Bass are in ‘good old days’

Newton, Ill. — Science and opinions considered evenly, it’s quite possible Illinois is smack in the middle of a Micropterus salmoides renaissance.

Indeed, it’s possible largemouth bass have never seen better days.

And results of DNR electro-fishing samplings, experiences shared in creel surveys turned in by anglers and overall angler feedback suggests that bigmouth bass anglers are benefitting.

“I think we’re in the ‘good old days’ as far as bass lakes are concerned,” Dan Stephenson, DNR’s assistant fisheries chief, said. “In the early ‘80s, we set goals at 60 bass per hour electrofishing with the correct population structure and body condition. Now if we get 60 bass per hour, something’s wrong. Some of our larger lakes in the central region – Springfield, Sangchris, Taylorville and Jacksonville – all routinely hit well over 100 bas per hour with great population structure and body weights. We’re seeing the same thing up and down the state.”

Still, not everything is smooth sailing in the bass world. Stephenson said fisheries biologists have had a lot of internal discussions about competitive fishing tournaments, and whether tournaments held during the hottest months should be restricted.

It’s not a concern limited to Illinois. The effects of tournaments on largemouth populations have been studied nationally. A Tennessee Tech University study revealed delayed mortality of largemouth bass through the 1990s in live-release tournaments was estimated to range from 10 to 23 percent.

Officials with the American Fisheries Society have published papers on oxygen levels and the spread of disease through livewells, the handling of tournament bass, and fish dispersal. Texas Tech University biologist Gene Wilde, who spent more than a decade studying fish deaths after tournaments, said the bass are believed to die from a combination of conditions. So in Illinois, which has developed a solid bass fishery, DNR biologists are hoping to be proactive, looking at timing of tournaments on some popular lakes and studying how tournaments affect bass – and what can be done to improve mortality.

“We don’t have enough information yet to make any decisions on that,” Stephenson said. “An example of the kind of things we are looking at is the situation at Coffeen Lake. We have to look at really cutting back in July and August. Altering tournament hours during the heat of the year is an option, maybe requiring tournaments to close things up at noon.”

DNR actually has some experience in the area. Crab Orchard Lake, once known as a “bass factory,” saw its bass population hit the skids in the late 1990s. The size and quality of the bass being caught drastically declined. DNR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service entered into a partnership to turn the lake around. The two agencies worked together to hatch a plan regarding fishing pressure and a decision was made to limit bass tournaments and fish-offs to one fish-off per club per year. In the decade since changes were made to the lake, Crab Orchard has returned as a prime largemouth bass fishery.

Stephenson noted that each lake in the state is different, so each will require different approaches when it comes to tweaking bass management.

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