Are Our Special Bass Regs Working?

Are Our Special Bass Regs Working?

A lot of people work hard trying to improve your angling for

largemouths and smallmouths. So far, the complex regulations they implemented seem to be working.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Wisconsin's bass regulations are complex enough to require anglers to carry a copy of the regulations booklet, yet simple enough to understand -- once you have picked a lake or river to fish. They have been developed over time through the painstaking work of biologists charged with managing bass in a way that sustains the resource and provides a variety of angling opportunities.

That charge is no small challenge, and because the state's bass fishery, like any natural resource, is a dynamic system, it changes with the fluctuations of the bass population in a given watershed. A Bass Management Plan (BMP) published in 2001 lays out a rational approach to managing bass, with regulations for different types of waters and dates for their periodic review.



Bass regulations have varied over time. The first Wisconsin bass regulations were instituted in 1881 when the Legislature established an open season from May 1 to March 31. Rules seesawed between more restrictive and more lenient until 1989 when size limits of 12 inches in the Northern Zone and 14 inches in the Southern Zone were set. A catch-and-release season was established in the Northern Zone in 1992, and the boundary between the Northern and Southern zones was moved north in 2000 to its current line formed by state highways 77, 27, 64 and 29. In 1998, a statewide 14-inch minimum size limit was established after studies showed no significant differences in growth between bass populations in the Northern and Southern zones. A 14-inch minimum size protects, on average, about 80 percent of spawning adult bass. Also in 1998, the bag limit was reduced from five of each species to the current five of both species combined.


Several additional regulation schemes are currently in use to meet certain needs not addressed by the statewide regulations. Some 68 lakes and a short stretch of the Wisconsin River have an 18-inch one-fish bag limit for bass. Several lakes have a 16-inch minimum length, and two have a 15-inch minimum. Other regulations in effect on several lakes include a no-kill slot size, catch-and-release-only and/or artificial lures-only. Lake Superior -- for all practical purposes, limited to Chequamegon Bay -- has a 22-inch one-fish limit in place to protect smallmouth bass of biblical proportions.


The vast majority of 18/1 lakes are less than 1,000 acres in size, and 60 percent of them are less than 200 acres. In many lakes in the north, the 18/1 rule was instituted in order to control overabundant populations of rusty crayfish or stunted bluegills. In the south, the rule was set to create a quality fishing opportunity. The 22/1 rule on Lake Superior was put in place to protect an already high-quality fishery. Slot size limits are used mainly on lakes with high bass numbers and low growth rates.

Let's sample waters around the state to see how the current bass rules are affecting the fishery.


STATEWIDE IMPACT

According to Department of Natural Resources lake survey coordinator Tim Simonson, who chaired the team that developed the BMP, bass fishing has improved statewide over the past 15 years.

"We definitely have more and bigger bass statewide since the new regulations went into effect," Simonson said. "There was a significant improvement in the numbers and average size of bass five or six years after the new regulations were put in place. We are just beginning to look at those waters again to see if the improvement has continued."

Simonson noted the regulations have also had a positive impact on panfish.

"Since there are more bass to eat the smaller panfish," he explained, "the remaining panfish have more food and better growth rates. We used to have problems with stunted panfish nearly everywhere, and especially in the north, but that's not the case anymore."

Simonson also said bass angler behavior has changed over time. More anglers are releasing most or all of the bass they catch now. He attributes this in part to the catch-and-release ethic promoted by tournaments and TV fishing shows.

SOUTHERN INLAND WATERS

Fisheries biologist John Nelson, stationed at Plymouth, has noted several positive results of the statewide regulations.

"In a number of lakes, we've seen smallmouths increase in both size and number," Nelson said. "Before the size limit was imposed, anglers were harvesting a lot of them before they had a chance to reproduce."

Nelson noted that Long Lake in Fond du Lac County has perhaps the best overall largemouth bass population in the area. Some lakes have a higher density of largemouths, but none has a comparable size structure, he said. In a 2004 survey, Nelson found largemouths from 14 to over 20 inches well represented, and good numbers of bass up to 13 years of age.

Nelson also noted that smallmouth bass in the Sheboygan River have increased in size and number in recent years, due in part to the new regulations, but also to improved water quality over the past 30 years.

In Waukesha County, biologist Sue Beyler is seeing more bass of both species over 14 inches, but said the new regulations appear to have helped smallmouths more than largemouths. More anglers tend to keep smallmouths to eat, she said, so they have been harvested more heavily in the past.

"Smallmouth numbers have increased," Beyler said. "And in some lakes where they were the lesser species, they have surpassed largemouths."

Beyler has not seen a dramatic increase in bass in the 6- to 8-pound range, however. Lake Nagawicka has produced largemouths of that size since the 1980s, but none of her lakes yields smallmouths that big on a regular basis.

On the Madison Chain, biologist Kurt Welke said Lake Mendota's 18/1 rule is due for evaluation. He would like to use tournament anglers to help sample that fishery in the next biennium. A couple years ago, an angler reported catching a 20-inch largemouth tagged 12 years earlier. The 18-inch limit and catch-and-release ethic allow bass to be "recycled" over and over, Welke said.

Lake Monona has an outstanding largemouth fishery and an up-and-coming smallmouth fishery under the 14/5 rules, Welke pointed out.

"Monona's bass are robust for their length," he said. "The lake is fished very hard, yet I see no deleterious effects. Catch rates are better than ever, and fishing there is much better than it was 20 years ago."

LAKE MICHIGAN & MILWAUKEE RIVER

The Milwaukee River and harbor are gaining recognition as a smallmouth fishery. Tom Burzinski, DNR fisheries technician in Milwaukee, said the removal of the North Avenue Dam a decade ago has probably had as much impact as anything else.

"Gravel cobble is now exposed after years of being buried under silt and clay, providing spawning substrate for smallmouths and walleyes," Burzinski said. "That and the overall improvement of water quality thanks to better control of non-point pollution, has been a real benefit to the fishery."

Bass recovery is quite new in southern Lake Michigan harbors. Anglers are reporting catching good numbers of smallmouths in Milwaukee Harbor, and biologists are starting to see an increase in largemouths in the Summerfest Lagoon area.

"When we started our surveys here in 1990-'91, we saw good numbers of smallmouths," Burzinski noted. "As time went on, we started seeing fewer fish, perhaps due to round gobies, perhaps because largemouths are outcompeting smallmouths, perhaps because of nearshore vegetation that hampers our sampling efforts."

Now that round gobies -- an exotic species similar to sculpins -- are present in the lake and harbors, biologists are watching the impact of angler harvest during the spawning period. Gobies will eat bass eggs when male bass are removed from the nest, even for a short time. Burzinski said crews planned to survey Port Washington and Sheboygan harbors this spring. They will continue to monitor smallmouth nest sites and the impacts of gobies and fishing pressure during the spawn.

DOOR COUNTY

Sturgeon Bay and most inshore areas of Door County continue to produce excellent smallmouth fishing.

Tim Kroeff, fisheries technician at Sturgeon Bay, said the smallmouth harvest dropped after the 14-inch size limit went into effect in 1998, as one might have expected. Surveys conducted in Little Sturgeon Bay and Rowleys Bay in 2004 revealed a greater diversity of age-classes than did similar surveys conducted in those bays in 1996. That indicates that there is good recruitment every year, he said.

Saying smallmouth fishing has gone "downhill," some concerned anglers have lobbied for a three-fish bag limit, a larger size limit and no harvest during the spawning period, but surveys don't support those concerns, Kroeff said.

"Some anglers are telling us we must do something about the gobies, but they are here to stay," Kroeff said. "And they don't appear to be hurting recruitment. We are seeing all age-classes of smallmouths, including a few fish up to age 15 in both sampling areas. Fish aged 9 to 13 are not uncommon, and bass in Green Bay waters and Lake Michigan waters seem to have the same growth rates."

CHEQUAMEGON BAY

When it comes to producing big smallmouths, Chequamegon Bay is tough to beat. According to Lake Superior fisheries biologist Mike Seider, since the 22-inch size limit was put in effect in 1994, there has been a clear shift toward larger fish.

"The mean length has gradually increased to 17.5 inches," Seider said. "Two big year-classes, 1987 and 1988, dominated the fishery in the early 1990s. A few of those fish are left, but we still have a greater mean length than we did 10 or 15 years ago."

Seider said there is some concern over heavy fishing pressure in spring when bass are spawning at the eastern end of the bay. Surveys still show plenty of fingerling and yearling bass, so recruitment is not a problem, he said. He is not ready to attribute the increase in mean length entirely to the 22-inch size limit, however.

"This is a coldwater population," he said. "Bass here take so long to grow that we don't know if there is a response to the regulations. The 22-inch limit is protecting the larger fish and they are spawning successfully every year."


On the 36-mile stretch from Lake Wisconsin to Wisconsin Dells, biologist Tim Larson thinks the bass fishery is pretty good the way it is with the 14/5 rule. He used tournament and recreational anglers to sample 799 bass in 2003 and 2004, and found fish evenly distributed in the 10- to 13-inch, 14- to 15-inch and 16- to 17-inch ranges, and 11 percent were greater than 18 inches.
 

The mean length of a 14-year-old bass here is 19 inches, and a 20-incher may be anywhere from 14 to 18 years old. Surveys show fish up to 20 years old, but 22-inchers are few and far between.

NORTHERN INLAND WATERS

The one place the rosy statewide bass picture begins to cloud somewhat is in northern inland lakes. The northwest and northeast have different fisheries altogether, and bass appear to have responded differently to the new regulations.

When the new regulations were put into effect, surveys in northwestern Wisconsin showed an increase in the average size of bass, and growth rates declined, said fisheries biologist Larry Damman of Spooner.

"We thought they would stabilize, but after another round of surveys, we're finding a constant decline in growth rates," he said. "That tells me bass are not getting enough forage, and that's got to have an impact on the entire fish community."

In Washburn County's Long Lake, once known for its trophies, bass are now so abundant that it takes largemouths 12 years to reach 16 inches. During that same period, natural reproduction in walleyes has failed, and walleye-stocking success has steadily declined. Damman is not ready to blame the walleye decline on the bass boom, but the two are related because both species compete for available forage. Similarly, muskie numbers have crashed on Big McKenzie Lake, where bass have become the dominant predators.

To address this imbalance, Damman asked for the bass size limits to be temporarily removed on Long, Nancy, Big McKenzie and Middle McKenzie lakes under a provision in the administrative code that allows such adjustments by local initiative if bass don't reach the size limit in six years in the Northern Zone or five years in the Southern Zone. Damman hopes the relaxed regulations will encourage anglers to harvest a lot of small bass, but he said it may take years before the walleye population comes back.

Of the last 22 lakes he surveyed, only two met the minimum growth standards for bass. Many of these lakes would qualify for the removal of size limits, Damman said, but most of them are small lakes that now produce big bluegills, and he likes that trade-off.

In contrast, bass have done well in Price, Bayfield and Taylor counties, said biologist Skip Sommerfeldt of Park Falls, but they have not crowded out other species. Local bass clubs now find it takes upward of 20 pounds for eight fish for a two-man team to win a tournament compared to 15 or so a decade ago. Sommerfeldt cites Miller Dam Flowage in Taylor County as one place that gets a lot of fishing pressure and yet continues to be an excellent bass f

ishery.

"We've had these new regulations through only one generation of bass," Sommerfeldt said. "In this area, we need to let things go a few more years before we evaluate the impact of the 14/5 rule. We are developing some pretty good bass lakes, but maybe we need to alter the regulations and try something new to promote a quality fishery rather than stockpile fish in that 10- to 14-inch range."

Sommerfeldt would like to see no size limit and a three-fish bag limit with only one over 14 inches. The current rules, he said, encourage anglers to take all the top predators home.

In the northeast, Mike Vogelsang -- fisheries supervisor for Vilas, Oneida, Forest, Florence, Lincoln and Langlade counties -- said bass fishing is as good as it has ever been, and it continues to improve.

"Our water chemistry is different from that of the northwest," he said. "We have only a few lakes where bass are the dominant species, and we don't have overpopulation problems."

The 18/1 lakes have responded well, he said, producing more and bigger bass. Bearskin Lake in Oneida County as a good example, he said, with one of the best size distributions of smallmouths in the area. Bittersweet, Prong, Oberlin and Smith lakes -- a cluster of small hard-to-reach lakes in Vilas County -- all have no-kill regulations, and all produce outstanding bass fishing, he said. Anglers like the new opportunities, Vogelsang said. Places like the Minocqua Chain are now attracting large tournaments, which was unheard of until recently.

A TALE OF TWO RIVERS

The 18/1 rule was instituted several years ago on a short stretch of the Wisconsin River by Stevens Point, but fish biologist Tom Meronek said it is too soon to know if it is having an impact. He plans to evaluate that stretch in the next few years. There are good numbers of smallmouths there, but few over 16 inches, he said. Fifty-eight percent of bass surveyed are over 12 inches, but only 7 percent are over 16 inches. Ten-year-old fish there average 17 inches.

In contrast, in the Menominee River where Meronek worked for several years before moving over to the Wisconsin, 100 percent of bass in a recent survey were over 12 inches, and 10-year-old fish average 19 inches. Meronek cited the early no-kill season and an abundance of rusty crayfish on the Menominee as possible reasons for the difference.

Farther south on the Wisconsin in Castle Rock and Petenwell flowages, biologist Scot Ironside noted an increase in the size of smallmouths shortly after the 14-inch statewide limit was imposed, but has not seen much change since then.

On the 36-mile stretch from Lake Wisconsin to Wisconsin Dells, biologist Tim Larson thinks the bass fishery is pretty good the way it is with the 14/5 rule. He used tournament and recreational anglers to sample 799 bass in 2003 and 2004, and found fish evenly distributed in the 10- to 13-inch, 14- to 15-inch and 16- to 17-inch ranges, and 11 percent were greater than 18 inches.

SUMMING IT UP

Are any of these regulations likely to produce an abundance of 8-pound largemouths or 6-pound smallmouths? That's unlikely, said Kurt Welke, because Wisconsin is too far north for bass to grow fast enough to reach outsized proportions on a regular basis.

"We do routinely see largemouths in excess of 20 inches and smallmouths pushing 6 pounds," Welke said. "With regulations that protect those fish and anglers who buy into bass as a renewable resource and police themselves accordingly, you're going to get a lot of 20-inch fish."

If that's the best Wisconsin waters can do, it's nothing to cry about. Just think back on what the bass situation was like less than 20 years ago, and you'll agree we've come a long way!

Get Your Fish On.

Plan your next fishing and boating adventure here.

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