ARTICLES

THE RAGS-TO-RICHES STORY OF THE LOWLY BASS

The aristocratic trout may have built Canada's reputation as a fishing paradise. But today's anglers are in full cry after the scrapping roughneck cousin of the sunfish

FRED BODSWORTH October 24 1959
ARTICLES

THE RAGS-TO-RICHES STORY OF THE LOWLY BASS

The aristocratic trout may have built Canada's reputation as a fishing paradise. But today's anglers are in full cry after the scrapping roughneck cousin of the sunfish

FRED BODSWORTH October 24 1959

THE RAGS-TO-RICHES STORY OF THE LOWLY BASS

The aristocratic trout may have built Canada's reputation as a fishing paradise. But today's anglers are in full cry after the scrapping roughneck cousin of the sunfish

FRED BODSWORTH

Canada's reputation as a fisherman’s paradise may have been founded on the trout, but that reputation is being maintained today far more by the smallmouth black bass. From the prairies eastward — especially in Ontario and Quebec where the most fishing is done — an unnoticed revolution has dethroned the sleek, aristocratic speckled trout.

Sporting-goods stores are selling three times as many bass lures as any other kind. According to Dr. W. 13. Scott, a senior fisheries scientist at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, eastern Canadian sportsmen are now most interested in the bass, a scrapping roughneck of humble pedigree closely related to sunfish and crappies.

This switch in fishing loyalties hasn't happened overnight. The bass has been an up-and-coming challenger of the trout for more than half a century. Eighty years ago pioneer angler Dr. James A. Henshall, in his classic Book of the Black Bass, described the smallmouth as “inch for inch and pound for pound the gamest fish that swims.”

In the trout heyday when Henshall was vainly touting the bass, no one paid him much attention. Except for boys with willow poles, angling remained for many decades a sport for a handful of specialists, mostly fly fishermen, who could afford the time and money to develop real skill. For these, the angling elite, the trout was and still is the favorite, for it takes finesse and know'how' to be a consistent catcher of trout.

But, largely since the war, the angling ranks have undergone a change. More money, more leisure and easier travel for everyone have made angling less and less a rich man's hobby. The typical angler today is not a specialist with a tray full of flossy, imitation flies; he’s just an ordinary guy who wants to catch a few fish during vacation and he’s not particularly interested in how he catches them. The smallmouth bass was made for this kind of take-it-or-leave-it fisherman, ten times as common as any other today.

For one thing, bass thrive in much warmer water than trout. In summer the trout are likely to be sulking in the deep, cold holes from which only the experts can

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The lowly bass

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lure them. But all summer, warm water or not, the pugnacious and ever-hungry smallmouth is on the prowl for dinner. During the hot vacation months when the amateur anglers are out in full force, bass is the principal game fish they can catch.

And the smallmouth is a fortunate, contradictory combination of teasing unpredictability and uninhibited recklessness. He’s fussy and cunning enough to make fishing interesting, yet not so difficult that the novice gets discouraged and goes back to his golf clubs. At times he’ll pass up a luscious gob of worms and then smash viciously at a plug that shouldn’t fool any fish.

There are times when he’ll attack anything that moves. Angler-writer Greg Clark tells this one about one of those days when bass arc striking at literally everything. Greg’s party attached hooks to the following makeshift lures: a cob of corn, a wiener, a toothbrush, a set of false teeth, a war medal and the top of a sardine can. They caught bass on all except the wiener. “I guess,” says Greg, “we should have put mustard on it.”

Though small compared to the Atlantic salmon, steelhead and musky, the smallmouth. for its size, has more fight than any of them. The trout may offer more challenge and require more skill to entice onto a hook, but for all its fame the trout isn’t as spectacular a scrapper. The smallmouth’s fighting tactics are an unpolished, rough-and-tumble combination of the trout’s swift, underwater dash and the famous, surface-rolling leap of the musky and salmon. Frequently a hooked smallmouth will erupt to the surface like a miniature depth charge and jump three feet out of the water in that first explosive struggle for freedom.

It is not only a superb fighter but a hardy, prolific fellow, more numerous today than ever before. The smallmouth has become the mainstay of fishing in many regions where it never occurred originally. In fact, in many places it is too numerous, and fisheries scientists are coming around to the view that the bass would be better off and the fishing better if more of them were caught. As a result, some of the traditional restrictions on bass fishing, once thought necessary to protect them, are being abolished.

To understand the reasons for this about - face in fish - management techniques, we must take a closer look at the smallmouth’s history and way of life.

The smallmouth and its cousin, the largemouth, are technically not true bass at all. The name properly belongs to a salt-water family of which the familiar Lake Erie white or silver bass is the only common inland representative. The smallmouth, largemouth and their smaller relative, the rock bass, are actually members of the sunfish family, although they have been called ”bass” so long that the name is rightfully theirs except in a narrowly scientific sense.

T he smallmouth is a deep - chested, spiny-finned, pug-nosed fish with none of the trout’s streamlining and beauty. Its color varies in different waters, but it is usually a bronze green, brightening almost to yellow on the belly, with darker vertical stripes or blotches on the sides.

Only in dark, peat-stained water is he really black, and the name "green bass,” sometimes given the largemouth. w'ould be a better name for both of them.

The largemouth is definitely a different species and not, as some jokers claim, just a female smallmouth. The largemouth’s mouth extends back beyond the eye, the smallmouth’s doesn’t; the largemouth has less contrasting pattern on its sides. lacking the dark vertical striping of the smallmouth. The largemouth thrives in warmer water and, since this lets it eat for a longer period each year, the average largemouth is bigger than the smallmouth.

Despite its weight advantage, the largemouth is not the blustering, spectacular fighter that the smallmouth is. Both occur throughout eastern North America from the Gulf States to northern Ontario, with more largemouth in the south, and more smallmouth in the north. In Ontario and Quebec the largemouth is a popular game fish in a few' regions, but in most areas the smallmouth is more numerous and "bass fishing” in Canada usually means smallmouth fishing.

The smallmouth’s original Canadian territory was much more restricted than it is today. It was confined to the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes drainage system of Ontario and Quebec, and mainly in the south because much of the north was cold-water-restricted to speckled and lake trout. The cutting of forests, building of dams, agricultural drainage and the drying up of cold springs produced warmer water less suitable for trout and permitted the bass to move northward. This bass invasion was often assisted by man because bass were frequently transplanted into waters where trout appeared to be thinning out. Algonquin Park and Lake of the Woods, for example, are regions in Ontario that had few or no bass originally but have good bass fishing today as a result of plantings made fifty or sixty years ago.

As its fame spread, the bass was transplanted more and more widely, first to other provinces and then throughout the world. Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and British Columbia, none of w'hich had black bass originally, now have enough to declare bass fishing seasons.

But Canada’s best bass fishing is still in Ontario and Quebec where the fish occurred naturally before man began scattering them all over the map. The best spots are Lake St. Clair. Lake Erie’s Long Point and Rondeau Bays. Lake Simcoe, the Kawartha and Rideau Lakes and the Thousand Islands region of the St. Lawrence. It is hoped that all the new shallow bays created by the St. Lawrence seaway will add another important chain of bass waters. Northern waters—Georgian Bay, Algonquin Park, Lake Nipissing and lakes farther west to Lake of the Woods — have fluctuating bass fishing, very good some years and poor in others. These waters are cooler; a cold summer wipes out most of a year’s reproduction.

There is perhaps no more eloquent proof of the black bass’ popularity than the trouble and expense that foreign fishery officials have gone to in obtaining breeding stock for their own waters. One of the earliest foreign transplantings was a shipment of 175 fingerlings which were nursed through a thirty-day Pacific crossing and released in the Philippines to establish a bass fishery in 1907. This fighting bronzeback has also been established in many parts of Britain, the Netherlands. Germany, France. Finland and South Africa.

In 1956. a tank of four hundred smallmouth fingerlings left Toronto by air for

Sweden. Thirty hours later, to the delight and relief of the Swedish fishing-tackle firms that arranged the transfer, the Canadian smallmouths were released in a Swedish lake — a far simpler transfer than those of the old days when bass had to be nursed and coddled throughout long ship journeys.

No records have been set yet by these transplanted fish. The biggest ones have come from U. S. waters. Bass activity and feeding are governed to a large extent by water temperatures. When water cools to less than fifty degrees, a temperature at which trout thrive, the bass begin getting lethargic and do little feeding. In winter in the north bass go into a state of semihibernation and stop feeding entirely. So, in the U. S., where warmer water provides a longer feeding season, bass grow faster and bigger.

The average Canadian largemouth is two to three pounds, the average smallmouth half a pound less, but every fishing season produces a few sixand sevenpounders. The record largemouth is a 33-inch 22-pounder caught in Georgia in 1932. The fish generally accepted today as the world’s record smallmouth is an 11-pound-15-ouncer caught in Tennessee in 1955.

A new Canadian smallmouth record is being established every few years and Canada may yet produce a world record. One embattled smallmouth that set a Canadian record was a swarthy veteran of Rock Lake, Algonquin Park, Ont., which became affectionately known as Old Black Joe. Though hooked several times, its savage fighting always threw the hook or broke the line and let it escape. Scores of fishermen spent vacations fishing for Old Black Joe and nothing else, but it began to look as if the old lunker were going to defy them all and die of old age. But age began to tell, the old fellow’s stamina began to wane and finally in September, 1949, it was caught cleanly and fairly on a fly rod with light tackle after a 25-minute battle by Edward J. Riley, of Lockport, N.Y. Old Black Joe was 23 inches long and his eight pounds, one ounce set a Canadian smallmouth record.

Two years later beginner’s luck toppled the Old Black Joe record. Nicholas Zaykowski, a hotel owner from Bradford, Ont., had never been fishing before when some friends took him to McCauley Lake on the eastern edge of Algonquin Park in September, 1951. They gave Zaykowski some instruction and then next morning, full of beginner’s enthusiasm, the hotelkeeper was out alone before breakfast trolling for lake trout. He hooked into a big fish which, even on his copper trolling line, took half an hour to land. Zaykowski didn’t know what he had caught and he was preparing to clean it for breakfast when his laterising companions discovered he had a gigantic smallmouth which they thought might set a record. Zaykowski and his fish were rushed to Madawaska where postmaster H. A. Chaddock witnessed the weighing. The bass was 23 inches long and weighed nine pounds two ounces, and a scale reading by a biologist showed it to be thirteen years old.

Zaykowski’s fish remained a Canadian record holder until 1954 when Engmar Anderson, of North Tonawanda, N.Y.. caught a smallmouth weighing nine pounds thirteen ounces in Birch Bark Lake, near Kinmount, Ont. This one, still two pounds below the U. S. record, remains the biggest Canadian smallmouth on record.

The male bass, for all its vicious fight and pugnacity, is nature’s prize example of a henpecked husband. Bass are devot-

ed and faithful homemakers, constructing a nest in which the eggs are laid and the young cared for, but it is the male who does all the work. When water temperatures rise to sixty degrees in May or June each male smallmouth feels a homcmaking urge. By fanning with his tail he cleans out a saucer-shaped nest about three feet across on a sandy or gravelly area of stream or lake bottom. Then, by some process of wooing that only a bass understands, he induces a female to deposit eggs in his nest. As soon as the egg-laying is completed, the female gads off and leaves the male in charge. He becomes a ferocious guardian and remains devotedly at his nest, recklessly attacking every potential enemy that comes near, not even leaving to feed.

Male bass at this time will even attack swimmers. One of them a few years ago near Beaverton on Lake Simcoe repeatedly sent bathers scurrying ashore with bitten legs and ankles. Finally an annoyed swimmer caught the bass on a hook and line, carried it several hundred feet down the shore and released it. The swimmer walked back to enjoy a more peaceful swim only to find that the bass had returned ahead of him and was again attacking all intruders. The swimmers gave up.

If the water remains warm, the eggs hatch in three to six days and the male then has a family of from a few hundred to a couple of thousand tiny bass fry to protect. The youngsters at first eat microscopic water plants and animals and if the water is fertile and the feeding good they grow to half an inch in tw'o weeks. About this time the male leaves them to fend for themselves.

Their growth rate can vary w'idely, depending on the food available and the competition for it. Young bass soon switch to larger food such as aquatic insects. The faster-growing ones, before long, are eating their own brothers and sisters.

Once the male abandons his family, life for the teeming bass fry becomes an almost hopeless struggle for survival. Practically all must be eaten by bigger fish at some time before maturity to provide the foodstuff that will produce a couple of big ones. A pair of bass may produce and fertilize twenty thousand eggs in a five-year adult life span, yet only two of that twenty thousand need survive to maturity to replace adults that die.

The theory underlying size restrictions has been that ‘they should let small bass grow to maturity and spawn at least once or twice before anglers remove them.

But scientists now suspect that such restrictions, as the minimum - size limit are letting too many bass survive which reduces instead of increases the number of big bass available to anglers. Bassfishing restrictions arc being relaxed everywhere, in some areas totally abolished.

The scientific reasoning behind it all is this: First of all, bass are very prolific and a few spawning pairs are capable of producing enough eggs to keep the average bass lake well populated. The main factor that determines the number of adult bass in a lake is not the amount of spawning nor the amount of fishing; it is the amount of food available. The fishfood chain starts with microscopic plants like algae. These are eaten by very small water animals such as protozoa. These in turn are food for aquatic insects which are then food for small fish which, in their turn, become food for the big game fish like bass and trout. The most important link in the chain is the first one. the microscopic plants, for this is the base on which all other water life de-

pends, and its richness is determined by the water’s mineral content and fertility, for water fertility, like that of soil, can vary. In a lake where these various foodchain links are in proper balance, the removal of a game fish by an angler should merely reduce the pressure on the food supply and leave room for another fish to grow up and take its place.

During the last ten years more than twenty U. S. states have drastically liberalized fishing for bass and some other species as well, with encouraging results. For a few years, Canadian game officials

remained undecided, because there was some question as to whether it would work as well in Canada's colder, less fertile waters. In 1955, Saskatchewan pioneered by removing size limits on bass and pickerel. The next year Ontario threw out its eleven-inch size limit on bass but it still retains its restrictions on seasons and daily catch. Ontario anglers must now keep the first six bass they catch, are not permitted to throw back small ones and wait for the big ones.

Quebec, which had a serious bassstunting problem, went the wffiole hog.

In 1956 it scrapped all bass-fishing restrictions except for a small part of the province south of the St. Lawrence. The Quebec bass fisherman can now catch all he can, of any size, and in any season. And in the three years that this unrestricted bass fishing has been in effect in Quebec, bass catches have steadily improved.

So the battling, bronze-packed smallmouth, it appears, needs no coddling. Just leave him alone to fight his own battles and he’ll come out on top — as he already has in his battle with the trout for a top spot in the angler’s heart. ★