The Opener: Bass Fishing Seasons Under Review; MUCC's Thoughts

There is a lot of chatter online about the bass fishing regulations currently under review here in Michigan. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Fisheries Division has made a recommendation to the Natural Resources Commission (NRC), which is up for information this month and could be acted on by April 9. We'll attempt to cut through the chatter and throw our 2 cents into the debate.
A recent Detroit Free Press article about the Michigan bass season seemed to inaccurately suggest that the DNR’s latest bass season recommendation was called for by the MUCC affiliate club, Michigan B.A.S.S. Nation. The DNR's recommendation came solely from within the Fisheries Division and was released to the public shortly after. This is a new recommendation the DNR developed, and though they did give us advanced notice to explain it, they came up with this recommendation on their own and not as a result of a request from any outside groups. Basically, it keeps the same harvest seasons we have always had but adds in a new "Catch and Delayed Release (CDR)" season (during the dates that used to be Catch and Immediate Release only)--for 2015, that's April 25 in the Lower and May 15 in the UP, but only for anglers in approved tournaments in certain waters.
Each and every option that has been discussed, including the one before the NRC, includes year-round catch and immediate release (CIR). There is nearly unanimous support for this and the NRC should adopt it.
The Michigan United Conservation Clubs (MUCC) still supports the publicly vetted Option 4/D (as well as Option 3/C) for the Michigan bass season, as do a number of major statewide fishing, hunting, outdoors and conservation groups including many from the broad Michigan Conservation Coalition such as:
  • Great Lakes Council of the International Federation of Fly Fishers,
  • Hammond Bay Area Anglers Association,
  • Michigan B.A.S.S. Nation,
  • Michigan Bow Hunters Association,
  • Michigan Hunting Dog Federation,
  • Michigan Steelhead & Salmon Fisherman Association,
  • Michigan Trappers & Predator Callers Association,
  • Saginaw Field & Stream Club and
  • The Bass Federation of Michigan.
Option 4 would move the opening of the catch and keep (possession) season for bass in line with the pike, walleye and muskie harvest seasons--for 2015 that is April 25 throughout the Lower Peninsula (last Saturday in April) and May 15 in the UP. This would simplify law enforcement and the fishing regulations for anglers, and also bring Lake St. Clair in line with the rest of the Lower Peninsula (Option 3/C would just bring Lake St. Clair in line with the current catch and keep season in the Lower Peninsula--also an improvement and simplification). Many members of the DNR Warmwater Resources Steering Committee process supported this option and was also supported through public meetings, online and random mailed surveys.
This option clearly provides the most additional bass fishing opportunity for the most anglers, so why is Fisheries Division not recommending it and why have fishing guides and other groups been opposed? Plain and simple—uncertainty.
We have heard it said that while some 44 other states don't have a statewide closed season on bass (and Alaska doesn't have any bass), Michigan doesn't mind being an outlier if its for good reason--fair enough, we have professed our support for scientific management since the beginning of our organization. However, there are no studies or observations that say with any certainty that "if we do this, then this will happen" related to bass fishing regulations during the spawn/pre-spawn in colder climates like Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Maine, and Vermont. Fisheries biologists around Michigan are split on what an earlier harvest season would do to the bass populations. Not because they know what will happen, but because they don't.
What DNR has said is that:
  1. There is an increased risk to INDIVIDUAL bass when fishing over spawning bass.
  2. There is a higher risk of nest abandonment and/or loss when removing a bass temporarily from its bed.
  3. There is no observed population level effects of early season catch and immediate release of bass.
In my own words, this is like saying that there is an increased risk that a bear will be shot when we increase the number of bear licenses by 10. Duh! However, risk to an individual animal or fish is always inherent in management. But what does that risk to the individual or nest mean for the overall population health and stability? With bear, we know from experience the general bear hunter success rates, by hunt period and we know from tinkering around (also known as adaptive wildlife management) that what we do with license quotas, will have an impact on the bear population and we can for the most part predict (using science) what that impact will be with modelling and observations. Then every 2 years, we evaluate and tinker again as needed. More or less bear hunters keep bear hunting, our bear population goes in the direction that the DNR and stakeholders think it should, and life goes on.
It seems to me that Fisheries Division should be asking how they can fill in these gaps of uncertainty to improve their own knowledge and see what kind of impact recreational bass fishing will have on the bass populations in a given zone, lake size, temperature gradient or however you want to split it. To date, there has been no commitment to go out and look at this issue, work with partners and design a study that might help answer these management questions FOR MICHIGAN. So if we don't plan to collect his data now, when will we?
If we find from this study that "too early" harvest dates for bass will have a significant impact on the bass populations, we will be the first in line to ask what the appropriate date is and advocate for it. That's the great thing about adaptive management, you evaluate and adapt management based on evidence. But right now, we have been fishing through the spawn in the U.P. and some or all of the Lower depending on the temperatures in a given year.
Perhaps allowing this new proposed "Catch and Delayed Release" season for tournaments could help in gathering data on what kind of fishing pressure this might create during earlier times of the year and how the general fish size and level of effort may change as a result. But leaving it only available to tournament anglers and CDR makes it an unnecessary lightening rod for debate. And it still doesn't allow us to test the theory that bass are adaptable and resilient in the face of normal angling pressure, just like they are in 44 other states.

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