For bass anglers, fishing during the spawn has always been a somewhat controversial issue. On one hand, there’s no thrill like playing cat-and-mouse with a giant, potentially season-defining (or tournament winning) bass. On the other, it’s pretty easy to imagine that there must be some biological cost associated with interfering in their annual business.
Although the moral and literal debate over fishing during the spawn applies across the bass range, it is particularly pertinent regarding smallmouth bass across the North. Reason being, the “spawn” is more gradual in the South, where it happens in waves allowing for high-level success no matter the pressure or weather conditions. Contrastingly, studies of clear, northern lakes have shown that every bass in the lake may try to spawn in a single week or two, making the spawn more easily impacted by both recreational and tournament anglers.
In order to be a true conservationist, it’s important to periodically take an honest look at the data in order to understand whether there is an impact—and assess whether changes need to be made.
We took a deep dive into the most current research and here’s what we found.
Does catching bass off a spawning bed hurt the bed’s success?
Yes, this has been proven in multiple studies with both largemouth and smallmouth bass across their entire range.
The degree of impact, however, varies greatly depending on where and which species you’re talking about. Plucking a largemouth off a bed under a dock in Florida may not expose the nest to nearly the same risk as pulling a smallmouth off a bed under constant siege from hungry gobies or perch.
Case in point, an exhaustive study from Ohio State University of spawning smallmouth in Lake Erie recently found that after removing the bass from a bed, it took an average of only 15 minutes for gobies to consume all the eggs from a nest, making that entire nest a bust for the year.
Does angling during the spawn negatively impact recruitment?
The short and honest assessment to that question is that scientists aren’t sure, but it is reasonable to assume that, at a minimum, angling during the spawn isn’t likely to increase recruitment.
What several studies have shown though is that removing bass from a bed immediately exposes the brood to potential nest predators, which could negatively impact that nest’s success. Furthermore, in places with round gobies, removing a bass permanently (i.e. boxing it for harvest or a ride to the weigh-in) caused complete nest failure.
But does bed fishing hurt the population long term?
Again, the answer here is murky. Smallmouth bass are a very adaptable species, so they (and bass anglers) have several things going for them that make bed fishing less impactful. The first and most important is that they lay a lot of eggs. A single 2-pound female can have over 15,000 eggs, and at that rate it doesn’t take a lot of successful nests to maintain positive recruitment.
Secondly, bass fishing around the spawn has been happening for a long time (40-plus years), across much of the country. By many metrics, the fishing is now as good or better from coast to coast, so it’s not a stretch to say “we’re not seeing a decline, so it can’t be harmful.” Famed smallmouth fisheries like Champlain, Erie, Simcoe and Green Bay have dealt with heavy angler pressure during the spawn for years and years and continue to show ample recruitment.
Although this argument is essentially the same as saying “it ain’t broke so it must be OK,” which is not very scientific; the concept behind it has been scientifically documented by researchers.
A 2015 study showed that across three large New York lakes, allowing catch-and-release angling during the spawn found no impact on recruitment. Bass harvest was closed during this period, so the researchers weren’t able to assess any recruitment differences due to harvest.
What are the effects of sanctuary areas?
The term “fish sanctuary” is pretty common in marine fisheries. Sanctuaries are specific areas that are off limits to angling during all or a portion of the year. The theory behind a sanctuary is that if managed properly, the protected population will flourish and function as a source for dispersal throughout the system, while allowing the rest of the fishery to continue harvest as usual.
Ontario fisheries officials are experimenting with this idea, and have created several fish sanctuaries, including a well-studied area in Long Point Bay. This is a small segment of the north side of the lake in which they ban all fishing from June 1 through July 15. Early studies have shown increased nest success and recruitment, and they’re working for anglers as well: biologists have documented an uptick in angler catch rates during the portion of the year that angling is allowed.
How can anglers help?
Although the research suggests that there are minimal long-term negative impacts associated with fishing during the spawn, prudence suggests that both harvest-minded, recreational catch-and-release anglers and tournament anglers alike use common sense to minimize potential harm to recruitment when fishing during the spawn. After all, we can’t fish for what doesn’t swim.
Here are a few tips for conservation during the spawn.
Don’t catch them all/abide by the harvest laws. Just because there are beds everywhere, it doesn’t mean you have to catch every single one. Showing some restraint can do wonders on a bass bedding success—particularly in places where there are gobies, or other invasive bottom fish. If you’re harvest-minded, don’t catch more than your limit, and try to choose bass to harvest in the low end of the adult range (14 to 16 inches) rather than the largest. Egg production really ramps up as female bass get larger. Taking one 4-pounder removes the same amount of potential offspring as several smaller bass.
If releasing them, get them back in the water quickly and close to the bed. The longer a spawning bass is off the nest, the more harm could come to the brood. Be efficient in getting them back in the water. Use a landing net, and have your camera ready so you can get your photos quickly once caught. Additionally, releasing the bass as close to the bed as possible will minimize negative impact. Resist the urge to place several in the livewell for that “big bag” photo.
Don’t catch them a bunch of times. Many times when you release a bass caught off a bed, they will return almost immediately and resume protecting the brood. Resist the urge to catch them again, as studies show that subsequent catches have a cumulative impact on nest success.
The effects of fishing to spawning bass may not be overwhelming, but having a higher degree of understanding of and respect for a natural resource is never a bad thing.
Feature image via Tosh Brown.