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Monday
Sep052016

Put These Bass on Your Bucket List!

Shoal bassIf you think largemouths, smallmouths, and spots are the only fish worth pursuing, you don't know your bass.

As  the most adaptable and widespread species in the black bass family, they certainly have earned their fame and your loyalty. But if you enjoy catching hard-fighting fish in scenic rivers and streams, you should meet their stay-at-home cousins, most notably shoal and Guadalupe bass.

"I used to think smallmouth bass were the ultimate river bass, but shoal bass have completely changed my mind," said Steven Sammons, an avid angler as well as fisheries scientist and research fellow in Auburn University's School of Fisheries, Aquaculture, and Aquatic Sciences.

"They grow faster, consistently reach larger sizes, and may be the most aggressive black bass we have. I routinely fish for them with topwater lures most suited to peacock bass and they usually are up to the challenge!"

Guadalupe bass (left) and largemouth bassAnd the Guadalupe? Tim Birdsong, a fisherman who also happens to be Habitat Conservation Branch Chief for Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPW), feels much the same way about this smaller river fish.

"It fights harder than any other species I've caught," he said. "Guadalupes know how to move their bodies in current, and they are inextricably linked to flowing water. They hang out just behind the current and move out into it to ambush."

With such glowing recommendations, then, why don't more anglers know about and fish for these moving water brawlers? Unlike largemouths, smallmouths, and spots, they can't tolerate reservoir conditions, and consequently mostly are restricted to free-flowing waters in their historic ranges. That means anglers must go to the Hill Country of central and south Texas to fish for the Guadalupe, the state's official fish, and to the Apalachicola River drainage (Chattahoochee and Flint tributary systems) in Alabama, Georgia, and Florida to fish for the shoal bass.

But a little travel time is well worth it, according to Sammons, who caught three 5-pound-plus shoal bass one day this past spring. "Those who know what they are doing --- and there are many better than I --- routinely catch 5-pound shoal bass every spring," he said. "The better anglers' number of fish in those sizes is in the dozens annually. Not many smallmouth rivers can produce fish like that."

Additionally, he added, they are not difficult to catch just about any time if you are in the right place. And where is that for the shoal bass?

Shoal bass fishingThe "epicenter" for big shoal bass, Sammons explained, is the Flint River west of Thomaston, Ga.. "There are five or six places that you can access for float trips," he said. "And you can canoe or wade fish."

The Flint River between Albany and Lake Seminole, meanwhile, can accommodate larger boats and seems to hold bigger, but fewer, fish.

In Florida, the Chipola River, especially below Marianna, offers some of the best shoal bass fishing. Fisheries biologist Andy Strickland said that three low-water years, starting in 2006, produced big year classes of shoal bass that now are moving into the 4- and 5-pound range. But Ray Tice recently caught a new state record (5.2 pounds), the fourth in little more than a year,  from the Apalachicola River in Gadsden County.

Where do you find shoal bass in those rivers? "They set up like salmon or trout," Sammons explained. "They are not behind a rock or in an eddy. "They set up in that fast water, the first big drop in a shoal. They're in front of the 'push' water."

Guadalupe bass fishingIn Texas, meanwhile, the lower Colorado River below Austin boasts a trophy fishery for Guadalupe bass, and, in fact,  that's where Bryan Townsend caught the record, 3.71-pounds, on a crawfish-pattern fly in 2014. Birdsong added that about 60 percent of anglers targeting the state fish cast flies as they wade or drift.

The Llano River, a tributary of the Colorado, is another good choice. "Around Kingsland, you have a different kind of river channel with granite outcrops," Birdsong said. "It's a great area to wade fish."

Sadly, the Guadalupe no longer is found in some of its range, mostly because of development. "We see this as an urgent time to do something meaningful to protect the species," the biologist said, pointing out that population in the Hill Country has increased by one million people during the past decade.

"Fourteen species of fish are found in the Hill Country and nowhere else in the world," he added. "We're really concerned about urbanization and demand on our spring-fed rivers."

That's why TPW initiated the 10-year Guadalupe Bass Restoration Initiative in 2010, with the hope that a public-private conservation partnership can help sustain and/or restore the rivers.

In addition, populations of the shoal and other black bass species mentioned below seem to be slowly declining due to habitat degradation and hybridization with illegally introduced non-native bass, especially spots. That why Sammons and other fisheries scientists in state agencies and universities within their native ranges have stepped up conservation efforts.

The Rest of the Family

Generally speaking, nine species of black bass now are recognized by the scientific community: northern largemouth bass, Florida largemouth bass, Alabama spotted bass, northern spotted bass, smallmouth bass, Guadalupe bass, shoal bass, redeye bass, and Suwannee bass.

Until 1999, the shoal was considered a subspecies of the redeye, which is why the 8-12 caught in the Apalachicola River in 1995 is recognized as the all-tackle record by the International Game Fish Association, but not by Florida as a state record. The Georgia record, meanwhile, is an 8-3 caught in 1977 on the Flint River and the Alabama record is a 6-11 caught from Halawakee Creek in 1996.

Although similar in overall appearance to the shoal, the redeye is a smaller fish and prefers skinnier waters in Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and small portions of North Carolina and Tennessee. The Georgia state record, 3-7, came from Lake Hartwell in 2004.

 "It's not found in the fast water," said Sammons. "It doesn't need boulders like the shoal. Mostly you catch them in small pools with 6-pound line and small crankbaits."

As scientific investigative methods improve and conservation efforts for native species intensify, it's possible that the redeye will be subdivided into several different species in the years to come, including Coosa, Tallapoosa, Chattahoochee, Cahaba, and Warrior.

Because of its association with a song written by Steven Foster, the Suwannee bass is the most recognized black bass outside the big five. But it has the smallest range of the family--- the Suwannee, Santa Fe, Wacissa, Wakulla,  and several other free-flowing Florida rivers, as well as the Alapaha, Ochlockonee, and Withlacoochee shared by Florida and Georgia. Current IGFA record is 3-14, taken from the Suwannee in 1985.

During the next few years, Choctaw and the Bartram's likely will be the next bass to be recognized as separate species, Sammons said.

"The genetics is really strong on the Choctaw," he explained. "It looks like a spotted bass, but it's geographically isolated."

In fact, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission already includes the Choctaw in its fishing regulations.

The Bartram's, meanwhile, "should be a slam dunk" to be recognized, the Auburn scientist said. "It's found only in the Savannah and Broad River drainages  and it's the only one (outside the big five) to survive in reservoirs. You can catch it in lakes, and it gets a little bigger, 2 to 2 1/2 pounds."

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

Sunday
Sep042016

Alaska's Greatest Outdoor Legends

Most of us never will go to Alaska. And none of us can time travel.

          But Doug Kelly enables readers to do both, at least vicariously, via his new book, Alaska's Greatest Outdoor Legends. Incorporating historical records, anecdotes, and interviews, he profiles 27 of them who hunted, fish, trapped, explored, settled, managed, and promoted "the last frontier" during the past century, right up to present day.

          Black and white photos  add spice to the tales of adventurous men and women who blazed trails for the millions who followed, either to fish and hunt or to live. For example, the cover features a shot of Charley Madsen, Kodiak Island's original professional bear guide, packing out a brown bear carcass on his shoulders.

          But so intriguing were the exploits of more than two dozen others, Charley didn't even merit a chapter of his own! In fact, Kelly said that "hundreds of other men and women could justifiably be included as legends of rod or rifle in Canada."

          Consider colorful Capt. Andy "Frosty" Mezirow, who has put clients on fish for 25 years, and continues to do so, with giant halibut his specialty. On one trip, though, what was supposed to be a halibut turned out to be a 250-pound salmon shark. In helping to subdue it, "Andy leaped on the shark's back like a rodeo rider and concussed it with multiple swings from an aluminum bat," recalled a friend who was on the boat that day.

          And within the chapters of many of those who are featured lie stories worthy of  adaptation as movies. Missourian Nellie Neal Lawing didn't make it to Alaska until she was middle-aged. But once there, she was an unstoppable force, as she operated way stations for anglers and hunters. In 1920, she drove her dog sled into the teeth of a blizzard to rescue a mail carrier. And then, knowing the importance of mail in frontier Alaska, went back for the pouches and delivered them on time to the train station.

          And as Nellie was making her mark, so too were hunters like Frank Glaser, Bill Pinnell, and Morris Talifson. The latter two awakened hunters in the Lower 48 to the allure of hunting on Kodiak Island with magazine advertisements and video presentations. Glaser started as a wolf hunter for the feds, but later became an important voice in debates about predator control in Alaska.

          If you like hunting, fishing, history, and colorful characters, you will enjoy Alaska's Greatest Outdoor Legends.

Thursday
Sep012016

'Taking Kids Fishing Is More fun Than I've Ever Had in My Life'

Books have been written, including my own, about the value of fishing, and, more specifically, the importance of introducing children to the pastime.

But Howard Davis is a simple man who can sum up the latter in one sentence.

"Taking kids fishing is more fun than I've ever had in my life," said the founder of Kids First Cast, Inc. (KFC), a non-profit, all-volunteer organization in Nampa, Idaho. "With kids you don't have to deal with politics or anything else. It's just fishing."

And for the man sporting a twinkle in his eye and a Santa Claus beard, a child is not defined by age. "To me, a kid can be 3 or 103 years old," he said, recalling a 67-year-old woman whom he instructed.

"On her first cast, she caught the first fish of her life, and she was as excited as any 3-year-old. There are big kids too."

Through affiliations with various programs and bass clubs, Davis has been taking kids fishing for 25 years or so, when he can break away from his business, Howard's Tackle Shoppe.

"I've probably seen more kids in Idaho catch their first fish than anyone else," he said.

"And it's amazing how many come back and talk to me. One who is 35 now is still excited about fishing. And he still has the pack of worms that I gave him that day. He won't use them."

But encouragement from Dyann Aspiazu in 2011 is what prompted him to finally take the plunge and form his own organization, which will take an estimated 6,500 children fishing in 2016. That and a promise from Aspiazu that she would take care of the paperwork and all he would have to do is keep taking kids fishing, as well as do a little marketing and soliciting of donations.

"Starting it was not as difficult as I thought it would be," Davis said. "The most difficult thing is finding enough adult volunteers. I probably do 50 to 60 kids events alone every year."

As well as partnering with Idaho Fish and Game, KFC  sponsors outings for disabled veterans and dependents and survivors of military families. One of those occurred this past May for children whose parents were recently deployed. "One kid caught a 3 1/2-pound bass on his first cast," Davis remembered. "Another  caught 14 bluegill, and he was tickled to death."

The KFC director keeps kids focused on the fishing by not allowing cell phones. "I want them to see there's something besides cyperspace," he said.

He also debarbs hooks and emphasizes over-the-shoulder casting, to lessen the likelihood of catching another participant instead of a fish. "We're going to start putting together rules and guidelines," Davis said. "It's a learning process every time we do an event.

"And we seem to get busier and busier every year, because I can't say, 'No.'"

He admitted that asking for donations was a challenge  at first, but then he quickly realized  that "it's amazing what people will do when it's for kids."

Marketing, meanwhile,  seemed to take on a life of its own when Davis purchased a van with a utility box to transport fishing gear and other equipment to events around the state. Wherever it goes now, it's recognized as  "Howard's Bassmobile."

"When I first saw it, I thought, 'That would make a hell of a tackle box,'" he said with a laugh, adding that it is adorned with logos of businesses that support KFC, as well as an awning on the side and a big bass (mailbox) chasing a lure on top.

Another boost to sustainability has been the "Cabin Fever Reliever," held each winter as a fund-raiser and a way of promoting and thanking sponsors. Thousands gather to learn all kinds of outdoor skills, in addition to fishing.

If Howard Davis had the time and resources, he'd drive the Bassmobile cross country, introducing kids to fishing. "I'm 67-years-old, a diabetic and don't have the energy I used to," he said. "But when you care about the kids, things like that aren't an issue."

For those in other states who feel the same way, he encourages them to form their own non-profits to introduce children to fishing. "The appreciation that you receive from the kids and their parents is overwhelming," he said.

Finally, Davis added, if you have rods and reels that you're not using, send them to him at 1707 Garrity Blvd., Nampa, ID 83687. He will clean them up and give them to more kids as he continues to have "more fun than I've ever had in my life."

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

Thursday
Sep012016

Help Clean Up Florida's East Coast

The Marine Resources Council in collaboration with Keep Brevard Beautiful and the Ocean Conservancy would like to invite you to join the International Coastal Cleanup! in Brevard County on Florida's east coast. Event is scheduled for 8 a.m. to noon. on Saturday, Sept. 17

Every year this event garners hundreds of thousands of volunteers to comb shorelines, lakes, rivers and beaches around the world for trash. Over the course of nearly three decades, more than 9 million volunteers have collected nearly 164 million pounds of trash.

No matter where you live—whether on the coast or thousands of miles away—all waterways lead to the ocean. If we take action and work together, we can improve the ocean’s health and make trash free seas a reality.

Wednesday
Aug312016

When and Why Corps Manages Water Levels on Bass Fisheries

If not for impoundments built and managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, waters for bass fishing would be but a fraction of what they are today. By extension, tournament fishing, tackle innovation, and all the rest associated with the sport would not have evolved as they have.

As bass anglers, we owe much to the Corps, and therein lies a seeming contradiction that drives many of us to distraction:

These reservoirs were not created for bass fishing, nor are they managed for bass fishing. But because they are so critically important for the existence of the sport, many of us simply cannot accept that reality.  We can’t rid ourselves of the mistaken idea that, when the Corps acts, it is doing so solely to impact the fishing in one way or another.

For example, when the Corps lowers the water during or just after the spawn, many of us are certain that the move was done either to intentionally damage the fishery and/or to remind anglers who is in charge.

The truth is that recreation might be an authorized use on a Corps impoundment, but water storage typically is not allocated for recreation. And that’s a crucial difference.

Additionally, a single Corps impoundment is not an independent entity unto itself, especially when it comes to flood control. Reservoirs on a river system all are interrelated in their management.

Consider Table Rock Lake on the White River chain, where more than 13 inches of rain fell within 72 hours in late April of 2011, contributing to an historic 21-foot rise.

Beaver Lake is upstream, while Bull Shoals, Norfork and Greers Ferry are downstream. Between Bull Shoals and Table Rock, is Lake Taneycomo, a riverine impoundment not managed by the Corps, but which must be considered in management decisions.

“It’s a complicated system,” said Greg Oller, Corps manager for Table Rock, who added that a White River water control plan helps determine when to release and how much, based on storage capacity of the impoundments.

Adding to that complication is the fact that the White is a tributary of the Mississippi, as is the Arkansas. When heavy rains and floods occur, flow down those two waterways must be considered as well in determining releases. Gauging stations help track what’s going on.

“From Beaver to Newport (on lower White River) is a lot of uncontrolled area, including the Buffalo River and Crooked Creek,” Oller said. “Those elevations can bounce up based on water inflow from rain.”

And then there’s the heavy rain that poured into Beaver, just as it did to Table Rock. That came barreling down the White River and into Table Rock at 300,000 cubic feet per second. High, muddy water also pushed in from the Kings and James rivers, as the lake rose perilously close to the top of the dam.

By contrast, construction of these impoundments on the White were based on flooding in 1927 and 1945, when peak discharge was 200,000 cubic feet per second.

“A lot of people were upset with the flooding downstream,” said the Corps manager who didn’t sleep much during this critical period. “But Table Rock prevented a tremendous amount of damage.”

Oller is a fisherman himself and recognizes that these high waters often are good for fisheries, even as they are devastating for homes, towns, and farms in the floodplain. Flooded shorelines provide abundant habitat for fry to feed and avoid predation. “The flood events that we had in 2008 and again in 2011 should make these fisheries hot spots for years to years to come,” he said.

He added that the Corps “tries to be sensitive” to fisheries-related issues, but has limited options.

“We can’t manipulate the water level based on the spawn,” he said. “When water is drawn down during that time, it is based on an authorized allocation of water.”

As an example, water pulled for hydropower during a dry spring could cause a low-water situation that damages the spawn.

For fisheries particularly, low water can be more devastating than floods, Oller added. “You get locked into a drought and that can last for months and even years,” he said.

Bottom line, though, is that water is cyclic. There will be droughts. There will be floods. And in managing our impoundments during these times, Corps employees must utilize a complicated system based on authorized uses and allocations --- not what bass fishermen want to create optimal fishing conditions.