Eat A Bass?
Biologists say keeping some bass, especially those under 2 pounds and especially in farm ponds, can improve the fishing. And they taste great.
There is a beautiful and basic concept in America, an interwoven web that involves hunting, fishing, proper management and a resulting bountiful and endlessly renewable resource.
Are you missing out on part of your state’s natural resources by participating in catch-and-release bass fishing? Does your farm pond have a bunch of small bass and just a few big ones? Are you damaging the resource if you’re not keeping and eating the smaller bass you catch when you fish on lakes with a slot limit?
To get the answers to these questions and others, we spoke with biologists who have the responsibility of keeping up with the health and the growth of the bass in major reservoirs in Alabama and Georgia. These are two of the top states in the nation for big-lake bass fishing. Many of Georgia’s and Alabama’s bass management strategies are similar, although there are some differences.
Bass Health And Numbers
Barry Smith was Chief of Fisheries in Alabama for several years and later one of the founders of American Sport Fish in Pike Road, Ala., where fish have been raised, stocked and put in more than 1,000 small southern ponds for 25 years.
“Although rivers and lakes are different from small ponds, one of the ways they’re alike is that if too many bass are in them, the bass’s growth will be stunted,” Barry said.
“We recommend that private pond owners remove all the bass 15 inches or less each year. Although many anglers believe, ‘I’ll throw those little bass back and let them grow,’ generally that’s the wrong thing to do. We’ve learned that most bass 15 inches or less need to come out of lakes.”
Barry gives this example: “A pasture that feeds 100 cows, and that remains at or under 100 cows, always will have plenty of food for that herd to grow and multiply. However, if there are more than 100 cows, there will be too much competition for the available food. Although the number of cattle will grow, the sizes of the cattle will shrink due to overpopulation. So, every year you have to remove a good number of the smaller bass, just like a cattleman sells his calves each year to keep his herd healthy and strong.”
If there’s a slot length limit on a major reservoir, biologists want you to keep the bass below the slot.
“Many states use selective harvests through slot and length limits on certain lakes that are overcrowded with small bass or certain sizes of bass. For that lake to yield the most and the best bass, those smaller bass need to be removed every year,” Barry said.
In the early days of tournament bass fishing, the slogan most often heard was, “Keep the bass you want to eat, and release the rest.”
Over the years, that philosophy has changed to, “Catch and release all the bass you catch.”
As Barry emphasizes, “Although not a sound biologic principle, releasing all the bass caught made fishermen feel warm and fuzzy, and they thought it was a conservation practice, although it wasn’t.
“Here’s what we’ve learned about small ponds, and I believe this same philosophy may be true in large reservoirs. For the first two years after stocking a pond, the bass get off a great spawn each year and grow quickly. However, without some type of management and removing the overabundance of bass in those ponds, the original stocking of bass and each year class after the stocking won’t grow as fast and will become stunted.
“Managing the bigger reservoirs with their wider variety of fish and other predators besides largemouth bass is more difficult. But if you’ll follow the recommendations of the biologists responsible for each river and lake and harvest the size and number of fish they recommend, you’ll enjoy better bass fishing and see more big fish.”
Georgia’s Reservoir Bass
Scott Robinson, the Fisheries Operation Manager for Georgia, said, “The statewide limit on bass is 10 bass per person. We don’t have a statewide minimum length limit but do have a 12-inch length limit on largemouth. Some regions have a 14-inch length limit on largemouth. Other places have a trophy (slot) length limit where bass 15 to 22 inches must be released as soon as they’re caught. There also are some Georgia waterways with minimum length limits on the bass an angler can keep.
“Length and slot limits are usually imposed to protect the reproducing populations of bass in these waterways. In some areas, where the state feels the bass have been overfished, the state has limits to protect the bass and allow them to spawn once or twice before they’re added to someone’s creel. In some lakes, there’s no minimum length limit, including Blue Ridge, Burton and Juliette.”
Those lakes in particular could benefit from anglers taking home some small bass to eat.
Scott emphasizes that anglers need to understand that slot limits don’t work unless anglers harvest the bass that measure less than the slot limit.
“In our smaller impoundments, we sometimes see them go bass crowded occasionally, which means there are more bass in the lake than the lake can support and maintain good growth rates,” Scott said.
“Georgia surveys its big reservoirs and popular fisheries each year to try to take the pulse of these waters and monitor them as closely as possible. We have a sustainable, harvestable resource of bass that’s probably under utilized.”
Georgia biologists encourage anglers to harvest spotted bass where spots aren’t native fish, including West Point, Blackshear, Clarks Hill, Hartwell and Eufaula.
Scott added that biologists haven’t seen many negative effects from bass tournaments on Georgia lakes.
Matt Thomas, Chief of Fisheries with Georgia’s Wildlife Resources Division, says, “Most of the bass crowding that we see here in Georgia are on the 10 Public Fishing Areas, which are about 100 acres each. That’s where we encourage anglers to harvest bass. We also see this overcrowding bass situation often in farm ponds.
“The scope of bass management has changed over the years, as biologists have identified more, different species of black bass. Georgia also has had some kinds of bass introduced to waters outside their home ranges. So, if anglers want to harvest bass, why not harvest the bass that have been introduced outside their ranges and that may be causing some problems?
“For instance, spotted bass have been introduced into some of Georgia’s lakes and rivers not in their home range. The state offers a good range map on our website at https://gadnrwrd.maps.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=360c1018b643486ea704dc1a5888c1b7.
“The regulations on bass fishing in Georgia are set up based on what we learn each year when we sample these lakes and rivers. From the information gained from the samplings, we can change regulations and increase or decrease regulations on bass to make sure we keep a healthy, sustainable bass resource in Georgia’s rivers, lakes and ponds.”
“We monitor all the reservoirs in Alabama regularly,” said Damon Abernethy, Assistant Chief of Fisheries for Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. “We’re constantly looking at the growth and development of bass in each lake and generally find fluctuation, but not much variability from year to year. We don’t see bass populations crashing or exploding. We monitor most of the lakes every three years, but we survey yearly the major lakes with intense fishing pressure like Guntersville, Pickwick and Eufaula.”
According to Damon, there are two types of mortality affect bass.
“Natural mortality is the 30 to 40 percent of bass in most reservoirs that die every year,” Damon explains.
“Fishing mortality includes people who catch and eat bass, and the fish that are caught, released and later die. Fishing mortality happens more or less depending on the season. As the water temperatures rise, the fish that are hooked, handled, bounced on the floor of the boat, come from deep, cool water to warm water or are kept in a livewell have a tough time surviving.
“Bass are a renewable natural resource that can be used to feed bass fishermen and their families. So, we’re losing a tremendous number of bass each year that anglers can be eating. Some lakes have slot limits because of an abundance of small bass in them that need to be removed. If fishermen will keep and eat the little bass at the lower end of the slot limit, the number of larger bass in a reservoir will improve.
“Tournament fishermen go to great lengths to catch and release their bass after the weigh-in, and that’s fine. Although some of those fish will survive, being bounced around in a livewell and going through the weigh-in process makes the odds of those bass surviving only about 60 or 70 percent. Tournament bass caught and released in the summertime can have a mortality rate of 100 percent, depending on the species. Spotted and smallmouth bass don’t deal with stress very well during the summer months, but largemouth do somewhat better.”
Biologists say that many variables can kill bass. Some anglers will put ice in their livewells to keep the water temperatures cool; however, you can’t take a bass caught in 90-degree water and put it in a livewell at 70 degrees without impacting the bass. And when you take that bass out of the iced livewell and release it back into 90-degree water, the bass also may die. To increase the survival rate of those fish, you have to slowly increase the water temperature in the livewell to the temperature of the water where you’re releasing the fish, something that’s not practical to do.
In a pond, Damon explains that once small bass are removed, the following year a tremendous bass spawn will take place. A large population of bass in a farm pond generally means a weak spawn will occur the following year.
“Nature has a way of accounting for the mortality of bass—whether they die from being caught and eaten or die of natural causes,” Damon said. “I like to keep the smaller bass (2-pounders or less), which are easier to clean, taste better and simpler to cook. Since there are more of them, you can catch them easier than the bigger bass.”
There is science to support our bass limits.
“In Alabama, 10 bass is the state limit,” Damon said. “So, the rule of thumb is if you want to keep some fish to eat, keep as many as 10. If we discover that the harvest rate of bass is hurting the sustainable population of bass in any reservoir, then the state of Alabama will lower the creek limit or increase the length limit of bass that can be kept. We don’t want to deny any anglers the opportunity to keep and eat bass if there’s no biological reason that fishermen can’t. That’s why we don’t have very many minimal length limits on bass in most of our lakes.”
Here’s a good general rule of thumb to strike a balance between catch-and-release and keeping some bass to eat. Release a bass back into the lake that weighs 2 pounds or more, and eat a bass that’s less than 2 pounds.
One of the reasons there’s so much concern about releasing bass is because most people don’t know how many bass are actually in a lake.
According to Damon, “If an angler rides with us in one of our shock boats for about 15 minutes when we’re surveying a lake, he’ll be surprised at how many fish are in our lakes. These lakes have a lot more fish in them than you think or that you can catch.”
Damon compares keeping fish to deer hunting.
“For many years, Alabama’s biologists preached if you shot does, you wouldn’t have any bucks. But then biologists learned that with an overpopulation of deer, removing the does helps produce more and bigger bucks. This same principle applies to removing the small bass out of most lakes, especially in the lakes with slot limits. A slot limit only produces the desired results if you remove the bass on the lower end of the slot. Slot limits are imposed when there’s an overabundance of bass in a lake, and biologists want to thin out the bass on the lower end of the slot to allow the bass within the slot to grow to the older age classes. We want to protect the bass that will reach the age to be primary spawners and be able to grow larger bass for everyone to catch.”
Most bass anglers who fish reservoirs don’t keep any bass.
“The harvest rate on most Alabama lakes is less than 5 percent,” Damon said. “On popular lakes like Eufaula, Guntersville and Pickwick and some of the other heavily fished tournament lakes, the harvest rate is less than 2 percent. Bass anglers are leaving bass to die at high rates of natural mortality that we can be harvesting and eating.”
Bassmaster Elite Series Pro Greg Hackney sums up what fisheries biologists are recommending when he says, “When I go to home to Louisiana, I catch and eat smaller bass… because they’re delicious.”
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