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Bass Fishing Shines in BAIT Report
By DAVID RAINER
The old adage “you should have been here yesterday” doesn’t apply to Alabama as far as bass fishing is concerned.
Results from the 2008 Bass Anglers Information Team (BAIT) have been compiled and it’s been another banner year for bass fishing in Alabama, known worldwide for its abundant and productive bass lakes.
“It was another really good year,” said Damon Abernethy, Fisheries Development Coordinator with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division. “Not every lake was good, but overall we saw improvement. Last year we reported it was the best year we’d had since we’ve been keeping these records (1986) and this year was even a little better than that. And we have 45 public reservoirs in the state. It’s not hard to find a place to fish around here.”
The Largemouth Bass Virus (LMBV) swept through the state’s reservoirs in the late ‘90s and had a devastating effect on the larger adults in the species. The recovery, however, has been well documented through the BAIT report.
The report determines five categories of angling success in bass tournaments around the state. The categories are: percent success, average bass weight, bass per angler per day, pounds per angler per day and numbers of hours it took to catch a five-pound or larger bass.
“The number of hours to catch a five-pound bass is still going down and it’s almost down to the numbers we saw before the Largemouth Bass Virus hit,” Abernethy said. “The average before the virus hit was 254 hours and it was 271 this year. You’re getting down there so close that it’s not even detectable. In my opinion, we’re back to where we were before the Largemouth Bass Virus. And it’s still falling. Who knows, it may keep getting better.
“Pounds of fish caught per day is up, but that’s mainly a function of the number of fish being caught. People are catching and weighing in more fish. You can see that since the virus hit, the pounds per day and number of fish have been on a pretty steady increase, although it’s taken 10 years to get back to normal. It’s not uncommon, when you lose a lot of big fish, the remaining fish seem to reproduce a lot more to compensate for that.”
Of course, Abernethy quickly pointed out that fisheries science in not exact, and there are likely other factors involved in some of the numbers.
“The fishermen may be getting better at catching bass,” he said. “There is equipment available to us now that we didn’t have in the past. These Navionics chips really equalizes things. People who used to spend days and days trying to find offshore structure – because it’s so productive – now have underwater topo maps integrated into their sonar/GPS units. You can find humps, ridges, creek channels, whatever. Before people couldn’t or wouldn’t put forth the kind of effort to find that structure. Maybe that’s why they’re catching more fish.
“But you’ve got to have fish to catch. From that perspective, everything looks good. The fish are healthy and are reproducing and growing just fine. We’ve got no problems to report.”
Abernethy said the “percent success” category can skew the overall rankings, especially on lakes where there are length limits – Demopolis, Guntersville, Harris, Jackson at Florala, Lewis Smith (Smith Lake), Little Bear Creek, Pickwick, Eufaula (Walter F. George), West Point, Wilson, and some Alabama State Public Fishing Lakes and federally controlled small lakes.
“The top three are real infertile lakes,” he said. “There is an abundance of smaller fish, so it’s easy to go there and catch a fish. Basically, that’s all that’s telling you. One thing to keep in mind is we do have some length-limit lakes. That can bias those numbers a bit, because they may catch fish that have to be released because they don’t meet the minimum length requirements.
“Each of the five quality indicators are weighted equally. To anglers, they wouldn’t rate those equally. Obviously, they’re interested in catching larger fish. In most tournaments, you get to weigh in your five biggest fish, so it’s important to catch big fish, not a lot of fish. But for the purposes of this report, we’re just compiling the information they give us. It does allow us to monitor the performance of these lakes over time.”
Abernethy said Pickwick Lake in the state’s northwest corner seems to be the impoundment that is really on the climb.
“Since about 2006 the fishing has improved considerably,” he said. “In fact, I just took a trip up there recently. I was up there three days, and we caught probably 300 bass. There was nothing huge, but it’s a great place to fish.”
However, Guntersville still holds the title for stringers of whopper bass, and the results from the BASS tournament held there in May only enhanced that reputation. Aaron Martens, who resides in Leeds, won the event with a four-day total of 107 pounds and 8 ounces.
“Guntersville continues to get better and better,” Abernethy said. “It’s basically been improving since ’04. Of course, these lakes are cyclic. I’m really curious to see what Guntersville is going to do the next couple of years. What we had this spring is something we haven’t had in a long time – a lot of rain. The lake stayed dirty with high water all spring. I wouldn’t be surprised if that didn’t cause a decline in the grass coverage, which will probably affect the fishing negatively. It’s not going to affect the fishery. It’s going to affect the fishing. It wouldn’t surprise me to see those numbers fall a little over the next few years. Either way, Guntersville is an awesome bass lake. It’s full of fish. It’s full of big fish.”
Abernethy said the BASS tournament produced impressive numbers other than Martens’ winning total. He also said the pro anglers couldn’t have picked a better time to be on Guntersville.
“Overall for the 100 anglers, the average size per bass was over four pounds,” Abernethy said. “That’s pretty remarkable. On the first day, 63 fishermen weighed in over 20 pounds.
“The chances of ever repeating a tournament like that Bassmaster Elite are probably pretty slim. They had 10 inches of rain the week before in the Tennessee River drainage, so TVA was pulling a lot of water. They hit it right in the middle of the shad spawn, had high pressure during most of the tournament and the water was a little dirty from the rain and current – all of which combined to make the fish more aggressive, predictable and approachable. It was absolutely ideal fishing conditions, about as close to perfection as you’re going to find.”
“We’ve been seeing an increase on Mitchell the last few years,” Abernethy said. “That really doesn’t surprise us. We sampled that lake periodically and knew we had a strong ’01 year class. Those fish are moving through the system. The fish are growing larger and larger. At some point, those fish are going to be dying off, so we’ll probably see that lake cycle down a little in the coming years. It’s not going to be bad, but it’s not going to be as good.
“Jordan is fishing as good as it ever has but it fell in the rankings. Just because a lake had dropped down in the rankings doesn’t mean the quality of fishing has gone down. It may just mean other lakes have improved and jumped up above it. If you look at how Harris performed, it’s been improving for a long time. The size of fish is larger and people are catching more fish. We’re getting more reports off that lake and they’re from locals who know how to fish the lake. Aliceville was No. 1 last year and we’re getting more reports from that lake.”
Unfortunately for those who fish in extreme southwest Alabama, the Mobile-Tensaw Delta is mired at the bottom of the rankings again.
“The Mobile Delta continues to be on the bottom and that’s probably where it will stay,” Abernethy said. “We’ve got a project going on right now with Auburn looking at that population to determine why they don’t live very long or grow very large. We’re trying to determine if anything can be done to improve the quality of that fishery.”
Abernethy said he is really encouraged by the 2008 BAIT report, but he is somewhat disappointed by the lack of support from some bass anglers in Alabama. Less than half of the tournament reports received were from Alabama clubs.
“We’ve got lakes that are weak as far as reporting goes,” he said. “We’d really like to get those numbers up and get more clubs involved because the accuracy of the data increases dramatically as the number of reports increases. West Alabama has some excellent bass lakes but we don’t get many reports from those lakes. Some of the Tennessee River lakes are weak on reporting. For instance, we’ve got a lot of reports from Pickwick (42) but 37 of them are from Mississippi. We only got four reports from Wilson in 2008, and they have that many tournaments up there each weekend.
“It’s frustrating that we have to depend on other states for the bulk of our reports because so many of our own anglers are not participating in the program. They collect all the information we need at the weigh-in. It just takes five minutes to fill out the card and then send it to me. It can even be sent in via e-mail. I want to thank all the clubs that realize the importance of this program and the value it adds in Alabama’s bass management program. Most anglers don’t realize that we’ve only got 12 biologists statewide to monitor and manage these 45 reservoirs. We rely heavily on these reports to fill in the gaps to help us monitor these lakes. This survey is very important to us in managing our fish populations.”
Visit www.outdooralabama.com/fishing/freshwater/where/reservoirs/quality/bait2008.pdf to view the complete BAIT report.
PHOTO: Tracy Beall pulls a chunky, 5-pound largemouth out of Lake Eufaula, one of the lakes that has enhanced Alabama's reputation for the best bass fishing in the nation.