Sometimes, as bass fishermen, we forget to consider others. You see, time and again we’ve been told how bass are America’s most popular game fish, primary drivers of the U.S. fishing business, responsible for thousands of jobs and millions of dollars being added to the economy. Further proof is evident with bass tournaments far outnumbering any other organized fishing effort.
So it goes without saying that I was a bit shocked to learn that the Colorado Parks and Wildlife – the organization responsible for public good in the outdoors all across that state – continues to wage war against smallmouth bass, promoting the total eradication of the species in many bodies of water.
How could this be? One needs only to look at locales across the Midwest and Great Lakes to see the beneficial impact of smallmouth – and their American Express Card-carrying pursuers – for an area’s tourism bureau.
But as I’d learn when reconsidering, perhaps there’s more to fishing than dollars.
The state of Colorado is doing the dirty work. Fed up with talk of saving delicate, endangered species, it's putting its money where its mouth is. Across many bodies of water, plans have been in action to restore all sorts of fish, many considered “baitfish” by bass-heads, but viewed equally important to the ecologist.
We touched on a primary method for ensuring the survival of species like humpback chubs and razorback suckers: reducing predator numbers, including bass – most often smallmouth. You see, smallmouth bass aren’t native to many fisheries throughout Colorado – especially riverine environments downstream from many reservoirs. Once turned loose into these fragile ecosystems through floods or want-to-be biologist anglers, the brown bass put the hurt on native species, many of which are federally endangered. In the end, the native fish lose, as is often the case.
The Colorado Parks and Wildlife website sums it up, addressing anglers on Ridgeway Reservoir, just north of Telluride: “We need your help. Please keep all smallmouth bass you catch at Ridgeway Reservoir.”
Catch and keep. Plain and simple. No size restrictions, no bag limits, no regulation.
The theme is repeated across the state, with catch-and-kill tournaments offering decent prizes without entry fees. All are attempts to reduce or totally eliminate smallmouth and save many species that will never be seen, or caught, by Colorado fishermen.
Now, to many, the thought of this type of management is absurd. How could a species of sucker possibly have more significance than a bass?
Today, we’re seeing more importance placed on tourism dollars than in recent history, as many state agencies are realizing that out-of-towners are driving their economy more so than even local business. The state of Florida has thrived on this for decades, yet, now we’re seeing the same trends in places like the upper Midwest with its thousands of lakes, mountainous belts throughout the southeast, and the kayak-friendly rivers of coal country.
Along with much of this mentality is an upswing in pride of local history and diversity. Local farmer’s markets, local honey, local beers and, yes, local fish. Whether they be king salmon or chub suckers, it’s important to recognize the historical value of native species, flashy or not.
Such brings up the underlying point: it’s becoming more apparent that the unique, ecological significance of our wild places should not be ignored. For far too long, we’ve allowed our own ignorance to paint with a broad brush, both in terms of species introduction and management, more so within our fisheries than anywhere else. As I frequently use as an example of man’s stupidity, remember: the common carp was introduced to this country as a game fish.
And don’t forget, sometimes we figure out what we’re missing a little further down the road. Oftentimes, a resurgence occurs for an activity once considered a waste of time, or a new value is placed on an otherwise written-off topic. A case in point: gator gar. Thought to be a man-eater in times of lore, then later simply a nuisance, their numbers were pushed back to the brink of extinction. Then, through enlightened thinking and stringent management, gator gar numbers rebounded, to the levels of supporting a unique catch-and-release fishery and guiding industry in select locations. The list of species responsible for similar interest is lengthy, and often not regulated to those pursued by anglers.
Sometimes, we need to sit back and see what happens. Most often, it’s in our best interest to support diversity within an ecosystem, as well as lean on God’s plan for direction over our own. Sure, bass fishing’s wildly popular, but it ain’t the only game in town.
(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.)