Responding to strong opposition from tournament anglers and organizations, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) quickly altered its new creel regulation for events on the Potomac River and Upper Chesapeake Bay, avoiding potentially catastrophic consequences for local economies.
But fishermen still are shaking their heads. They wonder about the wisdom of the agency's decision, even with a modification that is acceptable to tournament organizations, including B.A.S.S. for its Elite Series event in August out of Charles County.
"It (original rule) caught us off guard. We were blind-sided," said Scott Sewell, conservation director for the Maryland B.A.S.S. Nation. "I started getting all kinds of calls from people wondering what was going on.
"Since I'm the conservation director, they thought that I was involved in the decision. I wasn't."
Long-time Potomac River guide Steve Chaconas added, "I don't feel the regulations are really needed. This action is blaming tournament anglers for a perceived issue."
For MDNR, the issue was more than three years of poor catch rates, it announced on March 15. Consequently, it intended to limit competitors fishing Maryland-based tournaments to a 5-fish bag with a 12-inch minimum, only one of which could be more than 15 inches, between June 16 and Oct. 31. "Heavy bass tend to die more than smaller bass in tournaments," the agency explained.
Backlash from B.A.S.S. and other organizers of major events was immediate. "Although we understand Maryland DNR's desire to address a decline in the bass fisheries of the Potomac and Chesapeake Bay, obviously we could not conduct an Elite Series event on waters where anglers cannot weigh in their biggest catches," said B.A.S.S. CEO Bruce Akin.
"That would not be fair to the anglers, the fans, the hosts, or the sportfishing community."
Following talks with Sewell and others, MDNR, to its credit, quickly added an "Option 2" to the regulation. It does not restrict a competitor to one fish of more than 15 inches.
"The Department appreciates the input and has made modifications to the original possession restriction," the agency said.
"Option 2 requires directors to adhere to special conditions that minimize fish stress, thereby reducing fishing mortality. These special conditions have been modeled after those used in Florida bass fisheries."
Conditions include requiring directors to recover exhausted bass following a tournament and redistribute them to approved locations, as well as other actions to improve survival of large bass.
B.A.S.S. National Conservation Director Gene Gilliland said, "I believe MDNR had the interest of the fishery at heart but took a few missteps when they tried to implement protective measures.
"They should have involved the tournament organizations more, early in the process, since they were the target audience and I think they might have avoided some of the conflict that we saw.
"But they listened and adapted and came up with some options that will allow tournaments to continue under a special set of fish care protocols. That's good for the resource and good for tournaments."
What mystifies Sewell, though, is why MDNR seemed to act unilaterally on this. "We have an outstanding relationship with them," he said. "I was really taken aback when they didn't consult us. I could have told them that they would be lighting a firestorm with this."
Additionally, the conservation director said little mention was made of a possible regulation change at the annual Black Bass Roundtable in February. "We talked about an aggressive stocking program, areas for catch-and-release only, and educating anglers on how to better care for their catch," he said.
Also at the roundtable, Chaconas added, "Keep in mind this action is not the way Maryland has been managing this fishery. They have previously managed by committee. That is, they send out surveys and take a lot of feedback before acting. In this case, the regulation was barely discussed with no outcome."
Both Sewell and Chaconas, meanwhile, pointed out that other factors are having a more profound impact on the bass fishery than tournaments, with pollution and changes in submerged aquatic grasses among the foremost. They also believe that the bass fishery is healthier than MDNR has determined from its electrofishing surveys.
"The loss of milfoil and the increase in hydrilla are affecting surveys and the fishing," the guide said. "Anecdotally, the last two years have been my best. I have modified my tactics, which include avoiding grass and targeting hard cover and channel edges. This is successful for me until the hydrilla covers everything. I also target hard hydrilla edges at low tides, or deeper edges at any tide, or areas with scattered grass in front of hydrilla edges."
But even though rationale for and implementation of the regulation are questionable, Gilliland said that Option 2 could be helpful.
"We at B.A.S.S. have preached better fish care for years, but unfortunately there are still a lot of anglers and clubs that don't believe there is a need to follow our proven procedures because they don't believe delayed mortality exists, or they just don't care, which is even more sad," he said.
"Given the relatively low level of adoption of best management practices, these new rules will force the issue. Do it right or don't get the exemption from the new length limit."
While impact from tournaments on bass populations may be minimal, he added, "the negative social aspects of tournaments and fish kills that result are things that agencies have to deal with."
With non-tournament anglers often looking for ways to shut down competitions, MDNR's actions actually could benefit tournaments in the long-term, the national conservation director said. They force better fish-care practices and, thus, reduce chances that bad things will happen, as well as opportunities for critics to find fault.
"I think, over time, organizations will adopt and adapt and realize that a little pain was worth the gain," Gilliland said.