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Entries in catch-and-release (41)

Monday
Dec052016

Fisheries Management Is NOT Just About the Fish

Once upon a time, when harvest of bass was commonplace, wildlife agencies managed fisheries for sustainability. No matter where they fished in their state, anglers knew the bag and size limit regulations would be the same, typically 5 or 10 fish, with a minimum size of 12 inches.

But then in the 1970s along came Ray Scott, B.A.S.S., and a practice that bass anglers  embraced with open arms--- catch and release. Bass fishing became more about competitive sport and recreation than catching and keeping a limit.

As a consequence, today's fisheries manager must be two parts fisheries biologist and one part sociologist. Or maybe it's the other way around. In other words, it's not all about the fish anymore. It's also about the fishermen and what they want to catch.

"There are variables related to the biological side of things and then there is the social/people side of things," said Dave Terre, Management and Research Chief for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD). "Both those things have to come together for success."

With Texas among the most innovative states for bass management, TPWD planners consider four regulation strategies to accommodate "diverse opportunities." They include harvest, high catch rate, quality-sized fish, and trophy fish.

Of course, the first  favors those who still want to keep and eat bass. The second is for those who enjoy catching numbers of fish but not keeping them, while the third and fourth are self-explanatory.

To gain reputations as trophy fisheries, some lakes don't require special regulations or other assistance, such as supplemental stockings of Florida-strain bass, if they have enough habitat and forage, as well as periodic high water to accommodate large years classes and survival.  But usually these are cyclical as opposed to long-term.

On the other hand, maintaining a trophy fishery typically involves special regulations, such as a protected slot of 18 to 22 inches or even catch and release only and/or periodic stockings of Florida or Florida-hybrid bass to stimulate faster and larger growth. For example, recent angler success suggests that Tennessee has created a trophy bass fishery at Lake Chickamauga by enhancing the genetics.

A trophy fishery also requires constant monitoring and altering of regulations to meet changing population dynamics. In Arkansas, managers want to encourage harvest of smaller fish by reducing the protected slot from 16-21 inches to 14-17 because of the high density of bass at Mallard Lake, which yielded the state record, 16-8, in 1976.

In Texas, meanwhile, biologists wanted to prevent harvest of too many small bass when O.H. Ivie was opened to fishing about 25 years ago. Thus, the five-fish bag could include no more than two bass under 18 inches. Now, they are considering regulation changes that would encourage harvest of smaller fish and increase abundance of larger ones.  

"The nice thing about these kinds of regulations, five-fish bag limits with no more than XX number of fish above or below a certain length, is that they are conducive to both tournament and non-tournament angling, unlike slot limits that are prohibitive to tournaments," said Brian Van Zee, TPWD Inland Fisheries Regional Director. 

Especially in states where bass are the No. 1 sport fish, managers have learned that "adaptive management"  is the best strategy to deal with ever-changing  environmental conditions in fisheries and to satisfy their constituencies. The latter often are surveyed on the water, online, by mail, and at public meetings as to their preferences regarding bag and size limits, both in general and for specific water bodies.

After listening to its resident fishermen, Florida decided to simplify regulations, with an emphasis on increasing the odds that anglers can catch and release larger bass. While the statewide limit remains at five, with no minimum length for largemouths, only one fish of 16 inches or longer can be kept. Forty-two site-specific regulations have been eliminated.

"While reducing 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," said Tom Champeau, Fisheries Chief for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Still, "sometimes regulations have little to do with it (quality of a fishery)," reflected Terre, pointing out that just 57 of Texas' 1,100 reservoirs have special regulations. " Most anglers catch and release all the bass they catch. Now, we have to feel  the public will keep fish before putting on a slot.

"And we're constantly learning, experimenting, and managing according to conditions. We don't do things willy nilly."

Wednesday
Sep142016

Georgia Trophy Fishery Set to Re-Open in Spring

Georgia anglers are eagerly awaiting re-opening in the spring of a small, but prolific big-bass fishery that has been closed for nearly four years.

In November 2012,  the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) shut down the 106-acre lake at Ocmulgee Public Fishing Area so that it could be drained and leaks sealed in the bed. Repairs began in March but were delayed by spring rains, with completion now expected sometime this fall.

Additionally, DNR has been growing bass at several hatcheries as well as at a three-acre pond near the lake so Ocmulgee will have an immediate population of adult fish for anglers to enjoy. If not for that, it probably wouldn't have re-opened until 2018, said biologist Tim Bonvechio.

"It was really coming on as a high profile trophy bass fishery in the state of Georgia," he added. "We hope to bring that recipe back again."

That recipe involved stocking a lower density  population of female-only bass while allowing catch-and-release only for the fishery that first opened in 2006. By all indications, it was working too.

Angler surveys from February and March of 2012 revealed that 46 bass weighing 8 pounds or more were caught and released, with 10 of more than 10 pounds and one checking in at 12-4. Additionally,  biologists logged in a 13-4 while doing an electrofishing survey.

Repairs  included rerouting the stream that runs through the middle of the impoundment and then removing two feet of lake bed where leaks were occurring. After that, the area was covered with a rugged fabric similar to what is used to prevent runoff at construction sites, with three-feet of red clay pressed on top.

Previously, the lake had been stocked with bluegill, crappie, and catfish, as well as bass. This time around, DNR won't add catfish, which would compete with bass for forage. The hope is that this will help Ocmulgee's bass grow bigger even faster.

"We want to put someone on the fish of a lifetime," Bonvechio said.

Sunday
Jul312016

Hot-water Stress a Killer for Big Fish, Whether Sharks or Bass

The great hammerhead shark is a magnificent animal. It's also one of 24 shark species illegal to harvest in Florida waters, up to 9 miles off the coast.

Sadly,  four of them washed up on Sarasota beaches in late June and July, according to the Bradenton Herald.

What happened to them? Most likely, they were caught and released, but didn't survive the trauma of the fight and handling.

"This particular species of hammerhead is just so fragile that they go into physiological stress," said Robert Hueter, director of shark research at Mote Marine Laboratory.

One of those stressors during this time of year is the temperature.

Whether shark, catfish, or bass, a fish's metabolism  speeds up in warm water because it is cold-blooded. That means it burns more energy and, as a consequence, must consume  more food to fuel sustain itself. It also means that its oxygen needs are intensified. But . . .

"The hotter the water is, the less oxygen it can hold," Hueter said.

Now factor in the energy and oxygen expended in a struggle to escape once hooked,  and fish die, especially larger fish, which simply cannot recover no matter how carefully they are handled once they are brought to the shore or boat. In essence, they die of exhaustion, unable to gain the oxygen they need to recover.

That's why delayed mortality increases for bass tournaments during summer. And that's why those great hammerheads did not survive.

This dead great hammerhead was hauled back out to sea after recently washing up on a Sarasota beach.Hueter added that hammerheads  likely are especially vulnerable because their mouths are so small in comparison to their bodies.

 “As soon as it’s obvious that it is a hammerhead, the better thing to do would be just to cut the line or cut the leader, get as close as you can to the animal without spending a lot of time pulling it in,” he said. “Cut it and let it go.”

Dragging a shark, or any other large fish, such as a Goliath grouper, onto shore always is stressful for the animal, but especially so during summer. Meanwhile, inshore and beach fishing for sharks is more popular than ever.

"We're seeing more (sharks) than we've seen before washing up on beaches," Hueter said.

The fish is much more likely to survive if kept in shallow water for dehooking and photos.

In addition to hammerheads, bull and black tip sharks also are especially vulnerable to stress. At the other extreme, nurse and lemon sharks are among the hardiest.

Here are some handling tips to help ensure survival. They apply specifically to sharks, but are good tips for handling big fish of many species when caught on bait.

  • Use heavy tackle and non-stainless circle hooks
  • Use a dehooker
  • Cut the leader or line quickly, leaving as little as possible attached to the hook
  • Do not bring sharks out of water
  • Leave shark in enough water so that it can breathe through its mouth and gills
  • Shoot photos in process of releasing

 

Wednesday
May112016

Sustaining Mille Lacs Smallmouths While Rebuilding Walleye Fishery a Tough Challenge for Minnesota DNR

 

 Maintaining a single world-class fishery in a lake is one of the greatest challenges for a state wildlife agency. As they employ and/or alter regulations, resource managers must consider constantly changing biological and environmental variables, as well as possible economic and social impacts.

And when a lake has two world-class fisheries and one of them is in decline . . .

"It's a complicated mess," said Eric Jensen, a large lake biologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

That's the situation that DNR finds itself in at Mille Lacs Lake, site of the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship Sept. 15-18. With a five-fish bag of 25 pounds not uncommon, the smallmouth fishery arguably is more robust than ever, earning a No. 10 ranking among the best bass lakes in the nation by Bassmaster Magazine in 2015.

On the flip side, the once productive walleye fishery is in steep decline. In fact it's so steep that the agency finally went all the way and imposed a ban on harvest in 2016, and prohibited the use of live bait, except on launch (party) boats.

At the same time it's been imposing tighter and tighter restrictions on walleye harvest in recent years, it's been allowing increased harvest of smallmouth bass. In 2013, the limit went from one fish to six. This year's it's four.

But Jensen's comment was not intended to suggest that DNR doesn't have sound science to back these decisions. Rather it reflects that  management regarding such  popular, productive, and economically important fisheries is controversial, as they impact diverse constituencies.

How so? Many walleye anglers want to keep and eat their catch, while most bass anglers catch and release, with no thought given to harvest.  But for 2016, at least, meat fishermen can't keep their preferred species. Yet they can take home bass.

As a consequence, bass anglers fear irreparable harm to the smallmouth population.  Concurrently, many resorts and other businesses around the lake fear the ban on walleye harvest will do damage local economies, as anglers go elsewhere, where they can keep the fish that they prefer to target.

While a state legislator introduced an ill-fated bill to negate the ban on walleye harvest, the Minnesota B.A.S.S. Nation (MBN) joined forces with the newly formed Mille Lacs Smallmouth Bass Alliance (MLSBA) to launch an awareness campaign about the importance of catch and release for sustaining the lake as a world-class bass fishery. They intend to post signs at private ramps around the 132,000-acre lake.

"We want to educate fishermen and businesses too that catch and release, not catch and kill, is the way to go," said Mickey Goetting, conservation director of the MBN, which has started a GoFundMe page to raise $2,750 for the effort.

MBN posted this message on the page: "Smallmouth have become the target as a replacement for walleye table fare. Minnesota B.A.S.S. Nation is concerned that increased fishing pressure and a substantial increase in harvest could adversely impact the world-class Mille Lacs smallmouth bass fishery. Smallmouth bass grow very slowly and we need to protect them."

DNR, however, steadfastly maintains that is not sacrificing bass or trying to reduce bass populations to reduce predation on walleye. Rather, its intent is to "provide alternate harvest opportunities, preserve quality sizes, and maintain quality catch rates."

Last fall's gill net survey "showed the highest catch we've ever seen (for smallmouth bass)," Jensen said. "Since 1998, the trend has been steadily upward."

Additionally, 74,150 smallmouth bass were released in 2015, while only an estimated 5,000 were harvested. "Not everyone is keeping bass," he added.

Sadly, the walleye population has been declining for nearly a decade. Causes are uncertain, but potential causes could be the same ones contributing to increasing numbers of hefty bronzebacks. "A lot has been going on at the same time," the biologist said.

That includes increasing water clarity, which benefits bass, primarily sight feeders. Walleye prefer darker conditions. Also, clearer water means less productivity in the form of phytoplankton and zooplankton at the bottom of the food chain for prey fish to eat. "Walleye eat mostly fish, and there's not as many fish," Jensen explained. "Smallmouth also eat crayfish."

With warming water possibly contributing, these changes began even before the introduction of  invasive zebra mussels and spiny water fleas. But they seem to have accelerated as the exotics proliferated, gobbling up zooplankton and filtering out much of the lake's energy.

In a nutshell, not enough young walleye have been surviving to maturity and replenishing the population since at least 2008, with numbers being at a 40-year low in 2015. But hope is on the horizon, thanks to a strong year class in 2013, which DNR wants to protect via the ban on harvest.

"As walleye get to 14 inches, they are more desirable and that 2013 class is moving into that size now," Jensen said. "It's strong and it looks like it's going to contribute to spawning biomass. Females grow much larger than males and, in another couple of years, they will really start to contribute."

But bass anglers fear what will happen, as meat fishermen turn their focus to the smallmouth population while walleyes slowly recovers.

"This is a very special fishery with national significance to bass anglers everywhere," said Jim DaRosa, president of the alliance. "Mille Lacs needs to be protected. It may take several years to restore walleye to the levels they once were. We want to be proactive and make sure the smallmouth are healthy and sustainable while the walleye population is being restored."

Bass Regulations History for Mille Lacs

Before 2000: 6 fish, smallmouth and largemouth bass.

2000: 1 fish, 21 inches minimum length.

2013: 6 fish,  with one longer than 20 inches. Protected slot of 17 to 20 inches.

2014: 6 fish,  with one longer than 18 inches. Season opens with walleye. No fall catch-and-release restriction. 

2016 Regulations for Bass, Walleye, Northern Pike

 Bass:  4 fish, with one longer than 21 inches. All bass between 17 and 21 inches must be released immediately. 

Walleye:  From May 14 to Dec. 1, anglers targeting walleye must use artificial bait and immediately release all walleye caught. Night closure beginning May 16, from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., and continuing through Dec. 1.

Northern Pike: 5 fish with only one longer than 40 inches. all pike 30 to 40 inches long must be immediately released.

Tuesday
Mar082016

Is Stockpiling a Problem for Bass Fisheries? It Depends . . . 

Live-release boats prevent stockpiling of bass in the weigh-in areas.

Prompted by B.A.S.S. founder Ray Scott,  anglers of the 1970s began to release their fish instead of kill them. During those early years, only the big picture was in focus, and it revealed bass fishermen to be stewards who cared about conserving the resource.

Then we began to closer examine our actions and their consequences, and we realized that not all of those released bass survived, including many caught in tournaments. We recognized that improper handling led to delayed mortality. We worked to increase survival rates by devising and promoting better ways to handle bass from lake to livewell to weigh-in stand and finally to release. In 2002,  B.A.S.S. compiled a "Keeping Bass Alive" handbook for anglers and tournament organizers.

We're not there yet, and likely never will be in terms of keeping all bass alive after they are released, but we've dramatically lowered delayed mortality rates through innovation and education.

And as we've responded to that challenge, we've noted yet another, this one specifically related to tournament fishing: Stockpiling.

Traditionally, the term referred to what the United States and USSR did with nuclear weapons during the Cold War or what survivalists continue to do with food, firearms, and precious metals. But during the past two decades or so, fisheries managers have recognized it as a phenomenon that occurs when all the bass are released near the weigh-in site following a tournament or two or three . . .

What's the problem with stockpiling? At a meeting last fall with Maryland Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) biologists, concerned anglers suggested that when bass are collectively released at a weigh-in site they become more susceptible to meat fishermen who catch and kill, as well as easier targets for future tournament anglers, resulting in increased  chances of stress, injury, and delayed mortality.

MDNR agreed that stockpiling can damage the overall health of a fishery, and Tony Prochaska, Inland Fisheries division manager, added that the issue likely is a national one. As evidence, he pointed out that 6 of 10 northeastern states that responded to questions about this issue said it is a concern.

Telemetry work conducted in the North East and Potomac rivers decades ago revealed that some fish will leave the release area, but about half may remain for a month or more. Out in California, a study conducted during the 1990s on Lake Shasta showed that largemouth bass moved less than three miles from where they were released. 

MDNR's tidal bass manager, Joe Love, says that the issue comes down to two questions:

1) Are too many fish being taken from one area, such as isolated streams and then released at a distant weigh-in site?

2) Are too many fish being released at a weigh-in area?

"We've found that the answer to both of these questions is that it depends on the weigh-in area," he said. "Specifically, it depends on the number of shore anglers fishing the weigh-in area, water quality in the area, and the distance of the weigh-in area from streams where the fish were taken."

Additional variables include the numbers and sizes of the fish weighed and the sizes and timing of the tournaments

Anglers and fisheries managers alike agree that there's an acceptable  loss or mortality of fish, Love added.  Otherwise there wouldn't be limits. But how much does stockpiling add to that loss, especially at popular sites where multiple weigh-ins are staged each season?

"Pinpointing the relative impact of a single factor is nearly impossible, making successful mitigation of that single factor improbable," the biologist said. "In combination with other factors affecting a fishery, though, stockpiling may affect a fishery if it increases the number of fish caught and released at the weigh-in site and the number of fish caught and eaten at the weigh-in site, both of which increases fishing mortality and reduces the proportion of big fish in a population."

Unlike habitat loss and other factors affecting the quality of a bass fishery, stockpiling likely can be managed. MDNR hopes to do that by having tournament directors specify what management practices they intend to use, such as spreading around weigh-in areas during a tournament trail and/or reducing possession limits.

"We also are working with some tournament organizations such as B.A.S.S. and PVA (Paralyzed Veterans of America) to redistribute fish when they request assistance because of otherwise significant, undue harm to bass survival," Love said.

Because of so many variables, stockpiling is a more complex problem than delayed mortality, but fisheries managers and concerned anglers are working on it to better protect and enhance the nation's bass fisheries.