If you are among the thousands of fishermen who pursue smallmouth bass in what arguably is the best smallmouth water in the country - Lake Erie - then pray for favorable weather in the next two to three weeks.
The peak of smallmouth nesting season is upon us, and emerging research indicates that weather has much more impact on nest success than any other factor. That includes the impact of nest-raiding, egg-eating gobies and harvest of smallmouth by anglers.
“Weather isn't something we can control,” said Mike Costello, Lake Erie program administrator for the Ohio Division of Wildlife. “If we get a strong blow, a nest can be wiped out - regardless of goby concentrations or fishing pressure.
“Weather is kind of the ultimate trump card.”
This year marks the last in a three-year, division-funded research project by Ohio State University scientists on factors that affect smallmouth stocks. The work includes on-site study by scuba teams.
The research was prompted by concerns about the stability of the fishery, given that angling pressure on the popular Erie bronze- backs quadrupled in a decade.
As a pre-emptive conservation measure, the wildlife division a year ago cut the daily smallmouth creel limit from eight to five, and increased the minimum legal length from 12 inches to 14.
“We wanted to cut exploitation (harvest) by 50 per cent the first year, and that's essentially what happened,” said Costello. In 1999 anglers took home 92,200 smallmouth from the lake. Last year, under the new limits, they took just 53,000.
Fishermen, of course, catch many more than that. Costello said that up to 90 per cent of smallmouth landed are released.
He said it is not surprising that Lake Erie smallmouth, as a whole, have evolved and adapted to the basin's weather patterns.
A northeast blow at the peak of nesting season, for example, may wipe out nests on the northeast faces of islands and rocky shoreline. But nests around other points of the compass may do just fine.
It would take “significant storms” from every quarter during a spawning season to wipe out all of a year's nests, Costello noted. Last year, for example, active nests were being found on the west side of the Bass Islands into early July, suggesting that if nests fail from storms, renesting can occur.
Bass populations, traditionally good, expanded rapidly in the 1980s into the 1990s as the lake became clearer and ecologically different. That was because of pollution cleanup and the filtering action of the infamous invader pests, zebra and quagga mussels. The clearer lake, in turn, increased the availability of more and more smallmouth habitat.
Another major change has been the invasion - via ballast water from overseas shipping - of the round goby, a small, bug-eyed fish.
The upside is that gobies eat another overabundant pest, zebra mussels, and smallmouth in turn feast on gobies. The downsides are that gobies are nasty egg predators and that they accumulate PCBs and other contaminants while eating zebra mussels, which take the contaminants for sediments and algae.
So in theory when a smallmouth eats gobies it can get a megadose of contaminants. So far, however, the contaminant pathway has not caused edibility problems.
Annually the wildlife division sends Erie smallmouth to the EPA for testing. “These are the same ones people take home to eat,” Costello noted. A consumption ban has not been needed so far. In fact, the Ohio Department of Health actually relaxed consumption restrictions on Lake Erie smallmouth this year - to a meal a week, the same as walleye. A year ago the ODH listed Erie bass at the meal-a-month level.
As for fishing pressure, many downstate or out-of-state anglers may not realize that smallmouth now are distributed well across the lake, Costello noted.
It is not just a traditional islands fishery any more, but one that includes the western basin reef complexes, rocky shorelines and shoreline structure. Fishing pressure, however, remains concentrated around the islands and near-shore areas.
For now, Costello thinks that the stricter angling rules begun last year will do the job. After this final year, OSU research will be reviewed to see if there is a need to fine-tune the regulations.
Costello said there is no evidence of a need for a spring bass-fishing closure, especially with the high percentage of catch-and-release angling.
Limited closed seasons in a practical sense may be unworkable. Thousands of fishermen in states such as Michigan go “bluegill” or “perch” fishing with bass gear weeks before the late-May opening of the state's bass season. So do many Lake Erie anglers who fish for “walleye” with softcraws around Ontario's Pelee Island well before the mid-summer Canadian bass season opens.
It amounts to the old “wink-wink” routine, Costello notes, citing the difficulty of enforcing such closed seasons. Moreover, even with Ontario's closed season, bass stocks are faring about the same as in Ohio's nearby Bass Islands, where there is no closed season.
But if smallmouth stocks were in trouble, nothing would be ruled out, the manager added.
Steve Pollick is The Blade's outdoor writer. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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