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Smallmouth bass season subpar in north country; reasons unclear

September 29th, 2015 | Posted by admin

From the Watertown Daily Times. Published on Sunday, September 27th, 2015

For Robert W. Dick, captain of Moby Dick Charters in Henderson since 1987 and an angler since he was “old enough to hold a pole,” this year’s bass fishing season has been the worst he’s ever seen.

Smallmouth bass still can be found, and some of the bass have been bigger than usual, but Mr. Dick and other anglers on Lake Ontario said they have had to search much longer than in years past to pull in the coveted fish.

“Guys are spending lots and lots of money going place to place trying to find them, and not finding any results at all,” Mr. Dick said.

Charter captains on the St. Lawrence River also have found their catches lacking.

“Usually it’s an easy target — you get over them and you put them in the boat,” said Paul J. Corbett, a captain in Clayton. “This year it’s been a grind. If you can get a couple, you’ve had a good day.”

A combination of invasive species, predators and uneven water temperatures that lingered well into August might be part of the problem, according to state officials and anglers. However, they said, there is little in the way of direct links to the decreased count this bass season, which started June 20 and ends Nov. 30.

Data for the full season will be released in March.

“A lot of people are wondering what is causing it,” Mr. Dick said of the drop. “They don’t know.”

Fishing is big business in New York. Statewide, the most recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service census of sporting activity, in 2011, found that fishing-related expenditures totaled $2 billion that year, a part of $41.8 billion in angling expenditures nationwide.

And the north country is home to several large fishing tournaments that draw people from inside and outside of the region. The biggest of those: the Evan Williams Bourbon Bassmaster Elite, held July 30 through Aug. 2 on the St. Lawrence River in Waddington.

At the beginning of this year, Bassmaster ranked the Thousand Islands region as the eighth-best in the United States in its top 100 lakes list.

But despite the high rating, variability has marked the species’ existence in the region.

Statistics from the state Department of Environmental Conservation show the numbers of smallmouth bass in the St. Lawrence River have ranged widely from the mid-1970s until now. The fish’s levels peaked in 1988, fell from 1996 to 2004, and generally rose after 2005, peaking in 2012.

“Every year you have to adjust,” said Myrle R. Bauer, a captain in Clayton for 24 years. “This year it’s a little harder.”

In the eastern basin of Lake Ontario, the DEC said, the 2014 smallmouth catch rate was at its worst since 2004. The department said cooler water temperatures, which can negatively affect fish distribution, might have played a role.

Observers said a large influx of round gobies, an invasive species that eats fish eggs, might be affecting the bass population. However, they note, the gobies are eaten by the bass, helping to increase the latter fish’s size.

The number of cormorants — ubiquitous waterfowl that prey on bass — also has created problems, though the birds’ impact has been lessened in recent years due to DEC egg addling and nest destruction, plus a switch by the birds to eating gobies, according to DEC officials.

Theodore R. “Rusty” Hinckley, a fourth-generation charter captain in Cape Vincent, said bass fishing has been touch-and-go through the years.

“We hope it cycles,” he said. “Everything comes back.”

Frank M. Flack, the DEC’s Region 6 fisheries manager, said anglers have complained about a drop in smallmouth bass and northern pike in the river, but he has heard fewer specific issues about Lake Ontario.

Though quantities have dropped, he said the fish that have been found are bigger than anticipated.

“What we have out there is a lot of bigger fish, but less of them,” Mr. Flack said.

One part-time captain in Henderson, James H. McGowan, said the bass have been getting bigger and bigger in the past few years.

“For trophy fishing, it was an outstanding year,” he said. “The bass, when they were found, they were huge.”

Regardless of water body, the shortage of bass has caused charter fishing captains to adjust expectations to keep customers.

Mr. Corbett said he at times has pushed customers to other targets.

“The goal is to get fish,” he said. “If it’s not bass, it’s pike. If it’s not pike, it’s perch.”

He said he was trying to focus on what he could control.

“We can’t control Mother Nature,” he said. “If the fish are there, we’ll make it work.”

Mr. Dick said he hasn’t seen any dip in his customers, because many who travel are flexible with what they catch. He said Henderson Harbor’s walleye and lake trout populations have been very good this season.

“They want to catch something, and they know the action is excellent,” he said.

Steven R. LaPan, who leads the DEC’s Great Lakes fisheries section in Cape Vincent, said that despite the reduced bass catch-load this season, patience is the key.

“Next year it could be completely different,” he said.

Mr. LaPan said the problem would become more pressing if the trend continues for three or four more years.

“Then we’re all concerned,” he said. “The stars would be aligning, and not in a good way.”

That patience could be tested, as concerns are rising among anglers that next summer might have a similar outcome as this year.

With the Farmers’ Almanac predicting bitterly cold temperatures for the eastern side of the Great Lakes for another winter, Patrick J. Clarke, a second-generation charter captain in Clayton, said “all of us guides are kind of cringing,” due to the effects of cooler waters on bass movements and feeding levels.

Though he and fellow charter operators have weathered poor bass hauls in summers past thanks to the quality of other fish, he said it eventually could have an impact on people considering where to travel.

“That person — that first-timer who doesn’t do as well as they thought — they may not come back,” Mr. Clarke said.

smallmouth bass abundance graph

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