Angler inquiry: Where have all the big fish gone?

The author puts much of the blame for the lack of trophies in the waters he fishes on fishing pressure. The over-harvest of big fish has created resources that are void of the big fish we were used to catching “back in the day.”

I never thought I’d say, “Back in them days it was so much better.”

When you begin a sentence like that, it’s always to describe modern conditions that, in your mind, don’t compare to an earlier time: Today’s surroundings could never measure up to “the good old days,” when the air and water were clean, kids behaved, and the fish were all trophies.

It’s been a long time since the air and water were clean, and kids have never really been well-behaved, although some harbored enough fear of their parents’ discipline to maintain a lower profile. Big fish, on the other hand … let’s just it was better years ago.

How long has it been since Robert Crupi landed a 21-pound largemouth bass from Castaic Lake in Southern California? It was on March 9, 1990, 28 years ago. And while he landed two more monsters, a 17- and a 22-pound largemouth, over the course of the next 12 months, the days of California – or any other state in the union – producing largemouths pushing the 20-pound mark are gone.

In my neck of the woods, trophy pike are nonexistent, too. A few huge bodies of water have decent populations of huge northern pike, like Lake of the Woods and Red Lake. But in the old days, my father and I would troll Weller Spinners and sucker minnows on many Minnesota lakes and regularly catch fish over 10 pounds. That rarely happens today.

Truth is, we were part of the problem. We kept the big ones and tossed the little ones back. By the time we learned that we should be tossing back the big ones and keeping small ones, it was too late.

Sadly, many anglers today don’t want tough restrictions. When resource managers try to limit sizes, anglers complain: “Let us keep one over this size!” or “What if we catch a trophy?” This means big fish keep getting harvested with little chance of restoring the numbers of true lunkers.

I fish Lake Superior’s Chequamegon Bay for smallmouth bass, where we must release any under 22 inches. Go figure that there are lots of huge smallmouths in this system, and it is a world-class bass fishery. I used to fish Mille Lacs, a lake in central Minnesota that also had a world-class smallmouth fishery. But a few years ago, the rules changed and now people keep those trophies. It won’t happen immediately, but I predict that in 10 to 15 years the smallmouth fishing on this lake will be average. That’ll be thanks to harvest on a once-trophy fishery.

Sadly, I’m going through this same thing on Maui, a Hawaiian island I’ve been visiting since 1991. Spear fishermen numbers have increased dramatically over the years, and now I have to work for big fish.

Not long ago, it was so much better.

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