Kinkaid Lake smallmouth fishery evolving

Murphysboro, Ill — It was a better year for the smallmouth bass stocking program on Kinkaid Lake after last year produced few fish for the lake.

Even so, after showing signs of promise a few years ago, the lake’s smallmouth fishery has yet to take off.

District fisheries biologist Shawn Hirst is hopeful this year’s crop of smallmouth bass fingerlings, which he raises in a pair of rearing ponds, will grow up and provide the lake with a solid year class of smallies.

Hirst was able to stock about 5,500 smallmouth bass fingerlings into the lake at the end of August. Last year, all he had to show for his rearing efforts was 49 smallmouth.

The larvae go into the ponds in June at about a little longer than an inch. They come out at about 3 ½ inches.

Hirst adds minnows to feed the bass, but he generally has little idea how well the rearing effort went until he drains the pond.

Meanwhile, the smallmouth fishery, launched by Hirst in 2004, has been at a standstill the last few years. It showed promise a couple of years ago, with a few nice catches reported, but, it has yet to take off since.

“It’s been slow with respect to legal fish,” Hirst said. “Guys report that they catch them, but they are just not up to 16 inches.”

A couple of the fish were weighed in during a bass tournament last year, and there have been fish in the 18-inch range reported, but Hirst was hopeful those types of catches would be the norm by now.

Luke Estel, who runs the annual 17th St. Bar & Grill Bass Tournament in May, noted that this year’s tourney, which had 98 boats competing, failed to weigh in a single smallmouth, though it weighed in a two-pounder in 2012 and a pair of smallmouth in 2011.

“I have yet to catch a keeper smallmouth out there,” said Estel, who theorized that maybe the smallmouth bass have been slower to take cover and have fallen prey at a higher rate than their larger-mouthed cousins. “I have concerns over the muskies, but then our [largemouth] population is good. I think the muskies let the strong survive, and maybe the smallmouth haven’t caught on yet. I don’t know if they just hang out and get eaten.”

Longtime muskie guide Al Nutty, who also guides bass and other species, agreed.

“Anytime you are stocking a lake with existing fisheries, you will have a problem with predation,” he said. “You put those little fingerlings in and, man, the dinner bell is ringing.”

Still, Nutty said he has enjoyed following the fishery. He caught a 15 incher last spring and has seen a couple in the 17- and 18-inch range.

“It’s really neat to see this program build and develop,” said Nutty.

The fishery, in theory, should be helped the shoreline erosion control project that the Kinkaid-Reed’s Creek Conservancy District has been doing, installing rocky riprap to stabilize the banks on, already, six miles of shoreline, with plans to put in more as funds become available.

While the main point of that project is to stabilize the banks and improve water quality – a mission that it has been accomplishing by all accounts – that kind of rocky cover is great habitat for smallmouth bass, and bass anglers have reported catching smaller smallies along the riprap, especially in the spring.

“Where the riprap is, it used to be mud and silt,” Hirst said.

Hirst thinks it’s only a matter of time before the fish are able to establish themselves a little bit better.

“It’s just going to take them a little bit longer to get up to 16 inches,” Hirst said, noting that even largemouth bass tend to struggle to reach the 14-inch mark, at which point they tend to grow at a faster rate. “It takes smallmouth bass even longer, because they don’t have the same size mouth.”

Estel, a long-time bass fishermen, thinks the habitat is there at the 2,750-acre lake.

Hirst said he has seen no signs of natural reproduction — something Nutty wondered about — but may do some sampling with electrofishing equipment along that riprap in search of smallies this fall.

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