An Interview with a Michigan DNR Fish Biologist

Is it Gobies or Something Else?

by Dan Kimmel


I want a statewide change in bass regulations to allow legal spring catch-and-release bass fishing. That is no secret. This would be statewide – Great Lakes and inland.

Our own biologists said in the last major study on Lake St. Clair that there is no scientific data to support having more protection on Lake St. Clair (i.e. a later opening day) than other lakes in Michigan, but I don’t want to get legal catch-and-release mired down by trying to change too many things at once. I’m not pushing to change St. Clair’s regular opening day.

It’s obvious though, that St. Clair is a hot bed for debate because of its popularity. It is not surprising that a major roadblock in changing our season exists because of the Lake St. Clair influence and debate.

Since St. Clair happens to be one of the largest influences on whether this change is made in our season or not, and since I’ve repeatedly heard that certain MDNR biologists say we can’t change the season on St. Clair because ‘gobies will eat all the bass eggs from bass beds anglers catch bass off of’ implying this will destroy our fabulous fishery, I decided to call and interview one of the biologists being quoted as a source for this claim.

I don’t want to make this a personal thing, so I will not post his name here. This interview took place in September 2002 by phone. I wanted to hear what he was telling anglers from his own mouth instead of hearsay from others.

My purpose was simply to hear his actual rationale first, and second, see if it was based on scientific fact that has been conclusively proven, verses conjecture and opinion, verses plain old bias.  In other words, what does this person have to back up his claims as far as science and do his public statements represent the real reason he is against changing the bass season.

I believe that an MDNR biologist should be able to present the known science honestly and impartially when acting as an employee of the State of Michigan. They can have their personal interpretation of the data, but a distinction should be made between the study results verses what he or she thinks they mean.

If they feel the need to press a personal agenda, they should ‘step out’ of their uniform and make that distinction clear. If they can’t back up their opinions with actual study results applicable to the situation, then they should be ready to accept criticism of their position. If you feel the need to confirm that this interview took place with a real MDNR fish biologist as told here, I’ll clarify that this interview was previously posted on a site read by MDNR employees ( No MDNR employee attempted to refute or deny any of that post and they are aware of it because I talked to several SE MDNR employees about it since then.

Here’s how it went:

Djkimmel (djk): I’ve been told that you are against changing the bass season on St. Clair from what it is now and wanted to know why from your own words, if this is so? Are you against a change in the bass season?

MDNR fisheries biologist (mfb): “I would not support a change in the season.”

djk: “Why exactly are you against a change?”

mfb: “The bass anglers are already doing it (preseason bass fishing) and not getting ticketed so why change it?”

djk: “That’s why we want to change it. We don’t want to get tickets because we happen to be out on the lake in a bass boat whether we are bass fishing or not, because we catch a bass and let it go. I still have to ask why not just change it to allow legal catch and release?”

mfb: “(because) I think it may just be the first step in having tournaments during that time of year.”

djk: “We can’t have tournaments in the spring where we take them in for a weigh in if it is only catch and release, but why do you say that as your reason for being against the change?”

mfb: “I think tournaments attract anglers… some anglers, who don’t care as much about the resource as they should… I know that pulling bass off beds and taking them in to a weigh in would be bad.”

djk: “This is based on studies or other data?”

mfb: “It’s my educated opinion.”

djk: “As far as the bass on St. Clair, can you tell me how many bass are there? What is that actual angling impact on the number of bass available on the lake? Are the anglers catching a significant percentage of the bass population?”

mfb: “I don’t think so. But bass fishing pressure and interest seems higher now. We don’t really know. We haven’t done a survey on bass in a while. We just started a new 3 year creel census (survey) to determine how many anglers are targeting bass and what their success is.”

djk: “Your netting survey results (Anchor Bay) from this spring seem to indicate that the present (St. Clair) bass population is still extremely healthy with a higher than average number of keeper size bass. Other biologists have told me that St. Clair bass have growth rates as high as reaching 14 inches in 3 or maybe 4 seasons? Is that an accurate statement?”

mfb: “I would agree with that.”

djk: “It would seem to indicate good survival and a healthy fishery?”

mfb: “All species of St. Clair gamefish grow above the state average. It’s a very good environment. Lot’s of good forage.”

djk: “I keep hearing that the reason we are being told from your office that we can’t be allowed to catch St. Clair bass in the spring is because gobies will eat too many bass eggs after bass are pulled from the bed causing harm to the population, yet you say we are already doing spring fishing for bass. The gobies and the fishing pressure has been here for years, yet netting surveys show the bass population is excellent and we have not started nor planned to start an actual study of the effect on bass beds by gobies from fishing pressure in Michigan? Ohio just started their study on angling for bedding smallies and gobies, but says they won’t take fishing away from their anglers unless they have strong scientific evidence that it is necessary. Gobies have already been in Erie for years with no closed season and seem to be more abundant even than in St. Clair. I personally catch many more gobies on Erie than I do on St. Clair per average trip.”

mfb: “My guess, gobies are not as abundant (on St. Clair) as in Erie. The weeds my be hiding the gobies better though (on St. Clair).”

djk: “I have a great interest too in considering who is really coming out ahead in this contest of bass verses goby since I believe that part of why there has been more big bass in recent years is because big smallmouths are targeting gobies. I’ve had numerous big smallies spit up gobies in my livewells. I also believe that bass are changing feeding habits now because gobies are scattered all over unlike other food sources. Large numbers of bass are now scattered all the way across the lake. You can often catch as many out in the middle of the lake in the summer as you can on breaks. Many anglers think there are less big bass now, but I believe they are just more scattered in the summer than before. Does the MDNR know what the impact bass might have by eating gobies more is?”

mfb: “We don’t really have much information on that.”

(Note: There was actually a study done on what gobies eat by the MDNR that mentioned they had no real feedback back from anglers to indicate bass were eating many gobies. This was in regards to a high percentage of gobies having zebra mussels in their stomachs – one exotic targeting another exotic – and the thought that zebra mussels could be ‘recycled’ back into the food chain once gamefish ate gobies that ate zebra mussels. Which is partly why I talked about the above topic and the next.)

djk: “Many bass anglers think smallmouths are eating zebra mussels. Do you think that is true or have you developed evidence for that on any scale that would impact them?”

mfb: “We haven’t seen much evidence that bass are eating zebra mussels. They may be ingested temporarily when the bass is biting the lure or bait.”

djk: “You believe it is incidental to the bass feeding on something, a lure or food item, near the bottom – that would be most likely why anglers would sometimes see zebra mussels in a bass’ mouth?”

mfb: “Yes. Few gamefish are showing evidence of feeding on zebra mussels. Mainly, gobies (are eating them).”

djk: “What other fish are eating them? Sheepshead (drum)? Walleye?”

mfb: “Sheepshead most likely, but probably not walleye. Walleye would most likely only ingest some incidentally.”

(Note: Another MDNR research biologist recently told me that perch are eating zebra mussels.)

djk: “So, do we need to protect bass from gobies by not fishing for them during the spring? Is it your belief and position that this protection is needed? Part of why you are against a bass season change?”

mfb: “Bass and other large gamefish are frontrunners in keeping exotics down. We need to keep the numbers (of bass) high. We use a closed season to attempt to do that.”

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My Closing Thoughts

Everyone has opinions, even fisheries biologists. It can be argued their opinion means more than my opinion or your opinion. But if their opinion isn’t supported by studies, it could also be argued it isn’t any more valuable than anyone else’s opinion. Michigan voters have shown before they support scientific management, so I have to assume that more anglers would like to know what the data says we should be able to do with the season verses what a few biologists personally would like to see. It’s disappointing too that so many things in Michigan come down to anti-tournament sentiment.

Here’s an MDNR fisheries biologist who has publicly claimed to be against allowing legal spring bass fishing because the gobies will eat the eggs and damage the population. Yet, when it comes right down to it, his real reason for being against the season change is a bias against tournaments.

There are many social issues revolving around tournaments, but not much study data showing tournaments to be harmful to healthy bass populations. That is why when I ask for data and science to explain his position against tournaments, he can only say it’s his ‘educated opinion.’ I want to reiterate my proposed season change is not a tournament issue since you can’t have regular tournaments where bass are taken in to a remote weigh in if the catch-and-release season only allows immediate release of all bass caught.

This biologist said we need a closed bass season so ‘we’ tournament anglers couldn’t have more tournaments, and to keep the gamefish numbers higher so they can eat more exotics. In the same interview though, he points out that bass aren’t apparently actually known by the MDNR to be eating exotics, so that seems like an confusing rationale.

He didn’t talk about gobies eating bass eggs as a major issue – as he’s done publicly – because he knows there are no studies on this planned in Michigan. I’m sure he’d realize that I would ask him if this was such a major issue, why no plans to study it? He could mention the one study recently started in Ohio on Lake Erie. Not much to say about that yet since the only results are that some bass beds are harmed by gobies after the bass is caught, but no actual impact on bass populations as a whole has ever been shown. That’s the bottom line.

I was told in 2002 by Ohio DNR fish biologists that it would be 4 to 5 more years before they would have any meaningful data on gobies and bass spawn fishing as far as actual population effects, yet they have now jumped the gun and taken away 2 months of their regular smallmouth season on Erie.

It’s very important to note several things. Tournaments were impacted most since many tournaments were held in May and June, and now they can’t hold any regular tournaments since no bass can be kept in the livewell. Some anglers are probably unhappy they can’t keep any bass during that time now, but at least they can still legally catch-and-release bass during that time. Still, why were enough Ohio anglers willing to give up some of their fishing rights based on preliminary results showing that individual bass beds were harmed, but no results on any effect to the actual bass populations?

Tournament results during this period where still showing extremely impressive catches for size and quantity of smallmouths. I believe it was a mixture of some tournament bias, a lot of resentment of charter boats, along with a reaction to some biologists stirring up concern over gobies for various reasons despite no data yet available that the concern is truly warranted at a population level.

This is VERY similar to the concerns we all heard about collapse of fish populations because of the zebra mussel invasion years ago. Let me ask how many actual fish populations have collapsed because of zebra mussels? Has some fishing actually improved since the introduction of zebra’s? I think most of us know the answers to those. Are there still real long-term impacts we might feel? No one really knows. It’s worth studying, but don’t give up any fishing opportunity over it.

Here’s where things always go wrong with some anglers. When you see a quote that says ‘catching a bass off a bed may reduce the hatching success of that bed’ they think that automatically means that harm is done to that lake’s bass population. The question shouldn’t be “is the bed harmed?,” it should be “does this have any effect on the lake’s bass population and recruitment?” Simple. That’s what matters, isn’t it? “Will my bass fishing now and in the future be harmed?”

I don’t want to hear about what happens to one bass, or two or a hundred or a thousand like I want to hear about what’s happening to the bass population. Is the population being reduced below what recruitment can replace? Is the quality of the bass seriously impacted? What impact does what happens to bass beds have on the bass population year to year? Ask these kinds of questions to just 5 different biologists, even just Michigan biologists and let me know what they say. I think you’ll be surprised. Especially if they say something like “bed-fishing is bad for any lake” or “the main way to manage bass is to restrict fishing” and you ask them what exactly are they basing that statement on.

Should be interesting since many dedicated bass anglers can see for themselves that despite zebra mussels and gobies all these years, and despite a significant level of existing accidental and purposeful spring bass fishing for over 15 years in Michigan, many bass populations not only haven’t gotten worse, but have improved dramatically during this same time.

You can just look at young of year estimates for Lake St. Clair during this period to see that plenty of bass spawning has successfully occurred. I ask another Northern biologist about this topic and he tells me we’ve had some of the largest year classes of smallmouths in the North ever over the last 10 years at the same time he’s trying to prove bed-fishing for bass will directly impact recruitment – a belief that isn’t widely held.

Look at all the inland lakes where smallmouth populations have expanded – despite years of spring bass fishing; despite an opening day that opens during and before many spawns, despite gobies; despite zebra mussels and despite tournaments. So, are we gaining anything by not having legal spring catch-and-release bass fishing, or losing opportunity we could be enjoying?

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