PA: Fishing bass during spawn may be nixed

New rule pondered for Susquehanna

and Juniata rivers

Harrisburg – Approaching the April 11-12 meeting of the Pennsylvania Board of Fish & Boat Commissioners, agency staff has recommended that the commission "go back to the closed season" during the mid-April to mid-June, smallmouth- bass-spawning period on the lower Susquehanna and Juniata rivers.

"That's going to reduce some of the pressure" on the remaining bass population in the rivers, said Dave Miko, chief of the commission's Division of Fisheries Management.

The recommendation represents a new direction for the commission's response to declining bass populations in the rivers.

Commissioners previously gave tentative approval to catch- and-immediate-release regulations that also would prohibit bass tournaments during the spawning period and allow only catch-measure-immediate-release tournaments during the rest of the year.

That measure, which several tournament organizations believe will destroy their events by taking away the fully witnessed weigh-in climax, could be fully approved at the April meeting, and in the meantime has been put into place by an emergency order by commission Executive Director John Arway.

(The tournament organizations already practice catch and release, but delay the release of the fish until after they are weighed in at the official tournament check station.)

Staff made its recommendation at a special meeting of the board's Fisheries Committee in early March, after considering 122 public comments submitted to the commission in response to announced plans to give final approval to the emergency catch- and-immediate-release regulation at the upcoming meeting.

However, commissioners first heard from several bass tournament anglers and tournament organizations.

During that discussion, Commissioner Robert Bachman commented, "It is not that we think tournaments are the major cause in the loss of smallmouth bass. It's water quality.

"The problem is you guys are allowed to put five fish in a boat. That's possession. That's not catch and release."

Although tournament anglers consider release of their catch after weigh-in to be catch and release, Bachman said, the non-tournament angler, who doesn't practice catch and release, would thus be allowed to take home the five bass he catches.

"Your issue is the weigh-in?" asked angler Dave Russ. .

"Absolutely," responded Bachman. "We're trying to make people put those fish back immediately."

Russ responded, "If you go back to one of the first meetings (about declining smallmouth populations in the river), it said in black and white that tournaments have no effect."

Instead, he added, "you guys are now feeling the effect of what you did 10 years ago," when the bass season was expanded to allow fishing during the spawn.

"How would you enforce that?" asked Commissioner William Sabatose, of Elk County, reflecting one of the reasons cited a decade earlier for removing the closed period during the spawn.

"It's real simple," said Russ. "When somebody's on a grass bed at that time of year, they're targeting bass."

Angler Bill Alward agreed. "You have to close it during the spawn. That's when the eggs get laid. That's where the young of the year come from."

Sabatose asked Miko, "If you closed it again (during the spawn) can you tell me mathematically what will happen."

"No," replied Miko.

Urging commissioners against the catch-and-immediate-release regulation, Mike Burton, conservation director for District 3 of the Pennsylvania Bass Federation, said, "We still are not addressing… the real issues on the Susquehanna (such as water quality). We're still skirting around them."

Angler Kent Collins suggested the commissioners also need to consider more protective regulations for bass on Susquehanna tributaries, such as the Conodoguinet, Conowago, Shermans, Swatara and Yellow Breeches creeks, which may share bass populations with the river.

Bob Herman, president of the Capital City Bassmasters tournament organization in Harrisburg, asked commissioners to replace the catch-and-immediate-release regulation with a complete closure of bass fishing on the river during the spawn from mid-April to mid-June.

He also offered to expand the data-collection capabilities of tournament organizations through more extensive reporting forms and a system of tagging bass released during the tournaments.

"Let us do more work for you to better understand the problem," said Herman.

Elizabeth Mihmet, executive director of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of Central Pennsylvania, told commissioners the late-summer tournament by Capital City Bassmasters, held as part of Harrisburg's annual Kipona Festival, annually gives the society a bump of at least $10,000.

"That has "a huge impact on our mission," she said.

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