How are bass faring in the nation’s last great overflow cypress swamp? Louisiana Sportsman did some research to find out.
Brent Bonadona remembers the halcyon days before Hurricane Andrew, when fishing in the Atchafalaya Basin was incredible.“There used to be a lot of 4-pounders out there,” the Port Allen angler said.
But that all ended in 1992, when Andrew crept across the state’s most-popular fishing destination, churning up the fertile waters and leaving an oxygen-deprived soup.
An estimated 5 million bass turned belly up, and area anglers panicked.
Clubs didn’t know where to hold monthly tournaments, and circuits were forced to find new waters where their anglers could catch a few fish.
The experience galvanized the fishing community, with anglers demanding the state take some action to bring the fishery back.
Fish caught in other state waters were carried in fishermen’s livewells and released in the Basin.
Angler groups also formed to work with the Department of Wildlife & Fisheries to draw attention to the plight of the Basin and to create temporary spawning facilities so bass fry could be poured into the void.
To amplify the effects of these stockings, a 14-inch-minimum size restriction was placed on the waters.
The minimum was initially a three-year measure just to get the bass population kick-started again, but surveys in 1995 and 1996 revealed that a majority of Basin anglers wanted it to remain in effect.
So that’s what the state has done. It’s been 12 years since the hurricane, and anglers still have to release all bass measuring less than 14 inches long.
That’s a good thing, Bonadona said.
“I think it helps, even though a lot of people don’t like it,” he said.
And there is opposition, mainly because anglers catch a lot of fish they have to release.
“You always hear it’s so hard to catch keepers,” he said. “They’re catching a lot of fish, but they have to throw most of them back.”
But Bonadona said he views that as part of the rebuilding process.
“I think it’s coming back. There’s starting to be some bigger fish,” he explained. “In the last two or three years, it’s really starting to get better.”
However, Bonadona added that he’s not sure if it will ever get back to where it once was.
“You’ve just got so much more pressure,” he said. “There’s still a pile of fish in there, but there’s so many more people trying to catch them.”
As for the numbers of fish longer than 14 inches, he said it’s only a matter of time even with the increase in fishing pressure.
“It wouldn’t be that long without the pressure, but it’s going to take a while to build back up,” Bonadona said.
However, DWF’s Mike Walker would argue that the fishery is actually about par with, and maybe even a little more healthy than, what existed before Hurricane Andrew.
Walker has devoted the past 16 years to studying the Basin’s various fisheries, and has spent considerable time compiling data on the health of the bass population.
An analysis of the Basin bass fishery points to increasing numbers of fish available to anglers since the destruction caused by Hurricane Andrew, Walker said.
The data this veteran biologist bases this claim on comes from electrofishing and creel surveys performed since 1989.
The most-scientific information comes from the electrofishing performed by Walker and his staff.
This basically entails a crew visiting various locations throughout the Basin and shocking bass to the surface. The bass that turn up are netted, measured and weighed. Some are released, while others are killed to collect age and growth information.
A look at the results of the fall electroshocking samples show that Basin bass are a highly variable population.
In 1990, biologists nabbed about 60 bass per hour, while in 2003 the number jumped to almost 100 per hour.
Between those years, the numbers fluctuated from a low of about 10 per hour in 1992 — right after the devastation of Andrew — to a high in 1994 of 180 bass per hour and everything in between.
But Walker quickly said he doesn’t even consider the results from 1992 through 1994 to be anywhere close to typical.
“That’s when the population was in recovery (from Hurricane Andrew),” Walker said. “1992 is the decimation of the population, 1993 is the somewhat recovery of the population, and 1994 is the recovery in what we call the new-reservoir effect.”
By 1994, the population had absolutely exploded, reflected in the 180-bass-per-hour electrofishing results.
“Everything needed for fish to exist existed in optimal conditions,” Walker said.
It was, in other words, as if a brand-new reservoir had been created: The bass that came from the rivers and were produced during the first two spawns following the hurricane were able to survive in much higher-than-normal percentages.
Outside of that three-year time period, however, the numbers have really not been much different than before Hurricane Andrew and the massive stockings that succeeded that storm.
“I’d say you’re looking at an equal average,” Walker said.
The same can be true for the success anglers have enjoyed over the years.
Between 1989 and 1992, creel surveys revealed that anglers averaged a per-hour catch of about .8 bass.
The catch rate includes every bass landed by an angler.
There were no creel surveys conducted in 1992, but in 1993 anglers were still apparently feeling the crunch from the hurricane. Catch rates had fallen to just more than .4 bass per hour.
But the 1994 creel surveys reflected the same population explosion illustrated in Walker’s electrofishing.
“The catch per hour was real high, but if you remember, we had that spike of fish …,” he explained.
But the catch rates began falling after 1994, down to just less than 1.4 bass per hour in 1995 to under 1 bass per hour in 1996.
The rate remained about the same, roughly .9 bass per hour, in 2003.
“In 2003, we have basically the same catch rate that we had in 1990 and 1992, and they’re all better than 1989,” Walker said. “Here we are in 2003, seven years after we made the 14-inch minimum more permanent, and we still have the same catch rates.”
That steady average is even more noticeable when looking at those fishermen who were not specifically targeting bass.
These anglers caught about .5 bass per hour before the storm, and that has never really changed.
What has changed is the size and number of fish being harvested and the number of bass being released.
In 1989, there were less than .15 bass per hour kept by bass anglers. That figure oddly jumped to more than .25 bass per hour in 1990, falling to just fewer than that in 1991.
The number of harvested bass crashed in 1993 to less than .05, but crept back up to .15 in 1996.
In 2003, the number was back down to less than .1 per hour taken home.
The trend was basically the same for non-bass anglers who incidentally landed and harvested largemouths.
However, that isn’t very surprising to Walker, and it shouldn’t be surprising to anglers.
“We’re limiting your harvest (with the 14-inch minimum),” he said. “I wouldn’t expect the harvest to be as high as before we limited your harvest.”
And a look at the release rate per hour of fishing effort shows that more fish are definitely being caught.
In 1989, fewer than .2 bass per hour were being released by bass anglers, with roughly the same number being thrown back by non-bass anglers.
Between 1990 and 1993, the release rate among bass anglers bounced between about .6 to just more than .4 bass per hour.
In 1994, there was a big spike, with more than 1.6 bass per hour being released.
“We had a lot of fish under 14 inches,” Walker said, adding that this simply reflects the same trend as his electrofishing samples.
The next year, the number of released fish fell, but still remained higher than before the storm at more than 1.2 fish per hour released.
Since 1996, however, the number of bass released per hour of angler effort has settled to about .8 — higher than before the storm.
Again, Walker’s not surprised.
“The release rate should be higher than before the minimum,” he said.
OK, so anglers catch more fish, but they’re keeping fewer.
That’s a bad thing, right? That means that anglers are eating less fish, right?
Wrong, according to two critical pieces of Walker’s data.
First, the average weights of harvested bass is much higher than before the 14-inch minimum.
In 1989, the average weight of a harvested largemouth was 1.72 pounds, while every year since 1993 the average weight has been no lower than 1.95 pounds. The only years that it has fallen below 2 pounds is during 1995 and 1996.
“The average before the 14-inch minimum was a little over a pound, but now the average is about 2 pounds,” Walker said.
That should be pretty obvious, since anglers now can only keep bass that are longer than 14 inches.
But if bass anglers have always favored big bass over small bass, then the 14-inch minimum shouldn’t have much of an impact on the weight of harvested bass.
Walker, however, can show that bass anglers weren’t all that concerned with allowing bass to grow very big before the storm.
In fact, creel surveys showed that the most-popular-sized fish before the storm measured much less than 14 inches.
The top three fish measured between 10 and 12 inches, with 13-inch bass and 14-inch fish rounding off the top five.
Yep, fish that today must be released comprised four of the top five most-popular sizes of eaten bass before 1991.
Since the storm, the most-popularly harvested bass fall into the 14-inch category, followed by 15-inch fish and 13-inch bass.
Walker was quick to add that the existence of 13-inch bass in his creel surveys doesn’t imply large numbers of anglers are willingly breaking the law.
“Most of that is due to the fact that most anglers use those Golden Rules, which can have a bend in them,” Walker said. “I use a scientific ruler, and I measure in millimeters. If that fish falls one millimeter below 14 inches, it is shown in the 13-inch category.
Walker and his crew also measured bass measuring 12 inches and less, but he said those fish mainly came in 1993, right after the implementation of the minimum.
“I’d say that was more due to ignorance of the regulations,” Walker said. “In all, the compliance is pretty high.”
So the jump in the average size and weight of harvested bass is not at all surprising.
“You remember all the 11- and 12-inch fish in the pre-storm harvest? That’s how you get a 1-pound average,” Walker explained.
It, therefore, stands to reason that if anglers are keeping fewer but larger bass than before the 14-inch minimum was instituted, the actual poundage of bass harvested per hour should be somewhere close to before the limitations were added.
Bass anglers in 1989 kept enough bass to total about .2 pounds per hour of effort.
That dropped to less than .1 pounds in 1993 (remember, there was an explosion of fish smaller than the 14-inch minimum during those years), but rebounded to .2 pounds per hour in 1995.
In 1996, the number soared to .3 pounds of bass harvested per hour.
Walker said the short answer is that the pounds of bass tossed in the ice chest per hour are, on average, about the same as before the 14-inch minimum.
“You can either keep eight or 10 really small fish, or two or three larger fish, and you’re number’s basically going to stay the same,” he explained.
More fish to catch? Bigger fish to eat?
That should make anglers happy, right?
Most are satisfied.
In 1995/96, a survey of anglers at various Atchafalaya Basin launches showed that 65 percent of all anglers wanted the 14-inch minimum.
Support among bass anglers was even stronger in that survey, with 71 percent of those asked liking the management tool.
Combining all the anglers who wanted some sort of length restriction, support soars to 83 percent.
The same survey in 2003 showed a slight decrease in that support, but 58 percent of all anglers and 62 percent of bass anglers still supported the 14-inch minimum.
But a few vocal critics want to make changes.
Some of these people come home from trips disgusted because they catch so many fish smaller than 14 inches.
But Walker said he doesn’t really understand their complaints.
“Before the 14-inch minimum, you had large numbers of small fish in the harvest,” Walker said. “A 10-inch fish is not very big.
“I’m not belittling anyone for keeping that; I’ve done it myself, but it’s not a big fish — and it was the second-largest fish taken.”
Now, anglers are catching roughly the same number of fish, but are simply required to release more of them.
They are not, however, taking less poundage home.
“In 1989-91, I had a lot fishermen coming to the landing and standing around the bait shops telling me they weren’t getting bites, and wanting to know what am I going to do about it,” Walker said. “Now they’re getting bitten, but you have to let them go.
“It’s back to what do you want?”
And to answer that question, Walker points at the opinion surveys, which are conducted at the landings and include anglers coming off the water.
“We asked the fishermen what they wanted, and their answer was, ‘We want to harvest more larger fish.’
“People want some kind of length restriction.”
However, some bass anglers express strong belief that the large numbers of fish smaller than 14 inches points to a stunting of the Basin’s bass population.
In fact, Walker was long one of those who worried about that possibility, but he is now confident saying no such stunting is occurring.
“I used to wonder about that myself, but now I’ve got the data to show that that’s just not true,” he said. “If we were stunting the growth, growth weights over all the year classes would have steadily declined, and they have not.”
To prove this, Walker goes back to his data.
In 1990, the average length of a 1-year-old bass was about 6 1/2 inches, with individual fish ranging from just less than 5 inches to about 9 inches in length.
That jumped significantly in 1994 to an average of 11 inches for 1-year-old bass, with a range of 6 1/2 inches to an amazing 15 inches.
However, Walker said that year’s sample is probably uncharacteristic because it came on the heels of hurricane.
“You had a new-reservoir effect,” he explained.
Because bass found such an abundance of food, they grew much faster than under normal conditions.
Walker’s analysis bears this theory out, with all other age classes in the study showing significantly more growth in 1994 than normal.
Two-year-old bass jumped from an average of less than 12 inches to right at 14 inches in that year. The jump was even more significant in 3-year-old bass, which moved from an average of barely more than 13 inches to more than 16 1/2 inches.
Bass aged 4 through 6 also experienced increases, although sample sizes were so small that Walker said it was hard to make any real statements about them.
“There just weren’t that many of those old fish,” he said.
Growth rates, however, dropped back to a more normal trend in 1995, with age 1 bass registering at about 9 inches, 2-year-old bass dropping to just less than 11 inches and 3-year-old moving to less than 14 inches.
Again, sample sizes of older fish were so small that Walker didn’t put much stock in them.
Average lengths bottomed out during the 1997-98 drought, according to Walker’s analysis.
The 1997 sample was the worst for bass aged 1 and 3, with the former averaging only about 8 1/2 inches long and the latter barely holding above the pre-hurricane average of 13 1/2 inches.
The 1998 samples showed that year was the worst for 2-year-olds, with the average hitting less than 12 inches for the first time since before the hurricane.
Despite those dips, the trend after 1995 is a slow increase in average sizes, but even then, the average is higher than the pre-regulation days so many old-timers reminisce about.
And it’s clear that, even before the regulations, the average 14-inch fish were generally a minimum of three years old.
Walker pointed out that in the 1994 samples showed a few 1-year-old fish in the 14-inch category, but that was probably due to the new-reservoir effect that allowed bass to grow much faster than normal.
Neither before nor since has Walker aged a 14-inch bass in the first-year class.
More second-year bass reach 14 inches, but even then it is a relatively small number. Samples from 1990, before the length minimum went into effect, showed no 2-year-old fish that surpassed the 14-inch mark.
It wasn’t until age three that a number of fish passed the 14-inch minimum.
While the average length of 3-year-old bass in 1990 was just more than 13 inches, some of that year’s sample would have been harvestable today. The largest bass measure more than 15 1/2 inches long.
In 2003, the average 3-year-old largemouth was 14 1/2 inches long, but there were only six fish in that survey.
Larger samples reveal an average more similar to the 1990 survey, with the average length hovering just above 13 inches.
In short, nothing has really changed, except that all of those 1-year-old bass that would be kept without a 14-inch minimum are being released.
So why aren’t the numbers of lunker fish increasing?
“It’s a harsh environment, and you’ve got fishing pressure directed on those sized fish,” Walker said.
And that fishing pressure is dramatically higher than it was in the “good old days” to which so many people point.
“There’s way more fishing pressure than there used to be, and that has to have an effect,” Walker said. “All those old guys tell me how good it was, and I ask them the same thing: ‘How many people were at the boat ramp?’ They say, ‘Then there wasn’t no boat ramp. We just dropped a boat off the road.’
“Now you have five-acre boat ramps that are full.”
Even with that increased pressure, Walker said he is confident that the minimum-length requirement is working.
“We’re maintaining conditions that existed before the minimum,” he said. “We’re maintaining the same catch rate and harvest rate that we had before we had the 14-inch minimum, except for the drought-induced decline in the harvest rate.”
And the fish that are being taken home are much better quality, he added.
“Even the non-bass anglers are harvesting better fish than they were before the 14-inch minimum,” Walker said.