Some management changes are on the horizon for South Carolina's bass fisheries. Here's what's in store for anglers and the bass they pursue this season.
When future bass anglers discuss the quality of South Carolina bass fishing, many will point to the year 2011 as the beginning of the era when our bass fisheries made the transition from respectable fishing to some of the best bass fishing in the country.
The turning point will be the year that South Carolina's fisheries managers made substantial and sweeping changes in bass fishing regulations, changes that are geared to make our bass fisheries prosper well into the future.
"Over the last several months, the SCDNR has been looking at making some major changes to our size and creel limits across the state that are designed to both protect and improve our bass fishing resources," said State Fisheries Chief Ross Self. "These are some changes we believe the anglers of the state have asked for and the timing is right to have a major impact for the future."
For many years, most of South Carolina's public waters have held a 10 fish per angler creel limit on all black bass species. This limit dates back to the catch-and-kill days of tournaments when bass anglers weighed 10 fish each per tournament and then went home to clean their catch. The bass fishing culture has changed since those days, however, so that now the majority of anglers practice catch-and release, especially in organized tournaments, and only weigh a daily creel of 5 fish. While our culture has changed, the regulations had not.
While no major legislative changes on a statewide basis were in effect at the time this article went to press, a proposal regarding revisions in the size and creel limits for certain black bass species had been presented to the DNR board to be forwarded on to the South Carolina state legislature to be voted into law.
"The proposal is to change the creel limit for largemouth, smallmouth, and redeye bass from 10 fish per day to an aggregate of 5 fish per day per angler," said Self. "We are also submitting that the minimum size limit for these species be increased to 14 inches. These changes will only affect our major impoundments. Those being lakes Blalock, Greenwood, Jocassee, Marion, Monticello, Moultrie, Murray, Secession, Wateree, Wylie, and the middle Saluda River between Lake Murray and Lake Greenwood as well as the upper Santee River from Lake Marion to the river forks at the Broad and Congaree."
When deciding upon these recommended changes on a statewide basis, some challenges were presented in an effort to maintain consistency across state lines between South Carolina and Georgia, where a reciprocal agreement is already in place, primarily on the Savannah River system lakes. Additional challenges were also faced in trying to regulate the harvest of certain black bass species in lakes where other black bass populations, namely non-native spotted bass, need to be controlled by harvest. Accordingly, the proposals on the Savannah River and the Savannah chain lakes of Hartwell, Russell, and Thurmond and Lake Keowee, another spotted bass fishery in the Upstate, differ somewhat in their content. The proposal suggests that a 12-inch size limit and 10-fish aggregate limit be placed on all black bass species from the Chatooga River down to the Savannah River in Savannah, plus Lake Keowee.
Here's what state biologists had to say about their respective regions in light of these proposals.
From his office in Clemson, Dan Rankin manages a number of major impoundments, including Hartwell, Russell, Thurmond, Jocassee, Keowee, Greenwood, Secession, and a handful of water district lakes. Without a doubt, Rankin's biggest challenge is managing spotted bass, which have taken up residence in all but a couple of his lakes.
"Spotted bass were first introduced into Keowee in the 1980's," he said. "The fish enjoyed tremendous growth through the 90's but it was at the expense of other gamefish species such as largemouth bass and crappie. Now, 10 years into (the 21st Century), largemouth and crappie populations have declined significantly and we're seeing stunted growth rates in the spotted bass. The most beneficial thing that could happen at Keowee is some heavy sustained harvest of spotted bass to try to bring their numbers under control."
Though spotted bass are established in Hartwell, Rankin points out that the next biggest outcropping of spotted bass in his Region is in Lake Russell.
"Russell appears to be 10 years behind the Keowee cycle," he said. "Spots made their way into Russell in the '90's and their growth rate has taken off through 2000. There are some nice-sized spots in the lake now but we expect those sizes to taper off like they have in Keowee."
The news on Hartwell is that the DNR is in the process of doing creel surveys, which have not been done for several years. Rankin said there are no major new concerns although his department is concerned with the impacts of PCB's in the lake now some 40 years past their initial introduction. Rankin believes that instituting a 12-inch size limit on black bass as proposed will only benefit the fisheries and help coordinate management efforts between South Carolina and Georgia.
When asked about the top largemouth bass fishery in his Region, Rankin claims that Greenwood would be near the top of his choices based on the sizes of fish that his department sees come from the lake during their electro-shocking surveys.
"Greenwood produces good numbers of nice chunky bass although our angler surveys suggest that anglers have a hard time catching the bigger fish from the lake. Greenwood is a very fertile system and it's fish growing potential should continue. Greenwood would definitely benefit from a reduction in the creel limit down to 5 fish," he said.
Though no major surveys are in the works at Lake Jocassee, Rankin claims the big concern on the deep, clear and relatively infertile mountain reservoir is the hybridization that is occurring between the lake's native redeye bass and the illegally imported spotted bass.
"We believe nearly 40 percent of the redeye population in Jocassee has now hybridized with the spotted bass," he said. "It also appears that the displacing effects of the spots in the lake have been harder on the lake's smallmouth and redeye populations (which tend to frequent the same main lake basin areas as the spots) than they have been on the lake's largemouth population, which are more frequently found in the upper arms of Jocassee."
Flagship lakes for Region 2 include such impoundments as Wylie, Wateree, and Fis
hing Creek, all of which are on the Catawba River. Proposed regulation changes for all three of these impoundments would fall under the 14-inch, 5-fish rule for largemouth, smallmouth, and redeye bass. Unlike border lakes on the western side of the state, there is no reciprocal agreement between South Carolina and North Carolina. In fact, current regulations regarding the harvest of black bass species do not coincide at present.
Fisheries Chief Ross Self does not see the inconsistency as any more of a limitation in the management of bass species than it has been in the past.
"Lake Wylie is the only major impoundment that borders both North and South Carolina and the way the line runs through the lake, the bulk of Lake Wylie lies within South Carolina anyway," he said.
One major factor in being able to submit the new harvest regulations was the passage in 2010 of specific water boundary definitions. These definitions specifically described where one water body begins and ends. In the past, such definitions were not as clear, which made law enforcement difficult, especially where sizes and limits differed on two adjacent water bodies.
An additional proposed change in regulations that may have profound effects on Region 2 as well as the rest of the state is a proposal to make it unlawful to move fish from one water body to another, even if that fish is native to both lakes.
"This is one regulation that has been referred to as the bait bucket proposal in our meetings with the public and other user groups," said Self. "Technically, you could not release any bait that was obtained from another water body, including bait purchased from a bait shop. We do not view the act of losing a bait that has been placed on a hook to be considered releasing that bait. The concern is dumping the remainder of your bait bucket or bait tank into that lake unless you previously went out and caught that bait from that same water body."
With Lake Murray as the primary focus point for Region 3 bass fishing, Self claims that while his Department's recent surveys show Lake Murray to be a very sustainable bass fishery, there have been some concerns voiced by angler groups about declining bass populations in the lake.
"The 14/5 proposed rule changes should help Lake Murray whether there is actually a problem with the fishery or not," he said. "These changes are something we should have done a long time ago but we don't see a problem with Murray's population at the present."
So far, Self stated there has been no established residency of spotted bass in either Lake Murray or Lake Greenwood, which lies upstream on the Saluda River. The good news is that the proposed 5-fish limit would only apply to largemouth, smallmouth, and redeye bass. In the event any spotted bass were to show up, the applicable limit for spots would be 10 fish per day in addition to the 5 fish rule for the other species. Hopefully, this would prevent spots from gaining a foot-hold if they were to show up in Lake Murray.
To get a preview of what the proposed statewide bass regulations would look like, anglers need look only as far as the Santee-Cooper lakes. Effectively July 1 of 2010, similar regulations were passed into law, thus giving Lakes Marion and Moultrie a jump on it's management efforts. Regional Biologist Scott Lamprecht explains why this move couldn't have come at a better time.
"We identified this need 10 to 15 years ago -- that with the longer growing season and better growth rates at Santee, both Marion and Moultrie would benefit from a reduced creel limit and extended size limit," he said. "Fortunately we had some user groups who were pro-active in getting this regulation sponsored by Senator John Land and it passed through the legislation into law."
Lamprecht further stated that following the drought years that ended around 2008, annual samplings of largemouth bass recruitment have shown three abundantly successful year classes in a row. Another factor in favor of the fledgling bass is the reemergence of native submerged aquatic grasses.
"We had a super year class in 2008, another super class in 2009 and 2010 looks really good too," he said. "Our native aquatic vegetation has come back to nearly 10 percent of the surface area of the lakes, mainly around their lower reaches. We have been working to transplant more native grasses, particularly eelgrass, into the sparser areas of the lakes. We're at 10 percent now and our partners at Santee-Cooper are good with us going up to as much as 25 percent coverage of the lake."
The downside to the aquatic grass situation is that some other aquatic plants have also started to show up. Unlike the native eelgrasses, these plants are not as beneficial to the fishery.
"Our most problematic aquatic plant at this time is the crested floating heart," he said. "It's a very dense plant that clogs the water column from top to bottom. Grass carp won't eat it, it's very hard to kill, and it makes for very poor fish habitat. Fish may congregate next to it but it doesn't provide the sanctuary and security of native grasses because it's so dense."
Regardless of which Region you live in, 2011 looks to be a good year from a bass fisheries standpoint, either as a shot in the arm for already good areas or as a turning point, pending proposed regulations, for recovery in areas that are lacking.