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Open Season Regulations:  Protection or Over- protection?

by Eric Jex

 

In much of the upper Midwest we spend winter afternoons looking out the office window day dreaming of fishing our favorite spot on our favorite lake.  Spring comes, your gear is all ready, boat is ready to go, you are fired up to get out there on the lake and lose yourself in the day; then you realize you are over 100 miles and months away from water you can legally fish bass.  That is what many Minnesota and Wisconsin Bass anglers experience every spring.  The point of this article will not be to slam the current regulations, rather to raise questions on the basis of them, and what should and should not be changed in my opinion.  If nothing else I hope it generates discussion on the subject.

Current Regulations
Current open season regulations vary from state to state all around the country; this will be a closer look at the regulations in the upper Midwest.  Numerous states in the region, including Iowa, South Dakota and Illinois have adopted open seasons on both Largemouth and Smallmouth Bass throughout the entire year.  While certain bodies of water may have specific regulations, and size and limit numbers vary, the states have left the species pretty open to year around fishing.  On the other end of the spectrum lye Minnesota and Wisconsin, both apply seasons for bass and many other species.  The majority of the article will focus on the ladder states practicing strict season regulations. 

Minnesota
Let’s start with my home state.  Minnesota has forever adhered to an open and closed season for both Largemouth and Smallmouth Bass.  The only significant body of water in the state to avoid seasonal regulations is the Mississippi River where it borders Wisconsin.  Otherwise bass opener (Large and Smallmouth) for most of the state has traditionally come the last Saturday of May.  That’s right May.  The exception to this regulation is the Northeast corner of the state, which typically opens two weeks earlier during the much more celebrated “fishing opener”.  Being that the most notable reason for putting a season on bass is to protect them during the spawn; this current regulation affecting Northeastern Minnesota further confuses bass anglers in the state.  I will discuss this in further detail a little later.  For now let me go through some surrounding states regulations and compare them.    

Wisconsin
The state of Wisconsin also has an open and closed season for bass.  However, much of the state is more relaxed on regulations allowing for an early catch and release season that typically begins around the first Saturday in May in the Northern region, and then opens for Harvest around the third Saturday in June.  The Southern region of the state completely opens the season the first Saturday in May.  Other states in the region including the Dakotas, Iowa and Illinois have continuous seasons for bass, protecting them with only possession limits.

Why do these regulations exist?  The most common answer is the most obvious, protecting spawning fish from being fished and caught off of their beds.  While I am in favor of protecting these fish as much as possible and want generations to come to be able to enjoy the same good fishing I do, I think some of the current regulations are misguided.

The second most popular answer to this question involves tradition.  For example, the earlier opening of bass season in Northeastern Minnesota is a regulation that was originally created decades ago when harvest of the over-populated Smallmouth bass in the region was encouraged.  This is now an extremely outdated regulation that does nothing but hurt the credibility of the number one reason for having seasons.   

Possible Options
In my eyes the best possible regulation change would include both catch and release seasons and changing possession limits.  Minnesota’s fishery and climate differ from states a little further south like Illinois and Iowa, however I consider Wisconsin to share the same characteristics and be the best comparison.  I do not think Minnesota fisheries would benefit from a completely open season like Iowa and Illinois.  I would like to see Minnesota adopt a catch and release season opening sometime in April.  I would also like to see the harvest opening for bass pushed back to the last weekend in June.  The possession limit also raises some questions, in Minnesota it currently sits at 6 per person.  Now I know most people fishing bass are not keeping them, but there are still a significant number of anglers that do keep them like any other pan fish.  I see this as a much larger threat to the bass population in lakes then opening a catch and release season.  Positions for each one of these regulations is discussed below. 

Putting the spawn at the center of any closed season just doesn’t work for me, as I stated earlier I believe it’s a little misguided.  There is just no good way to pick a certain date in May or June and say most or even half the bass in the affected area have spawned.  This area ranges more than 500 miles from North to South and differs from 10,000 plus acre bodies of water to small lakes that closer resemble ponds.  Not only are bass in different lakes in different part of the state spawning at different times, but different populations of bass in the same body of water may take a month or more to complete the spawning process.

Granted the larger, older, and healthier bass seem to hit the beds earlier than the younger, smaller crowd. However, I have caught what seem to be post spawn bass crappie fishing in early May.  I have also caught above average bass that haven’t spawned yet in mid-June.  My point? Too many variables influence the spawning season in any region, I think the upper Mid-west region is even more affected by things like size of lakes, seasonal climates, and predators.

What about the affect of fishing and potentially (let’s not get too confident!) catching spawning fish off their beds?  This argument surfaces year after year when tournament schedules start during the spawning period in other regions of the country.  I don’t wish to go into great detail surrounding the arguments to this controversial topic.  However I bring it up because it is critical to the open and closed season issue.  I just don’t believe the catch and immediate release of spawning bass puts the fish or the spawn in great jeopardy.  Unless you are talking about the great lakes, most bass have few predators that have the ability to swarm in and consume the brood in a matter of a minute.  If properly handled I think spawning bass go right back to their beds after being caught and hunker right back in.  The key is “proper handling” of the fish, this is always the variable when it comes to catch and release, the spawning period is no different.  I just haven’t seen any credible and unbiased research that has convinced me one way or the other that catch and release seasons during the spawn negatively affects the population.  In fact, the less scientific evidence I see that shows negative affects leads me to believe the affect on spawning bass is minimal.  Or we would hear all about the evidence right??

I also want to spend a little time on when the harvest season for bass should open.  I think the harvest date should be pushed back to late June at the earliest in any upper Mid-west state.  Now I know not an overwhelming number of people go out and target bass to throw in the frying pan.  However, I do believe a certain number of these fish fall victim to the fish basket every year before they have completed the spawning process.  I think this is a much larger threat to the future of bass populations.  Personally I would like to see the harvest season shortened and number of fish that can be held in possession lowered.  This is truly a step towards conservation of the species.    

What do I Suggest?
If I had any say in the future regulations of bass fishing in Minnesota and Wisconsin I would like to see the following.  First and most importantly, push back the open season of the harvest season to late June.  Secondly, I would cut back on the actual possession limit of bass.  Many lakes have adopted specific regulations on immediate catch and release of all bass in a particular body of water.  I think this regulation has been proven successful in growing a healthier bass population over and over again.

 Finally, I would like to see Minnesota catch up with the rest of the region and have a more liberal catch and release season.  Let people enjoy fishing for bass as long as they can (the open water season is short enough).  Start a catch and release season April 1st or April 15th, and have that season truly last through the spawn.  I firmly believe having a solid catch and release season could effectively protect the fish, while at the same time support the reason to protect the species – fishing enjoyment for generations to come!