Feel free to talk politics or opine about religion, but in certain circles the topic of whether or not to fish for bass during the spawn can cause more friction than many other hot-button issues. It’s an argument that pits anglers against other anglers, with one side convinced that targeting these big, and sometimes easily caught fish is detrimental to future bass populations. The other side—citing the number of eggs laid by a single bass—sees the potential for trophy-sized bass as a seasonal windfall with no documented repercussions.
Dr. Keith Jones, Director of Fish Research at Berkley®, spends his days documenting bass behavior to help develop more effect baits. As a byproduct of this research, he has spent a lot of time observing bass during the spawn. While he doesn’t take sides on this argument, he does offer plenty of scientific facts.
“Fishing during the spawn definitely has an impact on the individual fish. The research shows that with largemouth and smallmouth bass – probably for spotted bass, too – if you catch the males that are guarding nests, the longer you fight him the less likely he is to go back and guard the nest and that leaves the brood subject to predation,” Jones said. “If you catch a male off a nest and release him and he returns to the nest and the brood has not been preyed upon, he is more likely to resume his role guarding the nest. But if even half of the brood has been preyed upon, he is less likely to resume the guarding behavior.”
A successful bass nest can contain from 5,000 to 40,000 eggs, with the odds of a bass reaching trophy size (widely regarded as the 10-pound mark) being 1 in 1,000,000. Few fish live to be one year old, mostly because they are eaten by other bass. Because of this, limiting the number of juvenile bass in a fishery through fishing the spawn would not a have a major impact. Instead, it would take several years of a concentrated effort to remove spawning fish for the results to be seen. Practicing catch and release, Jones added, does more to protect the bass population than not fishing the spawn.
In the south, where the growing periods are expanded, bass can reach an age of sexual maturity within the first year; in the north it can take 2-3 years. The odds of a bass reaching one year are far greater than a bass reaching 2-3 years. This means that there will be more spawning fish in the south than there are in the north, making it less likely that fishing the spawn will have a negative impact on the population. Jones pointed to fisheries like Lake Sam Reyburn in Texas where spawn fishing is commonplace yet the lake regularly yields high numbers of fish. Because a lake can support only so many nests, when a bass is removed from the spawning cycle, another fish will be there to take its place.
“Some people will point out fisheries that allow fishing during the spawn and see that the bass population hasn’t crashed because it is allowed,” Jones said. “But on the other hand, one doesn’t know how good it might be if it were not allowed.”