The headline grabbed my attention: Guntersville Anglers Concerned About Downturn.
The corresponding story detailed the situation. Local anglers around Alabama’s famed lake had witnessed a major decline in their fishing. Scientists confirmed an overall decline in the number of mature bass in the lake. A conservation group has even been formed to further study the “problem."
But is it all for naught?
It’s likely that every bass geek in the country, maybe even in the world, has heard of the wide spot in the Tennessee River named for John Gunter. In the history of our sport, perhaps no other fishery has kept up with Guntersville in the ranks of all-time best tournament performer. For decades, 20-pound-plus bags have been common, attracting thousands of competitors and tourists to the lake each year.
Lately, however, things haven’t been so dreamy. In fact, in my reference piece, Guntersville guide Mike Carter stated that it’s nearly impossible for visiting anglers to “catch much of anything” on the lake these days.
So what’s going on, and what can be done?
It appears that the culprit may be bass anglers themselves, as we’ve seen recently in fisheries throughout the country. For the last several years, as reported here, numerous fisheries have fallen victim to overall declines credited to intense fishing pressure. Such pressure is the result of a number of factors.
An overall strong economy, combined with over a decade of recreation being directed toward the American outdoors, has pushed more traffic onto our natural resources. In the terms of bass fishing, this has placed more anglers in the mix who now travel to great lengths to experience world-class fishing. Such anglers are more educated and better equipped than ever before, resulting in more efficient pressure being placed on resident bass stocks.
And make no mistake, it’s partly this pressure that pushes the fisheries back.
Sure, in each case we continue to hear excuses for an overall decline in bass stocks, some possibly warranted, others bordering on absurd. Discussions range from predator fish and gill nets to fish-eating birds and exotic species. Heck, there’s even discussion of accidental bass deaths due to bowfishing in the Guntersville case.
But the culprit is pressure.
I spend a reasonable amount of time reviewing studies and reports on bass, and frequently speak with biologists on the subject. Quite frequently, I’m surprised by the overall mortality of these fish within our lakes.
A case in point: A recent trophy bass study, in which a dozen or so monster fish were radio-tagged and tracked throughout a chain of lakes, experienced nearly 50 percent mortality of the control group within the first year. This was long after the possibility of any complications from biologists sampling or handling the fish, and was attributed to a combination of old age and catch-and-release mortality.
For the first time in my memory, the downturn at Guntersville is being publicly attributed to the same factors, rather than blaming everything else. Tournaments, especially those held in the summer, are likely a major contributor to bass mortality, even though those events release the fish. You see, scientific documentation proves that bass cannot survive the stress associated with most bass tournaments and weigh-in procedures when water temperatures soar well into the 80s.
But even here, we likely see a divide within the bass community. As local tournament anglers stay mum, area guides at Guntersville are causing much of the stir, as they witness an overall decline in fishing and reduced repeat business.
The same has occurred, or will, at other top fisheries across the country. Florida fell victim first, likely from relentless trophy harvest along with tournament pressure. East Coast bass gurus claim the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay have never been the same. And much of the Great Lakes region saw rapid declines in smallmouth fishing once the sparkly boats showed up.
In these cases, harvest regulations help little. The culprit’s not catch and keep. It’s catch-and-release-and-die.
But what can we do? Is there a solution other than outlawing summer tournaments, or tournaments altogether, or even fishing for bass at certain times of the year?
The answer is yes.
Postponing summer tournaments would help, but if that’s not a possibility, reducing creel limits can aid tremendously. The math is simple: six fish in the livewell stay much healthier in times of potential stress than 10.
Weigh-in procedures should be quick, with competitors holding fish in aerated livewells until just before transporting to the scales. Holding tanks only help if the water is cooled and mesh bags are used, as in the Bassmaster Tournament Trails. Plastic bags kill fish in a matter of a few minutes.
And, by all means, reduce the possibility of delayed mortality with fish caught and released. Never let bass flop around on boat carpet, place them in a treated livewell before and after weighing or measuring, and only keep them out of the water for one or two quick photos.
It’s pointless to release bass to die; they’re better fried than fed to turtles.
(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.)