Once upon a time, when harvest of bass was commonplace, wildlife agencies managed fisheries for sustainability. No matter where they fished in their state, anglers knew the bag and size limit regulations would be the same, typically 5 or 10 fish, with a minimum size of 12 inches.
But then in the 1970s along came Ray Scott, B.A.S.S., and a practice that bass anglers embraced with open arms--- catch and release. Bass fishing became more about competitive sport and recreation than catching and keeping a limit.
As a consequence, today's fisheries manager must be two parts fisheries biologist and one part sociologist. Or maybe it's the other way around. In other words, it's not all about the fish anymore. It's also about the fishermen and what they want to catch.
"There are variables related to the biological side of things and then there is the social/people side of things," said Dave Terre, Management and Research Chief for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD). "Both those things have to come together for success."
With Texas among the most innovative states for bass management, TPWD planners consider four regulation strategies to accommodate "diverse opportunities." They include harvest, high catch rate, quality-sized fish, and trophy fish.
Of course, the first favors those who still want to keep and eat bass. The second is for those who enjoy catching numbers of fish but not keeping them, while the third and fourth are self-explanatory.
To gain reputations as trophy fisheries, some lakes don't require special regulations or other assistance, such as supplemental stockings of Florida-strain bass, if they have enough habitat and forage, as well as periodic high water to accommodate large years classes and survival. But usually these are cyclical as opposed to long-term.
On the other hand, maintaining a trophy fishery typically involves special regulations, such as a protected slot of 18 to 22 inches or even catch and release only and/or periodic stockings of Florida or Florida-hybrid bass to stimulate faster and larger growth. For example, recent angler success suggests that Tennessee has created a trophy bass fishery at Lake Chickamauga by enhancing the genetics.
A trophy fishery also requires constant monitoring and altering of regulations to meet changing population dynamics. In Arkansas, managers want to encourage harvest of smaller fish by reducing the protected slot from 16-21 inches to 14-17 because of the high density of bass at Mallard Lake, which yielded the state record, 16-8, in 1976.
In Texas, meanwhile, biologists wanted to prevent harvest of too many small bass when O.H. Ivie was opened to fishing about 25 years ago. Thus, the five-fish bag could include no more than two bass under 18 inches. Now, they are considering regulation changes that would encourage harvest of smaller fish and increase abundance of larger ones.
"The nice thing about these kinds of regulations, five-fish bag limits with no more than XX number of fish above or below a certain length, is that they are conducive to both tournament and non-tournament angling, unlike slot limits that are prohibitive to tournaments," said Brian Van Zee, TPWD Inland Fisheries Regional Director.
Especially in states where bass are the No. 1 sport fish, managers have learned that "adaptive management" is the best strategy to deal with ever-changing environmental conditions in fisheries and to satisfy their constituencies. The latter often are surveyed on the water, online, by mail, and at public meetings as to their preferences regarding bag and size limits, both in general and for specific water bodies.
After listening to its resident fishermen, Florida decided to simplify regulations, with an emphasis on increasing the odds that anglers can catch and release larger bass. While the statewide limit remains at five, with no minimum length for largemouths, only one fish of 16 inches or longer can be kept. Forty-two site-specific regulations have been eliminated.
"While reducing harvest of large bass is beneficial, allowing more bass under 16 inches to be kept may improve some fisheries by reducing competition so other individuals grow faster and larger," said Tom Champeau, Fisheries Chief for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Still, "sometimes regulations have little to do with it (quality of a fishery)," reflected Terre, pointing out that just 57 of Texas' 1,100 reservoirs have special regulations. " Most anglers catch and release all the bass they catch. Now, we have to feel the public will keep fish before putting on a slot.
"And we're constantly learning, experimenting, and managing according to conditions. We don't do things willy nilly."
Florida has a new state record fish, a 2.37-pound Mayan cichild. Jonathan Johnson caught the fish in a Collier County canal on a lipless crankbait, and says that his record catch was not by accident.
“I looked up the record about six months ago and saw that it was vacant,” said Johnson. “I have caught hundreds [of Mayan cichlids] but only a couple that I thought were large enough. I was targeting them specifically that day and caught about 25, this being the largest one by about half a pound,” he said.
Johnson took the fish home where his scale confirmed that it was eligible for the vacant state record, which had a minimum submission weight of 2 pounds. Johnson then called the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) offices to get his record fish certified.
With one state record in his pocket, however, Johnson is not resting on his laurels.
“I am also targeting the blue tilapia and peacock bass records, but since I use only artificials it will be a challenge,” he said.
The FWC made the Mayan cichlid, a cousin of the peacock bass and nonnative species from Central America, eligible for state record status in 2012. But, the record has remained vacant until now. It was first reported in Florida in the early 1980s. During the mid-1990s, the fish began expanding its range and has become common throughout south Florida’s freshwater lakes and canals. Both local and out-of-state anglers target the now-popular fish using methods similar to those used for sunfish. The bright red coloration and scrappy disposition of the Mayan cichlid when caught caused FWC biologists to nickname it the “atomic sunfish.”
There are 34 nonnative freshwater fish species that have become established in Florida. Although these species have not caused major disruptions in native ecosystems or reduced harvest of native sport fishes, the FWC strongly encourages anglers not to release them (except legally-introduced peacock bass and triploid grass carp). Most exotic fishes provide excellent table fare. In addition, releasing fish from aquariums or moving them between water systems is illegal and could produce detrimental effects.
To properly certify a new Florida state record, a FWC biologist must identify the fish species and witness its weighing on a certified scale. Anglers can check the current state records at BigCatchFlorida.com by clicking on “State Record,” and should notify the nearest FWC regional office if they believe they have caught a record fish. Contact information for FWC regional offices can be found at MyFWC.com/Contact by clicking on “Contact Regional offices.”
During a year when the smallmouth bass record possibly has been broken or tied in four states, the most recent is arguably the most impressive for a couple of reasons.
First, Bruce Kraemer's catch Sept.11 on Michigan's Indian River nearly reached double digits, checking in at 9.98 pounds. That's more than a half pound heavier than the previous record, 9.33 pounds, caught less than a year before. The latter toppled a mark that was more than a century old, a 9.25-pound smallie caught in 1906.
Meanwhile in neighboring Wisconsin, the record of 9.1 was set in 1950, while Minnesota's record of 8 pounds has stood since 1948.
Second, Kraemer caught the huge fish while fishing with a live nightcrawler on light spinning gear from his backyard. He wouldn't even have known it was record if he hadn't entered it in a fishing contest sponsored by a local business."I usually spend June through the end of September up here at the cottage," said the angler who lives the rest of the year in Treasure Island, Fla. "I've got some great fish stories and some nice fish, but nothing like this."
And he wouldn't have had "this," if his neighbor, Ron Krieg, hadn't convinced him to stay a little longer.
"He also netted the fish for me and talked me into entering it into the fishing contest at Pat and Gary's Party Store," the angler said.
Up in New York, meanwhile, Patrick Hildebrand tied the state record with an 8.25-pound smallmouth that he caught a few weeks earlier out of Cape Vincent on the St. Lawrence River. Taken on a dropshot rig in about 35 feet of water, it equals the mark set in 1995. New York Department of Environmental Conservation hasn't yet officially acknowledged the catch as tying the state record, but likely soon will.
Both of those fish might have grown to record proportions by gorging on gobies, an exotic species common in both Indian River and the St. Lawrence. In fact, Kraemer said that he had rigged the nightcrawler above his sinker to keep it off the bottom and away from the small bottom-dwelling fish.
"When I set the hook, I first thought that I had a goby," he recalled. "But when I pulled, it didn't move and I thought I was snagged on bottom. But then it started moving toward the middle of the river."
Out in South Dakota's Little Horseshoe Lake, Lyal Held caught a pre-spawn smallmouth that checked in a 7.185 pounds (7-3), to surpass the record of 7, taken at the same fishery in 2013. Captured in late April, Held's fish had a girth of 19 inches that almost equaled its length of 19.5. "I've never seen anything so fat," Held said. "It was so fat its eyes were bulging."
And in Montana, Melvin McDonald might have set the new standard in August at Fort Peck Reservoir with a catch of 6.7 pounds as he was bottom-bouncing a Berkley Gulp! Minnow for walleyes. Montana Department of Natural Resources has yet to confirm the catch. Current record of 6.375 (6-6) was set twice, in 2000 on the Flat River and in 2002 at Fort Peck.
Anglers have been complaining about grass carp for nearly 40 years. Coincidentally, that's how long fisheries managers have been using the
exotic species as a control for another exotic, hydrilla, along with other invasive aquatic plants.
What's happened recently at Texas' Lake Austin provides a prime example of why they complain. Grass carp released there in 2012 and 2013 have consumed not just the hydrilla, but all of the aquatic plant habitat, which was beneficial for bass and other species. The stocking permit has now been revoked by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD), with anglers and bowfishermen encouraged to catch and kill the carp.
"Anglers get angry at us when we stock grass carp, and we understand that," said Dave Terre, TPWD's Management/Research chief, who emphasized that his agency strives to involve fishermen in plans to control invasive plants.
"Everywhere we've used carp has resulted in a complete vegetation community crash," he added. "But it took 10 years for that to happen at Austin. And maybe someday we'll be able to extend that to 20 years. Just three or four years ago, we were promoting the success of grass carp in Austin."
Ten years is a considerable improvement over what happened in the early 1980s. Over the objections of anglers and TPWD, the Texas Legislature authorized the stocking of 270,000 carp into 21,000-acre Lake Conroe. In just two years, aquatic plants were gone, and the long-lived carp kept it that way until the late 1990s.
About the same time, much the same thing happened up in Kansas' Big Hill Reservoir. A heavy stocking of carp "set the reservoir back eight or nine years," said Doug Nygren, fisheries chief for Kansas Department of Parks, Wildlife, and Tourism.
"We regretted it," he added. "It was a wakeup call to be careful."
Yet, there is a flip side to this grass carp decimation story, starting with the fact that Conroe will be the site of the 2017 Bassmaster Classic March 24-26. The impoundment on the San Jacinto River now has not only grass and grass carp, but a first-class bass fishery.
"It's been producing 30-pound stringers all summer long," said Tim Cook, Conservation Director for the Texas B.A.S.S. Nation. "The lake has a significant number of 8-pound fish and I'm expecting that six to ten over 8 pounds will be caught each day. We've had five Toyota Texas Bass Classics on that lake, so anglers know how good it can be."
In short, fisheries do recover, as these controversial exotics remain the best biological method for controlling hydrilla in public fisheries, as well as filamentous algae in private and hatchery ponds. Sadly, though, their use is not a precise science. Inevitably results are cyclical, as they have been at both Austin and Conroe and other impoundments across the country, and often influenced by variables that resource managers have no control of.
Weather is the most prominent. Lower water levels prompted by drought and warmer water courtesy of hotter temperatures combined to power an unprecedented hydrilla growth spurt at Austin, and suddenly 600 acres spread across the 1,600 acre fishery. "It changed the dynamics and threw everything out of balance," Terre said.
Mechanical harvest wasn't an option, because fragmentation spreads the fast-growing exotic. Neither was herbicide, since Austin serves as a public water supply. Additionally, unchecked hydrilla inevitably would impede hydropower generation.
To knock back the plant, the city of Austin's resource managers stocked 33,000 carp from late 2011 through spring of 2013. Contrast that with only 20,000 that had been stocked incrementally for eight years, starting in 2003.
"We could live with 100 acres," said biologist Marcos De Jesus. "But 600 acres was just too much. It was going to cause problems with the turbines."
Terre added, "Anglers sometimes think that we're attacking the habitat of bass. We're not. We know that vegetation is important. But there are multiple users to consider. And grass carp are a tool."
He added that in lakes like Amistad, Falcon, Rayburn and Toledo Bend, with little development, "hydrilla is not a problem for anyone and we don't touch it."
Efforts already are underway to jumpstart aquatic vegetation again at Austin, by growing it in cages, De Jesus said. "There are going to be lots of efforts to restore habitat and to provide more options, with things like brushpiles."
Because it is smaller than Conroe and because state agencies have begun to partner with other entities, including bass clubs, in recent years to re-establish aquatic vegetation, Terre is hopeful that Austin's recovery will be rapid.
Conroe, meanwhile, serves as a model for restoration not only for Austin, but for the nation, with much of the credit going to Seven Coves Bass Club. The B.A.S.S. affiliate spearheaded growing and planting of native vegetation, even as officials continued to combat hydrilla with more stockings of grass carp.
As part of an overall management plan for the lake, the club was awarded a grant for about $45,000 from B.A.S.S. and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to build a plant nursery on property provided by the San Jacinto River Authority. The latter and TPWD also helped finance the effort.
Additionally, occasional harvest by anglers and bowfishermen has been added to the overall strategy for using and controlling grass carp. In 2011, they removed more than 5,000 pounds of carp from Conroe during a tournament.
The event was intended to reduce carp population "to a number capable of preventing re-sprouting of hydrilla but which will allow us and our partners to better enhance important native aquatic vegetation for fish habitat and water quality improvement," said Craig bonds, TPWD's Director of Inland Fisheries.
While habitat initiatives and angler harvest have been added to help control carp and restore beneficial vegetation more quickly, not much has changed in terms of overall strategies for stocking grass carp to keep problematic vegetation under control, said John Biagi, Chief of Fisheries Management for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
Two of the most notable are smaller, incremental stockings as opposed to one massive release, and replacing diploid grass carp, which can reproduce in the wild, with triploid, which are sterile and have shorter live spans.
"And we are learning," said Texas biologist De Jesus. "We're refining the way we monitor the effects of carp on vegetation."
Terre added, "Instead of stocking carp per surface acre, we're looking into doing it per the biomass of the plants. Our goal always is to maintain good aquatic habitat for fisheries."
Most anglers think about grass carp only in terms the damage that they do to bass fisheries. But they've been used since the late 1960s by aquaculture facilities to keep filamentous algae blooms under control. They still serve that important purpose today, both in hatchery and private ponds.
A disturbing corollary to that, however, is that they also can cause algal blooms, explained Doug Nygren, Kansas fisheries chief. "When they eat the plants, that releases nutrients that can feed those harmful blooms," he said.
At Clarks Hill, meanwhile, grass carp could help save bald eagles, as well as coots, among their favorite prey on that Georgia-South Carolina border reservoir. Researchers say that a toxic cyanobacteria grows on submerged aquatic plants, especially hydrilla. Coots feed on the plants, contract Avian Vacuolar Myelinopathy, and die, as do the eagles that eat them.
"Native plants are coming on and hydrilla seems to be diminishing," said Georgia fisheries chief John Biagi. "We're in discussions with the Corps (of Engineers) on stocking rates. This is a tough one. We don't want to eliminate good habitat, but the eagles have to be considered."
In the Wild
Diploid grass carp are reproducing in Missouri's Truman Lake, and that's just one of many waters where this plant-eating exotic now has sustainable populations, according to Duane Chapman, Asian carp expert for the U.S. Geological Survey.
While Texas reports they are spawning in the Trinity River and Kansas indicates the same for the Missouri, Chapman said, "The Illinois River has a large wild grass carp population."
In fact, he added, they are reproducing in free-flowing waters from Louisiana up into Illinois and Iowa, including in the Mississippi River. And some have turned up on "the wrong side of the (electric) barrier" designed to keep Asian carp out of Lake Michigan. They're also in the Sandusky, a tributary of Lake Erie.
Although some might believe that dams will stop them, Chapman said, "I suspect that when we start looking, we're going to find diploids fairly common above dams."
He added that some believe that silver and bighead carp pose more of a threat to our waterways than grass carp, both because they are more prolific and because data already has revealed how they are outcompeting and replacing native species.
"But grass carp don't require huge populations to have detrimental effects," he said, adding that they could destroy Great Lakes wetlands, re-established through time-consuming and costly mitigation projects.
"Grass carp remove vegetation and they dig, causing destabilization and turbidity," the carp expert continued.
Additionally, diploid grass carp can live nearly 30 years, surviving on very little when plants are scarce. "They just shut down when the food is not there and don't expend energy," Chapman said. "They're just waiting for things to change, and then they gorge."
How did this happen?
"When grass carp were brought into this country by aquaculture facilities in the late 1960s, they weren't worried about security," he said. "The belief was that they wouldn't reproduce."
Sadly, that has proven to be wrong in waters all over the country.
Additionally, while some states now prohibit diploid grass carp, others do not. And anyone can buy them.
"It might be difficult to take them into some states, but it's tough to police that," Chapman said. "States might agree to make diploids less available. But in states like Iowa and Missouri, where grass carp already are all around you, it's not a big issue. There's no downside."
(A variation of this article appeared originally in B.A.S.S. Times.)