Thanks to a combination of self-governance, excellent habitat and natural fecundity, New England has created one of the most dependable sport fisheries in the region. While trout, salmon and other formerly popular game-fish populations have struggled in recent decades, New England's largemouth and smallmouth bass have taken the lead in popularity throughout the region. "Other" species certainly have their loyal followers but it's a good bet that the majority of anglers on the region's warmwater lakes, ponds and rivers are focused on bass.
Once ignored, even despised, by New England anglers, bass now provide dependable fishing that includes routine catches of fish close to 10 pounds and in good enough numbers that most of the major waters in the region hold one or more fishing tournaments where bass are the featured target. Suffice it to say that there has never been a better time to be a bass fisherman in New England and things are only going to improve thanks to catch-and-release regulations, new size and bag limit restrictions and anglers' own self-imposed ethic that promotes releasing most of the fish they land.
In some waters biologists encourage anglers to remove smaller fish, with special size or bag limits in waters where "trophy bass" regulations are in effect. Slot limits (size limits of a certain size) in effect in other waters are designed to protect the breeding-size bass while providing anglers the opportunity to catch more large fish.
Perhaps not surprisingly, few states manage bass hatcheries or conduct stocking programs except in a very few waters where angling pressure is very high, habitat conditions are in a state of flux or predation on bass is exceptionally high. Most waters in the region are self-supporting fisheries where bass spawn naturally and produce enough offspring to maintain a strong, healthy fishery.
With all this in mind, here's a look at what's going on in your state and how things are shaping up for the 2017 bass season.
According to the Massachusetts Division of Wildlife, state fisheries biologists have been managing largemouth bass since they were introduced into the Commonwealth 120 years ago. The initial introduction of largemouth bass was undertaken to provide angling opportunities during the summer months.
The earliest reference to largemouth bass populations in Massachusetts occurred in 1879 when they were introduced from northern New York State into numerous ponds of Essex County. During this early period, management consisted of transplanting adult bass from pond to pond. Beginning in the early 1900s, hatchery culture, and stocking programs for black bass (largemouth and smallmouth bass collectively) began, which allowed widespread stocking of fingerlings.
By the late 1960s, tagging studies, as well as surveys in Massachusetts and surrounding states, showed that largemouth bass populations were self-sustaining. It was then determined that stocking bass into waters with these self-sustaining populations did not improve the fishery, and therefore the largemouth bass hatcheries and stocking programs were phased out. Currently, largemouth bass are managed statewide by a year-round fishing season, a five-fish-per-day creel limit and a 12-inch minimum length.
The list of "best bets" for bass fishing in Massachusetts is long and diverse, ranging from the Cape Cod kettle ponds to the Charles River, the Wachusett and Quabbin reservoirs, Onota Lake in Pittsfield and Quinsigamond Pond in Worcester. These are just a few of the best known, most productive bass waters in Massachusetts, but most warmwater lakes, ponds and rivers in the state provide excellent fishing in spring and summer as well as fall and winter.
For more information on Massachusetts' bass fishery and details on where to find the best bass fishing in 2017, log onto www.masswildlife.com.
According to the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, largemouth and smallmouth bass are collectively the state's most popular game fish, generating 3.5 million fishing trips annually. Bass are also the main predators in all of Connecticut's lakes and ponds and thus play a key role in maintaining healthy warmwater fish communities.
Bass in most waters are managed through statewide regulations (a standard 12-inch minimum length limit, 6-fish possession limit). However, in some Bass Management Lakes, special length and creel limits are designed to improve fishing. Many of the Bass Management Lakes have 12- to 16-inch slot length limits, which means that bass below 12 inches and above 16 inches may be kept, but none within the "slot" (12 to 16 inches). Slot limits are designed to protect larger, more desirable fish, while allowing anglers to harvest smaller fish that are often overabundant. Keeping surplus small bass reduces competition for food and allows the remaining bass to grow faster.
Biologists monitor bass and other warmwater fish populations by nighttime electro-shocking surveys, tracking bass tournament weigh-ins and taking angler surveys. The state's most important bass lakes are sampled at least once every three years. Abundance, size and growth rates of warmwater fish species are tracked over time to identify trends in fish population health. Since 1987, the Lake and Pond Monitoring Project has sampled more than 200 water bodies statewide.
In 2013 DEEP inland fisheries biologists embarked on an exciting new bass research program in cooperation with the University of Connecticut Natural Resource Department. New research indicates that fishing causes genetic changes in fish populations by removing the boldest, most aggressive and active, fastest growing bass because they are the easiest to catch. This causes the remaining bass to be less active predators, which hampers their ability to control overabundant forage fish species, as well as making them harder to catch by angling. It may be possible to re-introduce desirable genes from natural bass populations to public lakes by stocking bass from unfished water supply reservoirs. This program is investigating the feasibility of this cutting edge management strategy.
Connecticut's top bass fishery may well be the Connecticut River, particularly in the northern portion above Hartford. Shoreline fishing can be very productive as well as in the river's many bends and coves. Mashapaug Lake in Union is also a proven hotspot for bass, as is Bantam Lake, Mansfield Hollow and Lake Candlewood. Most of Connecticut's small warmwater ponds are also havens for lunker bass.
For more information on Connecticut's bass fishing opportunities, log onto www.ct.gov/deep.
Rhode Island's bass management program is simple and straightforward. Fishing for bass is allowed year-round with a daily creel and possession limit for largemouth and smallmouth bass of five fish, either singularly or in aggregate, with a minimum size limit of 12 inches measured from the tip of the snout to the end of the tail. No person shall possess any black bass less than 12 inches in length.
Although it is the smallest of the six-state region, Rhode Island offers some excellent bass fishing in lakes and ponds such as Worden Pond, Wallum Lake, Watchaug Pond and many others. Most of the state's rivers also contain good numbers of largemouth and smallmouth bass, with plenty of easy access at state-maintained sites.
For additional information on Rhode Island's black bass fishery, log onto www.dem.ri.gov.
The first largemouth bass introduction in Maine was in Forbes Pond, Gouldsboro, in 1897. Some of the other large lakes where largemouths were first successfully established were Great Pond and Messalonskee Lake, both in the Belgrade Lakes region.
The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife made most of the introductions of largemouth during the early 20th Century using bass reared at a federal hatchery. Over half of Maine's total largemouth bass introductions have been made since 1954. Fish for more recent authorized stockings have been obtained from Maine's lake and pond bass populations.
Largemouth bass have since been introduced, either legally or illegally, throughout much of the southern half of Maine. They are not found in Piscataquis or Aroostook Counties, or in the upper sections of Somerset, Franklin, and Penobscot counties.
Largemouth bass now occur in a total of 372 Maine lakes and ponds. In 141 of these waters, largemouths are the only species of bass; in 231 waters, they co-exist with smallmouth bass.
Largemouth bass populations in Maine sustain themselves by natural reproduction and stocking is unnecessary. Some waters may need a higher minimum length limit to sustain the desired population abundance, such as lakes where spawning habitat is limited and bass populations are less abundant.
Many states regard bass as the number one sport fish, in terms of popularity with anglers. According to an angler questionnaire survey conducted by the MDIFW in 1999, bass ranked highest of all Maine sport fish in number of anglers, angler-days of use and most frequently caught species.
Most lakes, ponds, rivers and streams in central and southern Maine contain good populations of largemouth or smallmouth bass. These fish are slowly increasing in the waters of northern Maine, where illegal introductions have occurred. Smallmouth bass are the most abundant and widely-scattered species, especially in the state's rivers and streams, while largemouths are most common in the southern portion of the state.
The Pleasant, Penobscot, Piscataquis and St. Croix rivers are well known for their excellent bass fishing, while large lakes such as Sebec, Schoodic, the Cobbosseecontee chain and others contain world-class bass fisheries.
For more information on Maine's two-species bass fishery, log onto www.mainefishwildlife.com.
Vermont's regular bass season opens each year on the second Saturday in June and extends through the last day of November. However, outside of those dates, anglers can fish for bass on open water on a catch-and-release basis with artificial lures and flies only on waters that are not seasonally closed.
Vermont's bass fishing has received national attention in recent years, with bass-rich Lake Champlain fast becoming a favorite of touring bass professionals. According to the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department's Web site, in 2014 the World Fishing Network named Lake Champlain one of the seven best smallmouth bass lakes in North America, characterizing Lake Champlain as "perhaps the best lake in all of North America for both quality largemouth and smallmouth bass."
Vermont's general bass-fishing season opens the second Saturday in April and closes Nov. 30. There is a 10-inch length limit on bass in most waters.
Vermont's fishing regulations can be found in the 2016 Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department's law digest (www.vtfishandwildlife.com/fish).
The New Hampshire Fish and Game Department uses electro-shocking boats and nets to sample black bass (largemouth and smallmouth bass) populations in various water bodies throughout the state. Information collected includes species occurrence, catch-per-unit effort (number of fish captured per hour of sampling), length, weight and scale samples (for examining age and growth). This information allows fisheries biologists to ascertain the status of various warmwater populations throughout the state and to determine what populations may benefit from angling regulations, forage fish transfers or other management strategies.
Organizers of bass tournaments held on New Hampshire waters are required to apply for a permit and also provide the Department with data in the form of a bass tournament summary sheet. These data are analyzed annually to examine angler effort, bass survival to weigh-in, and trends in catch rates and fish weight. These analyses allow department biologists to make well-informed decisions regarding potential influences of bass tournaments on the state's black bass resources.
Surveys of young-of-the-year bass are conducted each year in Lake Winnipesaukee, the Connecticut River and Big Squam Lake. These annual surveys allow biologists to track changes in the spawning success of these populations and also make predictions about year-class strength based on the size and abundance of young-of-the-year fish in the fall.
When it comes to bass fishing in New Hampshire, all eyes are on Lake Winnipesaukee and the Connecticut River. These and many other warmwater fisheries around the state provide excellent angling for largemouths and smallmouths from shore or boat.
For more on New Hampshire's black bass fishery and management program, log onto www.wildlife.state.nh.us.