Here’s a look at what’s in store for New York bass anglers in 2018.
Fishermen 100 years ago would have cringed at the thought that bass, not trout, would rise to the top as the state’s most sought-after game fish. It was not even 40 years ago when avid trout, salmon and steelhead anglers would toss a 5-pound smallmouth onto the bank to feed the raccoons. Now, bass of both species rule and the future of bass fishing in the Empire State continues to look better with each passing year.
It’s not often that a popular species’ population can grow and thrive despite increasing interest in that species. Imagine if deer hunters could take their coveted 10- and 12-point bucks and then return them to the wild — the woods would be full of trophy-class bucks. The same holds true for bass. Fishermen can congratulate themselves for maintaining a catch-and-release ethic that began in the early 1970s and now takes center stage whenever a discussion about bass management techniques and strategies comes to the fore. It only makes sense — catch them, enjoy them, photograph them and release them.
Such has been the case in New York for decades and anglers are still reaping the benefits. While bass continue to face a variety of environmental, habitat and mortality issues, the last thing they have to worry about is the guy with the crankbait in the bass boat overhead.
New York is renowned for its bass-fishing opportunities and some of the best bass fishing in the country can be found here. Lake Erie, the St. Lawrence River/Thousand Islands, Chaumont Bay (Lake Ontario), Lake Champlain, Oneida Lake, Chautauqua Lake and Cayuga Lake have all recently been selected as national top 100 bass lakes by the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (BASS), and there are many other outstanding fisheries throughout the state.
Over the last several decades, bass fisheries and habitats have undergone significant changes. Bass angling is now primarily a catch-and-release activity. Tournament fishing has also become much more prevalent. In 2006, a statewide fishing regulation change for black bass allowed for catch-and-release angling through the winter and spring in most waters.
On the other side of the scale, however, invasive species like zebra mussels and round gobies have had dramatic impacts on certain bass habitats and populations.
The DEC’s Bureau of Fisheries tracks the impacts of these changes and monitors the status of black bass fisheries through a combination of fish population and angler surveys and other special studies. Management of the fisheries is based primarily on the information derived from these efforts.
To better understand the characteristics, fishing activities, and views on management and tournaments of black bass anglers in New York, a mail survey was conducted of 1,500 anglers who indicated in the 2007 statewide angler survey that black bass was among their top two favorite species to fish for in New York. Most responding anglers do not keep any legal-sized bass that they catch, but those who prefer to use baitfish or other natural baits tend to keep bass more than those who prefer to use artificial baits. Three quarters (74 percent) of responding anglers fished for bass for an average of 18.8 days in 2012, and a similar percent (72 percent) were satisfied with their black bass fishing experiences.
Support or opposition for special fishing regulations appears to exist regardless of the objective for the regulation. This suggests that anglers don’t view special regulations as a means to an end, but as an end in and of itself.
Also, while two-thirds of anglers had not participated in a black bass tournament in New York in the past five years and had no interest in participating in the future, they did not think tournaments should be banned. They tended to agree that tournaments provide an economic boost but felt they should be held only on larger waters, and that they did reduce the quality of the fishing experience for non-tournament anglers. These results are useful to fishery managers as they consider what management actions they might take, as well as others interested in promoting tournaments.
A three-year study assessing the current status of black bass populations in New York was completed in September 2014. The last comprehensive black bass population study in New York had been conducted about 30 years ago, but since that time black bass fisheries and many associated aquatic habitats have undergone significant changes.
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Catch-and-release and tournament angling have become much more prevalent, a winter and spring catch-and-release fishing season was implemented, and ecologically impactful invasive species such as zebra mussels and round gobies have been introduced into many waters. Thus, a new foundation of black bass population information was needed in order to assess responses to these changes.
The study was conducted by the New York Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at Cornell University and funded through a Federal Aid in Sportfish Restoration grant. Largemouth and smallmouth bass population data were compiled and summarized from four long-term fisheries databases. Important population metrics such as relative abundance, growth, condition, and size structure were summarized for inland lakes including Oneida Lake and for Lake Erie and the eastern basin of Lake Ontario. The influence of environmental parameters, spatial patterns and population trends through time were part of the assessment.
Results indicated that both largemouth and smallmouth bass populations are generally doing well throughout the state. Some metrics have improved over the time series of the databases, providing some evidence that bass populations are adjusting to changing conditions in a positive way.
Meanwhile, black bass provide popular fisheries in many of New York’s warmwater rivers and streams, but these populations had not been comprehensively assessed and thus are not as well understood as their lake and pond counterparts.
Black bass population data (length, weight, and ages) from the statewide fisheries data base from 2004 through 2013 were summarized and key population metrics (catch rates, condition, growth, etc.) were assessed and compared throughout the state.
There were over twice the number of surveys, fish collected and water bodies sampled for lakes than there were for rivers and streams. Also, on average, lake bass collected tended to be longer, weighed more and were older than river and stream bass, but this may be due, in part, to the different sampling methods used for each water body type. Few river and stream surveys provided the data necessary for a comprehensive assessment of bass populations, which limited the assessment of statewide population metrics and water body type comparisons. The lack of age data for river and stream bass was the most limiting factor in the assessments.
Management recommendations included developing standard warmwater river and stream sampling and assessment methods, while comprehensively assessing river and stream black bass populations and fisheries by evaluating growth, longevity, and exploitation. This project was a collaborative effort between the DEC’s Bureau of Fisheries and the New York Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at Cornell University.
In other recent management work, DEC fisheries biologists routinely conduct fish population assessment surveys that target black bass (largemouth and smallmouth bass) and sunfish. During those surveys, biologists record the length and weight of any bass they catch to help them assess the bass fishery.
Anglers are always interested in “quality” bass (fish weighing 3 to 5 pounds), so a table on the DEC’s Web site lists the waters where they collected larger bass during fish population assessment surveys targeting black bass between 2012 and 2016.
Note that almost half the waters on the list are lakes and ponds under 100 acres. The message is clear: there is a chance to catch a quality bass in most New York waters where bass live.
WHERE TO FIND BASS IN NEW YORK
As the DEC points out there are more than 7,500 lakes and ponds and 70,000 miles of rivers and streams in New York. As recent studies have shown any lake, pond, river or stream that contains bass also contains “quality” fish in the 3- to 5-pound range, with high odds for catching bass that weigh more than twice that much. They are out there — all you have to do is find them!
Here’s a brief look at some of New York’s proven bass-fishing hotspots where good numbers of largemouths and smallmouths may be found year-round.
Lake Erie, the Niagara River, Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence River and their tributaries provide diverse, world-class fishing for a variety of species. Great Lakes bass anglers enjoy superb near-shore angling for smallmouth bass. These waters also provide wintertime ice-fishing in protected embayments, shore and pier locations.
The finest smallmouth bass fishing in New York State and arguably the entire United States can be found in the waters of Lake Erie. Bass are found along the entire New York shoreline, with hotspots along rocky structure and drop-offs in 15 to 35 feet of water. However, smallmouth bass in Lake Erie are very widely distributed and are also available to anglers fishing inshore zones with waders, kayaks and other small vessels. Most bass caught are between 2 and 4 pounds, but there is good opportunity to catch a hefty 5- or 6-pound bronzeback. The last five New York State record smallmouths have come from Lake Erie, with the current record standing at an impressive 8 pounds, 4 ounces.
Smallmouth bass are the most frequently caught fish species in Lake Erie. Smallmouths are targeted in about 25 percent of all Lake Erie fishing trips for the entire year.
Anglers can enjoy an early bass season on Lake Erie to take advantage of the great fishing available for smallmouth bass during spring. From the first Saturday in May to the regular season opener of statewide black bass season on the third Saturday in June, anglers may take one bass over 20 inches per day in Lake Erie and its tributaries. The use of natural baits is permitted during Lake Erie’s early bass season.
The best smallmouth bass fishing of the entire year is in the spring on Lake Erie’s near-shore reefs, harbors and tributary streams. The number of bass caught can be outstanding due to the high concentration of bass in those areas. Some of the largest bass are also caught in spring. Anglers have a better chance of catching a 6-pound-plus trophy bass in spring than any other time during the year.
The 11 glacially formed Finger Lakes in central and western New York are some of the most beautiful and unique lakes found in the state. Most of the Finger Lakes are considered two-story fisheries, containing both cold water (trout and Atlantic salmon) and warmwater (bass, pike, walleye and panfish).
The Finger Lakes include Otisco, Skaneateles, Owasco, Cayuga, Seneca, Keuka, Canandaigua, Honeoye, Canadice, Hemlock, and Conesus lakes. They range in size from Canadice Lake’s 642 acres to Seneca Lake at 43,342 acres. The lakes also vary greatly in maximum depth from 30 feet in Honeoye Lake to 650 feet in Seneca Lake.
The warmwater fisheries of the Finger Lakes are as varied as the lakes. Popular fisheries include black bass (smallmouth and largemouth) along with abundant populations of walleyes, yellow perch, northern pike and chain pickerel. Tiger muskies and panfish are also on the agenda.
Try the shallow weedy areas of Cayuga, Otisco, Conesus and Honeoye for largemouth action and the slightly deeper areas of Seneca, Canandaigua, Cayuga, Keuka, Skaneateles, Otisco, Owasco and Hemlock for smallmouths.
With such a wide variety of species living in the same habitat it’s a sure bet that anglers plying the Finger Lakes will hook up with something – and most of those fish will be bigger than you’ll find in most other waters in the state.
To find out more about New York’s bass management program, ongoing research projects, where to fish for bass in the Empire State, or additional bass-related information, log onto dec.ny.gov/outdoors.