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Early Conservation Efforts And Black Bass Act Saved American's No. 1 Sport Fish

“So long as there is a legal market anywhere, you may bank on it that thousands of pounds of illegally caught bass will be sold,” he said during IWL’s all but forgotten campaign during the 1920s to save black bass from decimation by commercial harvest."--- Seth Gordon, first conservation director for Izaak Walton League (IWL)

*     *     *     *

Well into the 20th century, black bass were commercial, as well as sport fish. Even as government agencies stocked fish anywhere and everywhere and closed seasons limited sport fishing, commercial fishermen harvested largemouth and smallmouth bass with pound and fyke nets, as well as other means, for sale in the fish markets of many cities.

Yet today, New York and other states once again allow sale of "hatchery-raised" black bass in markets and restaurants. And more, under pressure from fish farmers, are considering doing so.

“Eulogy on the Black Bass” read the headline in a 1927 issue of Forest and Stream, and another in 1930 screamed, “Defrauding Ten Million Anglers.” In the latter article, Edward Kemper slammed the Bureau of Fisheries for “overseeing the slaughter of millions and millions of black bass” and he included a “role of dishonor,” naming 10 states that continued to allow sale of bass in markets.

IWL was the prime mover for passage of the Black Bass Act of 1926, which was introduced into Congress by Rep. Harry Hawes of Missouri. As the law prohibited shipment of bass across state lines, IWL also worked within those states to outlaw commercial harvest.

I learned about this little known chapter in bass history from Jim Long, assistant unit leader of the Oklahoma Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at Oklahoma State University. He came across this and other long forgotten information as he prepared a presentation on the history of black bass management for a Black Bass Diversity Symposium at a Southern Division Meeting of the American Fisheries Society.

“I’ve read some histories of fisheries but I’ve never seen one for black bass,” he told me. “I wanted original newspaper clippings, not third-hand accounts, and data bases made that possible,” he said.

Pouring through archives, Long found a headline from the 1920s that proclaimed “Hoover Laments Decline of Fishing.” And he discovered that the New York Times listed black bass regulations during the 1870s. “That’s something you don’t see today,” he said.

As he divided his search into major time periods, starting with the 1800s, what surprised Long the most were the influential roles played by the IWL and, before that, by Dr. James A. Henshall.

Author of the 1881 Book of the Black Bass, Henshall was a medical doctor and passionate bass angler. The most quoted line in bass fishing literature belongs to him: “I consider him (black bass), inch for inch and pound for pound, the gamest fish that swims.”

Henshall’s passion, said Long, was to promote black bass as “a pre-eminent gamefish.” But the doctor also was a “lumper,” countering decades of science that preceded him.

Long coined that phrase as the opposite to “splitters,” which describes those who recognize multiple bass species.

“Henshall did a lot of really good work, but he considered the spotted bass a smallmouth, the Guadalupe a largemouth, and the Florida a largemouth,” Long explained. “And he was the authoritative voice.”

So, even though the smallmouth bass and then largemouth bass were identified in 1802, the spotted bass in 1819, the Florida bass in 1822, and the Guadalupe bass in 1874, Henshall’s lumping successfully countered their acknowledgement as separate species until the 1940s.

By the way, no one knows where that first smallmouth was caught before it was shipped to France to be analyzed and given its Latin name. But what Long discovered is that the black bass’s keystone designation as Micropterus was based on a damaged dorsal fin. “It looked like it had a second, smaller dorsal,” he said. “And that word means small fin or wing.”

With improvement in science over the decades, especially in genetics, Henshall’s lumping has fallen out of favor and we’re not likely to name any new species based on an imperfection. Also, we’ve become much more selective about how and when we stock, and we’re focused on improving habitat as never before as a way to sustain fisheries.

All those are good things. But I am troubled by our politicians and their propensity for repeating harmful chapters in our history.      


It's a Wonderful (Angler's) Life' 

I had been certain the smallmouth bass would cooperate following the afternoon rain, but they didn't.

After I lost my favorite streamer to a snag, I slapped my fly rod disgustedly against a branch. Droplets danced in a sparkling chorus line, but I barely noticed. Fishing had been poor for weeks and I was mad at myself for continuing to waste time on such a worthless sport.

Suddenly I heard an elephant-sized splash. I raced downstream and around the bend to the site of the sound.

An old man with unruly white hair bobbed along as the current filled his waders. "I slipped," he yelled through an equally white beard. "Can you give me a hand?"

I dragged him ashore and helped him pull off his boots. As he emptied his waders, two bluegills plopped out and tumbled back into the stream. "Been one of those days," he said as his river-green eyes appraised his dripping khakis and red flannel shirt.

For a second, I thought that I detected a brief smile on the old man's tanned face. Then, he squished over to a stump and sat down.

"Why do we fish?" he asked abruptly, and I had the disturbing sensation that he had just read my mind. "Most times, we don't catch fish. We get wet and cold. Bugs bite us. We spend a small fortune on tackle. I mean, what's the point?"

I said nothing, but I enthusiastically agreed. I remembered a reckless sidearm cast and a hook that stabbed my lower eyelid. The wound itself was superficial, but the visit to the hospital was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life, especially because a worm was on the hook when it stuck me. I also remembered poison ivy and bee stings. I remembered broken lines. I remembered sunburns.

"What I'm trying to decide right now," the old man continued, "is whether to throw my rod and reel in the river or give it to my grandson. He would love to have it. but he's too young to know any better. I don't want it on my conscience that I influenced him to become a fisherman."

Again, I was taken aback. I remembered when I had been too young to know better. And I remembered the old man, a neighbor, who had influenced me to become a fisherman.

I remembered sleepless nights of expectancy. I remembered shivering in the boat so violently during the pre-dawn that I barely could bait my hook. I remembered how sharp and good the coffee smelled in the thermos and how the air on the water smelled of sweet cucumbers. I remembered the sun finally warming my face, burning off the mist, and making me inexplicably happy.

And I remembered how fishing continued to make me happy as I grew up. At first, I now recalled, I had thought it important to catch a lot of fish. Then I had wanted to catch big fish. And I had caught my share in both numbers and size.

But I knew for a fact that I had caught little or nothing on many of my fishing trips, and yet I couldn't remember a single time that I had come home from fishing unhappy.

Yet, I had been unhappy when I heard that splash, and if the old man hadn't started me to thinking . . .

What is needed, I decided is a guardian angel of angling. He could, of course, meander down idyllic trout streams to make certain that hatching insects look like the flies carried by fishermen who are about to come along, and he could whisper on the wind to bass anglers, telling them when to use chartreuse and when to use white.

But more importantly, he could keep us from forgetting that fishing is a lot more than just catching fish. He could remind us that fishing restores our souls through sights, sounds, and smells --- and the memories that it revives.

This is a rebirth for me, I decided. Never again will I fail to appreciate the sun's magic on raindrops. Never again will I forget the pure pleasure I derive from being on the water with ducks, dragonflies, bullfrogs, beavers, and all of the rest --- even if the fish aren't biting and I've lost my favorite streamer.

My eyes met the old man's then and I jerked back to reality. I smiled and told him that I once filled my chest waders with a farm pond while reaching for a moss-wrapped fish that was just out of grasp. "It's all part of fishing," I said with a shrug."

"If I were you," I continued, "I wouldn't give that rod and reel to your grandson. I'd buy him a new one and take him fishing with you the next time."

He laughed and slapped a hand against his stream-soaked pant leg.

"You're right," he said. "But before I go, I want to show you my appreciation for your help. I want you to have this."

He reached into his tackle bag and then extended his hand to me. As I opened my hand, he dropped a streamer into it --- a streamer just like the one I had lost.

"We all need a little help every now and then," he said as he waved goodbye.

(This story is included in Fish, Frogs, and Fireflies: Growing Up With Nature.)

Copyright Robert Montgomery.



A Christmas Wish from the Activist Angler

May you never break another rod in a car door or ceiling fan.

May you always catch fish --- but not too many or too often.

May your trebles rarely get tangled.

May you always believe a big one is possible on your next cast.

May all your backlashes be little ones.

May you always cherish the joy that fishing brought you as a child.

May you never get another hole in the seat of your rain pants.

May you make the world a better place by teaching someone to fish.

May you never run out of your favorite lure.

May you never feel too old to get up early to go fishing.

May ethanol-based fuel be banished to the trash heap of bad ideas.

May you not miss the rainbow because you are too busy catching a limit.

May Asian carp never invade your fishery.

May you have at least one day of fishing so good that no one believes you.

May you know the peace that a day on the water brings all throughout the New Year.

(Copyright Robert Montgomery 2016)


Great Christmas Gifts for Anglers, Nature Lovers, and Those Who Grew Up in Simpler time