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The Evolution of Quality Bass Management

The Evolution of Quality Bass Management
Eric Engbretson photo

Fifty years. That’s about how long many fishery agencies have been managing black bass.. Black bass management occurred before the 1970s, but it was little more than number limits intended to equitably distribute the catch, season limits intended to protect spawning fish, and minimum size limits to allow fish to spawn once before they were available to harvest. These management strategies may have been intuitive or socially driven, but they had little biological basis.

Fifty years approximates what I call the modern era of bass management. Although bass management didn’t instantly become “modern” 50 years ago, and no single event delineates the transition to “modern,” three things happened in a relatively brief time span at the start of the modern era that, in my opinion, drastically influenced black bass management and the black bass resources that contemporary anglers enjoy: 1) Recognition that “quality” (size) of bass was important; 2) Tournaments and catch and release; and 3) The information explosion. As you will quickly realize, these are not independent factors. There is much interplay and even synergism among them.

I’ll expand on each, but first, a quick history lesson because the history of black bass fishing has influenced the evolution of bass management. One-hundred years ago (and for thousands of years before that), black bass thrived in the abundant natural lakes in peninsular Florida and the northern half of their range. Giant largemouth bass attracted anglers to Florida. But in the northern states and Canada, tradition lured natural lake anglers to other species—walleye, pike, muskie, and a variety of panfish. With little fishing effort, harvest was low, bass stayed abundant, and many populations contained high proportions of large fish, a condition fishery biologists call large population size structure and common to unexploited populations.

One hundred years ago, the southeastern U.S. had very few lakes. Here, populations of stream-loving black bass, like smallmouth, spotted, and shoal bass, were abundant in many rivers and streams, and largemouth bass thrived in oxbows and sloughs of these rivers. These rivers, streams, and their backwaters provided only limited bass fishing opportunities and access was often difficult and limited to bank fishing and small watercraft.

Dams built for navigation, flood control, hydropower, and water supply, mostly in the 1930s through 1960s, greatly expanded bass fishing opportunities. Bass, especially largemouth bass, flourished in these newly flooded impoundments. The relatively few bass anglers, after they learned how to fish these unfamiliar and often expansive reservoirs, enjoyed bountiful catches of large bass. As they did, bass fishing effort and harvest increased, and catches decreased. Biological studies in the 1960s documented that new reservoirs could be overfished a mere two weeks after opening.

Summing this up, bass fishing in northern waters was of minor importance, and fishery management agencies did little, if any, bass management. In the South, bass fishing opportunities exploded, bass fishing effort soared, and bass resources declined. Biologists in the 1960s and 1970s also attributed the decline in bass populations to a boom-bust cycle in the new reservoirs, in which fish populations in the newly flooded impoundments expanded under the “trophic upsurge,” then diminished as nutrients became less available. Managers sought strategies to restore the excellent bass fisheries the reservoirs were capable of producing. I was a naïve fisheries graduate student at the time and not aware of what fishery management leaders of the day were thinking, but to my knowledge, no one asked the question: why would reservoir bass populations decline after 7 to 10 years, while 10,000-year old natural lakes remained productive? Although the

answers are now beginning to become apparent, this question still has not been explicitly addressed.

Now, back to the three most significant changes that led to the current bass-fishing opportunities. These changes largely originated in the Southeast where black bass were a primary sportfish and then spread north.

Quest for Quality

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when biologists throughout the Southeast were becoming aware of declines in bass fishing, Dr. Richard Anderson at the Missouri Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit suggested higher size limits would increase the number and size structure of bass populations and improve the “quality” of bass that anglers caught. Intuitively this makes sense, given that harvest was the prevailing ethic. Fishery managers of the 70s lacked the population models that are now routinely used to predict population changes of candidate size limits, and there was no hard science to point the way to restricting harvest. But through Anderson’s persistence and the reality that many bass fisheries were in decline, fishery managers began to look at elevated size limits to improve the size structure of bass populations and provide more large fish for anglers.

In 1980, Lake Fork opened to fishing, and it was a grand opening indeed with a supporting cast of thousands of very large bass. To sustain the large population size structure and high-quality fishing, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department implemented a “slot limit,” whereby an intermediate size range of bass (initially 14 to 18 inches) was protected from harvest. This was not the first use of protected slot limits, but Lake Fork showcased the benefits of slot limits to anglers and biologists. Still in the pre-population-model-era, slot limits also were an intuitive regulation. The reasoning was (and still is) that a lake has a finite forage supply based on its fertility and habitat. Reducing the bass population, primarily by harvesting smaller bass, keeps forage abundant and results in fast growth of remaining bass the intermediate-size bass in the protected slot—to trophy size.

Lake Fork was, and still is, an outstanding trophy bass fishery. Regulations have changed over time, but the slot-limit concept was retained; it is now a 16- to 24-inch protected slot. Lake Fork’s enduring success is also attributable to infusion of Florida bass genes and excellent and dynamic habitat, but this single reservoir certainly put quality bass management and use of customized size limits to achieve that goal on the radar screen of both anglers and fishery managers.

But a venue to catch hefty bass and management strategies to help make it happen doesn’t completely explain the transition to managing for high-quality bass populations. After all, double-digit bass catches were common in many Florida lakes long before Lake Fork and the modern bass era. What created the demand for quality bass?


Tournaments and Catch and Release

Bass tournaments became a significant part of the bass fishing world in the late 1960s. Yes, bass competitions preceded Ray Scott’s All American tournament in 1967, but Scott and the soon-to-follow Bass Anglers Sportsman Society coupled tournaments with media to broaden the geographic and social reach of competitive fishing. “Professional” anglers assembled at a wide range of fisheries and demonstrated the quality of bass fishing available. Bass clubs formed and local and regional tournaments popped up everywhere that black bass swam.

Regardless of the level of competition, the outcome of these events is determined by the size—usually weight, but increasingly length of fish caught. Big fish win tournaments. I think it is safe to say bass anglers have always liked to catch big fish and most anglers recognize really big fish are a rare event. That hasn’t changed, but what has changed is that some of my bass-fishing friends—both those who fish tournaments and even those who don’t know describe their day’s catch not by number and size range but by “the biggest five would have weighed . . .” In other words, a tournament limit. Tournaments and the media that surrounded them created a demand for big fish.

Bass tournaments have had a large effect on bass management. An average of 42,000 bass tournaments occurred on waters in only 14 southeastern U.S. states in 2009 to 2011. Some of these tournaments are large events fished by professional anglers, but most are smaller local or regional events.

Tournaments brought catch and release (C&R) to bass fishing. Bass anglers were consumption oriented when tournaments began to grow. With time and as bass populations decreased in both size and numbers, bass anglers may have autonomously adopted C&R. Maybe, but as tournaments and the associated media ballooned they became the perfect vehicle for disseminating the C&R message and spreading the practice.

C&R undoubtedly has had a huge influence on bass fisheries, particularly those that now support increased angling effort compared to only 10 or 15 years ago. C&R hit the bass fishing scene about the same time as managers began using restrictive harvest regulations to improve bass population size structure. Fishing regulations, which always mean you have to stop doing something you are presently doing, are reflexively opposed by anglers. Would the slot limits at Lake Fork and elsewhere have been as easily accepted and successful if C&R hadn’t already gained some momentum? Or maybe the slot limits were unnecessary as suggested by a study on Ross Barnett Reservoir by Mississippi fishery researchers that found little effect of several bass size-limit regulations but an increase in population size structure that corresponded in time with broad adoption of C&R.

Information Transfer

I suggest the media was pivotal to creating the demand for quality bass fisheries. And, for better and for worse, contemporary fishery management responds to angler demand.

Information about fishing has been available through long-established magazines like Field and Stream and Outdoor Life for more than a century, but the information lacked the specificity needed to help both novice and experienced anglers catch bass in the waters near them. In-Fisherman magazine began in 1975 and provided much more in-depth content to help anglers catch multiple species, including black bass. Tournaments and the iconic anglers they produced provided black bass fishing content for new publications with a focus on bass fishing and bass tournaments. And everything associated with tournaments centered on size of the fish.

Timing is everything. Television became an important source of fishing information and made fishing more visible as a recreational alternative. Tournaments played an important role. Adding to the excitement of bass fishing, tournaments provided glitz, drama, and celebrities for the media. Fast forward to the 21st century, digital media vastly accelerated the amount and reach of information available to bass anglers. And the focus always was large fish.

Trends in freshwater anglers age 16 and older (blue line) and percent of those anglers who fish for black bass (orange bars).

I have observed increased numbers of bass anglers on the water, especially in the last 10 to 15 years, and hypothesized that enhanced media exposure of bass fishing contributed to expanding numbers of anglers. But the data do not support my observations. Beginning in 1955, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has coordinated with the U.S. Bureau of Census to obtain information about anglers and hunters nationwide every five years. The 1975 survey was the first to report participation for different angler groups, and the surveys beginning in 1980 are reasonably comparable. Angler numbers have fluctuated since 1980, but the proportion of anglers fishing for bass have not changed significantly. Why the mismatch with my observations? Maybe it is not the total number of anglers that affects my observation of more anglers, but where they congregate: larger waters with a lot of tournaments, a lot of large bass, and high visibility created by the media. I add that bass fishing effort appears little changed on most of the smaller, less publicized lakes I fish.

I think it is a safe conclusion that bass fishing information largely generated in tournaments and available through multiple media increased the demand for high-quality bass fisheries and, in turn, action by fishery management agencies to fulfill the demand. I find it encouraging that efforts by fishery managers to improve the quality of bass populations are now championed by informed anglers who are positively influencing fishery management. However, not all anglers are getting good information.

Challenges Ahead

Overall, in my opinion, the change to quality bass management is definitely a good thing. Catch on any given day varies, but the anticipation of catching large bass greatly adds to the excitement of a day on the water. But there are adverse consequences and even potential problems that can result from quality bass management and the forces that contributed to it.

Crowding on selected waters from tournaments and the ensuing media hype that concentrates anglers results in congestion at boat ramps and crowded waters. These are social issues, but concentrating angling effort may become a biological issue if the increased fishing effort reduces bass catchability. Further, unwavering adherence to C&R may decrease bass population size structure. Fisheries research in small waters has found that catch rate declines with fishing effort, and growth rate slows when smaller bass become overabundant. These findings need to be tested in larger waters.

The media has provided information that has helped anglers improve their skills and catches and fostered quality bass management. But some media sources seem to be providing an increasing amount of misinformation—false information stated as fact—that is troublesome and can be dangerous. Digital media can be a high-speed rumor mill for misinformation and is prone to crowd appeal. Input from anglers can be valuable to fishery management, but I’ve heard and read numerous examples of fish biology and fishery management “information” sourced from anglers rather than trained fishery professionals qualified to provide reliable and scientifically valid information.

The Next 50 Years

Forward-thinking fishery managers developed strategies for improving bass fishing that embraced larger population size structures. Bass tournaments helped change consumptive anglers to conserve-the-resource anglers. Bass fishing information largely generated in tournaments and available through multiple media increased the demand for high-quality bass fisheries and, in turn, stimulated action by fishery management agencies to fulfill the demand. I find it encouraging, that efforts by fishery managers to improve the quality of bass populations are now championed by informed anglers who are positively influencing fishery management.

The future of quality bass fishing depends on dialogue and cooperation between well-informed anglers and fishery managers. With the widespread practice of C&R and selective harvest, quality bass fishing will be little influenced by regulations but strongly affected by habitat conservation and restoration.

*Dr. Hal Schramm, Counce, Tennessee, is a fishery scientist and frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications. 

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