What's Special About Special
The bobber dipped, then dipped again and moved slowly toward the river's edge. Dad tightened his line and set the hook. "Big sunfish," he commented, playing the scrappy fish to the canoe. Seeing the fish, I realized he'd caught a 12-inch smallmouth.
"Where's my stringer?"
His bluntness at 82 caused me to smile. No misunderstanding dad's views. He believed in eating what he caught and practiced what he preached. Growing up, the Turner family ate fish . . . lots of fish.
Dad grew up in an age when catching fish meant eating fish. Money was in short supply, and families supplemented their diets by hunting and fishing. Recreational fishing meant not only catching fish, but also harvesting as many as possible for eating. Fishing pressure was light, and there seemed to be an endless supply of fish produced free by Mother Nature. Was Dad's generation wrong for wanting to harvest the smallmouth?
The short answer is no; however times change and the real answer is more complicated. Fish are still free, but the degradation or loss of habitat and increasing numbers of anglers necessitated management changes for our stream resources. The Conservation Department, with experience gained from more than 50 years of scientific research, now better manages Missouri's stream resources.
As I planned the float trip with Dad, I realized that it didn't matter where we fished. Fishing is consistently good because of progress the Conservation Department has made in improving smallmouth bass fishing in Missouri's Ozark streams. Smallmouth fishing is better now than when Dad and I first fished in the Ozarks more than 25 years ago.
The changes in management followed a familiar pattern: anglers reported declining smallmouth bass populations in Ozark streams; the Conservation Department defined the problem and worked out solutions, recommending new regulations to protect and restore high quality smallmouth bass fishing.
That's the short version; the long version is more complicated (and interesting) and a good example of how the Conservation Department balances anglers' desires with protecting resources.
Without anglers, Ozark smallmouth populations would be in balance with their stream environment. There would be lots of small bass in the population, fewer 2-, 3-, and 4-year-old fish and still fewer large fish up to 10 or 12 years of age. Once they get past their first year, the mortality rate of smallmouth bass would run between 15 and 20 percent each year.
Biologists call this natural mortality, a fancy name for the loss of fish from predation by other fish, birds and mammals, disease and just plain old age. In an environment undisturbed by anglers, about 80 percent of the smallmouth bass survive each year.
Add anglers and everything changes. In smallmouth streams like Dad and I fished in the late 60s and early 70s where there were no smallmouth length limits, 70 percent of 10-inch and larger smallmouth bass in the population died each year, many on the end of a stringer, leaving mostly small bass and a few large ones. The streams still could grow large fish, but few smallmouth bass lived five, six or seven years-long enough to grow large.
When we add catch-and-release angling to the picture, smallmouth bass annual mortality decreases to about 30 percent. In other words, hooking, playing, handling and releasing fish increases annual mortality slightly from that experienced in an unfished stream, and most smallmouth bass-70 percent-survive.
What was needed was a middle ground, where the Conservation Department could protect smallmouth bass populations enough to maintain optimum populations, yet still allow harvest of quality-size bass.
Studies by the Conservation Department led to the current 12-inch bass length limit in streams. This radical regulation protected bass up to a quality size and allowed a reasonable harvest of older and larger fish. Thanks to this regulation, Ozark smallmouth bass populations flourished and harvest size increased.
Since then, the numbers of anglers enjoying the fruits of the regulation change have increased, and attitudes about eating fish also have changed. For some anglers, simply catching and releasing smallmouth bass is enough. For others, having the opportunity to catch and keep a large 15- to 20-inch smallmouth has became a life goal. The Conservation Department recognized this and modified the statewide smallmouth regulation to include special management areas, where anglers could catch more smallmouth bass and occasionally keep a large fish.
On special bass management areas for the Big Piney, Meramec, Big and James rivers, anglers must release all smallmouth bass less than 15 inches and may harvest only one each day. In addition, the Conservation Department established two research areas on the Gasconade and Jacks Fork rivers, restricting harvest even further to 18-inch and larger smallmouth bass, and catch-and-release fishing on Big Buffalo Creek.
Dad didn't know about the evolution in smallmouth management . . . or care. Where we fished the Big Piney River, the smallmouth he caught was legal. I killed it quickly and iced it in our cooler, rather than dragging it around on a stringer. Dad caught another small bass and released it with a grin.
"Great fishing, Son! Great fishing!" Dad exclaimed excitedly, rocking the canoe as he searched for another crayfish for his hook. "Couple more and we'll have supper."
Dad and I caught and released a dozen or so smallmouth and uncounted rock bass, and kept 3 legal smallmouth and 12 rock bass for supper. He kept me busy retying hooks, replacing lures lost in brush piles, baiting hooks, removing fish, handling the canoe and keeping us out of trouble. It seemed like a poetic reversal from my childhood fishing trips.
That evening as we pulled into the access, I realized why the word "special" meant much more to me than simply catching more or larger smallmouth bass. Special meant watching Dad catch and keep some smallmouth bass, as we'd done so often in years long past. Special meant imparting the joys of stream fishing to my kids and grandkids, as Dad had done so well for me.
And, special meant knowing the smallmouth bass will continue to flourish and provide pleasure to countless future anglers, long after I am gone.