New Michigan fishing regs allow year round catch and release of bass

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Smallmouth bass. Image: Michigan Department of Natural Resources

Smallmouth bass. Image: Michigan Department of Natural Resources

By Logan Clark

As the weather warms up, anglers are returning to the water to try to catch their first fish of the year.

But they may not have caught the changes to Michigan’s fishing regulations for the 2015-2016 season. That first catch may well be a bass because of them.

The most significant change is allowing the catch and immediate release of bass all year, said Bob Gwizdz, communications representative for the state’s Department of Natural Resources. Traditionally the state opened the catch and release bass season on April 26 for the Lower Peninsula and May 15 for the Upper Peninsula. Now they can be caught and released all year, statewide. The fish can be caught and kept starting Memorial Day weekend.

The state’s Natural Resource Commission was not able to determine the changes in time for the printing of this year’s hard copy of the Michigan Fishing Guide, Gwizdz said. Parts of the guide were specially marked to indicate a possible future change. The new changes are now on the DNR’s website.

“I had to hear about the changes from a customer,” said Kiisa Murphy, employee at Michigan Tackle Specialties in Battle Creek and alifelong angler. Murphy said that because the regulation changes were decided so last minute, the DNR failed to notify her establishment before fishing season began on April 1. That was a problem because she sells fishing licenses and is expected to be up to date with the regulations, she said.

The authority to regulate game fish was caught up in the state’s 2014 referendum on wolf hunting. One of the proposals would have given the Natural Resource Commission the power to designate certain game seasons including bass. The proposition failed, but that power was still given to the Natural Resource Commission in the appropriations of a bill passed by the state’s legislature. The DNR wasn’t able to make their yearly modifications to the regulations until spring, Gwizdz explained.

A year round catch and immediate release season has been on bass fishermen’s wish list for years, Gwizdz said. Now that bass regulation was given to the Natural Resource Commission, the change was able to be made. “Anglers and the agency are very happy with the decision.”

Michigan has usually had more strict fishing regulations than its neighboring states, Gwizdz said. That might be changing because Wisconsin and Minnesota have a similar inland lake system to Michigan, but still don’t allow the catch and release of bass in early spring.

Not everyone is happy with the new season. And you might be surprised who isn’t agreeing with it.

Anna Werner, the owner of Grand River Bait and Tackle in Lansing, admits that the change will be good for business. “We’re definitely getting more business in the spring this year and are selling more bass tackle than usual. But if this change ends up being bad for the bass, business might go down in the long run.”

Overall, Werner is unhappy with the new all-year bass season. “I think a lot of people will use the new season as an excuse to be out on the water and not immediately release the fish or just keep them for good,” she said.

As a lifelong angler, she said that she knows how much people like to keep large bass in their livewells for hours and then maybe release them at the end of the day.

Spring is when bass lay eggs and protect their nest from predators until they hatch. Disturbing bass at this time would probably over stress the populations in many lakes, Werner said. A lot of fishermen like to manhandle bass and constantly take them out of the water for pictures, she said.

The DNR isn’t concerned, said Jim Dexter, the agency’s fisheries chief. The vast majority of anglers that catch a bass will release it, and the risk to the populations if they happen to be spawning is quite low, he said.

Murphy at Grand River Bait and Tackle thought the change would be good for business too, but was also unhappy with the season change. She voiced a similar concern to Werner’s.

“What’s to stop people from fishing for other fish while they’re supposedly catching and releasing bass?” Murphy said. Based on her experience, she thinks that fishermen will take advantage of the all-year season. “It’s just too convenient for some people to not fish for other species while they’re out there.”

But that kind of behavior is always bound to happen, said Christian LeSage, a fisheries biologist who works on regulations for the agency. “That was something we discussed.”

“We have been trying to increase angling opportunities and sometimes that results in a higher risk potential for other species,” he said. “However, we felt overall it would not add much more risk to the other species. Plus, we always have the ability to roll back these opportunities in the future should we see negative impacts.”

Other regulatory changes this year:

  • New hook restrictions to help prevent snagging salmon in the fall.
  • Lake Michigan lake trout have undergone some new size restrictions depending on the part of the lake.
  • Lake trout maximum limit has been changed from three to two.
  • Brook trout minimum size has been lowered from 8 to 7 inches statewide.

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