New largemouth regs for northern anglers
Madison — As the Wisconsin fishing season opener approaches on Saturday, May 3, the eyes of many anglers are focused on the northern third of the state and new bass regulations that will allow anglers to keep largemouths while still requiring the release of smallmouth bass.
In the Northern Bass Zone, the early season catch-and-release requirement for largemouth bass has been removed. That means that between the May 3 opener and June 20 this year, fishermen may keep largemouths longer than 14 inches on most lakes. Regulations do vary, and on some lakes, largemouths shorter than 14 inches also may be kept.
In previous years, anglers would have had to release all largemouths between May 3 and June 20.
Smallmouth bass remain protected on all lakes in the Northern Bass Zone between those dates and may not be kept.
The reason for eliminating the early season in the north, according to some DNR biologists, is twofold: Increasing numbers of largemouths are squeezing out walleyes in some lakes, and the higher bass numbers are slowing bass growth rates in other lakes.
Not all DNR biologists agree with the bass/walleye theory. They say the change in walleye numbers in those lakes has more to do with environmental factors and weather patterns than they do with largemouth bass.
No one knows just who is right about that one yet, but the DNR’s soon-to-be-retired fisheries chief, Mike Staggs, earlier supported the removal of largemouth bass early season protection in the Northern Bass Zone. The Natural Resources Board accepted his recommendation last year, resulting in the rule change for the 2014 season.
There has been a continuing conversation about whether the 14-inch size limit, in effect since 1998 for both bass species statewide, is having its intended effect, and, if not, how might it be rewritten to accomplish the goals of healthy, balanced fish populations and satisfied anglers. Those questions, long debated, are now being reviewed by the DNR’s Bass Committee, headed by Jon Hansen, a fisheries biologist in the DNR’s Bureau of Fisheries Management section.
The quick answer, Hansen said, is that liberalized regs on more lakes are likely in the future and could include protected slot sizes allowing the harvest of fish under 14 inches, as well as offer lakes without a size limit. But Hansen said the review will probably take two more years, and along with any proposals, needs to be carefully handled. Don’t expect sweeping changes in the next couple of years, he said. However, the Bureau of Fisheries Management would continue to adjust regulations to address issues on individual lakes, he said.
Several studies are under way, including at UW-Sevens Point, where a study is examining whether harvest regulations could have any effect at all since survey after survey indicates most bass are released (more than 95 percent in Wisconsin, Hansen said). Additional data suggest that in some lakes, fish are so stunted it may make no difference what the size limit is, and on many lakes it may not be needed. At the same time, lakes with a slot size limit (no fish between 14 and 18 inches, for example) could allow people to eat the smaller fish and at the same time protect the larger trophies where only one bigger fish would be allowed in the daily bag.
Hansen also pointed to other problems biologists must consider in proposing new regulations. For one example, in small lakes where bass and bluegills abound, removing the bass size limit and decreasing their abundance could create imbalance between the two populations by allowing bluegills to increase to where they create the same problem that now occurs on some bass lakes – high density and slow growth.
There is an additional problem in the north: Changing environmental conditions are impacting many lakes, especially in the northwest, where drought has been a factor for some years, and where some lakes have been taken over by bass.
Max Wolter, Sawyer County fisheries biologist, is urging anglers to fill their stringers with largemouths less than 14 inches long on five bodies of water where size limits have been removed. They are Sissabagama, Whitefish, Nelson, Big Chetac, and the Chippewa Flowage.
Wolter pointed to data showing that a typical 5-year-old largemouth bass across northern Wisconsin averages 12.7 inches, whereas on Chetac the average is 11 inches, and on the Chippewa Flowage it’s 10.8 inches. On Blueberry Lake, south of the flowage, there are 12- to 13-year-old bass that have not yet reached the legal size limit. On the other five lakes, only the Chippewa retains the 14-inch limit on smallmouths this season.
Nelson Lake, Wolter said, also offers an example of the change in a formerly good walleye lake where dark, tannin-stained water drained into the lake from the swamps surrounding it. Through the drought, however, seepage dwindled, clarity improved, weed growth increased, and bass, favored in those conditions, began to outnumber walleyes.
“Mother Nature is telling us that things have changed,” Wolter said. “Lakes that used to be good for walleyes (for example) no longer are.”
There is someone else telling us something, and he’s been doing it for years. Frank Pratt, the former Sawyer County fisheries biologist from 1974 to 2011, and now retired, is a member of the Conservation Congress’ Warm Water Committee. Pratt applauds the direction of the DNR Bass Committee’s work and expects to see what he calls a “revolution in bass regulations.”
Pratt said the early catch-and-release season in northwestern counties “had to go,” and that bass zones “have not made sense for about 20 years.” He said the release season worked too well in that area and also created an ingrained angler attitude that releasing fish during the spawn was the answer to a declining supply that, before the zones were established, had been “wickedly overharvested.” He said the 14-inch size was “probably the worst number that could have been picked” because it created a “bottleneck” of small, slow-growth fish – though at the time, he added, biologists didn’t know that would be the result.
He said getting rid of the bass zones was “long overdue,” and that a 10- to 12-inch size limit is now necessary to improve bass density and enhance angler opportunity, as well as provide fish for those who want a meal. He also decried the pace of regulation change, which he said hamstrings the DNR and needs “a major overhaul to make it more immediate and more locally controlled.”
Current research may address some of Pratt’s concerns. One project, begun in 2012 and now under the direction of Gretchen Hansen, wife of the bass committee chairman, is entitled “Modeling Bass/Walleye Interaction on Northern Wisconsin lakes.” It is expected to be completed in 2016, and, though it encompasses both species, focuses on walleyes, Hansen said. Wolter said it could provide the basis for bass and walleye management that might be applied across the state.
Hansen has broken out some interesting statistics on 1,368 lakes in Wisconsin’s Northern Bass Zone. The vast majority, 1,127, or 82 percent, have the 14-inch size, five-fish bag limit. There are 164 lakes (12 percent) where there is no size limit and a bag of five fish. Fifty-seven lakes have an 18-inch, one-fish limit, and four lakes have a slot (14 to 18 inches), with only one fish over 18 inches allowed and a bag of three fish. Six lakes are release only, and 10 other lakes have a variety of “odds and ends.”
Hansen also defended the DNR’s handling of the bass regulations so far: “… we have been changing regulations over time on individual lakes where we have collected sufficient data that demonstrate liberal harvest regulations are needed. As recently as 2010 we had less than 50 lakes with no minimum length statewide. Today we have more than 300.”
Much of that increase, he said, had to do with removing the size limits on almost all lakes in Washburn and Burnett counties in 2011.
He added that in coming years the state is sure to see more of that kind of regulation change.