The great bass debate

Watertown, N.Y. — Anglers are clearly divided on fishing for bass – especially smallmouth bass – outside the traditional season that exists on the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario’s eastern basin.

In general, the debate falls into two camps: fishing guides opposed to the creation of a catch-and-release, artificials-only season outside the regular season; and tournament anglers and other recreational fishermen who favor allowing the C&R season.

That division was readily apparent at a pair of public meetings hosted by DEC fisheries officials last month to gauge sentiment on what could result in a formal regulations proposal.

“We have crystal clear water; you will decimate many male bass on that water,” said Mitch Franz, a Lake Ontario guide and vice president of the Henderson Harbor Guides Association.

Franz submitted a petition signed by over 300 people, including business owners in the region opposed to the creation of a catch-and-release bass season.

The Cape Vincent Guides Association is also opposed to that potential move.

But Fred Blom, president of New York BASS Nation, said tournament anglers share the concern for “the health of the fishery across the state” and contends their tournament results show that “it’s extremely good. There are lot of fish out there.”

Proponents of the catch-and-release season also argued that bass often spawn late in the eastern basin of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River due to long winters and cold water conditions. That pushes the spawning period into June and even July – during the regular bass season.

Blom predicted this year’s spawn will run well into July and “every angler can go out and whack big, vulnerable bass on beds in an open season.”

DEC in 2007 created the catch-and-release, artificials lures-only bass season outside the traditional bass season in an effort to increase angling opportunities. At that time, however, several waters – those in Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton and St. Lawrence counties, as well as the Hudson River below the Troy dam – were exempted from that regulation and bass fishing remained prohibited outside the regular season.

DEC fisheries staff opted against allowing the catch-and-release season in those waters over concerns for the health of the fisheries, notably in Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, where production is often a challenge impacted by invasive species such as the round goby, which preys on both bass eggs and fry.

Indications at the two public meetings are those concerns remain.

Jana Lantry of DEC’s Lake Ontario unit said the eastern basin of Lake Ontario has a “history of stressors,” including gobies, zebra and quagga mussels, spiny and fishback waterfleas, VHS and forage concerns, and noted there is a “potential for additional stressors to enter the system.”

Lantry said studies have shown that large male smallmouths are the most aggressive nest guarders; that smallmouths are more vulnerable to removal from the nest by anglers; and that between 30-100 percent of eggs are lost to predation when the guarding male bass is removed from the nest.

Cornell University researcher Randy Jackson, too, said it’s a virtual certainty that “some or all” of the eggs or fry will be lost when a bass is taken off the nest by sight-fishing anglers.

Neither side seemed to dispute that fishing over spawning bass will result in the loss of some eggs and fry. But the two sides differ on whether the Lake Ontario/St. Lawrence bass fishery can handle the impact of the catch-and-release season.
Lantry’s report contends that “at-risk (bass) populations may benefit from seasonal protection.”

And DEC Region 6 natural resource supervisor Fred Munk, in a news release ahead of the two public meetings, reiterated the department’s concern over opening up the bass fishery ahead of the traditional third-Saturday-in-June kickoff.

“New York is committed to offering great bass fishing opportunities in the North Country, and these meetings will provide an opportunity to discuss science critical to maintaining healthy bass populations, including the rationale for not allowing pre-season catch-and-release,” Munk said.

Some anglers said other inland lakes in the region could be opened for catch-and-release bass season, which would offer those opportunities while protecting the Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River bass fishery.

And both sides agreed that some anglers are already targeting bass ahead of the June opener and more enforcement is needed to cite those violators.

“I’ve watched it,” said veteran guide Bill Saif. “I see bass boats out there every day doing it.”

DEC recently completed its overhaul of fishing regulations, which occurs every two years. If catch-and-release bass fishing is enacted it wouldn’t go into effect until 2017 following a lengthy regulatory process that includes a public comment period.

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