Points North: Sometimes, The Only Good Bass Is...

smallmouth bass.jpg
smallmouth bass.jpg

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The fish were really biting, but they weren’t the species we wanted to catch. We were after walleyes, which were also biting, but smallmouth bass were beating them to the bait. This made for fast, but not particularly satisfying, fishing action.
 
You see, not so many years ago the lake we were fishing didn’t have smallmouth bass. In fact, not so many years before the bass arrived, it didn’t have walleyes either. The DNR introduced walleyes by stocking tiny fry, hoping to create better fishing than the lake’s native lake trout provided. The walleyes prospered, though their growth was limited by a lack of forage fish.
 
Who knows where the smallmouth bass originated, because they were not stocked by the DNR. Perhaps they were dumped into the lake from someone’s bait bucket. Or maybe they entered from a nearby lake via a feeder creek. However they arrived, it was likely by the same, somewhat mysterious process that’s allowed bass to infest hundreds of rocky-bottomed lakes in northeastern Minnesota, where they—and walleyes--are not native.
 
The difference is anglers consider walleyes a more desireable quarry. While elsewhere in the nation, smallmouths are called “the fightingest fish that swims in fresh water,” in northeastern Minnesota the same fish are more often called by unprintable names. Why? In many lakes, bass are overabundant and stunted, competing for food and habitat with other game fish and, due to their aggressive nature, becoming a nuisance for anglers seeking other species. This is happening in my favorite walleye lake, where bass are competing for the limited forage and are becoming a nuisance to fishing.
 
So out on the lake, we took matters into our own hands. The bass weren’t big, but they were chunky. Members of the sunfish family, the bass were larger than keeper-sized crappies or bluegills, so I started tossing them into the fish bucket. With a generous bag limit of six bass apiece, we had the opportunity to bring home some home for dinner.
 
Like yellow perch, another abundant species in northern lakes, bass are good to eat but rarely kept for food by anglers. Both perch and bass may have parasites visible in their flesh. While the parasites are harmless to humans, most folks find them unappetizing. Fortunately, the bass in this lake are usually parasite-free.
 
But having fish to eat wasn’t the only reason we were keeping the bass. The lake was better off without them. The bass in our bucket wouldn’t be competing with walleyes for food or spawning to create more bass next spring. Actually, the DNR uses the same logic to manage bass in some northeastern Minnesota lakes where it has established a maximum size limit of 10 or 12 inches—bigger bass must be released. Keeping the little ones allows the remaining bass to grow bigger, because in an overpopulated lake, even mature bass are stunted in size. While the DNR has had some success at reducing bass numbers and improving average sizes, maximum size regulations are unpopular with some anglers who prefer to keep larger fish.
 
One reason anglers prefer bigger fish may be because from childhood we are encouraged to “let the little ones go.” This line of logic predates modern catch-and-release and is motivated less by a conservation ethic than by a human urge to come home with as many pounds of fish as possible. But in the case of north country smallmouth bass, today’s catch of big bass can be tomorrow’s undoing. Once the little ones take over a lake, no room is left for the big ones.
 
This is why I had no qualms about tossing little bass into the fish bucket. They were big enough to filet and fry, which was big enough for us. The first fish in the boat was a walleye, but then the bass action became fast and furious. One after another, the bass went into the bucket, interspersed with an occasional walleye. After sundown, the bass slacked off and the walleyes picked up. While bass still outnumbered them in the total catch, at least we were able to come home with a few walleyes, too.
 
Looking at our accumulation of bass, I couldn’t help but think of the many years I fished this lake without ever catching one. Back then, the walleye fishing was fast and furious. It is noticeably less so these days. Maybe the bass are to blame. Or maybe there are fewer walleyes in the lake because of a significant spike in fishing pressure. No matter how you slice it, the fishing ain’t what it used to be.
 
I can think of other northeastern Minnesota lakes that I knew before and after the arrival of smallmouth bass--walleye waters, pristine native lake trout lakes and lakes stocked with stream trout. In all cases, the fishery declined after bass arrived. You might say smallmouth bass are the Arrowhead’s version of the Asian carp—a species from somewhere else with the capacity to overwhelm native ecosystems.
 
But we can’t blame the bass any more than we can blame the carp, because both were intentionally moved to new waters by people. And once the fish are introduced to a suitable environment, we can neither get rid of them nor stop their spread into yet more new waters. That’s how it goes with invasive species. At least bass are good to eat.

Airdate: September 3, 2010

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