• Promising Predictions - Big-Mouth Boom

    Without a doubt, largemouth bass is the most popular sport fish species in Kentucky. Bass can be caught using almost any type of bait, live or artificial, and the species is found in every type of water Kentucky has including ponds, lakes, rivers and streams.

    But the question on many basser's minds from year to year is a familiar one. How's the fishing going to be this year? Well, fisheries biologists believe they're in a position to answer that question, even to the point of letting anglers know what will likely happen with bass populations throughout the state over the next three or four years.

    Gerry Buynak, the department's black bass biologist, has been working on a way to better determine the "health" of a largemouth fishery further in advance. It boils down to collecting data and taking inventory of all sizes of largemouth bass in a body of water. That way, how well a particular year class (1991 spawn, for example) is doing in that location can be followed start to finish.

    Learning about the caliber of reproduction early on is important because if a poor spawn occurred, biologists can take action to lessen the effect on the quality of fishing. The goal is to smooth out the "peaks and valleys" and reduce the crashes fish populations sometimes suffer due to nature's influence. Almost inevitably, a poor spawn goes unnoticed by fishermen until they realize two or three years later that fewer fish are available to catch. The weather that second or third year could be great, making everything seem like super fishing is in store, except that fewer bass are present. In other words, the impact of a poor reproduction year finally catches up.

    The thing to remember is good reproduction years followed by one or two poor ones causes anglers to get used to catching lots of fish. When the delayed reaction of a deficient year class finally hits home three years later, anglers have forgotten the poor spawning year and sometimes get frustrated because fishing went downhill so quickly. If poor reproduction occurs two or three years in a row, then things can really be upsetting.

    But, if a poor reproductive year can be recognized soon enough, by the time those fish reach the size where they can be caught, offsetting the "dip" in numbers is more probable. Possibly the population can be supplemented with stocked fish, limits adjusted to stretch out the numbers of harvestable fish or other management decisions can be made to soften the effect Mother Nature sometimes has.

    "I think we're approaching the place where we can be a little bit ahead of the game which gives us more time to respond to any problems that might occur with reproduction." said Buynak "The sooner we know," the biologist continued, "the better the chance we can do something about it."

    Of course, among factors that must be considered in managing fish populations are two extremely important considerations -- having money available to spend on raising more fish and the ability to accommodate additional stock at a department hatchery. Generally, hatchery space is dedicated well in advance each year to provide fish for many, many other fisheries stocking programs. And monies are already earmarked for upcoming projects.

    The chance that additional largemouth bass will be needed to supplement the population at a particular location is almost impossible to predict before the spawn occurs. And there's no way to tell from year to year how weather and other environmental conditions are going to influence reproduction. However, in the next few years, most of Kentucky's lakes are going to experience increases in largemouth populations -- in some cases, dramatic increases. Increases in natural production have already happened over the last two or three years and several lakes in the Eastern half of the state, particularly, should soon offer some of the best chances to catch bass ever. Beginning this year, as excellent numbers of smaller fish currently present continue to grow, the percentages of keeper fish will zoom well ahead of what anglers found the last couple of years.

    What's behind this oncoming boom? Several factors. As most anglers remember, during the mid-80s a drought caused below average bass reproduction on almost every tributary-fed lake. (That's every lake except Kentucky and Barkley, which are considered mainstream, flow-through reservoirs.) Since less rain produced less runoff fewer nutrients were washed into most lakes. How well largemouth produce and grow is directly related to how fertile the lake is. In over simplified terms lower fertility means fewer largemouths and extra nutrients translates into more bass.

    When the drought finally broke in 1988, largemouth reproduction took a leap forward. On Cave Run Lake, for example, when the rains began washing nutrients into the lake from the surrounding land, the entire food chain was revitalized. Essentially what happened over the next three springs at Cave Run (and most other usually infertile lakes) was that a tremendous dose of nutrients -- fertilizer, if you will, entered the lake. All the nutrients that had built up in the soil during the dry years hadn't disappeared; those nutrients just hadn't made it into the water system. When they did, it was a shot in the arm to largemouth that packed a lot more "wallop" than usual.

    On lakes like Cave Run, Laurel, Fishtrap, Dewey, Paintsville, Rough River and Green River, the influx of the material needed to ignite plankton growth, provide food for small aquatic organisms and, in turn increase the food supply for other fish was overwhelming. When biologists sampled Laurel Lake in 1988 by electroshocking, they caught 20 largemouth per hour. Last spring the same amount of time spent catching counting and releasing largemouth produced over 100 bass per hour. On Fishtrap Lake in Pike County the increase in all largemouth bass was three fold. There are three times as many bass in the lake now than a few years ago.

    Lake Cumberland in 1989 produced only seven fish per electroshocking hour compared to 49 bass per hour in 1991 Grayson Lake is experiencing a double in the number of bass between 8-12 inches long. And the list goes on and on.

    Buynak cautions Kentucky's bass anglers that most of the increases in bass populations are those fish ranging between eight and 14 inches long. That means it will probably be another year before fishermen really start seeing an increase in the number of keeper fish they're catching, since many lakes are under a 15-inch minimum size limit on largemouth and smallmouth bass. There will be scads of fish in the intermediate range, and by the spring of 1994, a big difference will be evident.

    "What's happening really is incredible for many of these lakes," said Buynak "If anglers will be patient and carefully handle the larger numbers of smaller fish they'll be catching this season, I think they're really going to like what will be available next year through 1996 the biologist said. "It's going to he much improved almost everywhere."

    For bass fishing this coming year, Buynak still recommends Kentucky and Barkley lakes to anglers looking for the best odds of catching big fish or keeper fish. Since these two lakes are main-stream reservoirs, nutrients flow in and out of the system very fast. A drought period serves to keep nutrients in the lakes longer stimulating largemouth populations. Therefore, the drought was actually beneficial to Kentucky and Barkley in terms of largemouth populations and fishing remains simply superb on these lakes right now.

    "The volume of big fish coming out of these lakes is absolutely outrageous at the moment and will likely stay that way for a couple more years," Buynak said. "These are fish that were produced in the late 80s when year classes were unbelievably strong and now there're lots of fish available that are harvestable size and larger."

    Kentucky and Barkley are returning, like the weather, closer to their usual patterns and levels of reproduction but "back to normal" for Kentucky and Barkley still means excellent year classes of bass reproduction compared to most other lakes. The level of fertility and supply of nutrients these lakes receive from the Tennessee and Cumberland river systems are very good. In fact Buynak recorded what he terms "an incredible 1991 year class" for largemouth on Barkley, so anglers can expect fishing to continue to be outstanding into the middle of the decade.

    In Central Kentucky, the best bets to catch more keepers are Herrington and Taylorsville lakes. Herrington never fails to produce lots of good fish and Taylorsville is continually progressing in natural reproduction of bass. Along with supplemental stocking, Taylorsville is in pretty good shape as far as numbers are concerned. This lake also has a good forage base to permit quick bass growth.

    "We want to try to keep anglers informed about the quality of fishing they can expect from year to year, whether it looks favorable as it does now, or whether things don't look so good" said Buynak.

    "We're learning more and more about managing our fisheries so we can better provide the most consistent, high quality opportunities that nature and our budget will allow," Buynak concluded.