As bass tournament anglers, what are we doing to preserve our fisheries for generations to come?

All bass anglers like to catch the big ones, right? Tournament anglers preach on catch and release as a standard and we all tend to have our own tactics on fish care, at the very least, so we aren’t penalized at weigh in. In the mind of a bass angler, we all agree on a simple statement that we want bass to live long, grow large, and provide us with the opportunity to experience the excitement fighting a trophy sized bass. The real questions come into play when fishing gets tough or we start to notice bass health on the decline. What now? How do we determine the state of bass health in a body of water? How do we adjust if we find unhealthy populations or qualities? There are many questions to ask but we tend to jump at the most obvious solution and run with it first. While that may not hurt anything to make improvements, the big question is, “Are we still doing enough to preserve our fisheries?” In this blog I’ll try to cover some of the main concerns around bass health in an effort to shed light on what we can all do differently to keep our bass healthy. I’ll break these down into three main categories: Bass Tournament Frequency, General Bass Care, and Water Quality.

#1 – Bass Tournament Frequency

After seeing the data from Josh Marthaller on the past few years tournaments, Tenmile Lake is by far the most fished lake in Oregon for bass. We all know, March through September, there is probably a tournament of some kind going on at Tenmile every weekend. Aren’t regulations in place to keep this under control? Yes and No. ODFW regulates large tournaments on all bodies of water with permits for over 24 boats. Large tournaments have to be more than 2 weeks apart and summary reports are required within 30 days after tournaments are held to report some basic statistics on how many anglers, hours, fish quantity, size, any dead fish, water temps, etc… Tenmile is limited to 6 permitted tournaments per year. After the tournament permits are issued, clubs and other organizations start planning to fill their schedules and, for the most part, avoid those permitted dates. Those are the facts.

With those facts out there, is this enough to maintain a healthy fishery? Surprisingly, anglers are divided on this but each side has decent arguements if voluntary changes or mandatory regulations should be put in place to put less overall tournament pressure on the lake. In a recent poll of anglers, with 75 participants, 43% said no to additional restrictions to small organizations beyond the 6 permitted events each year. 57% agree that some change, voluntary or mandatory, should be put in place to restrict tournaments at Tenmile in 2020. We have heard even 2019, a few clubs quietly took Tenmile off their schedule and more doing so in 2020 to “give it a break”. What are the Pro’s and Con’s people have discussed in reducing tournament frequency?

What we expect for “Pro’s” in the upside of less tournaments on the lake are less pressured bass and eventually better numbers and overall size leading to a healthier fishery, right? What about the “Con’s”? The main arguments against restricting tournament frequency relate to:

Surrounding economy of businesses relying on tournament anglers to help boost their sales each weekend and the overall impact of tournaments being held at other water bodies. These are valid concerns and looking at the 2020 schedule at Siltcoos, we already see tournaments March 7,14,21,29, April 11, and 18th. Are we trading one issue on one body of water for another? If we aren’t able to come to agreement on tournament frequency limitations, will the fisheries continue to decline? What else can we do?

#2 General Bass Care

Since our bass tournaments are all catch and release, is frequency of tournaments creating an unhealthy impact to bass health or is the way were handling fish part of the issue? Overall statistics with ODFW report very limited number of dead fish in large tournaments where reports are required to be submitted. What isn’t reported or easily tracked is how many fish have wounds that lead to mortality after released. Without more light on this subject what can we do to improve our odds at fish survival? We will focus this topic on the areas of culling clips, livewell treatment, and basic tournament improvements.

When we think of bass care, because we are mainly focused on live release after tournaments, we think of keeping the bass in oxygenated water that will allow it to survive the day, weigh in, and release.

One of the threats to bass health in that scenario are culling clips that puncture and tear a mouth apart, get tangled, or restrict gill movement. By 2020, there really isn’t an excuse to continue punching another hole in the bass to tag it and then grab the marker tearing the fish up even more. Accu-Cull has many video’s on the subject and proves the point with inexpensive markers that can be added to existing cull tags to replace the metal clips. In 2020 Bass Battles anglers will be REQUIRED to use non-puncture cull tags if they are used at all. This is only one aspect of bass care but a very visible one about half way through the tournament season.

Another threat to bass health in the Bass Care section is just being in the livewell. If anglers don’t already use a livewell treatment, look into it. There are many livewell treatments on the market that have visible results when adding it to the water when you put your first fish in the box. The other obvious livewell concern is keeping it running long enough. Many anglers concerned about battery life or noise, shut livewells off to many times through the day instead of allowing a livewell timer to recirc fresh oxygenated water through the pumps. Check your batteries, maintain your equipment, and make sure your livewells are in the best condition they can be in to keep the bass swimming freely with good clean water.

#3 Water Quality

This topic will eventually bring us back to #1 but lets explore what water issues are going on and how to help.

After removal of enough logs in Tenmile Creek to reduce the amount of water retained in the lake during Summer months, water quality issues quickly surfaced. Tenmile Lakes Association has been researching and fighting the battle when it comes to water quality. Toxic Algea starts to appear in Summer months with low water, docks begin to sit on dry land, oxygen levels are reduced, and many of the bass caught are visibly in bad shape. What can be done to help with bass health relating to Water Quality?

An obvious step in this would be to partner with Tenmile Lakes Association and/ or ODFW to really dig in and understand root cause, solution options, and how to help either volunteering or financially. You can read more and learn how to help on their website https://www.tenmilelakes.com/

Another less obvious step, taking a page from California Fish and Wildlife, would be accepting the fact that water quality issues are going to continue and limiting tournament hours or number of bass kept during Summer months to keep stress off the bass from extending time in livewells. California F&W limits tournaments to 6 hours or less during those months when water quality causes increased fish mortality.

Overall, our understanding of bass health may be skewed by what we see when we catch bass. ODFW does shock strategic sections of lakes and test for health of fish populations. This shows lake cycles in 5-7 year periods have declines and increases that are relatively normal. The fact is bass evolve, adjust to pressure, change seasonal eating habits as water quality increases or decreases. As anglers, there is a lot more to Bass Health than meets the eye and it is our job to continue educating ourselves on the issues so we can make the proper adjustments to preserve the future of our sport.

What will you do in 2020 to make a difference in Bass Health?

Update from ODFW 1.8.20:

We will typically sample Tenmile twice each year using boat electrofishing.  Our spring effort helps us identify and monitor any trends in population structure and abundance, and looks at condition just prior to the spawn.  I also began about a decade ago sampling in the fall to get a better handle on recruitment and the condition of the Age-0 fish heading into their critical first winter.  These in recent years haven’t shown any significant changes to the bass population beyond the “normal” fluctuations or cycles that are to be expected.  However, we are looking at the broader bass population and not necessarily that subgroup of fish anglers are catching and handling.  In fact, many of the adult fish we collect and look at show no visible indication of having been caught.

At this time we have no plans to do additional sampling beyond these two periods, in-part because we try to avoid stressing fish during those seasons when they’re most vulnerable.  Unfortunately, that also includes the months when many club events are held at Tenmile.

Gary Galovich – ODFW Warm Water Fisheries Biologist