Confessions of a Spawning Bed Angler
If you want to start a conversation among smallmouth bass anglers, and maybe a brawl, just bring up the topic of fishing for smallies "on the beds" in the Spring. Get a group of "bed fishermen" together with "anti-bed people" and you might have more angry yelling than if President Trump showed up at an Elizabeth Warren rally. One group accusing the other of abusing the resource, unethical behavior and shouting "Real Men Don't Fish Beds!" There will be claims of elitism and snobbery worse than a Montana dry-fly angler when confronted by a "worm-fisherman". It could get ugly fast.
I'm here to admit that I do target smallmouth on spawning beds on occasion in the Spring. Now before you send angry e-mails or shun me the next time we meet on the water or at the bar, please hear me out and read the entire post. Let's take a rational look at both sides of the issue.
The argument against specifically fishing for smallmouth on the spawning beds is pretty obvious and solid. By removing, or at the very least disturbing, the male bass guarding the fertilized eggs, you are decreasing the number of offspring produced, thus lowering the number of bass for the future. Contrary to what some people may think, most of the smallmouth bass that you see on a spawning bed (an area cleared out on the bottom where eggs have been laid and fertilized) are not actually spawning. Occasionally you may see more than one bass on a bed, usually a larger female and one or more smaller males. You then might be witnessing the actual spawning act. (Give them a little privacy for Pete’s sake.) Most often the fish you see hovering over a bed is a male bass that is dutifully guarding the fertilized eggs from predation by small fish, other bass, but most often gobies. If the eggs are not protected until they hatch into small fry, the eggs will be gobbled up faster then you can set a hook. The protective male will attack just about anything that approaches the nest. This is what makes them so vulnerable to anglers. They don't make much distinction between a KVD goby-colored tube jig and an actual, real live goby. So, by removing the male bass from the bed, even for a short period of time, you are essentially cleaning out the bed of any viable eggs. Thus, less little bass and eventually less big bass.
So why do anglers, more specifically me, still target fish on the beds? Well for starters, it's legal, fun and I can still do it. Not a lot of things left that I can say that about. More seriously, it is not unusual for anglers or hunters to use the vulnerability of the prey during the mating or spawning seasons to increase the odds in favor of the predator. Why else do we hunt deer during the "rut", scoop up rainbow smelt during their spawning runs or target toms turkeys while they are intent on strutting around trying to impress females? One just has to experience fishing during the famed Wolf River walleye run to know just how effective targeting spawning fish can be. We all know that males of most species don't always think clearly or rationally when they have sex on their minds. Even guys who claim that they "don't fish the beds" may be deluding themselves. If you are fishing for bass in the Spring, you are probably going to catch some from a spawning bed whether you see the bed or not.
It's obvious that fishing spawning fish is effective. But is it ethical? That's the debate. Generally targeting animals during their reproductive rituals is fine provided we are not unduly harming the future of the species. The Wolf River and Winnebago system walleye population has not been decimated by the targeting of spawning fish by thousands of anglers each Spring. A quick look about the county will verify that the deer and turkey populations are doing just fine. The rainbow smelt numbers may be lower, but that is more due to non-human predators in the lake then the dip-netters on the shore. The same could be said for smallmouth in the Bay and Lake Michigan, at least to this point in time. Even though surveys and anglers reports would indicate that there are still plenty of smallmouth to be caught, lately I have been hearing and seeing some anecdotal evidence that the bass populations may be being affected. Ten or twenty years ago, before the smallmouth fishery in Door County was subjected to the pressure it is now, maybe there was little harm in removing a few protective males. However, many anglers, including myself, have noticed at the very least a change in the behavior of bass in the Spring. They seem harder to find and catch. Is this due to general increased pressure or more targeting of bed fish? I am not sure. However, I am willing to reconsider my past behavior in light of new data.
So, what’s the solution? Surely, having a relative small number of self-styled "ethical" anglers refuse to target spawning beds while the majority of others still do so will not prevent any potential negative impact. Who has the right to tell some guy who has driven hundreds of miles and spent lots of time and money to experience bass fishing in Door County that they should not fish them in the most effective and legal method possible? I don't feel I own the moral high ground to do that. Perhaps the closed season should be extended until later in the Spring, much as they do in the waters around Washington Island. Maybe the prime spawning areas should be identified and fish refuges establish much as they do at the DePere dam on the Fox River in the Spring. If a section of the Sturgeon Bay "Flats" or Rowleys Bay was made off limits, that may be enough to protect the fishery. Limiting Spring bass tournament fishing might be part of the solution.
The bottom line is that I am pretty sure we all want the same thing: a fun, productive smallmouth bass fishery now and in the future. We are all in this together, so let's be sure we all act that way.
Tight Lines, Bruce
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