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Why Are We Keeping Smallmouth?
Fishing Editor Dean Shadley encounters unsportsmanlike conduct and is less than thrilled.
originally published October 29, 2020
I had to let my blood pressure settle before I began to write this article. My day started out pretty good. My friend Rick Cockrum and I were heading out to fish one of my favorite streams. Within the first half hour I’d caught my biggest smallie of the summer.
The handsome fish was briefly admired and set free. We decided to move to a different spot on the river, that’s when my day started going downhill.
Rick and I were heading upstream to hit a couple of good holes that usually produce some action. I very rarely see anyone on this stretch of the river, that wasn’t the case today.
As Rick and I looked upstream we saw another fisherman heading toward us. The man was dragging a minnow bucket and a stringer of fish. It was obvious he was using live bait. I told my buddy “I bet this guy is keeping smallmouth.”
Using live minnows or crawfish is a simple and deadly way to catch smallmouth bass. It might be too deadly. Bass tend to swallow live bait, even those returned to the water often die.
We exchanged pleasantries and I asked him if he had any luck. He said he just wanted a few fish to eat and raised the stringer of fish shown in the photo. That was the moment my blood pressure went through the roof. I was furious.
Instead of telling him what I really thought of his stringer of fish I bit my tongue and asked if I could take a picture of those beautiful fish. I saved the lecture and wished him well. I felt sure a conversation concerning catch and release fishing would have fallen on deaf ears.
I tried to convince myself that I had no reason to be angry, after all he wasn’t breaking any laws. It didn’t work. I was still pissed.
I haven’t taken a smallmouth bass home to eat since I was a teenager. In my opinion smallmouth are a treasure and should be treated as such. I always use barbless hooks, handle them as little as possible and return them to the water as quickly as I can.
So what does that make me, a saint, an arrogant fly fisherman? I’m not sure. What I do know is that small streams can’t take much of that kind of pressure. Some of the smallmouth on the stringer were probably five to seven years old.
They were the brood stock of this smallish bass stream. Are those five bass bound for the frying pan going to greatly impact the fish population on this stream, probably not. My fear is that this fisherman will return. He might also invite his buddies. Why not share, he had a hell of a day.
When I see a stringer of smallmouth I’m tempted to ask the fisherman what compelled them to fish for smallmouth. My questions would be “do you need the food, do you love the flavor of smallmouth bass, or do you enjoy the sporting aspect of catching them?”
I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess the vast majority would say they really love catching them. If that is indeed the case, why would they keep one? Smallmouth bass are too precious a commodity to catch only once.
I’d like to think they don’t understand the biology of smallmouth bass. They don’t realize that a mature bass may be 6 to 8 years old. They don’t understand that removing the mature fish damages future bass populations. I’d like to think if they knew these facts they’d quit eating them.
Where do we go from here? If you believe as I do you believe that there needs to be some significant changes in the law. I would suggest greater protection for smaller streams and rivers, or catch and release fishing, or possibly artificial lures only.
If you're on the minnow fisherman’s side and think I’m way out of line, don’t blame me if your next smallmouth outing ends with an empty stringer.