Thursday, March 24, 2005
Bill Cochran's Outdoors: A new approach for Smith Mountain Lake stripers
Bill Cochran's Outdoors
- Virginia’s hunting totals produce mixed results
- A good trade: Virginia trout for Kentucky elk
- Forget the odds-makers; Salem’s John Crews believes he can win the Bassmaster Classic.
- The good and bad of the 2012 saltwater fishing season
- Column archive
Bill's Field Reports
- Virginia General Assembly goes soft on outdoor issues
- Quail Unlimited calls it quits
- Field reports archive
You don’t have to have many gray hairs to remember when Smith Mountain Lake offered world-class striped bass fishing. Now the fishery is just a shadow of what it once was.
The reasons for this decline are both complex and perplexing, but what is certain is the fact that something needs to change in order to restore this important fishery.
Dan Wilson, a Department of Game and Inland Fisheries biologist, believes the time has come to set the striper management effort on a new course.
“We have come to the point where past management practices have taken the population in the opposite direction of what was intended,” Wilson said. “I am now faced with two choices, throw up my hands and be resigned to lots of little fish and no big fish or make some drastic moves to try and counter a seriously altered population.”
Wilson is recommending regulation changes that he believes will help protect the lake’s bigger stripers while reducing the number of smaller fish. He is not afraid to try a bold approach, even though there is no guarantee of success.
“We can’t get there doing the same old thing,” he said.
While regulations can be twinked in an effort to enhance the striper population, not as easy to deal with is the lake’s parasite problem. Most of the striper have been infested with a parasite that is believed to have contributed to a die-off of the lake’s larger striped bass.
This presents a major uncertainty. What if you put in place regulations to protect large stripers and you end up protecting something that doesn’t exist? Wilson is ready to take that risk.
“I would rather try and fall short than do nothing,” he said.
Here’s what Wilson has in mind: Eliminate the current 20-inch minimum size limit and implement a 26- to 37-inch slot limit from Oct. 1-May 31. During this period, anglers could keep two stripers. From June 1 to Sept. 30, there would be no size limit and the catch limit would be four.
Protecting larger striped bass and reducing the number of young fish provides the best opportunity to reestablish a trophy fishery, Wilson believes.
The proposed slot limit would help safeguard fish for four to five years of their life. Why not extend it past the Oct. 1-May 31 dates and encourage year-round catch-and-release?
Because studies show that large stripers suffer a very high mortality when released during warm-weather months. Anglers might as well keep them if they are going to die after being released, Wilson believes.
By doing away with the size limit and boosting the catch limit to four from June 1 to Sept. 30, anglers will be able to harvest additional small fish during the warm-weather months when such fish are vulnerable. The removal of an excess of smaller fish should enhance the growth of larger ones, Wilson hopes.
The slot limit and lower catch limit would be in place during cold-weather months when anglers are most likely to land large stripers, and when fish can survive catch-and-release. The upper slot size of 37 inches should let anglers keep any citation fish (fish 20 pounds or 37-inches).
At the moment, the lake has very few striped bass over 10 pounds, and fish over 15 pounds are pretty well a thing of the past, Wilson said. The number of bragging-size fish had been declining for several years, then the bottom dropped out of the big fish population when the massive fish kill occurred in 2003. The citation count plummeted to seven last year.
In the meantime, the number of smaller fish has been accelerating through heavier stocking rates since 1998. As they have increased, their growth rate has declined.
“The [proposed] changes do not guarantee success,” said Wilson, but they are worth a try. The regulation proposals are scheduled to be discussed today during a board meeting of the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Anglers will get a chance to voice their opinions during subsequent meetings.