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The Implications of Bed Fishing for Spawning Bass

Bass anglers look forward to the spawn, but can pulling fish off their beds hurt the local population?

The Implications of Bed Fishing for Spawning Bass

Largemouths spawning in shallow water are easy targets for anglers, but should these fish be left alone for the good of the local population? (Shutterstock image)

  • Studies seek to determine the impacts of fishing for spawning bass.

Targeting largemouth and smallmouth bass while they are on their spawning nests is an exceptionally popular, if somewhat controversial, early season pursuit. Bass are fervent nest guardians, protecting their eggs, larvae and fry from a myriad of predators, including crayfish, panfish, gobies and even other bass.

As a result, anglers who locate spawning beds can frequently trigger reaction strikes from bedding bass, making the nest susceptible to predation during the angling process. Bass anglers from coast to coast know that we can easily catch bass while they are on the beds, but the question is, should we?

The importance of bass fishing as a recreational pursuit, as well as a driver of considerable economic activity, has focused the attention of fisheries scientists across North America on the question of targeting bass on their beds.

In recent years, a number of published studies have documented the impact of fishing for bedding bass, at the local level of individual nesting sites, as well as on populations as a whole. Consider what the science says about the practice of fishing for bedding bass.


A study by researchers at the University of Illinois, conducted with largemouth bass in southern Ontario, addressed the question of how angling pressure impacts nest fidelity, or the repeated use of a nesting site by bass from one season to the next (“Potential consequences of angling on nest-site fidelity in largemouth bass" by W.M. Twardek, A.D. Schultz, J.E. Claussen and others; Environmental Biology of Fishes, volume 100, issue 5). Scientists found that high catch-and-release angling pressure on male bedding bass caused those fish to exhibit significantly reduced nest fidelity in future spawning cycles compared to fish that were caught and released only once.


While fish captured only once returned to their original nesting site 87 percent of the time during the next spawning season, fish caught multiple times returned only 27 percent of the time. Moreover, while nearly 97 percent of fish captured only once remained on the nest and completed parental care activities during the next spawning season, bedding bass subjected to high angling pressure completed those activities less than 6 percent of the time. These scientists concluded that, "angling nesting bass may cause them to avoid previously used nest sites and instead search for alternative sites during future reproductive seasons. This human-induced impact on nest site choice may impact the future reproductive success of those largemouth bass."

Throughout their range, smallmouth bass are also popular targets when they are shallow and on the beds. Researchers from Ohio State University examined the role of catch-and-release angling in Lake Erie smallmouth spawning success, with a particular emphasis on the impacts of invasive round gobies (“Round goby predation on smallmouth bass offspring in nests during simulated catch-and-release angling” by G.B. Steinhart, A.M. Marschall and R.A. Stein; Transactions of the American Fisheries Society, volume 133, issue 1). Using extensive underwater video observations, these scientists found that smallmouth bass are very effective at guarding their nests from predation by round gobies. However, as soon as a male bass is removed from the nest, round gobies quickly move in to consume both unhatched eggs as well as hatched smallmouth bass larvae.

Fishing for Spawning Bass
Using artificial lures and promptly releasing a spawner at the catch site helps minimize nest predation by getting the fish back to its bed. (Photo by Dr. Jason Halfen)

Remarkably, this study determined that gobies can consume an average of 2,000 eggs from a nest before the guarding male returns and can completely consume all smallmouth bass offspring from an unguarded nest in as little as 15 minutes. "If the number of surviving smallmouth bass embryos drives adult population size," wrote the researchers, "managers should consider angling regulations that reduce interference with nesting males, thus limiting the deleterious effects of the round goby."

A summary report by researchers at the University of Florida examined the pursuit of bedding bass from a larger, population-level perspective ("Bed fishing for Florida bass" by J.S. Hargrove and J.D. Austin; University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension EDIS, volume 2018, number 3). These scientists noted that the impact of angling on the success of individual bass nests has been recognized for almost 60 years, with predation being the primary cause for nest failure when a guarding bass is angled away. At the same time, these researchers argued that population-level impacts of fishing for bedding bass may be minimal, based on three key observations.




First, high percentages, often approaching 80 percent, of angled bass are immediately released. Second, a significant fraction of bedding bass on any given lake receives no angling pressure due to challenging habitat or water clarity. Finally, individual fish may spawn again during the same cycle to replace a failed nest. These researchers concluded that, "it appears possible that the impacts of catch-and-release angling for bedding bass may negatively impact individual nest success. However, under many circumstances these changes will not elicit negative effects at the population level."

For most of us, the decision to target bedding bass is highly individualized; in other words, each of us needs to make the right decision for ourselves. Knowing what the science has to say, there are several easy ways to minimize your impact on bass spawning success should you decide to target bedding fish this spring.

First, use artificial lures only. A deeply hooked bass that gobbled a juicy nightcrawler or lively minnow has a much lower chance of survival than a fish lip-hooked by an artificial jig or soft-plastic offering.

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When you catch a bass, immediately release it at the capture location. Hauling a fish around in a livewell prior to releasing it at a distant location virtually ensures low survivability of eggs, fry or fingerlings that may be produced in that nest.

Finally, after you catch a couple, move on. If you locate an area with a high density of nest sites, consider leaving after catching a couple of the bass bedding there. It will leave a significant percentage of nests undisturbed, helping to minimize your impact on that local population. Forcing yourself to search out new locations will also expand your knowledge of productive spring fishing spots and help make you a more complete angler.

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