Do spring catch-and-release or limited harvest seasons hurt bass populations in northern waters?
For New York fisheries, the answer is no.
“We found no impact to production,” said Randy Jackson, a biologist with the Cornell Biological Field Station on Oneida Lake.
Jackson and his associates compared survey data both before and after the spring seasons were implemented for New York’s portion of Lake Erie, as well as the inland waters of Oneida and Canadarago.
In New York, the season begins on the third Saturday in June and extends until Nov. 30. Traditionally, it then remained closed until the following June. That was because many resource managers believe bass populations in northern waters are more fragile than those in southern due to a shorter spawning time and growing season, as well as less fertile water. Consequently, the general wisdom goes, bass on the beds need protection from anglers.
But in 1994, New York decided to try a spring season on Lake Erie, allowing harvest of one 15-inch fish (size limit now is 20 inches). Then in 2007, it went with a spring catch-and-release season in most of its inland waters.
On Erie, researchers found a year class index of 3.0 for smallmouth bass (aged 2) in gill net surveys conducted for 15 years before the spring season. For 17 years afterward, the index was 6.0.
At Oneida, young-of-the-year smallmouth average catch per trawl haul for six years before a spring season was 0.4, but 1.8 afterward.
“Both of those are statistically significant,” Jacksons said. “What we found at Canadarago was not.”
At the latter, young-of-the-year largemouth per hour increased from 15.6 to 27.8 in electrofishing surveys after the season was implemented. Smallmouth declined slightly from 1.2 to 0.6.
In other words, bass production was not harmed in any of the three fisheries. Most interesting, though, it actually improved, a change that hardly can be credited to allowing anglers to fish during the spawn.
Jackson attributes that to more hospitable conditions for New York bass in general, with these three fisheries providing a reflection of those changes.
“The water has been warming for the 47 years that we’ve been keeping data here (at Oneida),” he explained. “No one can argue that the lake is much warmer than it used to be.”
Additionally, filter feeding by zebra and quagga mussels has cleared the water at Oneida, Erie, and other fisheries. “That favors bass, which are visual feeders,” he said, adding that young bass are better protected from predation because of more vegetation in the clearer water.
(This article appeared originally in B.A.S.S. Times.)