Largemouth bassSmallmouth bassAre Closed Bass Seasons Necessary?


When I decided to start back on my pet project of getting legal spring catch-and-release bass fishing in Michigan, I knew a lot of groundwork would have to be relaid. The issue hadn’t been aggressively looked since about 1993. That was about the time the original MDNR study results on our 6 test catch-and-release lakes was released –click for more info MDNR FTR 91-6.

Myself and others were seeing indications that many more bass anglers felt it was time for a change. The numbers out ‘illegally’ catching bass in many parts of the State were very high. More and more anglers were admitting publicly that they purposely pursued bass in the spring and many stated they did not believe the closed bass season was necessary.

Still, I expected there would be a number of anglers and others who, for various reasons, would be against a change. In order to provide good information from the many sources on using bass seasons or not for management, and to gauge exactly where the professional community was sitting on this issue presently, I decided to start by randomly interviewing fisheries biologists from various regions about the topic.

I basically picked states from various parts of the country that had closed seasons, that didn’t have closed seasons (the vast majority), that were similar in location/climate to Michigan, and that had a both mostly largemouth management to handle and especially a good largemouth/smallmouth mix. Then I called the main DNR or Fisheries and Wildlife number in each state and asked to speak to someone knowledgeable about the state’s bass management practices.

In each case, I ended up speaking to fisheries biologists I had never previously met. I started out asking each one what their philosophy was on managing bass with closed seasons and if they did not have a closed season, why? In most cases, I got very similar answers. Following are a selection of those interviews. I concentrated on more Northern states in my choices here since anglers who refuse to accept that we may not actually need a closed bass season claim that we’re too different from Southern states for their opinions to matter.

All the Southern states said almost the exact same thing anyway. There were no states I talked to that said they truly believe any lower continental states really must have a closed bass season other than Michigan, Minnesota, Maine, Wisconsin, and New York – the only states that have a closed bass season (Vermont has a closed season but allows extensive spring catch-and-release). Wisconsin has an early opener that probably doesn’t protect much of their spawn. Their far NE portion of the state actually opens before the spawn because “those residents consider bass an introduced nuisance species.” Maine also has extensive spring catch-and-release bass seasons.

That pretty much leaves Minnesota, Michigan and New York as the most conservative states in bass management. We know about Michigan. I will actually cover Minnesota more thoroughly in a later document – it’s an interesting story. New York is pretty much a mirror of Michigan except they allow early catch-and-release bass fishing on the Finger Lakes and Lake Erie from the 1st Saturday in May, but don’t open the rest of their state until the 3rd Saturday in June. That is an attempt to actually protect some of the spawn. Michigan’s regular bass season opens early enough that a lot of the Southern spawn is still going in many years and most of the Northern spawn hasn’t occurred yet by opening day. Very hard to convincingly claim our season protects the bass spawn. The best anyone can claim is that it protects some of the spawn on some lake in some years.

Here are the interviews:


Ohio DNR

Ohio has no regular closed bass season. You can legally fish for bass all year. Ohio did adopt starting in 2004, a catch-and-release only bass season on Lake Erie from May 1 until June 25 due to varied reasons including concern over gobies despite final study results being several years away, concern over possible over-harvest by charter boats, and complaints from some anglers about fishing success although tournament success seems to be excellent still.

John Navarro – Ohio DNR Fisheries

djkimmel: “Why doesn’t the State of Ohio have a closed bass season?”

Navarro: “We feel (any regulation we don’t have is) not effective if we don’t have the regulation. We don’t like to tell people they can’t fish (without a good reason).”

Roger Knight – Ohio DNR Sandusky Fish Research Unit fisheries biologist

djk: “Why doesn’t the State of Ohio have a closed bass season?”

Knight: “We’ve reviewed all the available data. There is no biological data to support it. No studies to show this is necessary.”

djk: “If you are reading the same data nationally as every other state, why would any other state have a closed season?”

Knight: “We would argue that most states with seasons have seasons for social reasons, not biological.”

djk: “What about Ridgways’ studies in Ontario into fishing for spawning bass?”

Knight: “They have more to be concerned about in their shield lakes than we do (about our lakes). Our bass mature earlier and have greater fecundity (egg production). It is higher than bass in Ontario. Wind is our major factor, not angling pressure (on Erie).”

djk: “What about gobies on Erie?”

Knight: “We are taking a lot of heat from some anglers who want something done about gobies. We need to look at it more. Gobies became abundant in Erie in 1998. Since young-of-year (yoy) bass are hard to study on Erie, we will only see any results of our study in approximately 4 years in harvest-size bass. It takes about 4 years to grow a keeper bass.”

djk: “What do you think about the impact on spawning bass by angling?”

Knight: “We want to work more with tournaments on releasing bass and study tournament weigh in impact. Relocation is our only issue with spawn fishing. It depends on how many beds actually are impacted. Rigdeway has found that dominant bass get the best sites. It’s possible that many dominant bass spawn deeper out of anglers’ normal reach and are enough to sustain the fishery. We will be very careful about making our decisions that take away fishing opportunity. We’d have to be much more sure – have more information from new studies – before we do.”

Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission

Pennsylvania used to have a closed bass season. Three seasons ago, they went to a legal catch-and-release spring bass season on all lake except Lake Erie. Last I checked, they still don’t have a closed season on Erie (Pymatuning Reservoir and the Delaware River are open year-round for bass also), but they did go to a higher size limit of 20” with a 1 bass creel. They do close rivers and streams to bass fishing on September 30 and have many special regulation’s waters along with reduced seasons on trout waters similar to ours.

On inland waters, they also have a regulation that says, “it is unlawful for an angler to cast repeatedly into a clearly visible bass spawning nest or redd in an effort to catch or take bass” that I find interesting since it creates another area of questionable judgment calls. It may seem obvious at times that someone is casting repeatedly to a bedding bass, but I know different anglers have different wide-ranging abilities when it comes to bedfishing. I think it is more another ‘voluntary’ reg since they hope most knowledgeable anglers will choose to follow the reg rather than actually be out there ‘catching’ anglers breaking it in numbers.

I don’t like many of those kinds of regulations. Too arbitrary and prone to bias. Sets up more potential for divisiveness among anglers. Not good and very questionable as to its necessity. I’m sure though enough vocal number of anglers raised concerns about their personal dislike for bedfishing they felt they had to compromise.

Most interesting in Pennsylvania, they have an excellent annual meeting with bass anglers, non-tournament and tournament, where they discuss these kinds of things and talk about bass biology and management. I have to take my hat off to any DNR that does that.

Bob Lorantas – Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission Bureau of Fisheries biologist

djk: “Why do you have the present bass season in Pennsylvania?”

Lorantas: “We have some lakes with growth rate and productivity issues. The regulations hold back the harvest of bass a year or two to increase density so keepers end up being 3 or 4 years old. Our previous bass season had a grey area on allowing catch and release during the spring. Fishing was occurring, although technically illegal, so we decided we needed to do something.”

djk: “Do you have the season because you have evidence it is biologically necessary?”

Lorantas: “The jury is still out in Pennsylvania on how targeting spawning bass affects the bass population. We just took away the grey area. We are monitoring young of year (yoy) bass (two years of data so far) on some test lakes. Production has bounced around – probably due to our drought in our state. Smallmouths do better under drought in our streams though so they have probably been helped.”

Lorantas: “We could find no evidence of an effect of bedfishing for bass (in the past). We set up focus groups and performed opinion surveys. We did literature searches and models of various populations. We modeled all the options anglers suggested to reach a consensus. We also followed the work of Jim Schneider on your Michigan catch and release study. I consider Jim an exemplary fisheries biologist.”

djk: “Why is Erie different?”

Lorantas: “Erie is separate with no closed season. It has a high size limit during the spawn season although we are probably opening the regular season during the spawn (similar to your Michigan opening day). The level of fishing (on Erie) appears to be such that there is no diminishment (in bass populations) due to fishing. Bass are prolific as ever, but we are concerned about any impact of gobies.”

Alabama DCNR Fisheries

Alabama is one of those almost 40 states with no statewide closed bass season. You catch ‘em all year and keep ‘em too if you want. I like the Alabama DCNR Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries’ approach to bass anglers and bass tournament anglers – they work cooperatively with them and even promote them actively on their website and through their workings – see The Alabama Bass Trail and the B.A.I.T. program. Promote something that gets a lot of anglers excited about the outdoors and pumps money into the economy, while providing valuable information about the State’s fisheries! What a concept!

I had a great talk with an assistant chief of Fisheries for Alabama’s research section on bass management when and where it counts and about working with bass anglers and all the programs in the state. We briefly talked about Northern Alabama smallies too and noted some similarities in growth rates of their smallmouths and smallmouths on St. Clair. For the topic of this page, I’ve just used his answer to the questions on closed bass seasons.

Nick Nichols  – Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, Fisheries Technical Staff Assistant Chief (Research)

djk: “Why doesn’t the State of Alabama have a closed bass season?”

Nichols: “We don’t have any evidence that it is needed. We don’t do anything to limit bass by a closed season or (to limit) tournaments. We have plenty of spawn activity in reservoirs and rivers. The real choke point is fall recruitment – the number of bass making it through their first winter. We can have a great spawn and still end up with poor recruitment. We can have a terrible spawn and end up with great recruitment depending on fall conditions.”

Tennessee WRA Fisheries

Tennessee does not have a closed bass season. They do however perform a lot of studies on stream smallmouths. Those are the bass that need the most management in their state based on their own studies and review of studies from other states. Their work revolves around habitat and water level management mainly though.

Frank Fiss – Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency Fisheries biologist

djk: “Why doesn’t the State of Tennessee have a closed bass season?”

Fiss: “There is no indication (in study literature nationally) that angling mortality has anything to do with bass recruitment. The environment is the major factor. This has been supported by rigorous testing. The critical period is late summer. Reproduction is not the major factor in recruitment. It is water conditions and lower water levels. It’s a habitat issue.

djk: “If all biologists are reading the same papers and studies, and know the same information, how would you explain why Tennessee can have no closed season, but Michigan would have a closed season?”

Fiss: “The social aspect is just different here.”

Bonny Laflin – Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency Fisheries biologist

djk: “Why doesn’t the State of Tennessee have a closed bass season?”

Laflin: “A closed bass season does absolutely no good whatsoever. Bass are so prolific. Aren’t your bass in Michigan still spawning when your season opens? It’s hard to see how a fixed date in May each year would provide much protection for an event that varies year-to-year.”

Indiana DNR

Indiana is an interesting contrast to Michigan. They have several of their larger inland bass lakes on or just South of our border sharing the same climate, yet they have no closed season. They have the largest bass federation in the country but only 10% of the water we have in Michigan, yet no closed season. I’ve actually caught some decent bass in those lakes despite not much success in tournaments. The last year we fished TriState, we saw a lot of really good bass on beds on Wawasee including a number of really big bass. There was one in a canal that nobody every caught even though everyone tried. It was HUGE.

The year after, a spring tournament was won on Lake James with a massive weight for an inland lake – something like 7 largemouths for 29 or 30 pounds. Seems like their bass are doing okay. Of course, they’d like to see us relax our season to be more fair so Michigan anglers don’t feel forced to come down to their lakes. It doesn’t seem fair seeing how we have 10 times the water they do to fish on.

Stuart Shipman – Indiana DNR fisheries biologist

djk: “Why doesn’t the State of Indiana have a closed bass season?”

Shipman: “We have researched the topic and haven’t documented a need for a closed season. There is no harvest during the spawn that affects recruitment.

djk: “In the past, the Indiana DNR had asked Michigan to open up its own bass season and keep anglers in Michigan during the spring. Why?”

Shipman: “We had complaints for Indiana anglers and lake property owners about too many out of state anglers crowding our lakes and access sites. We studied the situation and determined that the majority of our users are still Hoosiers.”

djk: “What about your new tournament permit policy and Michigan anglers holding those on northern Indiana lakes?”

Shipman: “We were mandated by the legislature to look at tournaments. This issue mainly resulted from vocal and active petitioning for a permit process from Syracuse/Wawasee Lakes for group activities. A permit process to limit group activities was created under our boating rules through the Division of Water (public access).

Closing Thoughts

So, these fisheries professionals all read the same studies, and many seem to be interpreting them fairly consistently. Yet some states seem to interpret them differently even though there are Northern states that have interpreted the known science the same as most Southern states. What might that tell you about how bass are being managed?

Could it be that just enough Northern anglers have fallen for the oversimplified explanations that our bass are different? If so, then maybe convince enough to not fall for that unsupported position, we could change it.

There are lakes that are more vulnerable. Thankfully, we don’t have very many of those kinds of lakes in Michigan. We generally have healthy, high quality bass fisheries in Michigan. We could be enjoying a lot more bass fishing without ‘destroying our kids heritage.’ It’s okay to talk about managing the infertile lakes of Northern Minnesota, Northern Wisconsin, Ontario and a few in the Michigan UP, but don’t manage all the good bass lakes down to their level just because it seems easier to manage to the lowest denominator. I believe that’s bad for the longevity of the sport.

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