As I write this column, it’s late December. It’s been the coldest early winter I can remember, and the forecast doesn’t look any better. As much as I like winter fishing for the solitude and the chance for a big fish, it’s going to take a few more degrees and some sunshine to get me fired up about hitching the boat and heading out. Time to reflect.
Everybody’s heard that fishing “ain’t as good as it used to be.” If you’re old enough to have been fishing 60 years ago, I might agree. Or if you happened to be in the right place at the right time to enjoy the first five to eight years of a newly impounded reservoir, I might agree.
But otherwise, I think the best bass fishing is right now. And I’m optimistic that the best bass fishing is yet to come.
Fisheries management is a young profession. Sixty years ago, only a few states had fisheries management agencies, and their limited staff learned to manage fish populations by some mysterious concoction of basic biology, intuition, trial and error, and dedication. Today, all states have fisheries agencies charged by law to conserve and enhance fishery resources for the benefit of people.
It’s been fast-forward up a steep learning curve, and fisheries management has come a long way in a short time.
Here are my picks for the most-significant advances in largemouth bass management in this short but productive history.
I have to put length limits on top of the list based on their demonstrated effectiveness coast to coast.
Fifty years ago, when bass were abundant and anglers were scarce, it was somewhere between a sin and a crime not to harvest a limit of bass. But the popularity of bass fishing grew and catches — both in terms of numbers and size — declined.
In response, bass managers began tinkering with size limits in the 1970s. At the same time, bass anglers were changing — they wanted to catch larger bass, and some were willing to forego harvest to achieve that.
By the 1980s the merits of minimum-length limits and releasing fish were well established. The science of size limits continued to advance, and by the 1990s various customized size limits, like slot limits, were used to achieve different goals and accommodate differences in bass populations and habitats.
Today, managers use computerized population models to select the right regulation to achieve desired fishery goals.
The introduction of Florida bass into California demonstrated that genes have a lot to do with trophy bass. Managers from Texas and Oklahoma east to the Atlantic began experimenting with Florida bass.
Beginning in the 1990s, bass records were being broken almost before the ink was dry from the last entry.
Some biologists warned of catastrophic consequences of genetic mixing, but it’s been 20 years and those fears have yet to materialize. Infusion of Florida bass genes did more than produce bigger bass — it demonstrated how important trophy fish are. And that has pumped adrenaline into both bass fishing and bass management.
When I was in grad school in the ’70s, reservoirs drew a lot of fish management attention, and black bass was the focus of much of that attention. We learned about boom-and-bust cycles in new reservoirs — great fishing for the first seven to 10 years, and then gradual decline.
Managers didn’t really understand what caused the decline or how to reverse it. But with few new reservoirs being built it was time to figure it out or spend the rest of our fisheries management careers listening to anglers whine that “fishin’ ain’t as good as it used to be.”
Fisheries managers learned that appropriately planned drawdowns could be fountains of youth. We saw tremendous explosions of bass coincident with the initial expansion of aquatic vegetation.
Unfortunately, the rapidly expanding vegetation was usually exotic plants like hydrilla and Eurasian water milfoil that often reached nuisance proportions and created more management problems than benefits.
But the message was simple: Bass, like most other fish, depend on good habitat.
Across the nation, active habitat management programs are now in place. Ten years ago, aquatic vegetation management meant eradicating undesirable plants. Today, we are trying to establish desirable, native plants. And we need to learn when we should embrace non-natives like hydrilla.
Habitat management, whether in natural lakes, reservoirs, or rivers, can only be good. Time will tell if the benefits outweigh the costs. I’m betting they will.
I think the big issue will be habitat. Work will continue to try new habitat enhancement programs, but we also must guard the most basic element of habitat — water quality.