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Minnesota DNR Sacrifices Smallmouth Bass to Help Mille Lacs Walleye Fishery

Smallmouth bass are being thrown under the fisheries-management bus at Minnesota’s Lake Mille Lacs.  Ostensibly, the move is to help rebuild the walleye fishery, but the regulation change has many anglers shaking their heads in disbelief and organizing to oppose the move via a petition drive.

In 2012, anglers were allowed to keep only one smallmouth bass of at least 21 inches. This year, the limit is 6, with one of more than 20 inches, while the rest must be less than 17.

Conversely, last year anglers could keep up to four walleye shorter than 17 inches, with one longer than 28 inches allowed. Now, they can keep only two between 18 and 20 inches or one in the slot and one longer than 28 inches.

“The smallmouth bass and northern pike regulations are designed to protect smaller walleye until we have better information on what these predator species are eating,” said Dirk Peterson, fisheries chief for the Department of Natural Resources.

“We’ll be starting a predator diet study this spring. Meanwhile, the regulations will allow anglers some additional non-walleye harvest opportunities while also retaining solid numbers of trophy-sized fish.”

But critics counter that increased harvest will damage the world-class smallmouth fishery.

Some also point out that the state isn’t addressing the real problem, netting of walleye by Native Americans.

“Meanwhile, the eight bands of Chippewa who net Mille Lacs during the spring spawn have given no indication they will change the mesh size of their nets, which tend to target walleyes 18 inches and smaller, the same fish sport anglers are trying to protect,” said Dennis Anderson in the Star Tribune newspaper.

And at the Outdoor Hub, angler Rodney Peterson added, “The walleye decline started when the bands started to net spawning fish.

“I remember catching a 6-fish limit in a couple hours as a young adult in the late ‘80s. Last year, we had trouble catching a single fish in the slot. The problem should be obvious, even for the incredibly myopic DNR and tribal fisheries.

“Stop netting the fish during the spawn. It would be the same as a farmer butchering his cows before they have their calves and wondering why his herd was dwindling. Seriously, is it that difficult to figure out? Short-sighted greed is running the fishery, not conservation.”



Spotted Bass Expansion--- Intentional and Otherwise 

Largemouth bass on the left and spotted bass on the right. Photo by Robert Montgomery

Four species of black bass --- Florida, largemouth, smallmouth, and spotted --- vastly expanded their ranges during the late 19th and 20th centuries. Resource managers were responsible for much of that, as they intentionally stocked nonnative fish to establish and/or enhance fisheries. For example, Florida bass went to California and Texas, and smallmouth bass to the Northwest.

Sometimes, though, dispersion occurred naturally or inadvertently, especially for the smaller spotted bass, which wasn’t identified as a separate species until 1929 and still not recognized by many as distinct until the 1940s or later.

Missouri provides a perfect case history of this unintentional expansion with unforeseen consequences. Once confined to lowland ditches and streams to the southeast and west of the Ozarks, they “went everywhere” as reservoirs were built during mid century, according to Jeff Koppelman, a fisheries biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Today, they’re a prominent species in fisheries such as Table Rock, Bull Shoals, and Lake of the Ozarks, among others

How did they get to the latter, an impoundment on the Osage River, which is a tributary of the Missouri and geographically separate from the spot’s native range?

“It all gets back to us,” said Koppelman.

In 1941, about 90,000 bass --- largemouth, smallmouth, and spotted --- were collected from streams during the low water of summer and taken to hatcheries. They then were released in the fall. Possibly spotted bass were taken to and released from a hatchery in the Osage River drainage.

Additionally, spotted bass were stocked in streams north of the Missouri River in an attempt to supplement the limited fishery.

Today, spotted bass make up about 18 percent of the bass population at Lake of the Ozarks, according to electrofishing surveys. That’s down considerably from the early 1990 and 1991, when they outnumbered largemouths. Most interesting, though, a 5-9 spotted/smallmouth hybrid was caught there in 2012, even though bronzebacks aren’t thought to be in this impoundment that’s more than 80 years old.

Smallmouths, however, do share the water with spots at Table Rock and Bull Shoals, and, in both of those, they occasionally cross-breed, resulting in a fish popularly known as the “meanmouth.” At Table Rock, largemouths make up about 74 percent of the bass population, according to electrofishing surveys. Spots account for 25 percent, with smallmouth and meanmouths the additional 1 percent. Lake record for the latter is 5-10.

Spots there likely migrated into the impoundments from tributary streams after dams were built on the White River. How they managed to get into streams on the east side of the Ozarks is another matter. Did they move up the Mississippi or migrate east from the Osage and Missouri systems, where they were introduced?

Whatever the cause, “20 years ago, we were panicking,” Koppelman said.

Resource managers and anglers alike feared that spots would crowd out and/or heavily hybridize with resident smallmouths in streams such as the Big, Gasconade, and Meramec. And, indeed, some hybrids have been collected in the lower basins of the two latter rivers.

Liberal regulations --- no size limit and no bag limit --- to encourage harvest of stream spots had no biological impact, Koppelman said, since few bass anglers keep fish.

Thus, far, though, eastern Ozarks smallmouths have retained some of their traditional range. Today, the biologist explained, spots seem strongest on the edges of the eastern Ozarks, where the region either borders big rivers or the prairie to the west. Conversely, spots and hybrids are not often found in streams with large springs and high gradients.

For a time after its recognition as a separate species, the spotted bass was considered comparable in fisheries value to the smallmouth and even largemouth bass by some resource managers. That no longer seems to be the case for this smaller, more aggressive, and generally more adaptable fish.

“I don’t know of anyone who wants spotted bass,” Koppelman said. 

(A version of this article appeeared originally in B.A.S.S. Times.)



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Senators Begich, Rubio Honored by CCC for Conservation Work

U.S. Senators Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) were honored by the Center for Coastal Conservation at its annual legislative conference.  Begich received the Center's Lifetime Achievement Award, and Rubio was recognized as its Conservationist of the Year.

"These two senators are extraordinary leaders for conservation," said Jeff Angers, president of the Center for Coastal Conservation.  "Their commitment to good stewardship of America's marine fishery resources is making a difference from coast to coast to coast."

Begich chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard, and has long been an advocate for proper management of fishery resources.  He was an original co-author of the Fishery Science Improvement Act (FSIA) in the last Congress and is proud that anglers today enjoy great salmon fishing in the heart of Anchorage thanks to the award-winning Salmon in the City program he launched while mayor there in 2007.

Begich is guiding the reauthorization process for the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA), the overarching federal law governing marine fisheries. He recently delivered the closing remarks at the Managing Our Nation’s Fisheries Conference in which he highlighted some of the difficulties MSA has created for recreational fisheries as well as other challenges, such as the loss of marine habitat through the removal of “Idle Iron” in the Gulf of Mexico.

"Congress has taken some major steps forward to make our marine fisheries sustainable but we have a lot more to do," said Begich.  "Sound scientific management needs to be our priority as we work toward reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act this Congress."

Rubio, the Ranking Republican on the same Subcommittee, hails from America's #1 state for marine recreational fishing and was also an original co-sponsor of FSIA.   An avid angler himself, he sees the $17+ billion economic impact of recreational fishing in the Sunshine State.

“I am honored to be the Center's Conservationist of the Year. Federal fisheries management is broken for recreational fishing,” said Senator Rubio. “It is vital that we address the problems faced by our recreational anglers when Congress reauthorizes the Magnuson-Stevens Act.  This industry is a huge economic driver for our state and we must ensure those recreational fishermen who use the waters and precious resources surrounding Florida can continue to enjoy their favorite pastime.  I look forward to working with the Center for Coastal Conservation and other stakeholders as we begin this important debate.”