How Do Kentucky'™s Bass Restrictions Work?

All waters in our state contain some kind of restriction for keeping bass, from minimum-size and slot limits, to catch-and-release. Are they really necessary? And are they working?(May 2008)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

Largemouth bass are Kentucky's most popular and sought-after game fish species. Simply put, more anglers enjoy bass fishing and spend more time each year trying to catch bucketmouths than any other kind of fish.

To make sure this particular outdoor pursuit continues to be possible, Kentucky's Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) employs biologists to monitor and study every aspect of a bass population.

Typically, these studies result in a recommendation to control the harvest of bass in both numbers and sizes on a given waterway.

"Overharvesting" is a pretty bad word to an agency that's legally mandated to keep fishery resources sustained year after year.

Putting some restrictions on the use of a public resource -- and then enforcing those restrictions -- seems a plausible way to satisfy the user and to conserve the fishery resource at the same time. Each waterway is unique, biologists say, so applying a single, uniform creel and size limit to largemouths or smallmouths everywhere will not produce the best fishery each lake can have.

"So in Kentucky, we take a more tailored approach," said black bass research biologist Ryan Oster. "We assess our waters individually, and use factors like fishing pressure, fertility, historical performance, growth and survival rates and angler attitudes to determine a plan for our reservoirs, rivers and streams.

"Obviously, not every lake is the same in terms of those characteristics. So to use the same management strategy would not be as productive," he said. "Today's science can do better than that."

In Kentucky, two regulatory fishing size limits are used primarily for managing bass populations, and have worked pretty well in most cases. They are the standard 12-inch minimum-size limit and the 15-inch minimum-size limit.

Occasionally, a bass fishery may need to be manipulated even more, which is where slot limits and trophy management or total catch-and-release approaches are used. We'll discuss those in some detail shortly.

First, let's touch on the most common way to regulate black bass.

The 12-inch limit is used on lakes, rivers, streams and ponds when recruitment is generally good each year, and the bass population is holding its own from season to season.

"The basic idea is to protect the male and female bass for at least one spawning cycle before those fish become eligible for harvest," explained Oster. "This just ensures we are keeping fish in there to sustain the population, and the resource remains viable into the future."

Herrington Lake is one example where the 12-inch size limit is used. Known to some as the "bass factory," Herrington has good production and recruitment, plus a well-balanced largemouth population of younger bass and mature bass. Catch rates are good and remain stable, and the harvest of legal fish doesn't negatively impact the chance to come up with some very good bass.

When a 15-inch minimum is used for bass, Oster says the lake tends to have really good spawns only every three or four years, which is common. In order to keep fish in the population to ensure good spawns when those conditions are right, they must be protected a little longer.

In most waters, it takes a bass about three years to reach 15 inches, but they become reproductively mature sooner than that. A bass that's 3 to 4 years old may spawn two, perhaps three times. Therefore, even if conditions for reproduction are bad a year or two in a row, the population can still sustain itself.

Oster also notes that as a bonus, the 15-inch limit provides more potential for a higher quality bass fishery. A larger percentage of bigger fish appeals to many anglers, especially since most bass anglers no longer keep bass for the table. Some anglers just like to catch big fish, and the 15-inch limit improves their odds.

A question that might occur to lots of anglers is that since most of us are returning our bass regardless of size, is there any longer a need to have a size limit? Maybe we can even drop the creel limit?

Good, logical questions, and ones to which Oster and other fishery managers have given some thought.

"In some lakes in the south -- Georgia, for example -- the minimum-size limits have been reduced on bass," said Oster, "because almost everything anglers catch is going back in the water.

"What's happened to those lakes is that in some cases, the forage and habitat available for bass is being overwhelmed by their numbers, because hardly any are being harvested.

"When you get too many bass in the population for the food supply, their quality and growth rates start to decline, and the ability to produce larger, healthier bass slips away," Oster continued.

"Managers on these kind of waterways then reduce the minimum-size limit, trying to encourage anglers to keep more fish so that the system doesn't become overloaded."

Kentucky hasn't yet reached the point where the lack of bass harvest on most lakes is creating an imbalance in the predator-to-prey ratio.

"I think there's a lot of misconception among bass fishermen about how a slot limit works," said Oster. "We routinely get questions from tournament anglers about why we don't use slot limits on more waters than we do.

The catch-and-release concept has certainly contributed to better bass fishing in some ways, but at times, fisheries management relies on the fact that a bass harvest will take place.

"Paintsville Lake in northeastern Kentucky is a good example," he said. "We have a 12- to 15-inch slot on largemouths and smallmouths, where you can keep bass under 12 and over 15 inches long. Everything in the slot has to be released.

"We see some of the best catch rates from tournaments at Paintsville that we see anywhere in the state. But the problem is too many of these bass are 10 to 11 inches. They're not getting into that quality 12- to 15-inch range we'd prefer.

"A slot limit is designed to remove a portion of the smaller fish, so that the rest can grow faster and become bigger fish to catch," said Oster.

"But if bass anglers are releasing everything they catch, including the small ones they can legally keep, we're not achieving enough reduction in the small fish to make the management work."

In a situation like that, catch-and-release tends to hamper, rather than help, the plan to improve the quality of the bass population. The catch-and-release concept has certainly contributed to better bass fishing in some ways, but at times, fisheries management relies on the fact that a bass harvest will take place.

"We manage for both the anglers not interested in keeping bass to eat, as well as those who do," says the biologist. "There's nothing wrong with keeping a bass when you can. We try to give as much opportunity for that as possible, as well as manage for higher-quality fishing where waters have that potential."

Oster believes that it's important to continue using size and creel limits to protect a segment of all bass fisheries, despite the fact that lots of bass are put back into the water.

"Bass, like any other species, die of a variety of natural causes, angler-related mortality, and sometimes disease and predation.

"Though a lot of fish get put back, it would be a little risky -- at least right now -- to depend completely on released fish to keep the numbers of bass mature enough to spawn at the level we need to carry the fishery year after year," he said.

"I guess it's like an insurance policy, particularly on waterways that aren't as fertile in the first place. You always want to know there's a base population in there that's not in jeopardy and ready to reproduce when the conditions are favorable. Contrary to what some anglers think, bass don't produce good spawns every year. And sometimes not in the next year or the year after that.

"But when they do," Oster said, "we want enough present to re-supply the population and keep available forever the opportunity to fish bass in Kentucky."

He says that on lakes such as Kentucky, Barkley, Barren and Cumberland, bass fishing has benefited from having size limits. Creel surveys indicate that anglers are catching good numbers of higher-quality fish pretty consistently from year to year.

"When we see good things happening, we tend not to make any kind of a major adjustment to the regulations," said Oster.

"It's often a balancing act, too," he added, "like the case with Taylorsville Lake." Taylorsville, the biologist says, is a reservoir where bass "live fast and die young."

Largemouths have tremendous growth rates early on, which gives Taylorsville Lake good potential to grow some higher-quality bass.

After bass reach the 15-inch size limit and are not harvested, they grow a little more but tend to max out in the 18-inch range.

"When we check bass there, we rarely find fish more than 7 or 8 years old," said Oster. "So we know their longevity isn't as good as in Kincaid Lake, say, where higher numbers of bass 12 years and older are found.

"So for example, it wouldn't make any sense to try to manage Taylorsville for a trophy bass fishery, with a high size limit," he said. "Most of the bass aren't going to live long enough to surpass a 20-inch mark anyway. So instead, we go for offering the balance of a fishery that produces a lot of bass that get to that intermediate range fast, and are considered quality size of 15 to 18 inches."

Trophy bass management is employed at only one state-owned lake. Cedar Creek has a one-fish daily creel and a 20-inch minimum-size limit. Oster says that the trophy approach is working pretty well right now, and there are good numbers of fish at or above the size limit.

He is also quick to note, though, that one critical factor -- besides high food availability and low mortality of big fish -- is limited recruitment each year. That's "biologist speak" for not having too many small bass in the system to compete with other bass for space and food.

"In this case, we want the good spawn that comes around every few springs, but don't need huge spawns every single year," said Oster. "To grow trophy-class bass, we want them to be able to get a meal anytime they want to, and not have to outrun 10 other fish to get there first for it."

It's possible, he says, that if all bass under 20 inches have to be released and too many fish overload the system for the available food, the 20-inch limit might have to be suspended for a while to get some of the smaller bass out.

"I don't know that the environment would evolve to that," said Oster. "But that's one outcome that could develop under this type of management somewhere down the road.

"We keep close watch on growth rates, which signals us whether or not sufficient forage is available," he said. "And if it slows too much, we'd considered changing the limits to get it back where it needs to be."

As most anglers know, Kentucky's approach to managing smallmouths and Kentucky "spotted" bass is quite a bit different than for largemouths.

In some cases, the 15-inch minimum is used for smallmouths. But in others, smallies are under an 18-inch limit, which is indeed a superb quality fish.

Trophy bass management is employed at only one state-owned lake. Cedar Creek has a one-fish daily creel and a 20-inch minimum-size limit.

"In lakes like Laurel and Cumberland, the potential for growing really big smallmouths plays a big role in the fishery we're trying to maintain," said Oster. "We don't have that many lakes with cold-water habitat, so where we do, we want to provide a higher-quality opportunity.

"Laurel and Cumberland can grow those big smallmouths if we protect them with a higher size limit. And it seems that the majority of fishermen who are interested specifically in bronzebacks want to catch big ones. They aren't interested in harvesting smaller fish for the table."

The approach to spotted bass, which are present in most lakes, is tailored to the characteristic of the species as much as anything. Rarely will a spotted bass get much larger than 15 inches before its life comes to an end. A 15-inch size limit on spots would greatly reduce the chance of harvesting these fish before they die and fall out of the population.

For anglers who want a mess of fish to fry, allowing them to take spotted bass of any size gives that segment of the angling community the opportunity they enjoy.

"It's use of a renewable resource that we encourage, since releasing spots doesn't really help improve the quality of the fishery or effect reproduction for better or worse.

"We want anglers to catch and keep those Kentucky bass, which at times are the most aggressive bass and provide a lot of action," Oster said.

People eat fish, and that's a very good thing. Sometimes, it seems that the number of bass-fishing anglers is so high that if they all took home everything they legally could each time out, it would deplete the fishery.

But the likelihood of that actually occurring is very low.

For those who can recall, during the last 20 years, Kentucky's daily creel limit on largemouths was reduced from 10 fish to six. Part of the idea behind that reduction was to conserve the resource, but the main reason is because the average angler doesn't catch 10 keeper bass a day.

And for those who like to say, "I caught a limit today," catching six is much more achievable than catching 10. And few days on the water ever produce six largemouths of 15 inches or better, so the potential of overharvesting is rarely an issue -- at least not for bass.

Practicing catch-and-release helps the populations in some ways, perhaps most in giving another angler a chance to catch the same large bass and enjoy that experience. At the same time, releasing small bass on reservoirs where a slot limit is in effect may negate the improvement that limit was designed to bring about.

Oster said, "I encourage any angler who has questions about our regulations, and why we have the limits and restrictions we do, to contact a fishery biologist and just ask them about it.

"We try to manage for the best of all worlds, and provide the broadest kinds of opportunity we can, whether it's for tournament anglers, trophy anglers or recreational anglers out there just to catch a bass.

"Understanding how each of us can help with the management in our approach to fishing is a big key to having good quality opportunities each year," he concluded.

To find out who the district fishery biologist is for your favorite lakes, log on to fw.ky.gov , or call toll-free 1-800-858-1549 weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Eastern.

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