Are Smallmouths at Risk? Steps Forward and Back
March 05, 2019
The rise of smallmouth bass fishing in America is quite a chronicle. Where not native, smallmouths have been stocked and are now found in every state except Alaska, Louisiana, and Florida. Seven-pounders have never been reported from so many places so many times in one year, perhaps, as in 2017. Some were from Mille Lacs in Minnesota during the Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championships held there. Smallmouth fishing, nationwide, has never been better.
But are we keeping it that way? Dr. Hal Schramm, one of the nation’s leading resources on bass and In-Fisherman Contributor, says “No news is good news. What little published literature exists says very little is going on with active management. Little is heard from the South. Lake Hubert (Michigan) now has no harvest regulations, the type meant to satisfy anglers. Clearly there is growing interest in smallmouths and a huge focus on trophies.”
Smallmouth populations began to soar two decades ago. Size and numbers have spiraled upward almost everywhere. But, at the expense of other species? In 2013, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MNDNR) scuttled quality regulations for smallmouths on Mille Lacs to “boost walleye populations.” This inferred bass were causing a walleye problem. As far as we know, it’s the first time any state ever backtracked on quality regulations, which, from 2000 until 2012, allowed anglers to keep only one bass over 22 inches. In 2013, the state upped the limit to six bass. Bass anglers went berserk.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune quoted Rick Bruesewitz, MNDNR area fisheries supervisor, on the change in regulations: “We’re managing Mille Lacs primarily as a walleye fishery. Right now there’s basically no bass harvest. So, even with a 6-fish limit, it won’t decimate the population.” If a universal sentiment existed among Minnesota’s angling luminaries on the subject, it was that the quality regulations for smallmouths were highly successful, creating a world-class fishery. Yet the MNDNR seemed to be asking those angling giants not to quibble over the many degrees between “good fishing” and “decimation” for the smallmouth population. Many called it a misguided effort to protect walleyes.
The problem cited by every prominent angler from Al Lindner to Ted Takasaki at that time was this: The state had no data demonstrating bass were eating young walleyes. And, according to every biologist we contacted, evidence to support the supposition that bass prey on walleye fry to any significant degree does not exist. “It appears the DNR has a lot of data on what’s happening with the walleyes on Mille Lacs, but I’ve seen little if any data on the smallmouths,” In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange said at the time. “Such a drastic change in regulations, without the tools in place to make a solid and resourceful decision, seems, on the face of it, quite strange. And disappointing.”
“Do smallmouth populations expand and fill the void when walleyes are over harvested?” asks In-Fisherman Field Editor and former Ontario natural-resource manager Gord Pyzer. “Yes. Nature abhors a vacuum and fills it with something. As the waters along the southern edge of the cisco range in southern Ontario, Wisconsin, and Minnesota continue to warm and become inhospitable to ciscoes, they die off. Walleyes are forced to vacate deep, cool refuges where they can conserve energy. In order to survive, they forage in warmer water, using up energy reserves, chasing scaly, spiny species like perch.
“Another reason why smallmouth fisheries like Mille Las are incredibly good is because anglers are key partners in management by releasing all, or at least the biggest, most important members of the population. So, how do fishery managers reward bass anglers for helping them maintain amazing fisheries at no cost? They encourage walleye anglers and others to kill bass. How stupid is that?”
When walleyes decline, don’t blame bass. Look at the thermometer, then in the freezer, then at the mirror. Bass numbers and size increase as the climate warms up North, with the opposite effect for walleyes. “Dr. Peter Colby headed up Ontario’s walleye research program for years,” Pyzer says. “He’s a good friend, and he literally wrote the book on walleyes. Colby compiled The Biological Synopsis of Walleye for the United Nations. He has warned throughout his career that the southern edge of the cisco line is creeping northward as a result of global warming. A one-pound cisco has more calories that two quarter-pound cheeseburgers. Think of the millions of ciscoes swimming in every high quality walleye water as quarter-pound cheeseburgers.”
Walleyes without cheeseburgers? In 2007, Professors Heinz Stefan and Xing Fang (Auburn University) collaborated with the MNDNR to study cisco. Their simulation models predicted that climate change can potentially extirpate ciscoes from 75 percent of the lakes they currently inhabit in Minnesota. In the heat of summer, dead ciscoes litter the surface of many lakes these days. Bad news for walleyes.
Dan Isermann, fishery scientist and Unit Leader for the Wisconsin Cooperative Fishery Research Unit for the United States Geological Survey (USGS), has worked all over the Midwest as a state biologist. “I worked in Brainerd, Minnesota, for a time,” he says. “I can’t speak to the reasons behind the regulation changes on Mille Lacs, but I assume a lot of things are behind that. A lot of agencies concern themselves with regulatory complexity. Where it’s reasonable, they simplify. But Mille Lacs is a trophy fishery. It’s quite possible they are trying to reduce density to increase growth.”
The good news is MNDNR listened and acted. Gradually, regulations became less severe and now stand at a limit of three. Only one can be over 21 inches. All bass between 17 and 21 inches must be released. Allowing some harvest of smaller bass may improve size structure. According to Jim DeRosa, president of the Mille Lacs Smallmouth Bass Alliance, half of all bass sampled in Mille Lacs exceed 17 inches. Creel surveys indicate that interest in keeping bass remained low even after limits were raised. The average number kept each year is about 2,800. By contrast, anglers have caught and released more than 125,000 smallmouths per year for several years. According to Bassmaster Magazine, Mille Lacs is now the top smallmouth fishery in the nation.
Schramm agrees climate change benefits bass. “Absolutely,” he says. “But you also have to qualify where. I’m working on southern smallmouth and ample evidence persists that in the South, growth is suppressed by warmer water. That’s true for every fish, including walleyes. Bioenergetics folks say there’s an optimum temperature and they feed more and grow more in that optimum range. Yes, smallmouths are moving north. But we don’t know yet what’s going to happen at the southern end of things.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists black bass as the most popular fish in America, with 170 million angling days per year spent chasing them. Yet the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) removed all limits for bass in moving water statewide. Washington may soon follow suit.
“Oregon and Washington removed limits on all warmwater species from the Columbia River,” says David Swendseid, tackle rep and tournament angler from Oregon. “We now have zero consideration for America’s number one gamefish that have existed in this world-class fishery for about 100 years. The Columbia is the best smallmouth fishery in the western United States. Ostensibly, it’s been done to protect salmon smolts, which have lived side-by-side with bass in the Columbia all this time. If bass were impacting salmon, data would have shown up before now.”
Bass are increasing in number. Salmonid fisheries are most popular and historically significant. But something is two-fold cray-cray about this decision. It’s meant to protect coldwater species, but the new regs apply to waters above dams that coldwater species can’t access. I’ve been down the John Day River for bass with Steve Fleming of Mah-Hah Outfitters. Beautiful high-desert environment where 100-fish days for smallmouths are common. Meanwhile, the Oregon Health Authority issued an advisory warning people not to eat bass at all because of mercury contamination. Deciding to remove all limits for bass up there, where salmonids can’t go, seems a strong indicator that the ODFW is encouraging people to kill bass everywhere—bass they shouldn’t eat.
“Yes, they’re encouraging people to kill bass,” says Lonnie Johnson, Conservation Director for Oregon BASS Nation-Oregon and chair of the Warmwater Champions. “Most places it’s ‘anecdotal science.’ Here it’s pure bias. They lifted limits on all warmwater fish a couple years ago. Walleyes, crappies, catfish, bluegills—not just bass. They say they don’t have to justify it. I was there at the meetings. They were asked, what kind of message are they sending? ‘Well probably not very good,’ the spokesman answered, ‘but it sends a great message to the coldwater community.’”
The Northwest Power and Conservation Council published a report on smallmouth fishing in Washington, quoting studies from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). “It is important to have properly managed smallmouth bass populations in Washington to satisfy a growing public demand for recreational fishing opportunities and harvest,” the report states. “There is concern that smallmouth bass may negatively impact other native species, specifically salmonids. Smallmouth bass and salmonids have overlapping habitats. However, in 1985, WDFW completed an exhaustive evaluation of the interaction between smallmouth bass and native salmonid populations in the Northwest. Fletcher (D. H. 1991. Interspecific impacts of smallmouth bass in the northwestern United States) found that there was no clear evidence of reduced salmonid survival as a result of smallmouth bass interaction.”
Once again, smallmouths are blamed for the decline of other species without evidence. “Studies in Oregon reveal the same thing,” Johnson says. “Their data show pikeminnows consume more salmon than smallmouths by a 10 to 1 margin. They came to me for content on Washington’s warmwater Facebook page. Anglers said, ‘No way.’ Absolutely zero endorsement from the public. Washington dropped all limits for warmwater fish in the Columbia two years ago and is considering expansion. In Oregon, if it’s moving water—no bag limits. In May, 2018, over 22,000 bass were caught and killed in the Yakima River. That information came from a WDFW creel survey.”
“That’s politics,” Schramm says. “Politics trump biology every time. Culture. It’s a salmon-steelhead mindset out there. Tribal influences. Elected officials know little about biology, yet have so much power to affect fisheries.”
Should we pester spawning bass? For Pyzer, the answer is obvious. “Only one area in the entire world I am aware of has a spring closure of the smallmouth season to protect spawners: southeastern, southern, and southwestern Ontario,” he says. “That includes the area north of, and including, Lake St. Clair, Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, and the St. Lawrence River. This is the same area that Dr. Mark Ridgway of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (OMNR) has carried out his ground-breaking bass research on the effects of angling for nesting male smallmouth bass, and where Dr. David Philipp, from the University of Illinois, and Dr. Bruce Tufts from Queen’s University, teamed up with Ridgway and others in OMNR on smallmouth research.
“Ridgway and Phillip told me repeatedly there are no redeeming qualities whatsoever in fishing for nesting northern-range bass in spring, when only 30 percent of mature males are predetermined a year in advance to complete the spawn,” he says. “Remove them from the nest and there’s nothing coming in behind them.
“Now, tell me, where is the best smallmouth fishing?” Pyzer asks. “Of, course, in this very same area, in St. Clair, Erie, Simcoe, and the St. Lawrence River. At the recent FLW event on Lake St. Clair, the winner and all top-ten anglers fished the Canadian shoreline. Winning weights for 20 smallmouths approached 100 pounds. Chad Grigsby won with a 20-fish limit of 97.8 pounds. Coincidence? When Bassmaster and the FLW hold events on Lake Erie, the winning anglers typically head north to the Canadian shoreline and Point Peele for winning bags. Coincidence?
“On Lake Simcoe in the fall, at the Bass Pro Open, the Canadian record winning weight for five smallmouths is 31.5-pounds—an average weight of over 6 pounds. In September at the Renegade 1000 Island tournament, the winning weight was 75.4 pounds for 15 smallmouths. More than 32 teams had 3-day total weights exceeding 60 pounds—over a 4-pound average. The fish were all caught in Canadian waters where the spring spawning season is closed.
“The one thing these areas have in common,” Pyzer says, “is a closed spring season when bass are spawning. Look at Ridgway’s and Phillip’s work on the impacts of fishing for nesting smallmouths. To experience the best smallmouth fishing in the world, head to southern Ontario, where they have the best science-based management. Indeed, I am shocked and appalled that here in northwestern Ontario, we have special regulations and give more protection to pike and even whitefish than we do smallmouth bass.”
I asked Schramm if he agrees with Pyzer. “In a word, no,” he replied. “There’s a lot of flex to that issue. Ridgway has done some of the best fishery science out there, and there is ample evidence out of Canada that smallmouths are highly vulnerable during the spawn, but there is no evidence that fishing during the spawn suppresses smallmouth populations farther south. Up north, they may not spawn every year, and the growing season is short in the north. If they don’t accumulate the energy required, they don’t spawn. Where does that happen most? Lake of the Woods, Rainy Lake—northern fisheries, especially after an early fall. Smallmouths must accumulate enough energy to get through a long winter. Start putting these things together, and fishing during the spawn could have a negative effect, especially on oligotrophic lakes up north. There are years when it could have an adverse effect, but it’s not universally true.”
Isermann, working in Wisconsin, has studied smallmouth recruitment intensely. “In our northern zone, we have a catch-and-release period only during spring,” he says. “During that parental-care period, anglers are catching vulnerable bass. But I think the risk lies along a gradient. Ridgway works mainly with oligotrophic-type lakes, where the risk is higher. Wisconsin’s environments are different. Smallmouth populations are more productive in mesotrophic lakes. Recruitment isn’t as much of an issue. But harm to the population is also related to the amount of pressure. It requires a certain number of anglers impacting the fishery to impart risk. Mark is an excellent scientist, and knows his systems. What’s important to me is how anglers self-police. There’s a trade-off where you’re giving up that great angling opportunity. If it’s having a negligible effect, why take away that fantastic angling opportunity?
“Localized impacts can occur, but the difference is immense between a 300-acre lake where fish are easy to locate and a larger lake where the scale alone makes location more difficult,” Isermann says. “I’ve worked across five different states, from Dale Hollow to the northern Great Lakes, and never felt bass recruitment was a reason for changes in regulations. I’m more worried about direct harvest. If nest-fishing is an issue, it’s where we’re seeing no fish growing into larger sizes. Overall, we’re seeing increases in abundance and size because recruitment has increased coincident with a warming environment.”
Pyzer , Schramm, and Isermann are all right. If fishery management in each region is truly science based, smallmouths will continue to thrive nationwide for the foreseeable future.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw, Brainerd, Minnesota, has been writing for In-Fisherman for over three decades.