There’s no easy way around it, the ethics of angling for spawning fish are murky and widely debated, especially when it comes to bass. We would all like to definitively settle the debate around fishing for spawning bass, particularly those on beds. Anglers want a clear-cut, “Yes, it’s okay to fish for them” or a definitive, “No, it’s not good practice to target them.” But as with so many worthy topics, it’s not that simple—morally or biologically. New research out of Florida casts even more doubt on this discussion.
Anglers develop philosophies about nearly everything based on anecdotal experiences, tackle shop hearsay, and sometimes, scientific data. To quote outdoors author and humorist Patrick McManus, “Scholars have long known that fishing eventually turns men into philosophers. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to buy decent tackle on a philosopher’s salary.”
Fisheries managers are tasked with the impossible feat of maintaining healthy fisheries while appeasing the wants and desires of all anglers. Sure, in a perfect world, every single body of water would have robust populations of every desired fish species capable of withstanding any level of fishing pressure. Even if this was ecologically possible (it’s not), it would require management plans specific to every waterway. Excellent job security for biologists, but not humanly or financially feasible.
While no two lakes or rivers are alike, the basic foundation of healthy and sustainable fisheries always depends on successful reproduction and recruitment to the catchable population. Many studies have investigated the possible effects of bed fishing for bass, but these effects are not the same across bass species, regions, or even specific bodies of water.
“There is tension in this topic and I think a lot of it comes from the fact that it is difficult to compare apples to oranges” said Dr. Steven Cooke, a leading researcher of catch-and-release recreational fisheries at Carleton University. “When we’re talking about Ontario to Florida, we’re talking about different [bass] species, and we’re talking about completely different levels of productivity.”
As we’ve discussed before, research on catch and release shows that removing bass from beds can adversely affect individual nest success. However, the potential effects on the overall population can be variable. Florida bass (a distinct subspecies native to the state) grow bigger, faster, and can therefore produce more eggs relative to other bass species. And they live in warm and productive waters. As such, their populations can withstand a range of individual nest failures because there’s enough young from successful nests to compensate for lost nests. A newly released, four-year study by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologists, “found that bed fishing has very little impact on how successful individual nests are or the numbers of next generation of bass produced.”
Todd Driscoll is a fisheries management biologist for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. He oversees some of the best bass fisheries in the country, including Sam Rayburn Reservoir and Toledo Bend, where Florida bass are stocked to boost trophy quality.
“We see year to year differences in year-class strength for a number of reasons, but overall, for every visible and susceptible nest that might be targeted by anglers, there’s also countless other nests with bass that aren’t fished,” Driscoll said.
On the other hand, in clear, relatively small lakes in the northern U.S., smallmouth bass populations could be more easily impacted by high angling pressure and subsequent nest failures. Whereas, larger northern lakes with robust smallmouth populations could be more resilient to such fishing pressure.
“Not all catch and release is equal; some waters can more easily sustain it [during the spawn]” Dr. Cooke noted.
The Nitty Gritty
Anglers target bedded bass for many reasons—they are shallow, visible, and often concentrated in small areas, so they are relatively easy to catch in high numbers. Male bass will aggressively strike any object entering their nest’s perimeter. Soon after depositing eggs, female bass return to deeper water while the male stands guard. Because of this, the majority of bed fishing research focuses on catch and release of male bass. But for certain anglers, especially tournament anglers, bed fishing isn’t just about catching numbers of bass, it’s about catching the largest ones—hefty females full of eggs. This can have its own set of potential effects.
“If a largemouth bass female that is ready to spawn tomorrow is caught in a tournament and run up to the other end of the lake in a livewell, the likelihood of her reproducing is substantially less,” Dr. Cooke explained. “But it’s not just about the spawning event, there’s the lead-up where things can happen.”
A pre-spawn female that’s caught and overly stressed before the spawn could delay spawning, which creates possibilities where environmental changes could affect nest success. Likewise, pulling a bass away from the fry it’s guarding after nesting can have negative impacts via breaking up the fry school and making them susceptible to easy predation. The bottom line is that most people think of “the spawn” as the week or so that the bass are on nests, when in reality, the spawn starts before nesting and continues until the young bass are capable of surviving on their own. Disruption any time during the process can have negative impacts.
“I’m certainly a proponent of catch and release, especially in the tournament context, at the site of capture,” Dr. Cooke said.
A Shifted Paradigm
Across the U.S., voluntary catch and release of bass has become the social norm. This wasn’t always the case. As recently as the 1970s, as few as 10% of bass were released. Nowadays, bass catch-and-release rates often exceed 90%, even more than 95% in some fisheries.
For Fishing Hall of Fame tournament angler Kevin VanDam, this shift has literally paid dividends over his illustrious 30-year career. VanDam is the all-time earnings leader in professional bass fishing with seven B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year titles to his name.
“I’ve been fishing my whole life, and I’ve targeted spawning bass many, many times. As a tournament angler, you have to. Nationally, I can tell you the bass fishing has never been as good as it is currently. These are the good ol’ days,” VanDam told MeatEater. “There’s more pressure than there’s ever been, and you’ve got more technology, but I think overall the reason it’s been more sustainable is because anglers are so much more educated in every aspect—how to handle fish, their potential impact, and the appreciation for the sport.”
Tournament formats have shifted to reflect anglers’ and biologists’ understanding of best practices. Major League Fishing, the newest professional tournament series, puts an official scorer onboard each competitor’s boat. Bass are immediately weighed and released, rather than brought to a single weigh-in site at the end of the day.
“In a Major League Fishing tournament, the average time a fish is out of water is 30 seconds and they get put back right where they get caught” VanDam explained. Additionally, anglers are penalized if the fish is dropped or makes contact with the boat. Even for local mom-and-pop club tournaments, apps have been developed that allow anglers to document and record their catch before safely releasing fish where it was caught. The tournament tides seem to be turning toward more thoughtful catch-and-release practices that could mitigate their impact on bass in all stages of the spawn.
The Bottom Line
For VanDam, being a successful tournament angler at times requires targeting spawning fish. “I’d be a hypocrite to say there’s something wrong with it, but I’d also be greedy to say it’s healthy if the whole world went and targeted fish during the spawn,” VanDam said. “I’m smart enough to know that I could be detrimental to fish during the spawn, especially in northern waters. But most serious bass anglers do their best to take care of the fish.”
Dr. Cooke echoed this point: “A fish landed quickly, handled properly, and released near the nest tends to be in pretty good shape to go back to defending offspring. It’s up to the anglers to give them a fighting chance.”
Cooke and VanDam both acknowledged the challenge for fisheries managers—inherent differences between populations and ecosystems complicate matters, especially during the spawn. As VanDam explained about his home state of Michigan, “It’s very hard to have a blanket rule for the bass season, or bass size limit, or tournament regulations. Fish are spawning in the southern part of the state in April and they don’t even spawn until July in the northern part.”
Even the overall shift to higher rates of catch and release with bass can make achieving management goals and meeting angler desires more difficult.
I’ve fished a number of bass tournaments myself, and depending on the water body, I usually practice catch and release during recreational outings. But I’m also here to tell you, there’s nothing wrong with taking home a few legal, “eater-sized” bass, especially from cool, autumn waters outside of spawning season.
All told, if you choose to fish for bedded bass, follow best practices for catch and release—a quick fight and gentle release close to the nest. Just as not every citizen will agree who should occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue this November, not every angler will have the same philosophy about bed fishing for bass. Understanding your local fisheries, including the potential impacts of angling pressure and the nuances of management strategies, will go a long way toward civil understanding at the boat launch and your local tackle shop. A safe, general philosophy would be to avoid knee-jerk reactions on the topic.