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Lake Erie bass fishery a resource on the rise

06/27/2014, 12:28am EDT
By MATT MARKEY BLADE OUTDOORS EDITOR
Lake Erie bass fishery on the rise

Michael Kemp, 7, caught this largemouth bass while fishing in the canal by Maumee Bay State Park on Saturday. He released it.

Seven-year-old Michael Kemp was fishing for crappies and catfish in a canal at Maumee Bay State Park last weekend when he hooked up with something quite different.

Using a worm and a jig for bait and fishing with what anglers often refer to as a “beginner’s rig,” young Michael enticed a largemouth bass to bite, then managed to land the healthy 19-inch long fish.

The student from Olney Elementary in Northwood, who obviously had some proper adult supervision, then did the absolute right thing. He let it go.

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After a quick picture for mom and dad and grandma and the neighbors and the bulletin board at school, the bass was returned to the water to live and grow and fight another day. It was a great lesson for any young angler about the proper care of a hooked fish and about the need to protect the resource.

If Michael had caught the same fish this Saturday, he could have kept it because Ohio’s bass season for the waters of Lake Erie opens then. From the period of May 1 through today, all bass — largemouth, smallmouth, and spotted — caught in the Ohio waters of Lake Erie and its bays and tributaries up to the first dam, must be released.

These regulations were put in place to protect these prized species during their most vulnerable time — the spawning season. There is also a minimum size that can be kept when bass are in season — 14 inches — so the Lake Erie fishery can produce more and larger fish.

Michigan’s bass season opened May 24 on all waters except Lake St. Clair, the St. Clair River, and the Detroit River. The bass seasons on those waters opened on Saturday.

One-size-fits-all fish management does not work with Ohio’s lakes, reservoirs, ponds, and streams, so fish biologists have developed custom management plans for various waters, including the special regulations for the Lake Erie region.

The La Su An Wildlife Area in extreme northwest Ohio has had a set of special bass fishing restrictions in place for decades, and these rules have produced one of the best bass fisheries in terms of the number of fish caught per angler hour.

Jeff Tyson, the program administrator for the Ohio Division of Wildlife’s Lake Erie fisheries unit in Sandusky, said he believes the bass regulations on the big lake are producing the desired results.

“My sense is that things have improved, that the bass fishery is improving,” Tyson said. “As we dig into the assessment data on that and take a closer look at the status of the stock, we’ll have more detailed information, but catch rates have certainly gone up.”

Tyson said that some of the data he has looked at concerning the Lake Erie bass fishery suggest that the age distribution is stronger than in the recent past.

“We’re seeing more younger fish, which is a good thing. Those are the ones that will grow into bigger fish.”

He added that while the 2013 catch rate for bass on Lake Erie was down slightly over the 2012 numbers, the overall trend has been increasing for the past decade. The 2012 and 2013 catch rates were the highest recorded since 2004.

Tyson said the evaluation of the bass population is ongoing, but that an expansion of the largemouth bass numbers in and around the lake has clearly taken place. While smallmouth bass and their trophy fishery around the Lake Erie Islands has long been one of Erie’s primary badges of honor, Tyson said a shift took place on the angler side in 2013, when more fishermen targeted largemouth on the lake than smallmouth.

“The largemouth story is something that has occurred over past half decade, and that is that the population is expanding a lot,” Tyson said. “We’re seeing them at pretty much every site where we sample, and even in the open-lake sites. The fish are there. They absolutely are there.”

Even with the opening of the bass season on the Lake Erie waters less than 24 hours away, anglers are still encouraged to immediately release as many bass as possible. The fishery will be further strengthened and enhanced with each successful release.

Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6068.

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