While trout and salmon fishermen wring their hands in despair at the slow, continuous increase in water temperatures throughout the Northeast, bass fishermen are hailing the trend as the greatest advancement in their sport since the Jitterbug was invented. More rivers, lakes and ponds are morphing into bass-friendly waters, mostly due to gradual increases in surface and shoreline water temperatures. Traditional salmonid havens are now known for their great bass-fishing opportunities, and in fact the black bass has become so prevalent in these waters that, in many cases, biologists are urging anglers to catch and keep any and all bass they catch.
Overall, bass fishing in the six New England states is expected to be great if not superb going into the 2016 season. Water temperatures and illegal bass introductions aside, decades of voluntary catch-and-release fishing has created a robust bass fishery, where largemouths and smallmouths over 5 pounds are commonplace, and increasing numbers of bass in the 10-pound class turn up every year.
The only real threat to the region's bass fishing future at this juncture has nothing to do with fish, fishermen or water temperatures. Instead, it's the ever-increasing presence of invasive plants (milfoil tops the list) and algae blooms, which make boating and fishing difficult and steal precious oxygen from the water during the a period of the year — mid- to late-summer — when fish are most vulnerable. Fish kills from lack of oxygen are on the rise nationally and in New England as well, and this, more than over-fishing or increased water temperatures, will be the greater challenge facing fisheries managers moving forward.
With all this in mind, here's a state-by-state look at what New England's bass fishing fraternity can expect in 2016, plus some proven places to fish for bass from shore or boat.
How good is Bay State bass fishing? Well, for decades the state's liberal bass-angling regulations have not changed. Anglers may fish for largemouth and smallmouth bass year-round statewide with a daily bag limit of five fish over 12 inches long.
Popular reservoirs such as Wachusett and Quabbin do have some fishing restrictions designed to protect metropolitan water supplies. For example, the open fishing season on 4,057-acre Wachusett reservoir begins on the first Saturday in April (ice conditions permitting) and continues until the last day of November. Public boating is not allowed on the reservoir. Shore fishing is allowed for the majority of the 32.5 miles of reservoir shoreline, except that public access in the intake zone is prohibited. Fishing is permitted from dawn to dusk, and two active lines are permitted per angler.
At Quabbin Reservoir, the 2015 Quabbin fishing season ran from April 18 to Oct. 17. Similar opening and closing dates are expected in 2016. Boat launch areas are open seven days a week from 6 a.m. until closing time, which varies monthly.
Shore fishing is open seven days a week for the season. "Boats Off the Water" times are approximately 1 1/2 hours before closing time, which is posted at each boat launch area. For additional information and suggestions on where to fish for bass in Massachusetts, log onto www.masswildlife.com.
Connecticut's bass-fishing regulations are typical of the southern New England states. Anglers may fish for bass (both species) year-round, with a six-fish daily bag limit and a 12-inch minimum length limit. These regulations apply to all lakes and ponds and the Connecticut River. On other rivers and streams, daily bag limit of six fish but no size limit.
How big are Nutmeg State bass? The state-record largemouth weighed 12 pounds, 14 ounces, and the record smallmouth weighed 7 pounds, 12 ounces, proving that Connecticut's nutrient-rich lakes and ponds are up to the task of producing world-class fish.
Nearly all of Connecticut's lakes, ponds and rivers contain fishable bass populations. Even in lakes, ponds and rivers where bass share the water with trout or salmon, the bass fishing is just as productive and more consistent year-round.
As is the case in the other New England states, there is very little stocking or transplanting of bass in Connecticut, primarily because their populations are stable if not growing thanks to excellent water conditions and a dense forage base of perch, bluegills, minnows, shiners and other abundant prey species.
Stunting does occur in some waters due to overpopulation but in these situations state fisheries biologists recommend removing small fish from the population. For additional information on Connecticut's bass-fishing opportunities, including where to find great bass fishing in 2016, log onto www.ct.gov/deep.
Rounding out the southern New England region is Rhode Island, where bass fishing is open year-round with a daily bag limit of five fish over 12 inches. Anglers may fish for bass (both species) in any inland water of the state with few restrictions except those that may apply to certain trout-managed waters.
Rhode Island's bass population is stable or growing statewide, and anglers should find great fishing in the usual, traditional hotspots such as Worden Pond, Wallum Lake and others, where water temperatures, forage abundance and weed growth provide excellent conditions for largemouths and smallmouths.
The only real restrictions facing Ocean State bass anglers have to do with bass tournaments, which are licensed and regulated by the Department of Environmental Management. For additional information and updates on current regulations, log onto dem.ri.gov.
In Maine and the rest of northern New England the battle between trout and bass continues, although most surveys now show that bass are either No. 1 or No. 2 in the traditionally "trout-rules" region. Once considered "trash fish," distained by guides and anglers alike, black bass (primarily smallmouths) have gained a large and loyal following in recent decades. In fact, bass management is slowly overtaking the salmonids with respect to fine-tuning the fisheries, with new restrictions on season dates, bag limits and tournament fishing popping up each year.
In Maine, bass of both species are lumped together under "black bass," with regulations and season dates applying to largemouths and smallmouths in lakes, ponds, rivers and streams. Currently largemouths are most abundant in the southern portion of the state, while smallmouths dominate in the cooler waters to the north. The situation is the same in Vermont and New Hampshire as well.
As interest in bass fishing has grown to its present high-level status among anglers, fisheries have responded by restricting catch limits during the spring spawning period, when bass are most vulnerable to shoreline anglers. Fortunately for the fishery, the majority of anglers release their catch year-round, although some fishermen will keep a few smaller fish for the table.
In an effort to reduce the number of bass in traditional trout waters, such as the East Branch Penobscot River, biologists encourage anglers to remove any and all bass they catch. This approach may or may not make a difference, however, as the popularity of bass fishing continues to grow. Even in waters where they are asked to catch and kill every bass, anglers are choosing to photograph and return the fish to the water.
This is especially true in stretches where bass have crowded trout and salmon out of the water over time, turning formerly prime trout waters into bass havens. Not every angler likes the change and many gladly toss the offending bass into the shoreline brush, but it's only a matter of time before the more aggressive, prolific bass take over permanently.
According to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, smallmouth and largemouth bass are non-native species but have become widely established in southern, central, and parts of eastern Maine. In fact, since 1986, Maine fishery biologists have determined that illegal introductions have established new populations of bass in 57 additional lakes. One of these illegal stockings occurred at Umbagog Lake in the upper Androscoggin River drainage, where they now threaten one of the state's premier wild brook trout populations.
Largemouth bass are being illegally introduced into many Downeast (central-eastern Maine) waters at an alarming rate with unpredictable consequences to long-established, economically important smallmouth bass populations.
David Boucher, MDIFW fisheries biologist, said that unauthorized introductions of invasive, exotic fish species are particularly destructive to Maine's native brook trout populations.
"But," he added, "they may also cause irreversible changes to entire aquatic ecosystems by restructuring plankton and forage fish communities that have evolved since the last glacial retreat. Moreover, strategies to eliminate or control invasive fish are difficult to design and implement, costly, and almost entirely ineffective."
The battle to control bass as an invasive species continues but recent evidence suggests that both species are expanding statewide, particularly smallmouths. As angler interests shift from traditional trout and salmon to the more abundant, easier-to-catch black bass, and as climate warming trends continue, it's a safe bet that bass may well become the dominant and most sought-after fish in the North Country.
Some of Maine's top bass-producing rivers include the Penobscot, Piscataquis, Pleasant, Saco and Sebasticook rivers, while excellent bass fishing may be enjoyed in the Cobboseecontee region, Sebec Lake, Sebois Lake, Big Indian Lake and many others.
For a free pamphlet covering Maine's best bass waters, licensing and regulations updates, log onto www.mefishwildlife.com.
The Green Mountain State is also part of the northern New England chain of traditional trout-loving states but it, too, has seen a shift in angler interest from salmonids to bass, and all for the same reasons — abundance, aggressiveness and ease of catching. Especially during the May-June spawning period, bass are almost too easy to catch as they protect their shallow-water nests and young, which means anglers who like to catch fish tend to target bass during this period.
Generally, Vermont's anglers may keep five bass daily with no length limit during the season, which runs from April through October. There are some variations in Vermont's bass-fishing regulations covering specific lakes, rivers and ponds so anglers are advised to study current fishing regulations for the waters they intend to fish.
For starters, anglers will want to try Lake Champlain, the Connecticut River and the state's major rivers and streams where bass as well as trout, pickerel and walleyes may occupy the same pools.
To find out more about Vermont's bass management program and where to find the best largemouth and smallmouth angling in 2016, log onto www.vtfishandwildlife.com.
A unique radio-tagging study is being conducted in New Hampshire to determine the percentage of bass returning to Big Squam Lake after being caught in Big Squam, weighed in and then released in Little Squam Lake, plus how long it takes the fish to do so.
The Squam Lakes (Big and Little Squam) are a popular destination for tournament and recreational bass anglers, with an average of 22 bass tournaments being held on Big Squam each year. Although Big and Little Squam are connected by a short channel, they are managed as separate water bodies.
New Hampshire Fish and Game Department rules do not allow anglers to catch fish in one water body and release them into another water body. However, because there is currently no available weigh-in location on Big Squam Lake for larger bass tournaments, tournament participants typically weigh in on Little Squam. By law, bass are then required to be taken back to Big Squam for release.
During hot weather conditions, bass survival could be compromised after a weigh-in on Little Squam due to the extra time and handling it takes to bring these bass back to Big Squam for release.
Additionally, boats must travel through the channel a total of four times in a given day in order to release fish back to Big Squam, creating the potential for additional boat congestion.
Therefore, allowing bass tournaments fishing on Big Squam and weighing-in on Little Squam to release bass into Little Squam may, in some cases, increase bass survival and decrease social conflicts. However, the potential exists for negative impacts on bass in Little Squam if bass caught in Big Squam and released into Little Squam do not return to Big Squam on their own accord.
"If most of these bass do not return to Big Squam, it could lead to increased competition for food and habitat, and potentially increased opportunities for bacterial or viral transmissions, such as Largemouth Bass Virus," said Gabe Gries, Warmwater Fisheries Project leader for the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department.
The study is ongoing and is expected to take about three years to complete.
New Hampshire's rivers and streams are open to bass fishing from Jan. 1 to Oct. 15, with catch and release fishing allowed from May 15 through June 15. Trout ponds are open to bass fishing from the fourth Saturday in April through Oct. 15, with catch-and-release fishing allowed from May 15 through June 15.
In lake trout and/or salmon waters there is no closed season for bass but fish can be taken by ice-fishing only from Jan. 1 through March 31.
In all other waters there is no closed season but catch and release regulations apply from May 15 through June 15.
For more information about New Hampshire's black bass fishery and pertinent regulations, log onto www.wildlife.state.nh.us.