largemouth-bass-negativesmallmouth-bass-negativeTo Fish or Not to Fish, That is the Question!
By Chris Horton, BASS Conservation Manager


Inroduction: To fish for spawning bass or not will probably always be a hot topic of debate. The excellent article below explains very well though that whether to fish for spawning bass or not is a personal choice, not a biological issue. Mr. Horton was the black bass biologist for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission before he became Conservation Manager at BASS.  The article is reprinted with permission from Chris Horton’s Conservation Times column in the July 2004 issue of BASS TIMES – the magazine of the National BASS Federation. – Dan Kimmel

For the vast majority of bass anglers, the spring spawning season has just concluded. No doubt several of you were able to entice a few bass to take lures while they defended their nests. However, some of you probably had a few nagging questions in the backs of your minds when you did. Questions like, “will the fry survive if I catch this fish?” or “will catching this fish hurt the bass population of this lake?” These are certainly legitimate questions that every bass angler has asked himself at one time or another. Nearly every bass angler I know would immediately stop “sight fishing” if he honestly believed he could be harming his favorite fishery. Let’s face it, the issue of catching bass off their spawning beds is an ongoing controversy that is more of a personal dilemma than a documented biological problem.

The underlying question is not whether catching a fish from a nest will result in poor spawning success for that individual nest. The real question is whether or not there will be impacts at the population level. Some anglers, researchers and even fisheries biologists have jumped to the conclusion that by closing certain areas or eliminating fishing altogether during the spawning season, bass recruitment will be enhanced and more fish will be available for anglers in the future. However, there does not seem to be sufficient evidence to support this jump.

In the bass world, the male does most of the work when it comes to raising offspring. He constructs the nests and entices the female, then guards the eggs and the fry until they reach a certain size. The female is only around for a few hours while the actual spawning takes place. Removing her is of little concern. The focus is on the males, or “buck” bass, which protect the offspring from predation until they become independent.

Research has shown that the longer a bass is away from the nest, the more likely the nest will fail, due to predators in its absence. In addition, closing areas to fishing during the spawn has resulted in higher nest success in some studies, though not all. However, no relationship between nest success and recruitment of adult bass into the population has been demonstrated. Yet, some researchers and fisheries managers make the assumption that by protecting as many nests as possible, nesting success will be improved, resulting in an overall increase in the population, even though there has been no research to date that identifies this relationship.

It basically boils down to a concept called “carrying capacity.” A body of water has a finite amount of cover, space and forage available for young bass. Even on lakes where no angling is allowed, relatively few individuals survive to their first birthday, and those that do are a result of their ability to secure the needed habitat requirements. If survival in one nest is decreased, survival rates from other nests likely increase because forage and cover that would have been partitioned to the offspring of the failed nest are now available for other bass fry.

If anglers are not having an impact on recruitment, what is? In the South, where year-round bass seasons have been in place since settlers first arrived, research has shown that recruitment to the fishery depends largely on variables such as cover, water levels and the productivity of the watershed. If sight fishing spawning bass played an important role in bass recruitment in southern waters, the bass species would have been extinct from southern waters many years ago, because everyone (and their brother) participates during the spawn.

Research in the North indicates that weather may play the most important role. The growing season in the northern states is relatively short, even during a warm year. Young bass must find enough forage to increase their energy reserves to see them through the winter months. If there is a cold spring, the spawn will likely be delayed and there may be very few bass that survive to the next year. The recruitment failure is not because there were not enough individuals produced during the spawn, but because the ones that were spawned did not have time to find sufficient quantities of food to withstand the harsh winter.

If angler harvest rates are very high on northern waters, then there is an argument to be made for closure of harvest seasons. Because the waters are typically less productive and the growing season is so short, it takes a bass much longer to become sexually mature. Significant harvest of bass might possibly impact the population by substantially reducing the number of spawning adults, especially on small bodies of water. However, there is no research that supports the closure of catch-and-release bass angling on these waters.

Unfortunately for anglers in a few northern states, their fisheries managers tend to subscribe to the theory that good nest success results in good bass populations. They implement conservative seasons that may unnecessarily deny bass anglers access to the most productive portion of the bass fishing calendar, with no data on which to base their decisions. In the face of declining angling participation around the nation, can we really afford to be more restrictive and deny angling opportunities?

Until there is proof that catching spawning bass harms the overall bass population, the decision to do so is purely personal.