The state of Florida recently made a bold move with a major change in harvest regulations for largemouth bass. While tournaments will be exempt provided they play by the rules, daily harvest of bass will be limited to five fish, only one of which may be longer than 16 inches.
The primary purpose of this regulation is to increase the number of large bass within the state’s vast bass fisheries, thus increasing the chances of anglers catching a trophy rather than just settling for “eaters." However, the inception of the rule is what’s important, as it sets a precedent like none that I’ve seen in governmental fisheries management.
Surrounded by water, fisheries management is a daily topic of conversation in the Sunshine State. And while the Deep South’s unique environment prevents identical bass management in other areas of the country, it’s important to note that the overall goal of such management is changing.
For generations, the primary purpose of fish and wildlife management has been to produce sustainable stocks of harvestable animals. In other words, keep our lakes filled with fish for the table. You see, my father’s generation – and his father’s before – fished to eat. There was no consideration of angling simply for the sport. Sure, there was chatter of rich folks doing so while on tarpon adventures in the Keys, or high in the Rockies while pursuing trout, but not in real, rural America.
Fisheries managers, realizing that fish stocks were capable of depletion, found it necessary to regulate those stocks through bag limits. The formula for doing so was fairly simple: Determine the amount of fish going out vs. the amount coming back in through reproduction, and hope to stay in the black.
Not surprisingly, fast growing food-fish were the key to the equation, and bass fit the bill. And to be considered big enough to clean, a bass needed to reach about 12 inches.
Therefore, government agencies did all they could to manage for sustainable bass fisheries with high numbers of fish in this harvestable size range. In fact, throughout the 1980’s, many game and fish agencies were known to scoff at the idea of managing for trophy fish, as big bass did little to meet the accepted management goals.
As society changed, so did our bass-fishing behaviors. Americans had more disposable income and began fishing for reasons other than to fill the freezer. “Sport fishing” became a real term and, when combined with the ever-expanding tournament bass fishing scene, releasing bass became more common. In fact, today anglers release far more bass than they keep.
In addition to our changing fishing behaviors, our primary target has also evolved. Nowadays, more anglers pursue trophy bass rather than numbers of small fish in many parts of the country. Such practices have been commonplace in Florida, Texas and California for decades, yet fisheries managers are finally getting the memo.
Much of this movement is likely due to the overwhelming popularity of trophy fisheries outside of the traditional Big Bass Belt. Lake Chickamauga immediately comes to mind, as thousands of bass nuts flock there each year to chase trophy pre-spawners. Local restaurants, hotels and tackle shops are taking notice, as are management agencies nationwide.
We’re seeing the same thing in the smallmouth world, as more anglers travel to areas near the Great Lakes in hopes of landing a weighty bronzeback, rather than heading to the far reaches of Canada to catch boatloads of scrappy 2-pounders.
Yep, for most of us, big bass are where it’s at. But is it fair to impose our ideals on everyone on the lake?
In the past, many of you may have recognized my discomfort in watching bass go to the frying pan or the taxidermist. Yet, is such behavior dangerous? And what makes certain fish better than others? For example, I’ll never eat a bass, but have a heck of a time releasing a nice crappie.
The most common accepted answer revolves around pressure placed on a fishery. We’re told that, due to the overwhelming popularity of bass fishing, we need catch and release, otherwise we’d wipe out the best lakes. But how, then, does a lake like Erie – one of the most heavily fished walleye waters, where catch and release of any size fish is nearly non-existent – continue to produce more walleyes for harvest than any lake in the world? Sure, some of its secrets lie in its size, but Erie cranks out over a million walleyes each year that end up on the table, many of which are very old, large fish.
Due to pressures on springtime spawners, Erie’s management practices have changed and bag limits are reduced each spring in Ohio waters. However, if managers suddenly limited harvest through laws similar to those in Florida, there would be anarchy in the streets of Port Clinton.
While I’m all for zero harvest of big bass, really, what makes it right for managers to move in this direction? How is it acceptable for regulations that group all users into one category? By proceeding to this next level, are we taking bass management too far?
(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.)