"Bayou Bill" Scifres
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Protecting Indiana Bass Fisheries
Copyright © 2003 by Bill Scifres

There can be little doubt that the Indiana largemouth bass fishery is in better shape today than ever before. That is to say that there are more bass than ever.

The big question: How did it happen?

“Regulations!” says William “Bill” James, chief of the Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) Fisheries Section. “That’s how it happened!”

James, who has been involved in managing the finny denizens of Hoosierland for more than 30 years, says modern-day fisheries management (emphasis on largemouth bass) harks back to the mid ‘60s when the late Woodrow “Woody” Fleming was the first non-political director of the DFW.

He explained that Monroe Reservoir, Indiana’s largest and probably best largemouth honeyhole (both then and now), was impounded in the fall of 1964. 

The DFW ran smack-dab into the task of stocking this new 10,780-acre fishing hole.

Past stocking procedures had largely been to dump in truck loads of fingerling and wait to see what happened. Although such stocking procedures always provided some bass fishing, the long-term results were not always great.

Fleming and his henchmen--including the late Gene Bass and Frank Lockard--decided to change the procedure at Monroe. In that initial stocking (with the Monroe pool standing through that first winter at about 4,000 surface acres of water), the DFW brass worked out a plan for stocking 1.4 adult largemouth bass (ready to spawn) for each acre of water. 

But there was more to the plan. The reservoir would be closed to fishing until Jan. 1, 1967.

When the spring of 1965 arrived, Monroe, doing its flood-control job, rose to its pool-stage level of 538 feet above sea level and engulfed some 15 miles of two forks of Salt Creek--from Harrodsburg on the south to Belmont on the north.

Moreover, those adult bass that had been stocked the fall before had fanned out over the lake and found inundated weed patches, farm fields and sundry other rough county to their liking. They spawned with a vengeance, and when millions of eggs popped in early summer you could not approach water’s edge anyplace at Monroe without seeing a swarm of young largemouth.

With so much food available, largemouth fry from that first spawning, exhibited unbelievable growth rates--many 10 inches or longer and ready to spawn the following spring.

The ban on fishing remained through two more springs of spawning and before the reservoir was finally opened to angling, adults from the original stocking were knocking on the five-six-pound door. The lake literally crawled with two-to-three-pounders.

Law enforcement agencies of Monroe and Lawrence counties were going crazy trying to direct traffic. The Department of Natural Resources had failed to establish parking lots and crazed anglers were merely getting as far off the county roads as possible and leaving cars, pickup trucks and sundry other vehicles sit while they fished. Hundreds of parking tickets were issued. To have called it a madhouse would have been complimentary.

Although the Hoosier bass army was going crazy at Monroe, I didn’t get there until Jan 11. Sugar Creek Bay was the hot spot, but anglers were catching fish from one end of the lake to the other.

Our party of five put in two large flatbottom boats with 20-horse outboards at Fairfax  Ramp just before noon, and headed for Sugar Creek Bay. We encountered skim ice as we approached the bay. As we drew closer, the ice got thicker, but not safe for walking on it. We tried the fishing at the mouth of the bay, but Tom Weddle, fish and wildlife manager at Monroe, wanted to fish a quarter of a mile further into the bay.

He unlatched the motor, rammed the big flat-bottom up on the ice and we “mushed” it over wavering ice that was shipping water. At a spot near some inundated willows we sat in the boat, knocked holes in the ice with oars (nobody expected to see ice) and tightlined live bass minnows to the bottom (about 18 feet). Before we were hardly started the fishing quickly turned into a circus.

The other two anglers in the second boat followed suit and when we ran out of minnows just before dark we had kept a five-fish limit of 30 fish (six each), the largest topping five pounds.

Back at Fairfax Ramp we lined the fish up and I shot some pictures with a brand-spanking new camera.

Unfortunately, neither those pictures, nor the action shots, came through. The film had not been advancing in my new camera--excuse enough to have another go at it before the spring thaw. Good as the winter fishing at Monroe was, it was only the tip of the iceberg.

When spring came anglers by the thousands--perhaps hundreds of thousands--descended on Monroe from one end of Indiana to the other, and from many surrounding states.

A boat, while a good way to go, was not necessary. Just walk to water’s edge anywhere on the lake and throw in an artifical. Success was assured and immediate.

Fleming once told me a story about observing the action one afternoon at Crooked Creek (the far north end of the lake).

He said this man pulled up in a pickup truck, got his new fishing pole (spinning outfit) out of its wrappings, put on the reel, tied on a lure and walked to the edge of the water. He knew so little about his outfit that he first tried to cast with the reel on top of the rod.

With some help from another angler, he mastered that problem. In a few minutes he had caught his limit of six bass and stowed his catch in his truck, with the tackle.

This new angling expert came back to water’s edge, and (with thumbs in the galluses of his bib overalls) launched a seminar on bass fishing for other neophytes.

That was the beginning of the new shake for the largemouth bass in Indiana. But it was by no means the end.

James, known by his peers as BJ, came on the scene in 1971 as a fisheries biologist aide, and filled several jobs before becoming chief of the Fisheries Section. 

Almost before he had unpacked his gear as a full-time employe, he started telling his superiors that the simple regulations that provided no protection for largemouth bass were not in the best interest of the species. His ideas did not fall on deft ears. Although regulations had provided little or no protection for bass for many years, discretionary powers of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) director in 1973 established a 14-inch minimum size limit on largemouth bass on all waters owned or controlled by the state resources agency.

“We didn’t want to make fishing regulations as complicated as they were in some states,” James says. “and we still don’t.”

But as he pointed out recently, the idea was to keep more bass in the water for longer periods of time for two reasons. Recruitment, producing young and giving them a chance to become part of the fishery, was a primary focus. But growing bigger bass also was a consideration, and it still is--now more than ever before.

That first 14-inch minimum size limit on largemouth bass on state owned or controlled waters did its job on many waters, but James says it was not the final answer to bass management problems in all waters.

It did, however lead to the slot-size limit, a bass management tool that James sees as one of the most important innovations his agency has used.

The 12-to-15-inch slot size limit was instituted on seven smaller lakes of the southern part of the state in 1986. Although the regulation that gave bass between 12 and 15 inches complete protection on those seven lakes was not considered a raging success, it appeared to be doing its job.

Thus, Patoka Reservoir, which had a burgeoning population of bass between six and 11 inches that bordered on stunting, was added to the list in ’89.

It was a strange twist, but biologists told the anglers that they could help improve the bass fishing at Patoka by catching and keeping some 60,000 of the sub-12-inchers at Patoka that year. Hoosier anglers did the job that first year, and the slot size limit sparked the recovery of the bass fishery at the state’s second largest inland body of water. 

Patoka now is under a 15-inch minimum size limit for largemouth, which James says more or less explains his agency’s philosophy of largemouth bass management.

That, of course is: “Certain tools for certain jobs.”

“There is no single tool that will fit all management situations,” Jones says, adding that his agency strives to find the right management tool for each lake.

It is easy to see that such management tactics can lead to changes.

The last round of bass regulations became effective in the spring of 2000. These regulations take the realistic approach of lumping all black bass (largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass into one category with minimum size limits of 14 inches in lakes and 12 inches in rivers. The daily creel limit is five bass.

Exceptions are waters on which there are special regulations that are designed to do special job. These still include the 12-to-15-inch slot limit on some waters, and several others where more stringent regulations are designed to create or maintain quality bass fisheries.

All are spelled out in the DFW’s “2003 Indiana Fishing Guide,” which is available free at most license vendors.

Untrue to popular public misconception, changes in fishing regulations and other management procedures involving fish and wildlife resources do not pop up every spring like morels. Governmental philosophy, and in some cases law, requires that the DFW and DNR seek input from concerned individuals and organizations on their proposals. This usually means regulations changes are two years in the making.

Most Hoosier take their ideas on fishing regulations to the public meetings staged to give input to those who have their own ideas on management problems. However, a few individuals or groups take matter into their own hands, however unlawful their actions may be.

Indiana law prohibits the stocking of fish and other animals without a permit, but some individuals have tried to improve the bass fishing by introducing gizzard shad in some Hoosier waters--notably, Patoka and Monroe reservoirs, and such smaller lakes Glenn Flint (Putnam County), Dogwood (Daviess County), Waveland (Montgomery County), and West Boggs Creek (Martin County).

DNR officials point out that it is very difficult to learn who may be responsible for such acts, but the joint parks and recreation organization that operates West Boggs Creek Park has offered a reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for midnight stockings of shad in that lake. It also is likely that the DNR’s TIP, Turn-In-A-Poacher program would pay for information on unlawful stocking of fish in any lake.

The popular theory on the “midnight stocking” of gizzard shad in the aforementioned lakes leans toward crediting bass enthusiasts. Panfish anglers probably would not be responsible because gizzard shad wreck the angling for such species.

Unfortunately, those who stock gizzard shad in Hoosier impoundments do not understand quite all they know about shad.

Before these unlawful stockings started, there was much talk about the great prey values of threadfin shad in reservoirs and lakes of southern states. More unfortunately, threadfin shade and gizzard shad differ in many ways.

The threadfin, for example, seldom is large enough to outgrow its usefulness as forage for game fish. Neither does it  tolerate cold winter water.

The gizzard shad, on the other hand, outgrows its usefulness as forage for bass in a single year, winters over very well in our reservoirs, and competes with the fry of many species--especially bluegills, redear sunfish, crappies and even largemouth bass--for food, most often zooplankton. Our DFW has experimented with threadfin shad without success.

These factors play against the possibility that the presence of gizzard shad in a lake will create a better bass fishery, James says. He adds that even short-term bass benefits are not likely, and that midnight stockings are certain to wreck a good bluegill-bass fishery.

[Note: This contribution appears in the June 2003 issue of Indiana Fish & Game Magazine.]

All columns are copyrighted by Bill Scifres and may not be reproduced in any form without prior permission from the author.  For reproduction permission and media usage fees, contact: Bill Scifres, 6420 East 116th Street, Fishers, IN 46038, E-mail: billscifres@aol.com

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