Anglers must help maintain bass fishery

We’re blessed with some of the finest fisheries in the world. Just ask any angler who has fished the Fort Frances Canadian Bass Championship on Rainy Lake.
But we’re just as fortunate to have some of the finest biological minds looking after those resources. Folks like Ministry of Natural Resources biologist Darryl McLeod, who oversees Rainy Lake’s marvellous bass fishery.
McLeod recently showed me some of the growth charts and tables he has produced for the lake. He also highlighted some of the trends he sees emerging in the fishery.
They are the long-term results from working co-operatively with the local tournament organizers. McLeod is the epitome of a model extension biologist.
Indeed, as anyone who has been a participant or spectator at the big July tournament each year knows, McLeod manages a small army of fisheries technicians and volunteers. In fact, his holding tanks and work area have become an integral and highly-educational part of the festivities.
What McLeod has discovered from assembling and analyzing the mounds of data he’s collected over the years, though, is both impressive and frightening.
“The key to maintaining Rainy Lake’s high-quality bass fishery is ensuring the fish live long enough,” he said. “Typically, 15 years or more.”
That is not a misprint. The smallmouth bass the winning teams weigh in each July are 13-18 years old—considerably older than in most other tournaments. Hence the spectacular weights.
A couple of the bass McLeod sampled at last year’s tournament were 20-22 years old (McLeod found a bass in the 1999 event that was 23 years old, which remains the oldest smallmouth ever aged in Northwestern Ontario).
Eight percent of the fish brought to the weigh scales last year were 15 years or older. That means they were born between 1979 and 1982. Some of the anglers were younger than the fish they were catching.
What is most intriguing about McLeod’s data, however, is seeing how the winning weight has increased. In 1995, for example, the triumphant team brought 15 fish weighing 41.97 pounds to the scales.
The winning daily net weight that year was 15.90 pounds.
Compare those figures to last year’s results, when the champions needed 55.72 pounds to triumph—and the winning daily net weight was 22.28 pounds (the winning weight peaked, by the way, in 1998 at a whopping 58.62 pounds).
Part of the reason for the increases can be attributed to better knowledge, improved fishing skills, and a low harvest rate on Rainy Lake that allows the fish to grow to sizes unheard of elsewhere.
But a significant part of the cause goes to the bass themselves—and that story begins back in 1987. That is the year, according to McLeod, the smallmouth bass in Rainy Lake enjoyed an excellent spawning and growing season.
Some of those fish born in 1987 are still swimming around today.
In the 1997 tournament, for example, the 1987 year class was the largest segment of bass weighed in during the competition. The bass were 10 years old then, measured about 17 inches in length, and weighed about 3.25 pounds.
Every year since, they’ve added a quarter-of-a-pound in weight and half an inch in length.
This means the winning teams today are still catching, weighing in, and relying upon bass that were born in 1987. Only now, they’re 15 years old, weigh four pounds on average, and measure about 18.5 inches in length.
But, every year they grow older. And every year there are fewer of them swimming in the lake. Which begs the question: what do the up-and-coming Rainy Lake year classes look like?
“The 1990, 1994, and 1995 year class look promising, but the 1992 year class is weak and the 1993 class is a disaster,” McLeod noted.
For those with short memories, Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991—spewing massive quantities of ash and debris. It accumulated in the atmosphere and created a global dust cloud that prevented normal amounts of sunshine from heating the earth.
As a result, 1993 was an extremely cold summer. So cold, said McLeod, that the number of growing-degree-days that were recorded on Rainy Lake were the same as Moosonee, on Hudson’s Bay, in a normal year.
Not surprisingly, virtually all the smallmouth bass born that year in Rainy Lake did not survive.
“It is not uncommon,” explained MNR scientist Dr. Mark Ridwa, one of the most renowned bass researchers in the world, having just edited the massive 725-page “Black Bass: Ecology, Conservation, and Management.”
The compendium is the product of the American Fisheries Society’s 31st Symposium and represents the cutting-edge of our knowledge and understanding of black bass.
Bass fry, explained Ridgway, must be at least 2.5 inches long by the fall to have any chance of surviving the first winter of life. In Sunset Country, that means total year-class failures are often the norm rather than the exception.
Ridway also agreed with McLeod that in order to maintain any semblance of a quality bass fishery, anglers will have to redouble their efforts to do everything possible to protect and not harvest down the fish.
After all, McLeod reiterated, it takes 18-20 years to produce a trophy 20-inch, five-pound bass.
On Rainy Lake, at least, it appears to be working. And with McLeod looking after things, it is hopefully going to continue.
Backlash: Talking about anglers supporting quality fisheries, local angler Fred Hastman called me last Sunday night. Fred had released a pair of 26-inch long walleye and wanted to know how much they likely weighed.
Using the formula for walleye of length x length x length divided by 2700, we were able to determine Fred’s fish weighed 6.5 pounds each. And given walleye lay about 35,000 eggs per kilogram of body weight, he helped ensure those two fish will lay almost 250,000 eggs this spring.
And, hopefully, many more springs to come. Congratulations, Fred.

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