Although bass have pretty much stayed the same as long as we’ve pursued them, changes in habitats, fisheries-management knowledge and angling tactics have affected bass fishing for decades. A look at the major trends offers fascinating historical perspective—as well as a glimpse at what the future may hold.
The Early Years Fish management in North America dates back to colonial times, but most modern practices didn’t take root until the 1950s. By that time, most states had created agencies to perform assessments necessary to craft management plans.
Early fish managers inherited volumes of information about how lakes function (limnology) and ecosystems work. But they had to deal with varied resources, ranging from new reservoirs to natural lakes and rivers. Thankfully, the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s saw important developments, as biologists acquired key information about where black bass lived, their spawning requirements, and feeding, travel and growth patterns.
The creation of reservoirs added hundreds of thousand of acres of new fishing waters every year, and private ponds were being built at a rate of more than 10,000 per year in some Southern states. Black bass flourished in the new waters, large and small, and the percentage of Americans who fished bass climbed steadily. These were the “good old days.”
But change was in the air. Overhar-vest became a problem in natural lakes, and new reservoirs showed a boom-and-bust phenomenon: As impoundments aged, habitat changed and once-growing bass populations decreased. To top it off, reservoir construction was falling off. The bubble was bursting.
The Turning Point
Fortunately, bass fishing had become big business. Half of the nation’s 36 million anglers age 16 and older fished black bass. And the fishing industry was now a billion-dollar-a-year force. Settling for mediocre bassin’ was not an option.
Biologists realized unlimited harvesting wouldn’t work and that they needed to learn more about bass and habitats to make sound decisions.
Research revealed that the boom-to-bust cycle in reservoirs could be broken. Lowering a lake to expose shallow areas (drawdown) stimulated nutrient cycling and weed growth. When the water rose again, numbers of bass and forage fish increased.
In some cases, these gains were mitigated by new challenges such as nuisance vegetation, particularly exotics like hydrilla, Eurasian water milfoil and water hyacinths. Managers developed tools to control them, but it meant eradication—an extreme and often unpopular measure.
The use of drawdowns and other habitat-improvements could be tough since public waters are multiple-use resources, and fishing is rarely the sole concern. Politics trumps biology, and the best management tool may not always be an option.
About the same time, tournaments were on the rise. Promoter Ray Scott realized they would wither without high-quality bass populations. With a little help from boat builders and a lot of zeal, the concept of live release was introduced.
As anglers realized they had a voice, biologists heard their demand for high-quality bass fishing. Coupled with a change in attitude toward catch-and-release, it paved the way for harvest restrictions such as minimum-length limits, slot limits, one-over limits and other “designer” regulations.
A major advance in setting harvest regulations occurred in the 1990s, when managers replaced trial-and-error guesswork with computer models that predicted population changes likely to result from different harvest regimes.
Another trend—the stocking of Florida-strain largemouths—drew interest when bass released in California in the 1960s grew to huge proportions. Since then, they have been stocked from Texas to Virginia. While biologists debate the merits of stocking fish outside their native range, the spread continues.
What’s next? Water quality will undoubtedly be a factor, as will habitat—due to sedimentation, exotic plants and shoreline development. Even the availability of water will affect certain areas.
Good news is, given decent water quality and habitat, bass fishing will continue to improve as regulations are tailored to specific systems. Still, to ensure a bright future, NAFC members must remain politically active and make a serious effort to recruit the next generation of bass anglers.