Ohio DNR scientists Zak Slagle and Matt Faust. I came across the compelling work while thumbing through In-Fisherman Magazine, as reported by Dr. Hal Schramm, himself a smallmouth junkie quite familiar with the bronzebacks of the Great Lakes.
I count on this freshwater fishing periodical to provide scientific content unlike any other, often influencing the way we perceive our fisheries and their inhabitants. The results of this study will be another eye-opener for many. But first, let me take you back.
I’m not sure of the year, but I can tell you it was before the advent of modern mapping chips. We had GPS, but it was simply a blank screen. I remember this because, at the time, I needed to plot the location of an area described simply as a “discontinued dumping ground” out in the middle of Lake Erie by utilizing a paper chart. That’s right, paper.
Anyway, with a set of numbers yielding at best an approximate location, I set out, alone, from Cleveland, Ohio to find the magic spot. The summer day was calm, giving me the best and safest chance.
After idling around for what seemed like an eternity, I came across a subtle rise in 60 feet of water. No shoreline was visible in any direction. I never heard or saw another boat, and my graph reveled no sign of any hard bottom. But, around that rise, for the first time in hours, I marked a fish.
Dropping a heavy tube jig to the bottom, more for the record than anything else, I was shocked as I lifted and felt the weight. Twenty seconds later, a 5-pound smallmouth jumped and broke the surface, throwing the lure. My next cast produced another of nearly the same size. Then a third.
Those would be the only three bass I would hook from this location, or anywhere within 30 miles of it, ever. And, believe me, I tried the spot again and again, always alone, each time murmuring where did those fish come from?
Many of my closest confidants have similar stories.
Slagle and Faust’s study concludes what we’ve witnessed for years. Predatory fish often utilize much bigger territories than we ever thought possible. Many times, the entire lake.
We’re finding this out through better research. In this case, acoustic transmitters are being used to monitor movements over multi-year periods. These are far more effective measures than the tag/recapture method previously accepted as gospel.
A few notable details from the study:
The smallmouth bass were incredibly mobile, averaging 68 miles of movement per year. One individual swam over 300 miles in a two-year period. Note, these are overall movements, not one-way tickets. As you might guess, there are many back-and-forth movements involved.
The overall distances, though, were also flabbergasting for a number of fish. Originating from Sandusky Bay in Erie’s western basin, individual fish went as far as Michigan and Cleveland before losing touch with scientists after the second season.
Several fish traveled around the Lake Erie Islands and Ontario’s Pelee Island, site of some of the best bass habitat in the lake. Whether or not the fish originated from these locales is unknown.
A few cautionary facts were also revealed:
During the study, 19 bass were initially monitored. Eight of those were tracked beyond the release area of Sandusky Bay, where they underwent the eye-opening movements. However, that leaves the majority – 11 out of 19 – still inhabiting the release area.
This is an alarming statistic. More so on these mega-fisheries than elsewhere, we need to be concerned about stockpiling at release sites. First off, most of the tournament-caught bass come from areas far away, and release sites seldom offer comparable habitat. Secondly, it’s been documented that smallmouth in these environments are very susceptible to being re-caught and harvested, often by anglers fishing from the shoreline.
Another cause for concern: review of the recent study suggests that a reason for such long movements by the fish may be due to their long-distance displacement (meaning they were caught from areas far away from the weigh-in site), and they find themselves searching longer and farther for a new home.
Previous research indicates that displaced bass have a hard time establishing a new home range, and often fall to poor health, predation or angling pressure as a result. It's reasoned that this is why bass taken form one lake and re-stocked to another are often caught again and again. Traditional home ranges and territories are important factors in a predator’s ability to hunt.
In addition, anglers with long histories on Erie often rehash stories of great fishing in areas now all but devoid of bass. With habitat in those areas remaining stable, and no apparent loss of a food source, the finger points at tournament fishing and the relocation of massive populations of fish from select areas as the driving force behind this decline.
This new study indicates bass are moving far more than originally assumed. Perhaps that lessens the impact on issues faced by releasing bass outside of their home range; let’s hope so. And, along with the jaw-dropping statistics, science is proving how much more we have 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.)