It’s no secret to in-the-know anglers that good habitat benefits fish. For largemouth bass, good habitat often means woody cover and aquatic vegetation.
These simple truths are so fundamental that progressive fisheries managers invest a lot of resources in managing habitat, in particular aquatic vegetation.
And studies have supported the benefits to bass populations of desirable aquatic plants.
It is assumed that if habitat is good for the fish, it’s also good for fishing. Generally this is true, but the benefit of good habitat to anglers is rarely measured.
First, a quick refresher on the benefits of aquatic vegetation to fish. Good habitat benefits all fish, but I’ll focus on largemouth bass and aquatic vegetation because the benefits are the most obvious.
Bass congregate in aquatic vegetation. This cover increases their predatory efficiency. But bass are efficient predators in waters lacking vegetation, so there must be more to the attraction to aquatic vegetation.
Aquatic vegetation provides substrate (i.e., hard surface area) upon which algae can grow. These substrates also provide vast surface area for invertebrates like insect larvae that feed on the algae.
A variety of fish that feed on these invertebrates, like sunfish and minnows, congregate in the aquatic vegetation to enjoy the buffet and also seek shelter from predators.
Bass, in turn, congregate around the food. And bass anglers are more successful where bass are concentrated.
But habitat is not just about quantity: It’s also about quality.
And the benefit of quality habitat to fish and anglers was made clearly evident during my annual trip to Minnesota recently.
I fish a lot of lakes in north-central Minnesota, but Wabedo Lake, even though only about 1,200 acres, is visited at least once every trip because it consistently provides great fishing for 2- to 4 pound largemouth.
At least it did until last year.
When I fished the lake, the water was no longer clear, and the luxuriant growth of aquatic vegetation — particularly a broadleaf submergent plant with the common name of bass weed or muskie cabbage — was gone.
Plenty of other aquatic vegetation was there, but the bass were scarce. And it wasn’t just a slow-bite day.
A friend who fished the lake several times throughout the summer suffered the same poor fishing.
I went back to Wabedo this year, not with fond memories and great anticipation but because it was a windy day and the launch ramp was well protected from the waves.
Despite the difficult fishing conditions, I caught 19 bass — all over 2 pounds, with several bumping 4 pounds.
The water was clear and thick patches of bass weed were prevalent. Two other trips to Wabedo during my too-short vacation were equally productive.
I don’t know what caused the funk in 2015. The watershed of the lake is forested, so there is no runoff from farm lands that might flush a load of sediment or nutrients into the lake. The shoreline has a moderate number of private homes, but there was no new construction that might signal alteration of the riparian zone.
Possibly unusual temperature conditions in the spring last year favored an algae bloom that suppressed the growth of the bass weed.
What is clear is that quality bass in Wabedo didn’t disappear. In fact, I caught more big bass this year than in years past.
They didn’t grow that large in a couple months. Heck, in Minnesota it takes a bass at least seven or eight years to grow to 4 pounds.
The science is lacking, but my fish story underscores the message that good habitat — in this case the presence of a particular type of native vegetation — is good for the fish and good for fishing.
Progressive fishery managers have recognized the benefits of establishing desirable native aquatic vegetation, and procedures are pretty well worked out for doing so.
Certainly more efforts are needed to improve fish habitat by establishing native aquatic vegetation, but possibly the next research direction should focus on which specific aquatic plants are best for the fish and best for fishing.