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Although Not as Lethal, LMBV Still in Our Waters

Bass infected with LMBV appear normal, unless the disease turns lethal.

For the majority of bass fishermen, Largemouth Bass Virus (LMBV) is out of sight and out of mind, and has been for more than a decade.

But it's not out of our waters.

Is that reason for concern?

Yes. And no.

No, we aren't seeing numerous die-offs related to the virus that occurred for about a decade during the late 1990s and early years of this new century. And there's no reason to believe that's going to happen again. For example, it has not turned lethal in Saguaro Lake, where it was found in 2010. That discovery made Arizona the 19th state to detect the virus in its fisheries since 1991.

But it's still out there, and, yes, it still can kill, as evidenced by a die-off attributed to LMBV at a small Indiana fishery in 2012. It was the first documented in that state since 2001 at Hamilton Lake.

"Although the die-off was disappointing, it was not devastating," said biologist Neil Ledet, who accurately pointed out that nothing can be done to eradicate the virus."But we want to document where it causes fish kills," he added.

About the same time, resource managers reported finding the virus in four West Virginia fisheries.

Two years before, fisheries managers attributed LMBV as the cause for the decline in both catch rates and size of bass caught in Kerr Lake/Buggs Island on the Virginia-North Carolina border. “We’ve seen some declines in the growth rate, and it’s taking longer to catch a 5-pound fish,” biologist Dan Michaelson said. “But the big key has been the increase that we’ve seen in mortality. Since 2004, it’s up 10 percent, and that’s a lot.”

He added that testing also showed LMBV was present in bass in both the Roanoke/Stanton and James River drainages. "We're going to have to look around some more," he said.

More recently, biologists confirmed that northern snakeheads taken from two Potomac tributaries were infected with the virus. That might seem a good end for a bad fish that could cause the decline of bass and other native species.

But as we learned a decade ago, fatalities aren't always a foregone conclusion. In fact, the exotic fish simply could be carriers for spreading LMBV to bass throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Over the years, the virus has been found in other species as well, but, thus far, only in bass does it sometimes evolve into a fatal disease.

Why that is the case is one of many specifics that we still don't know about LMBV, including its origin, its means of movement from one water body to another, and why it proved fatal so often for about a decade, but since has leveled out to little more than a foot note--- albeit an intriguing one-- in fisheries management.

"The fisheries management community largely ignores it now," said Gene Gilliland, B.A.S.S. National Conservation Director. "It's not the threat it first seemed to be. It did not wipe out bass everywhere. And it's pretty species specific, unlike VHS, so it doesn't get much attention anymore."

By contrast, viral hemorrhagic septicemia virus has caused massive die-offs of several species, including bluegill, black crappie, drum, gizzard shad, and muskellunge, mostly in the Great Lakes. It also has been confirmed in smaller kills of smallmouth bass and walleye, and more than a dozen additional species have been identified as carriers.

VHS seems the most lethal in colder water, which is just the opposite for LMBV. Both are among more than 100 naturally occurring viruses that affect fish, but not warm-blooded animals.

"LMBV was suspected to be a new virus that evolved from a virus that infects amphibians, as I recall," Gilliland said. " Bass had no natural immunity to it so it spread quickly via who knows what means of transport.  It has now runs its course in most places. Although it can be found in many populations, apparently immunities have built up and so far, the virus has not mutated enough to cause additional fish kills.

Still, we have educated guesses regarding the specifics of LMBV, thanks to annual seminars that B.A.S.S. convened until 2004. At those sessions, fisheries experts from around the country shared information and developed strategies for dealing with the outbreak. For example, they theorized that "stressed" bass seemed to be most susceptible and anglers likely aided in spreading the virus by moving fish and/or water in their livewells.

You can read about their findings and conclusions in a "fact sheet" posted at


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Bass Appearance Influenced by Habitat, Other Factors

Bass might have big mouths, but they don't exaggerate.

In fact, black bass are masters of understatement, at least in regard to their appearance. Boasting brilliant hues and/or electric highlights, some fish are among nature's most spectacular creatures. But in a world of green water with green vegetation, largemouth bass evolved as green fish. Likewise, their brown cousins, smallmouth bass, molded to a watery world of gravel and rock.

This camouflage helps protect bass from larger predators and enables them to more easily ambush prey. And Mother Nature didn't stop there. Like aquatic chameleons, bass can alter that shading, which has helped solidify their reputation as North America's most versatile game fish.

"Bass adapt to their surroundings. If they didn't, they would starve," said Ben Beck, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Aquatic Animal Health Research Unit at Auburn University.

"Bass don't think about it. They just do it," added Gene Gilliland, national conservation director for B.A.S.S.

But color change  doesn't occur spontaneously in bass as it does in other species. "The chameleon and the octopus can rapidly change," Beck said. "Bass can adapt. We're just not sure how fast the process works."

Florida's Wes Porak, a black bass genetics expert, added, "These responses are fairly rapid and affect the color patterns when the changes occur. A fish can change color within half an hour if placed in a lighted or dark tank after being collected from a lake."

Savvy anglers are quick to turn this adaptive ability to their own advantage (See related story.), but fisheries scientists still have much to discover about the biological mechanism for change in bass, as most research has focused on colorful reef and tropical fishes. That's understandable too, when considering how monotonous the black bass is in appearance, even compared to its cousin the bluegill, especially during the spawning season.

"Not a lot is known about bass, and it's tricky to get a scientist to anything definitive," Beck explained. "They're still under study."

Porak admitted that he has "a limited understanding about how the intensity of a fish's pigment can change based on the amount of light striking parts of the retina and also the skin of a fish."

But before exploring what little is known and/or suspected, let's look at the basic coloration of a largemouth bass. The Florida Museum of Natural History (FMNH) describes it this way: "The back and head are dark green to light green in color with lighter sides and a whitish belly and underside of the head."

It adds that a prominent lateral stripe runs from the snout through the eye to the base of the tail. "Towards the tail, there is a series of blotches of varying sizes. These blotches evolve into a solid, even stripe on the caudal peduncle (narrow part of the body) . . . Vertical fins lightly pigmented, paired fins generally clear; caudal fin alike in young and adult."

Whether they're in Lake Okeechobee, the Mississippi River, or the California Delta, largemouth bass share that same basic color pattern. But as any angler who has fished all three will tell you, they don't look the same.

"Genetic components (See related story.) influence appearance some and food does a little," Gilliland said. "But water color, clarity, and habitat have a bigger influence. That's why fish will blush out in muddy water and look more camouflaged in vegetation."

Hormones seem to be the key to these variations, according to Beck.  "Photo receptors (in the eye) set the biological clock," he said. "They tell light from dark, and they tell the hormones to change colors."

He added that "generic stressors," such as confinement in a livewell, also can cause change, typically making the fish look more washed out, just as it would from living in turbid water. Either way, hormones likely trigger the alteration, with bass turning lighter when pigment granules aggregate deeper in the skin and darker when they disperse nearer the surface.

In general, the deeper a bass and/or the muddier the water that it lives in, the lighter it will be because of less penetration by sunlight, even to the point that the lateral line will seem to disappear. The shallower and/or clearer the water, the darker the fish will be. Additionally, more alkaline water--- usually indicative of fisheries with no vegetation--- can make a bass less vivid.  By contrast, bass in vegetation-filled waters--- more acidic--- often boast sharper camouflaging.

In tannic (brown) water, fish still can be dark if it doesn't block light penetration, Gilliland said. But in black water, often caused by decaying vegetation, bass will be more washed out.

And this from the FMNH:  "Adults from mud-bottom lakes are dark olive brown to black, with markings hardly distinguishable. Males in breeding condition tend to be darker in overall color." 

Plus, researchers noted that Lake Erie smallmouth bass transform from a mottled color when they are resting at night to a more uniform pattern when they are moving. That's because a contrasting pattern works as camouflage when a bass is near the bottom, but makes it more visible, and consequently less efficient as a predator, if it is moving, they hypothesized.

Gilliland concluded, "Color changes in bass are evolutionary advantages. If a smallmouth is feeding in shallow water, he will color himself to blend into the bottom so shiners don't see him when they look down. It's all part of the predatory process."

Angler's Advantage

If you understand how water depth and clarity, as well as vegetation, can alter a fish's appearance, you'll have a good idea of where to fish next when the bite stops.

For example, you catch bass on a topwater in open water. If its sides are dark, it 's likely a shallow schooler and you'll have to move to find the fish again. But if the sides are pale, it probably came from deepwater to grab your bait, and there probably are more where that one came from. Only most, especially the big ones, aren't willing to expend the energy to chase food on top. Try working the depths with a crankbait or soft plastic.

Or what if you're catching fish along a dropoff near a weedline?  If the color is especially rich and sharp, the bass probably came out of the grass to eat your bait. That could suggest that you'll catch more fish nearer or in the grass, where that camouflage makes them effective ambush predators. If the color pattern is not as clearly defined, a deeper presentation closer to the dropoff might be better.

It's also important to remember that forage species also use camouflage to help them avoid bass and other sport fish. Often they use "countershading," which means a dark back, to better blend into the bottom, and a white belly to better match the lighter background above, especially if a predator is looking up. Generally, anglers believe that they should "match the hatch" with baits that have dark backs and light bellies to make their offerings more natural looking. But a counter argument holds that if you use a bait with coloration that is just the opposite, bass will more readily see and strike it. The jury is still out.

Odd Balls

Did you hear about those "gold" bass caught in Canada and Florida recently? This condition, known as "xanthism," is the most striking aberration in bass appearance. It also occurs in other fish, as well as reptiles and birds.

Considered a genetic mutation, the bass doesn't have the ability to convert white light to blue in its molecular structures. That blue normally combines with yellow to make green.

"It's rare, but not unheard of," said Gene Gilliland, national conservation director for B.A.S.S. "I've seen it in other sunfish. But talk about a target. A fish that color has little chance of survival and, if it does, it beats some crazy odds."

Meanwhile, bass with black blotches aren't quite so rare, especially in clear, northern waters.

"What literally is happening is accumulations of melanin-producing cells are aggregating in the dermis and epidermis of the fish," said Geoffrey Smith, Susquehanna River biologist for the Pennsylvania Boat and Fish Commission. "The bigger question is why and is it really happening more frequently, or just being observed more frequently."

Smith is especially interested in learning more about this condition because anglers often report catching smallmouth bass with black blotches from the Susquehanna, a river troubled by water quality problems and a declining fishery.

Some scientists suspect that endocrine disruption might be a cause of the blotches, and that could be caused, at least in some cases, by pollutants.

Disappearing Act

As with bass, other fish, especially forage species, have evolved with appearance adaptations to help them survive.

"Some juvenile fish have colors that help them hide from prey," said Auburn's Ben Beck. "Some fish have false eye spots to trick predators. And some baitfish are iridescent, which allows them to communicate with each other and move in unison."

This makes it much more difficult for bass and other predators to target individual fish.

As described previously countershading also helps. When seen from the top, the darker dorsal area of the fish blends into the bottom or darkness of the water below. When viewed from below, the lighter ventral area blends into the light filtering down from the surface.

Appearance also helps protect some species because of what the predator has learned to associate with a particular color. For example, bass show a decided preference for the tadpoles of spring peepers, which are brown, over similarly sized tadpoles of toads, which are black.

(This article appeared originally in B.A.S.S. Times.)


New, Simplified Black Bass Regulations Set for Florida

New Florida regs. could help yield more large bass like this Okeechobee largemouth for anglers to enjoy.

Effective July 1, anglers fishing Florida waters statewide can keep smaller, more abundant largemouth bass, with the creel limit remaining at five and one fish of 16 inches or longer allowed.  Additionally, many specific rules for different water bodies will be eliminated, according to changes approved by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

“The intent is to simplify existing rules and increase abundance of larger bass statewide,” said Tom Champeau, director of the Division of Freshwater Fisheries Management.

The new rules will eliminate the three zones that currently regulate bass harvest along with 42 site-specific regulations for largemouth bass. This simplification has been a long-standing desire of anglers and resource managers.

For Suwannee, shoal, Choctaw and spotted basses, the current 12-inch minimum size limit will remain in effect, but there will be no minimum length limit on largemouth bass. In addition, the proposed changes include a catch-and-release-only zone for shoal bass in the Chipola River.

Anglers are practicing voluntary catch-and-release at record levels, report biologists. While reduced 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.

The existing bass tournament permit program will continue to allow anglers participating in permitted tournaments temporary possession of five bass of any size. This successful program has been in place for more than 20 years and allows delayed-release bass tournaments to remain viable, but requires proper care, handling and release of all bass caught during the tournament (even those that could otherwise be legally harvested).


More Natural Flow Needed to Protect Florida Saltwater Fisheries

High water pouring out of Lake Okeechobee through manmade diversions is devastating ecosystems and fisheries on both coasts of Florida. Meanwhile, Florida Bay to the south suffers because so little freshwater reaches it through the Everglades to reduce the salinity. It's time to correct this man-caused disaster.

This statement is from the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust:

Healthy recreational fisheries require healthy habitats. Healthy habitats require healthy, natural freshwater flows. It's that simple.

Current water management practices in Florida are gravely threatening Florida's recreational fisheries. At the center of this crisis are the Florida Everglades, where natural freshwater flows have been severely disrupted.

Polluted freshwater discharge flowing over a spillway on Taylor Creek in Fort Pierce, FL. Photo: Dr. Zack Jud - Florida Oceanographic Society

Research long ago established that changes to freshwater flows into estuaries causes significant negative impacts to the ecosystem. These changes can kill seagrasses, oysters, fishes, and other organisms that are important to the estuary ecosystem. From an angler's perspective, these changes negatively impact gamefish - there are fewer prey items, less habitat, and the poor water quality can impact fish health. The way that water flows in the Florida Everglades are currently managed is causing damaging changes to freshwater flows into estuaries and wreaking havoc on the ecosystems.

At present, many billions of gallons of polluted freshwater are being discharged every day from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee River and the St. Lucie River and Estuary. These areas are unfishable. Algal blooms are widespread.

In contrast, so little freshwater is reaching Florida Bay that the waters of Florida Bay are hypersaline (too salty), which has resulted in a large-scale die-off of seagrass, an extensive algae bloom, and numerous fish kills.

The Indian River Lagoon, into which the St. Lucie River drains, is experiencing a massive brown tide. The St. Lucie Estuary recently posted health warnings to avoid contact with the water.

These recreational fisheries and habitats are in crisis.

The recreational fisheries of Florida are extremely economically important. Estimates of statewide economic impact of the fishery range from $5 billion to $8 billion annually. The flats fishery of the Florida Keys has an annual economic impact of $465 million. The annual economic impact of the recreational fishery of the Everglades region is nearly $1 billion. The economic impact of the tarpon fisheries of the Indian River Lagoon and Charlotte Harbor exceed $19 million and $110 million, respectively.

Before the Everglades were modified, natural freshwater sent the right amount of freshwater to Florida Bay via sheet flow, and much less water to the east and west coasts, which supported healthy habitats and healthy fisheries. Now altered flows and water management send insufficient freshwater to Florida Bay and too much water is released to the northern estuaries. These changes in freshwater flow result in the algae blooms, seagrass die-offs, fish kills, and otehr environmental impacts that are currently ongoing.

The last time water alterations were this severe, in the early 1990s, Florida Bay suffered catastrophic algae blooms and seagrass die-off, which had severe negative impacts on the recreational fishery that are still felt today. Now, we fear a repeat of the catastrophe of the 1990s is under way. Florida Bay is the "Canary in the Coal Mine" for Florida's recreational fisheries, and rings alarms bells for the entire region, from the Caloosahatchee River and Charlotte Harbor to the St. Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon.

Freshwater flows need to be restored

  • The plans to make this happen are in place - known as the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project or CERP - they just haven't been adequately funded or implemented as promised. This plan needs to be funded and implemented immediately. This will supply Florida Bay with sufficient freshwater and stop the drastic discharges of water into other areas.
  • The Central Everglades Planning Project needs to be fast-tracked.
  • The state needs to purchase the land already identified for creating reservoirs to store and help clean the freshwater.
  • The state needs to implement strategies to reduce the amount of nutrients in freshwater entering the estuaries.
  • It's not going to be an easy or short-term effort, but if action isn't taken now, the future of these habitats and fisheries is not bright.

You need to ACT now

What You Can Do:

  • If you live in the Florida Keys, attend the March 23 Monroe County Commission Meeting, where this item will be a top focus.
  • If you don't live in the Florida Keys, request that this issue is placed on the next Commission meeting agenda for your county and show up at the meeting in force
  • Demand that freshwater flows into Florida Bay are increased, especially during the dry season, and oppose any actions that would reduce this flow
  • Demand that freshwater flows into the Caloosahatchee River and St. Lucie River are greatly reduced
  • Demand that water storage south of Lake Okeechobee is created now, not delayed until 2022
  • Demand that the freshwater flows into Indian River Lagoon are returned to more natural patterns
  • Demand that the freshwater flowing into the estuaries is clean
  • Contact your local, state, and federal elected representatives and tell them to fast-track CERP, purchase the land to create reservoirs to store and clean freshwater, and implement strategies to reduce nutrients and contaminants in the freshwater entering the estuaries.

U.S. Senator Bill Nelson (FL) 

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (FL)

Find and contact your U.S. House of Representatives

Find and contact your state Senators and Representatives: 

South Florida Water Management, Governing Board

Daniel O'Keefe, Chair

(561) 682-6262

Represents: Glades, Highlands, Okeechobee, Orange, Osceola and Polk counties

Kevin Powers, Vice Chair

(561) 682-6262

Represents: St. Lucie, Martin, Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties

Contact the Monroe County Board of Commissioners