KELLEYS ISLAND - It was a hefty, 16 1/4 -inch smallmouth bass, a member of perhaps the most prized species of cool-water gamefish, and it acted just like expected.
It ran toward the surface, leaped a couple of times, dived and circled, darted under the boat, twice ran some line off the reel, and generally tried to play havoc with the skills of the angler trying to bring it to net.
But all's well that ends well. The bass was landed, measured, and fitted with a numbered, harmless jaw-tag. It was then returned to western Lake Erie, sporting the new soft, gray-metal piece of jewelry.
“That fish now is on a biological mission for the people of the state of Ohio,” said Jim Fofrich Sr., a fishing guide from Toledo.
He was referring to a long-term jaw-tagging project by fisheries researchers within the Ohio Division of Wildlife. They want to learn as much as possible about smallmouth movements, life-spans, life-styles, and behaviors.
If and when the aforementioned smallie is caught and its tag reported, biologists will have another bit of data, a small piece in a big puzzle, the final picture of which may better focus efforts to manage and conserve the species.
The fish was just the first of 25 caught by a video crew from Wild Ohio, the weekly outdoors program produced by the Ohio Division of Wildlife. The plan is to put together a segment on Lake Erie smallmouth and the importance of tagging, said Vicki Mountz, the program's producer.
The segment is expected to air in late fall or during winter. Wild Ohio airs locally on WGTE-TV, Channel 30, Saturdays at 11:30 a.m.
“We want to make sure we're at least as conservative as we need to be,” Mountz said of smallmouth management, fishing regulations, and the importance of tagging as a management tool. “It's a treasured resource.”
Biologist Roger Knight, who accompanied the video crew, said that stricter catch rules, introduced a year ago, achieved a goal of reducing the annual take of smallmouth from the lake to the 50,000 range.
That is about half of what it had been in the late 1990s, as smallmouth fishing pressure quadrupled in a decade. The question, Knight added, is whether the restrictions are enough.
It now is legal to keep just five smallmouth a day, down from eight, and they must be at least 14 inches, up from just 12 inches.
Though about 80 to 90 percent of smallmouth are returned to the lake under catch-and-release fishing, the biologist explained, the sheer increase in interest and pressure had raised the annual catch-and-harvest volume.
Too, fishing pressure on smallmouth is not evenly distributed. Some stocks, such as the Bass Islands and Ruggles Reef, really get hammered.
Fofrich, who has tagged 1,300 of 4,300 smallmouth handled since 1998 in cooperation with the wildlife division, said that until the Wild Ohio team showed up, his boat had landed just three previously-tagged smallies all year. The W.O. crew took three.
“It was striking,” added Knight, who supervises the state's Lake Erie Fisheries Research Station at Sandusky. “That was a fair number of recaptured fish.”
The biologist said that so far it appears that the fish rarely stray more than a mile from their usual hangouts. That excludes those that may move miles in the livewells of fishing boats, to be released elsewhere.
That likely was the case with some bass tagged at Ruggles Reef near Huron that ended up on Chickenolee Reef off Pelee Island.
Fishermen who land a tagged smallmouth should write down the tag number and other information and call it in to the state's research station in Sandusky, 419-625-8062. Do not remove tags on fish that are being released.
Eventually, reporting of tags could lead to more finely tuned managed strategies, though such considerations are “way down the road,” Knight said
Minnesota, for example, has established such rules as conservation or sanctuary zones; catch-and-release-only seasons; closures during spawning season and permits for bass tournaments. But as Knight adds, Lake Erie is a law unto itself. “You've got to know what you're dealing with first in terms of a problem.
Smallmouth stocks overall still seem healthy, though it takes four to five years to tell the strength of a year's hatch. So far there is no effective way to directly sample young-of-year bass.
That said, the weather was excellent during spawning season this spring, and the walleye and yellow perch classes look strong, Knight said. That may bode well for the bass as well.
In less than half a day's fishing the crew boated 25 smallmouth from 13 3/4 to 20 1/2 inches, the latter a six-pound trophy. All fish except one were jaw-tagged and released.
The crew used Mustad circle-hooks, snelled to a swivel and baited with soft-shelled crayfish, or crawdads. The circle-like hooks are about perfect for live-bait fishing, especially for catch-and-release.
“They virtually eliminate (fatal) gut-hooking for the live-bait fisherman,” said Fofrich. Another touch he adds to live-bait rigging for smallmouth is to use two smaller barrel-sinkers rather than one larger one, depending on depth and wind and current.
His theory is that the sinkers “klacking” together occasionally as they bump bottom may attract fish.
The guide's fishing zone, of course, will remain a secret other than to say it was in the Bass Islands-Kelleys Island area. Fofrich claims he has seen too many superb smallmouth-fishing sites pounded to death by careless catch-and-release anglers, who handle their fish poorly or catch them here and dump them there.
He is among sport fishermen who will gladly keep and eat widely abundant walleye or yellow perch. He simply thinks the bass are too valuable and their numbers too limited for catching and keeping.
“Eating a smallmouth is like eating the family puppy,” Fofrich quipped.
Perhaps surprisingly, at least for this time of year, the Wild Ohio smallmouth were taken in water as shallow as 7 to 11 feet. This time of year many anglers are expecting them at 10 to 20 feet.
Fofrich, a veteran of more than 40 years on the lake, thinks that round gobies, an alien pest fish that exploded on the lake, are the reason for bass in the shallows this time of year. Bass love to eat them.
Knight said that the pest-fish, here about a decade, represents “a profound change” in the Lake Erie food chain. They may not yet have peaked in the lake, for they have a super-abundant food source – the infamous pests, zebra mussels.
While many fish, including walleye and yellow perch, also eat gobies, the mussel-goby pathway may concentrate on contaminants once locked up in the lake bottom.
Steve Pollick is The Blade's outdoor writer. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.