The Rock River Bass Battle

The Rock River Bass Battle

Special regulations have obviously led to bigger smallmouths on northern Illinois' Rock River. So why then is the DNR dumping the entire management plan? See if you can figure it out!

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

With the possible exception of muskies, no other Illinois game fish stirs passions regarding harvest guidelines more than the smallmouth bass. The Rock River -- which flows about 163 miles through the Prairie State from Rockton to Rock Island where it enters the Mississippi River -- has been a political bronzeback battleground without parallel for at least 15 years. Management changes enacted this past spring are sound from a biological standpoint, but viewed from a sportsman's perspective, changes in effect beginning this year make little sense.

In 1997, special management zones were put in place to study the effect of angler harvest on the smallmouth population. Harvest guidelines on various Rock River pools ranged from the statewide regulations to total catch-and-release, with several variations in between. The current regulation is a six-black-bass daily bag on the entire river system, with only three of these fish allowed, and they must be a minimum of 14 inches long to keep -- if you really want to. And there's an entirely closed season from April 1 through June 15.

Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologists who arrived at this compromise contend fishing pressure has less impact on the smallmouth population than other environmental concerns like flooding, pollution and habitat degradation. Some anglers want to see a return to pre-1990 regulations when a six-fish 12-inch bass limit was in place on the Rock. At the other end of the spectrum are people who would rather starve than eat a smallie. The closed season during vulnerable spawning time in the spring and the three-smallmouth 14-inch limit, "is probably adequate to protect Rock River's smallmouth bass population from overharvest," said DNR fisheries biologist Karen Anderson, "but future surveys will be necessary to continue monitoring of this population."

This decision was reached after data from a survey completed last September was analyzed. According to the DNR's report summary, "there are good numbers of quality-sized smallmouths now swimming in the population, with data indicating demographics very close to the target range. Overall population is a little low, however, well within acceptable numbers for a fishery of this size."

DNR fisheries supervisor Dan Sallee has been involved in bass management on the Rock for many years, coming on board before the five-year bass harvest zones were enacted. "Unfortunately, managing a fish population in a river system is not an exact science," Sallee said. "Although we can get a good indication on the health and progress of a given population, there are always gaps and inconsistencies in the data gathered. All we can do is base management decision on the facts we have to go on, with some gut-level hunches borne from experience."

Looking at an overview of the Rock River's bass population over the past 15 years, it can be argued that the restrictive guidelines in place over the past five years had a strong positive effect on the fishery. Because of exceptionally high and low water conditions, there have been years where the DNR wasn't able to sample the population. During the five-year study, biologists could only get on the water and conduct their surveys from 1997 through 1999.

This information indicates many larger smallmouth bass are found in the river's upper pools from the state line down to about Grand Detour. Biologists concluded that this population trend made sense, because the upper river pools have more of the rocky-rubble habitat that riverine smallmouths prefer. But when all the data for the final report was compiled -- including information from the September 2004 survey -- the DNR discovered the largest concentration of big smallmouths was sampled far downstream around Prophetstown where habitat parameters have been far from desirable!

"We were amazed to find so many big bass in an electroshocking survey around some recently placed riprap in the lower reaches of the river," said biologist Anderson in an e-mail message requesting information for this article. "In the past we rarely found smallmouths over 12 inches long in the Prophetstown area. Now they are all over the place. And all we can do is speculate on the apparent positive changes in the fishery. There is a possibility that fish migrated from upstream and found suitable habitat around the new riprap near Prophetstown. Sort of a twist on that movie Field of Dreams -- if you build it, they will come.'

"Lowhead dams at Rockton, Rockford, Oregon, Dixon and Sterling/Rock Falls effectively keep fish washed downstream during high water events from returning to the river pools where these fish had been living," Anderson continued. "Because there is bass movement between pools, it is more difficult to advocate more restrictive harvest guidelines on just one or two pools, like the catch-and-release area that used to exist from Oregon to Grand Detour. Although continuing to mandate a catch-and-release area on the Rock -- particularly in this stretch of river -- is desirable to many who fish there, such a situation would make it tougher for biologists to get a clear idea regarding the health and status of the fish population.

"Additionally, having a separate limit on one stretch of the river with separate laws, signs, etc. only makes it more confusing for anglers, law enforcement, etc., and really doesn't do much for management," Anderson's e-mail concluded.

I am not a trained fisheries biologist. As a result, I look at the data in the fisheries report from an entirely different angle. From this perspective, it is easy to draw several logical conclusions that give the distinct and obvious impression that harvest guidelines now in place may be a huge mistake.

First, Anderson contends that harvest guidelines that vary on different stretches of the river would be, "more confusing" for all concerned. Wait a minute! Illinois anglers just completed a five-year period where exactly this scenario was in place -- with essentially no problems in understanding what the prevailing regulations were!

Furthermore, the data clearly indicates an overall increase in the number of larger smallmouth bass in both river pools where more restrictive harvest guidelines were in place, with possible migration of quality bass downstream to populate areas like the habitat found around Prophetstown where quality smallies were "rare" prior to the five-year experiment!

In addition, I believe the DNR is making additional excuses for not continuing the restrictive guidelines that have enhanced the smallie situation on the Rock. To quote another e-mail from biologist Anderson: "Well, the problem with that idea (of protecting designated areas of the river) is that bass jus

t don't stay in that pool. They move, as you can see from the data. We find big bass at different places in different years."

When asked if the big bass sampled in different areas at different times were identified individually by conclusive means like floy tags placed behind the dorsal fin or by a radio transmitter, a conflicting e-mail reply was generated by biologist Anderson.

"Quite a few studies have been done on smallmouth bass life history, movement, etc. Briefly, smallmouth do tend to be 'homebodies' and are generally considered 'non-migratory' for long distances," she responded. "However, some have been documented by radio transmitter to have moved many miles. Smaller movements -- upstream to spawn, downstream to winter, movements throughout the day, etc, -- are common. Often smaller fish get flushed downstream in floods. If they are flushed over a dam (as occurs commonly in the Rock) they can't return upstream and must find suitable habitat where they end up."

The conventional wisdom about smallmouth tending to be non-migratory homebodies provides a strong argument to continue the status quo of fishery management on these waters, as evidenced in DNR biologist Doug Carney's own summary of special management zones for smallmouths compiled by DNR biologists in 2001 from data accumulated during the 1997-'99 fisheries surveys.

"The catch-and-release zone size and numbers of smallmouth bass appear to be substantial," said Carney. "Catch-and-release-only restrictions should increase smallmouth bass populations substantially if mortality due to angler harvest is significant in comparison to natural mortality. This (catch-and-release) regulation is an appropriate management alternative in streams or stream segments where catch-and-release fishing receives considerable public support."

In changing the entire river to an area where smallmouths can be harvested, DNR officials contend that the "natural mortality" parameters weigh heavier than impact by angler harvest.

Another major consideration in liberalizing harvest guidelines is to make overall management of the bass population easier for biologists -- essentially the same corporate, bottom-line bean-counter mentality that drives American business today.

It is hard for this active endpoint consumer to remain entirely objective -- or submissive -- to harvest guidelines now in place on the Rock River. Like many who have enjoyed the bounties of this natural resource for decades, mine was one of many voices who fought long and hard for more restrictive smallmouth bass harvest guidelines on the Rock, which by the DNR's own conclusions has proven to be a "substantially positive" impact.

Even the data from the more liberal slot-length special management zone that was in place downstream from Fordham dam in Rockford showed encouraging results. To quote biologist Carney's summary, "while the trends in both size and numbers of smallmouth indicate a potential positive effect in the slot-limit zone, further study is required to evaluate the significance of that trend."

In the overview report looking at Rock River smallmouth bass from 1990-2004, the final conclusion notes, "looking at the data, it is interesting to note the increase in the number of larger-sized fish found in the special management zones in 2002 and 2003. These management zones were the 'no-kill' zone from Oregon to Grand Detour, and the 'protected slot' zone from Fordham dam to Oregon. The report from 2001 is inconclusive but the jump in numbers of fish larger than 12 inches -- especially in the Fordham area -- seems to indicate these restrictions made a positive difference."

If results of this special harvest zone are at the worst inconclusive and at the best a "substantial positive difference," how can liberalizing harvest guidelines on the entire Rock River be a step in the right direction?

The report concludes, "it will be interesting to study the effect of the new three-fish, 14-inch regulation on the population in the next few years."

Interesting? As license and sporting goods-purchasing consumers, do we hire and continue to employ fisheries management professionals to write papers on interesting trends, or to provide the best possible fishery for those footing the bill?

The DNR's report clearly indicates the slot-limit and no-kill zones are the best ways to proceed if the goal is better recreational opportunity from this natural resource. Other than presenting a treatise by a panel of experts at an American Fisheries Society conclave, where is the benefit in allowing anglers to kill fish that have grown to substantial dimensions in areas where they have been protected over the past five years?

Is it possible that downstream migration of a segment of this enhanced smallmouth population during high-water periods -- coupled with improved habitat around Prophetstown -- is why anglers are now able to enjoy smallmouth fishing on the lower Rock River? Why weren't smallmouth anglers able to enjoy this species around P-town in the past? Could it be because guidelines in place prior to the five-year study allowed smallies to be pan-fried before they were capable of procreating?

Data collected from fisheries surveys in 1990-'92 before the special management zone plan went into effect in 1997 in an attempt to increase the number of larger-sized smallmouth shows, "good spawning success and good recruitment of young fish into the population." Over this three-year period, both the size and numbers of smallmouth bass sampled up and down the river increased, perhaps due to a strong and vociferous push by sportsmen for more restrictive harvest guidelines.

At any rate, this early survey indicates, "few fish larger than 12 inches were collected, possibly indicating a need for a more restrictive size limit." Statewide harvest guidelines were in place on the Rock at that time, a 12-inch minimum, six-bass daily bag -- smallies too small to get off a self-perpetuating spawning effort!

Conventional wisdom says that if smallmouths were harvested before reaching breeding size in "prime" habitat areas on the Rock's upper pools, the potential for a smallmouth fishery in the Rock's nether reaches would also be substantially reduced. There is no evidence of smallmouth stocking attempts around Prophetstown, so where -- other than upstream -- did these fish come from?

DNR Region I fisheries supervisor Dan Sallee was instrumental in fostering the effort for restrictive harvest guidelines prior to enactment of the five-year special smallmouth bass management zone plan. Sallee's predecessor, Pete Paladino, kept meticulous records from fishing diaries compiled by smallmouth anglers up and down the Rock. These records played a role in establishment of the special harvest zones.

One thing Paladino discovered in managing the data submitted by those keeping journals was a substantial number of larger smallmouth caught by anglers -- far beyond the numbers of bigger bass indicated by approximately 80 hours of electroshocking surveys over the years. Although the electroshocker is an accepted means of sampling fish in a riverine envir

onment, larger specimens often evade its stunning current. Fish dwelling in deeper waters --often larger specimens -- also tend to evade capture.

Part of the recent e-mails from biologist Anderson stated, "we also sampled a new spot near Grand Detour and found a lot of really nice bass. But many were too deep, so we had a difficult time getting them with the electrofishing boat."

As one person who used to keep these diaries, I can attest to both the size and 'homebody' tendencies of larger smallmouth bass, which aren't as vulnerable to getting washed downstream as smaller fish. I caught one 15-inch smallmouth four times over several months that was identifiable from her single eye and clipped dorsal fin. Every time, "ol' one eye" exploded from an ambush point near a big boulder on the Rockton Pool.

Under new guidelines now in place, it stands to reason that somebody could legally remove such a fish from the river, thus denying three subsequent thrills enabled by a careful catch-and-release fishing. Anglers are the end-point consumers of the Rock River fishery. Many who chase smallmouth bass have an appreciation for both the species and the ethics involved with catch-and-release. For five years we had the benefit of regulation to hold in check those with equal angling ability but a consumption-minded attitude. This protection has now been removed, with no attempts by the DNR to contact those persons who kept journals and fostered this valuable resource.

Unlike neighboring states where sportsmen and sportswomen have considerable input regarding changes and proposals in fish and game rules, Illinois has a fisheries review committee comprised of fisheries biologists. While few would argue the benefits of allowing professionals to do their job, the motivation of those tasked with fisheries management needs oversight from those who are supposed to benefit from management efforts. This simply was not done in the case of smallmouth management on the Rock River, where many believe the adage, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" applies. However, you do have a voice in this matter!

All that is required for bad things to happen in Illinois is for you to remain silent. Don't let it happen. Voice your opinion about Rock River bass management by contacting the DNR at their Web site at

www.dnr.state.il.us or via phone at (217) 782-6384.

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