Will bass anglers — and the lakes they love — go down to Sheol if catch-and-release principles are abandoned?
Bass once made up much of my family’s diet from the 1960s until the mid-1980s. If you go back to the history of catch and release, you’ll see that Ray Scott, founder of B.A.S.S., originally initiated this program, since he’d received so much criticism in the early days of B.A.S.S about his tournament anglers catching and killing large numbers of big bass.
For instance, after one tournament held on Alabama’s Lake Eufaula, I saw an 18-foot johnboat loaded to the top of its gunwales with bass that weighed from 4 to 12 pounds each. Scenes like this resulted in a public outcry.
To counter this negative publicity, Scott began to promote catch-and-release with this slogan: “Catch and keep the bass you want to eat when you go bass fishing, but throw the rest back.”
Over the years, the philosophy of tournament bass fishing has changed to: “Release all the bass you catch in a day, so that we’ll have more bass to fish for and can make more money catching them.”
However, a lake or a river system, just like a giant aquarium, can hold only so many fish. The more fish it has in it, the less likely that those fish will grow at a normal rate.
According to Gary Tilyou, administrator of the Inland Fisheries Section of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, harvesting bass is actually quite healthy.
“If fishermen don’t keep the bass below and above the slot, a slot limit won’t work,” he said. “The reason a lake has a slot limit is because biologists have studied the fish population in that lake, and have determined that the bass aren’t growing at a normal rate. Therefore, to make more food available for certain-size bass to grow larger, the bass on either side of the slot have to be harvested.”
A lake can develop a bottleneck of certain sizes of bass resulting in numbers of stunted small bass and not very many big bass.
For instance, in one lake where this occurred, 6-year-old bass had grown to only 13 to 14 inches long. To solve this problem, the state imposed a slot limit of 13 to 16 inches on the lake. If the anglers would catch and keep the bass less than 13-inches long and more than 16-inches long, then more bass could grow quicker, due to the abundance of available food.
For bass populations to stay dynamic and produce good numbers of all sizes, a certain number of young bass have to stay in the population long enough to grow to those longer lengths and heavier body weights of mature bass. Biologists call this “recruitment.” When fisheries managers’ surveys of a lake indicate that not enough young bass in the lake are growing to the older-age classes, a state’s fisheries section generally will impose a length limit, which requires anglers to throw back all the bass less than a certain length.
From time to time, if there’s a poor year class of bass produced and not many young bass survive after the spawn, then the state will put length limits in place. Many factors can cause a year class of bass to have poor survival. The length limits help to solve the problem of boom or bust in bass populations that biologists have seen taking place in lakes for years. But once the bass population starts to grow, often there becomes too many of a certain length of bass.
For instance, a lake may have a huge population of 15-inches-and-longer bass in it, but very few bass less than 15 inches. To solve this problem, the biologists impose a length limit of 15 inches in hopes that anglers will remove a large number of bass 15 inches and longer and throw back all the bass not 15 inches in length. Then the small bass will have plenty of food to grow larger.
If you want to help the lakes that have slot or length limits, learn to fry, grill and bake bass. If bass-club members in Louisiana will hold fish fries at the weigh-ins of their fishing tournaments on slot or length-limit lakes, they can catch, weigh-in and release all the bass within the slot limit, and fry up the bass outside the slot limit or above the length limit.
If your fishing club doesn’t want to hold a fish fry, then clean the small bass and the big bass taken at a slot lake, and donate your bass fillets to a charity that feeds hungry people.
Do you and your bass-club members have the courage to break from the tradition of catching and releasing all bass to become fisheries managers on public waters? Can you weed out the bass from a lake that fishery biologists say anglers must remove for the lake to stay healthy and grow bigger bass?
If bass fishermen don’t start catching and eating bass on the lakes with slot or length limits, these lakes will hold fewer big bass. Because anglers have made bass sacred cows, fishermen may view eating bass as an unpardonable sin. However, if bass fishermen don’t change this mindset, we’ll see more lakes across Louisiana and the nation producing fewer big bass and more little bass.
How does this change take place? The bass fishermen have to become informed on how and why slot and length limits work, and learn the role that bass-club members can play in fish management.
“One of the major problems we have with convincing bass fishermen to keep small bass on lakes where there’s a slot limit is the bass fishermen say, ‘If we keep bass under 13 inches, there won’t be any bass to grow up to be 14- to 16-inches long,’” Tilyou said. “But we’ve never seen this problem occur. We’ve never had a lake with a slot limit on it where the number of smaller bass that are supposed to be kept and eaten has reduced the manageable limit of young bass in a population.”
Even in a private pond that gets fished heavily every day, rarely do fishermen ever catch enough small bass to keep the pond in balance. Most often, about every two years, biologists have to come in and use electro-fishing techniques to harvest a large population of small bass to keep the fish in the pond healthy and growing at a normal rate.
“In 1981, Louisiana reduced the limit on bass an angler could keep from 15 to 10,” Tilyou said. “At that time, we felt that 15 bass was just too many fish for an angler to keep. With Louisiana’s limit of 10 bass per day per fisherman, we don’t feel that if a fisherman wants to catch and eat those 10 bass, that he’s detrimentally impacting the resource.
“Now if every bass fisherman catches and eats 10 bass every day he goes fishing, then we probably will have to reduce the bass limit. However, our harvest records indicate that a bass fisherman on the average harvests only 1 1/2 bass per trip. Also, many bass fishermen come in with zero bass in their livewells. They’re catching the bass and throwing them back. We also know that weather and the bass’s mood play a major role on how many bass a fisherman catches in a day.”
Even if you can take and keep 10 bass every day, very-few anglers will catch 10 bass each and every time they go fishing. Very few bass fishermen and their families can eat a limit of 10 bass every day, 7 days a week. So you won’t overharvest the resource by catching, keeping and eating 10 bass.
I have it on very good authority that, regardless of what your bass-club buddies or the fishermen you meet at the marina tell you, you won’t go to hell for taking a limit of bass home to eat.
Like all of us, bass fishermen don’t like change, even if the change means better bass fishing. So for many years, bass fishermen have had the gospel of catch-and-release so engrained in their attitudes that they’ve made the bass sacred to the detriment of their own sport. If we don’t change our attitudes and our fishing practices, we’ll watch the number of big bass in Louisiana and the rest of the nation continue to decline.
Bass clubs can play a major role in improving lakes throughout Louisiana, if they’ll work with the DWF to remove bass on lakes with slot limits and oversized bass on lakes with length limits. Just about every bass boat has at least two to three livewells in it. So why not keep the bass you want to weigh in during the tournament in one live well and then put the other bass in an ice chest or another livewell? Take them home to eat yourself or to give to friends and family who like a good mess of fish.
The next time you’re at the dock or the marina, and two bass fishermen come in with a legal limit of 10 bass each in an ice chest, instead of screaming, “You game hogs! You’re killing all the fish in the lake,” tell them, “Good job. Looks like you and your family will have a good fish fry this weekend. I think I’ll go out and catch some bass myself to eat.”