Avid bass anglers have been plying Ohio waters for bronzebacks and bucketmouths since March — or even earlier when and where air temperatures and water conditions allow open water fishing. I've got buddies who break skim ice with their jonboats to chase farm-pond largemouths early each spring, and winter steelhead anglers have nothing on smallmouth fishermen who get a jump on the season by wading into their favorite waters to temp "yellow" bass this time of year. Extending such efforts in a state not known for its bass fishing opportunities speaks volumes about Buckeye State fishermen with a passion for the species, and how Ohio generates some of the top tournament bass anglers on the major circuits each season.
"We work for every fish here in Ohio," said veteran bass pro Jim Vitaro. The Wooster-based angler claims that Buckeye State anglers are better bass fishermen because they appreciate those times and places when the fish come easy, but aren't intimated by the tough times when the catching resembles what they are used to in Ohio. Vitaro's sentiments are echoed by fellow bass pro and Ohio ex-patriot Joe Balog, who recently relocated to the bass-rich waters of central Florida but pays homage to cutting his angling eyeteeth pursuing hard-won largemouths and smallmouths back in Ohio.
"I learned to appreciate every catch," Balog said. "You earn a bag limit of keeper bass in Ohio, and having that experience has made me a better bass fisherman. I realize that even in premier bass waters, some days you just have to work a little harder than the next guy."
Thanks to his experience fishing for bass in Ohio, he added, that extra effort doesn't intimidate him.
According to the biologist who keeps track of bass fishing opportunities here in Ohio, Rich Carter, Balog missed out last season when "Ohio bass anglers enjoyed as good a year as any in recent memory."
Carter, who is the Ohio Division of Wildlife's Executive Administrator for Fish Management said, "The 2016 season was very good. We had a lot of success across the board, and with the exception of extreme hot periods in late July and August, the bass fishing was consistently good through the season."
Carter claims that the 2017 bass fishing season should be equally productive.
"Frankly, with respect to the overall quality of the bass populations in the state, last season was as good as any and there's no reason why 2017 should be any less productive for bass fishermen," he said, adding, "I think our combination of sensible regulations and quality habitat has resulted in bass fishing that has never been better. While there are exceptions at individual lakes, the general trend that I see is that the (bass) fishing has really been quite good."
Recent bass harvest numbers reflect those sentiments, according to the fisheries spokesman. That said, Carter did admit that tournament catch data is not as abundant as it was prior to the split-up of the major bass organizations that provided a wealth of bass catch information to the agency in years past.
"When the Ohio Bass Federation (OBF) split in 2008, the number of clubs reporting catch statistics dropped dramatically," he said. "The OBF had a requirement that the participating clubs report the data. With the Ohio Bass Nation, which does not require the clubs to report (bass catch data), splitting off, half the club reporting disappeared."
Carter said that the agency is working to improve such reporting from bass fishing clubs this season, but in the meanwhile his staff is relying more on their own sampling efforts to collect data and keep tabs on Ohio's bass population.
"Our sampling data (indicates) our bass populations are generally very strong," said Carter. "Those numbers are influenced by our regulations that we have in pace that are meant to provide more and bigger fish for our anglers. While we haven't been getting as much information from tournament anglers, the feedback we get from anglers in general indicates the (bass) fishing has been very good.
"For example, catch rates and size of bass reported at Knox Lake improved significantly when we implemented an 18-inch minimum size limit on bass there," Carter cited. "We've since established a minimum size limit on most of our popular bass waters across the state, and are realizing similar results."
When asked to name other success stories in terms of bass fishing destinations in the Buckeye State, Carter answered, "Really, I'd have to say all those with the extended minimum size regulation, including Cowan, Ross, Brush Creek, Action, Hargus, Paint Creek, Burr Oak and Kiser."
Bass populations and the catch results they produce are governed by several factors, according to Carter.
"Angler success in a particular bass fishery in the short term is dictated by local weather conditions, which impact the turbidity of a lake. Short-term quality is always weather dependent," he said, adding: "Rain can cause flooding with the impact the quality of fishing for an extended period of time, not just the days following a wet weather event."
In the long term, Carter explained that factors affecting the quality of bass fishing are led by "the natural habitat available for the fish." He said that habitat "includes the quality of the substrate, water quality, amount of submerged aquatic vegetation available and the presence and quality of available forage."
Threats to Ohio's bass fishery, as with elsewhere and for any game-fish species, Carter contends, "include anything that can impact the quality of that habitat, such as sedimentation, harmful algal blooms, and significant water level fluctuations."
When asked to make a prediction regarding potential bass fishing success for an upcoming season, the fish management administrator answered that electro-fishing results "yield the best information on size and the structure of a particular lake's population, in particular the number of keepers, or 12-inch-plus bass."
Based on that information, Carter offered a district-by-district assessment of what he considers the top inland fishing prospects, for both largemouth and smallmouth bass, for anglers to consider during the 2017 season.
BEST BASS WATERS IN DISTRICT ONE
For largemouths, Carter says, Knox and Kiser lakes are tops in Central Ohio for both numbers and size of bass. Knox has that 18-inch minimum and it's one of Ohio's premier "big" bass lakes. Kiser has the three-fish split limit, part of the regulation that enforces a "two fish less than 14 inches, and one fish greater than or equal to 20 inches" limit. The three-bass split limit is imposed on 11 lakes and the waters on the All American Electric Power Company lands and St Joseph Wildlife Area.
"Both those regulations are designed to promote especially large fish," Carter explained.
He adds that because Kiser is a no-motor lake — including no electric motors — its bass population benefits from a lack of fishing pressure from anglers in all powered craft, not just traditional bass-style boats. Carter also points out that the lake has "an abundance of submerged aquatic vegetation and forage for the bass to eat."
As for Knox Lake, Carter says that its waters "are of high quality" and support plenty of forage fish "that promote good-sized bass."
As for bronzebacks, "The best lake in the district in terms of size and numbers of Griggs Reservoir," said Carter.
"Griggs has an abundance of gravel and rocky habitat that smallmouth favor, and the smallmouth fishing can be exceptional in the Scioto River below Griggs all the way down to Columbus."
Hoover and Alum Creek lakes are two additional D-1 smallmouth bass fisheries worth investigating, according to Carter.
BEST BASS WATERS IN DISTRICT TWO
Clear Fork Reservoir is the clear choice for D-2 largemouth anglers this season, according to Carter.
"Clear Fork is blessed with significant aquatic vegetation that promotes the survival of young fish and provides hiding places for adult bass," he said, adding that the City of Mansfield water supply lake contains a good forage base as well.
Lake La Su An ponds are also a good choice in northwest Ohio for anglers seeking good largemouth action.
"The Lake La Su An ponds performed well in terms of survey numbers, even if they don't appear in the top five (bass) waters on our district chart."
Pleasant Hill Lake is the place to go for smallmouth bass in District Two. The lake has a "rocky habitat and good forage base." Carter adds that the Maumee River is should be a destination of interest among smallmouth anglers for its rocky habitat, decent vegetation and sheer size that combine to support "a relatively strong smallmouth population."
BEST BASS WATERS
IN DISTRICT THREE
The Portage Lakes system "supports the best bass populations in Northeast Ohio," said Carter, adding that Long Lake and Turkeyfoot Reservoir are the top two to consider this season. "Both have good aquatic vegetation and forage bases to promote good bass fisheries," he said of the two popular Portage Lakes that also enforce a three-fish split daily limit.
Despite its fame as a walleye fishery, Mosquito Reservoir is another good bass lake in the district, according to Carter, who says it has become popular with some of the bass tournament circuits in recent seasons.
For smallmouth action in northeast Ohio, Carter recommends West Branch Reservoir and Lake Milton: the former for bass sizes and the latter for bass numbers.
"And all of the Lake Erie tributaries hold good populations of smallmouths," he added, citing the Vermillion, Rocky, Chagrin, and Grand rivers as well as Conneaut Creek, where steelhead anglers often report catching good-sized smallmouths each spring.
BEST BASS WATERS
IN DISTRICT FOUR
Tycoon should be tops for largemouth bass fishing in D-4, according to Carter. "Tycoon has been a consistent producer over time; it has good habitat and promotes good survival of bass."
Carter also praises Barnesville Reservoir #3 for its largemouth numbers compared to other waters in southeastern Ohio. Also known as Slope Creek Reservoir, no bass between 12 and 15 inches may be kept from the waters of "B #3."
As for bronzebacks, several Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District (MWCD) lakes receive good marks from Carter for their bass-catching potential this season.
"Leesville and Seneca are tops for size," he said, adding "with Piedmont Lake being the best bass fishery in the region in terms of bass numbers."
He cited that most MWDC waters "offer a good quality gravelly to rock shorelines that provide excellent smallmouth bass habitat."
BEST BASS WATERS IN DISTRICT FIVE
"D-5 actually has three really good largemouth bass lakes that come to mind," said the fisheries administrator. "These (are) Rocky Fork, Cowan and Acton lakes. We see both good numbers and decent size of bass in all three, and all three have good water quality and a good vegetation base with the right shoreline cover and available forage."
The surprise smallmouth water recommended by Carter in southwestern Ohio this season is CJ Brown Reservoir. Along with Rocky Fork Lake, both waters "offer good smallmouth habitat including rocky shorelines and a thriving forage base" for the bass to feed on.
So does the Great Miami River, which Carter listed as his top pick in the district for bass anglers who prefer to pursue Buckeye State bronzebacks in moving water.
"We had perhaps our best all-around bass fishing season on record last year," Carter concluded, adding: "And based on what I am seeing, there's no reason that shouldn't continue through 2017."