Recent news took the bass tournament industry by storm, as the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) enacted rules governing tournaments on the state’s most heavily used fisheries, the Potomac River and Upper Chesapeake Bay. Anglers across the region are rightfully concerned, as regulations governing the use of holding tanks and release boats will make it nearly impossible for many small organizations to host tournaments unless they otherwise comply to a new slot limit, or rent a release boat from the state. Readers should take time to review the proposed regulations now if they haven’t already, as explaining here would just add to this nearly overwhelming topic.
Like many of you, I became very concerned at first glance of the new rules, immediately recognizing governmental mumbo-jumbo that makes little sense in the real world. I swear, sometimes I think fish and wildlife organizations get together for 2-for-1 margarita night, then promptly write up their new regs afterward. But, to be fair, it’s important to dive in a bit.
First off, as many of you know, I have long been somewhat critical of bass tournaments in regard to their propensity for massive relocation of fish. For years, organizations like B.A.S.S. have combatted these practices with the use of giant release boats, distributing fish following weigh-ins. These efforts, however, have been proven to be somewhat ineffective for venues supporting long-distance runs by competitors like Lake Champlain, resulting in stockpiling and, later, considerable harvest of bass by recreational anglers. The Maryland DNR is also recognizing this problem and appears to be attributing it, in part, to the overall decline in their fisheries.
Also discussed is the propensity for delayed mortality of large fish. According to the MDNR, mortality rates surpassing 30 percent have been found in some instances. From a scientific standpoint, this is where the new proposals make sense, including use of release boats, holding tanks for fish following weigh-in, and limiting the amount of time fish are held in bags prior to being weighed.
As a fan and participant of bass tournaments for over 25 years, as well as a guy who keeps up on the science end of things, I can assure you that delayed mortality is most attributed to bass being held in bags – prior to being weighed – than all other factors combined. Several studies have been conducted on this subject; all concluding that this practice can quickly become a death sentence, yet it’s pretty easy to fix.
Therefore, I can understand the desire of the MDNR to micro-manage tournaments in their state to some degree. However, the enactment of the new rules, as well as the methods used to put them in place, has been simply ludicrous.
Further review of the literature provided by the MDNR exemplifies this. Numerous times, the paperwork uses fairly inconclusive wording: what the Department “should have” done “in hindsight," or what “the Department hopes” will be the outcome. I don’t know about you, but I’m not real crazy about my governing body making new regulations based on hopes and hindsight.
In addition, a few other aspects just don’t line up. The new regs only affect the summer season and leave no consideration for the spawn period. Also, they are only being enacted in Maryland, yet apply to fisheries shared by multiple states. Therefore, without question, many events will simply move to the spring season (bad), or shift to a venue outside of Maryland; further from the primary fishing grounds, leading to longer transport and further relocation of bass (worse). Here again, the MDNR acknowledges these potential problems, but offers no resolution.
Finally, I must mention what seems to be a menial addition to these major changes: cull floats that pierce the jaws of bass will also no longer be allowed. I call this out for one very basic reason: nowhere, to my knowledge, has it ever been proven that this does any damage to a fish, or affect, in any way, it’s ability to successfully feed or survive. In fact, in my youth, my father and I often kept big bass caught while on vacation on stringers, tied to the boat dock. Later, we would transport them home and stock them in our backyard pond. We would catch these fish – recognizable from the “stringer holes” in their bottom jaws – over and over through the years, their health as stable as the day they were stocked.
In any case, it’s important to recognize a few underlying factors of this issue and how they affect bass fishing as a whole, all across the world.
First off, we all continue to owe a great deal of gratitude to the instrumental forefathers of tournament fishing, most notably Ray Scott and his counterparts, who created the society that would later impact regulations for all fishermen, as well as the health of the fisheries themselves.
And, finally, while I’m a strong proponent for any regulation change intended to help a bass fishery, here we see the continued ignorance of the real problem. Nutrient loading, elevated levels of pharmaceuticals in water, habitat destruction and aquatic weed annihilation are problems creating far more impact than catch-and-release practices. And until we can find the courage to take on those, we’re all just wasting our breath.
(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.)