From 12- to 15-inch slot limits to no size limits at all, here's how biologists manage our bass-fishing resource to provide better angling for all species of fish. (June 2009)
One of the major reasons why today's state fish and wildlife agencies exist is because unregulated fishing and hunting contributed to the decline of quality experiences for the outdoorsmen of yesteryear. Six or seven decades ago, laws aimed at conserving our fish and wildlife resources were rare. Fortunately, a few prominent sportsmen and conservationists, such as Aldo Leopold and Teddy Roosevelt -- and others -- were able to call attention to the decline of many game species, and states took action to create agencies to oversee and manage fish and game populations against overharvest.
Now, 70 years after the dawn of modern-day wildlife management, many fish and game populations that were once in trouble now flourish. In Kentucky, the restoration of many game species, such as deer, turkeys, elk and otters, has occurred and the subsequent management of those populations has been a proven success. And on the other side of the coin in fisheries, species such as walleyes, muskies and most recently lake sturgeon have been re-established in many waters where they historically occurred, but were lost for various reasons.
For bass, crappie and catfish, for example, though those species have not been in danger of being lost, employing regulations to achieve management goals on different bodies of water has benefited the angler in both long-term availability, as well as improved or maintained quality of the resource. In other words, size and creel limits have helped anglers have more enjoyable fishing experiences than they otherwise might have had if no laws were in place. This is especially true with Kentucky's most sought-after fish like largemouths, smallmouths and crappie.
Since the time when hands-on management of game fish has been going on, biologists have gained a large amount of knowledge about how species like black bass will respond to different harvest restrictions. But more than that, fisheries experts learned long ago that not all waterways could be managed with the same regulations and produce the same results in the quality of the fishing. Each waterway does better if a tailored management plan is used.
Above all, the most defining factor in how well a lake produces and grows largemouths or smallmouths is what kind of weather occurs most often during the growing season. Also, the natural fertility of the particular body of water is also part of the equation.
Some of the things that influence successful management are out of the manager's control, and can make the approach to healthier fisheries turn out superbly -- or be a complete bomb. Biologists play the odds and make decisions based on long-term "normal" conditions. Then they hope that most years are normal so their recommendations can work as designed.
Anglers know that Kentucky's fishery biologists employ a wide array of regulations to help mold a particular fish population into one that meets the majority of what anglers expect or want. Sometimes higher size limits and lower creel limits are used, like a 15- or 18-inch minimums and maybe a two-fish daily creel. Sometimes the standard 12-inch minimum and six-fish-daily limit is what the water requires for optimum fishing enjoyment. And sometimes having no size limit may be the best method to employ.
Let's take a look at a few lakes where different regulations are used, and explain why not every waterway can be managed the same. We'll also explore the effect of these restrictions in terms of improving the fishery -- or at least maintaining it at an acceptable level for a reasonably good fishing experience.
The most commonly used bass management tool is the 15-inch minimum size limit on both largemouths and smallmouths (when a lake holds both species). Interestingly, as much as a minimum size limit affects the quality of the bass anglers can catch from a specific water, the 15-inch limit used so often on major reservoirs is almost as much implemented to address "social" aspects of fishing, as it is biological aspects.
At Taylorsville Lake, for example, the 15-inch limit was employed to allow the bass fishery to maintain some portion of the largemouth population at a larger size.
"And that has worked pretty well," said Jeff Crosby, the state's central fishery district biologist. "What we have in a nutshell at Taylorsville is a bass population that has poor reproduction most years, but incredible growth. Our age studies show that rarely does a largemouth live longer than eight years, so they grow fast and die young over there, and due to a number of environmental factors, spawns are a lot less prolific than we prefer.
"Another benefit of keeping bass in the population a year or two longer than a 12-inch minimum (statewide) regulation might, is to try to maintain more adult spawners," said Crosby.
"Taylorsville is a very cyclic lake for largemouths. We get a good year-class occasionally and many years that are fair to poor. The spawning habitat isn't as good as it is in other lakes. If we hold onto bass an extra year or two before they are eligible to be harvested, it can help us get better spawns when the conditions are optimal, and help create an improved fishery in quantity in future years when we get a bigger year-class coming through the system," said the biologist.
Anglers know that Kentucky's fishery biologists employ a wide array of regulations to help mold a particular fish population into one that meets the majority of what anglers expect or want.
"We try to get the most mileage out of the production that does occur, and the higher than statewide size limit helps us string out those quality fish, and take advantage of Taylorsville's good growth rates to get the young fish to the size anglers like fast," Crosby said.
"We also use supplemental stocking to offset the lack of natural reproduction and use that size limit to protect them," he added.
Most bass anglers these days release all their fish regardless of size, which is a plus for everybody, except in cases where a slot limit is in place. Some fishermen, though, enjoy having a few fish for the table. Biologists must also keep that group of fishermen in mind, and make reasonable allowances for harvest when anglers want to.
"There's nothing wrong with keeping a few fish out of a bass population, and we regulate that with a creel limit simply to reasonably conserve the resource and give all fishermen a better chance to partake of that resource," said Crosby.
This is especially important on smaller waters where a group of anglers who are very knowledgeable could potentially ha
ve a negative influence on a bass population, if unlimited harvest were permitted.
On lakes like Elmer Davis, where a 12- to 15-inch slot limit is used, biologists specifically target a portion of the small fish that need to be moved often because of overcrowding.
"Sometimes a population stacks up a really big number of fish in the lower size ranges, or has really high reproduction year after year but slower growth rates.
"When that happens, the big numbers of these smaller bass need to be reduced, so a larger percentage can move on through the system faster. It reduces competition for food, which generally improves growth.
"The goal is to get more fish to the quality size of 12 inches, protect them a year or two to maintain reproduction up through the 15-inch range, and then have a decent number of really nice quality fish in the population above 15 inches," he said.
"In this kind of scenario, though, if anglers are releasing all the 9- to 11-inch bass they catch, it doesn't help us achieve the goal as quickly. And that's when total catch-and-release sort of hurts our chances of improving quality fishing, rather than augment it."
Crosby says many bass anglers sort of shudder at the idea of keeping any bass at all, except maybe a trophy fish of a lifetime. When overcrowding occurs, though, he says it's much like what sometimes happens with deer. Hunters can relate easier to the idea that when there are too many deer in a given area, more does need to be taken out in order to improve the health and quality of the rest.
The standard 12-inch minimum size limit, which has been widely used by for largemouth and smallmouth bass management since the 1970s, often is the right choice to shape bass populations into a good fishery. The 12-inch minimum is used primarily when both decent reproduction and growth rates are the norm. Lakes such as Herrington, where reproduction is stable, forage is available in all size ranges, and bass grow to the 12-inch mark or so by their third year aren't in need of a higher limit for more protection.
"In this case, bass are moving through the system at a suitable rate, not getting stacked up just under the size limit, and reproduction is not a problem to re-supply the numbers," said Crosby.
"We see a good number of bass in the larger size ranges in Herrington. Though we could follow suit here as has happened on many other Kentucky reservoirs and go to a 15-inch limit, it would only marginally, if at all, make much noticeable difference in how many 15-inch-plus fish anglers would catch," said Crosby.
"This is an example of a lake where if the 15-inch limit were implemented, it would be largely because of angler desire by a majority of the fishing public. It wouldn't have a negative impact on the fishery, nor change the dynamics of the population all that much.
"Some anglers just think a 15-inch limit on bass is better than a 12-inch, but in today's world of so much catch-and-release, most bass under 15 are being put back anyway in Herrington," Crosby said.
Every lake has its own identity, a different level of fishing pressure, forage base, habitat and water quality. Likewise, every individual bass reacts differently to its environment. Some are aggressive, some grow slower, some tolerate heat or cold better and some outlive and outcompete other fish of their own kind.
"Lakes like Herrington don't require a lot of special management because it just happens to be well suited for largemouths. On the other hand, lakes like Taylorsville need more intensive management, tighter regulations and supplemental stocking to keep the fishing as good as we can," said Crosby.
"We try to design it based on reproduction, growth, forage, fishing pressure and angler input as best we can, and hope that the environmental factors and weather trends don't go too extreme from what usually occurs.
"When fishermen work with us and follow the regulations, we have better chances of seeing noticeable improvement, of course. Sometimes it's not managing the resource alone, but how people use the resource, too, that's equally important."
It's really rare to see it on a public waterway, but in at least one case in Kentucky, bass are being managed with no size limit. You won't see that very often -- an open invitation to take home a limit of any bass you can catch. Yet, if you fish Smokey Valley Lake (also known as Carter Caves State Park Lake), at least this year, that's the story.
Of course, the rest of the story is, there's hardly a largemouth in Smokey Valley Lake over 12 inches, just loads of smaller bass, thus the decision to remove the size limit all together in order to get the hordes of smaller bass out.
Smokey Valley had at one time been managed for a year or two as a trophy bass lake, when biologists found a big number of large bass in the lake and wanted to try to protect them as long as possible. They put on a 20-inch, one-fish-daily limit, but it didn't maintain the number of big fish for long.
The limit was later dropped to 15 inches, but overcrowding as we discussed earlier set in, and before long very few largemouths were finding enough to eat to help them get to 15 inches -- even 12 inches, so the approach has been adjusted again this year to no size limit. How long it might take to get this small, secluded lake back on track depends on the fishing pressure it gets this coming year.
In most natural environments, changes to the dynamics of one species almost always have some type of impact to other species in that environment or ecosystem. For example, bass may be managed a little differently in a lake where one of the goals is to make that lake a high-quality panfishing spot.
How? One way is setting the regulations to permit a bigger percentage of smaller largemouths to remain in the population. Because these largemouths are the primary predators on bluegills in smaller lakes, if more young bass are present, they keep the number of bluegills trimmed down more than usual. This, in turn, allows the bluegills that make it through the first year a better chance to grow faster and bigger.
If there are fewer smaller bluegills chomping up the available food, the others left get more. More food, bigger fish -- it's pretty simple.
As far as creel limits go, or how many bass can be kept per day, the trend over the last two or three decades has been to allow fewer fish to be taken home. That move has been made for two reasons: the increase in fishing pressure and the angler's ability to catch fish.
Regulations are a necessary tool in responsible use of our resources, and as a means of maintaining enjoyable experiences in the field now, and for future anglers. It's the sportsman's job to know what those laws are, and follow them, to do his or her part in assisting with the management of our fisheries.
Log on to fw.ky.gov to check any fishing or hunting regulation, or call 1-800-858-1549 weekdays 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and request the 2009-10 Kentucky Fishing and Boating Guide.