If you're an avid angler, chances are you have visited one of the 500 major reservoirs in this country. According to a 2001 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey, 85 percent of the nation's anglers fish on lakes, reservoirs or ponds, excluding the Great Lakes. For those of you that frequent impounded waters, it should come as no surprise that catch rates of bass are not what they used to be on many of these reservoirs.
Why are catch rates decreasing in some of our reservoirs? This question has been the focus of numerous studies for the last 50 years. No doubt fishing pressure has increased, perhaps better educating bass on avoiding lures. Fish diseases, like the largemouth bass virus, could also be a cause for decreased angling success in some cases. However, the evidence seems to indicate that habitat loss is the most likely culprit. Our reservoirs are old, most having been built prior to the 1950s. The flooded terrestrial vegetation that once provided incredible habitat for both juvenile and adult fish has long since decayed. In reservoirs without established stands of aquatic vegetation, the scene under the water looks more like the surface of the moon than a home for fish and other aquatic life. With the exception of high water years, when terrestrial vegetation is temporarily flooded once again, there exists little or no cover where young fish can hide and escape predation, resulting in year-class failures. Likewise, predator fish, like largemouth bass, have no place to stake out an ambush for unsuspecting prey. They must frequently leave their home areas and search for forage, making it more difficult for anglers to establish a consistent "pattern."
So, why hasn't something been done? The simple truth is that states lack the money or resources to implement massive habitat restoration efforts on these large waters. The federal government agencies responsible for many of these reservoirs receive very little funding to enhance recreational opportunities. Water level manipulations during the spawning and nursery periods could help the situation, but hydropower, navigation and flood control needs receive priority for dam operations. To many, the future looks uncertain for our reservoir sport fisheries.
However, there is hope on the horizon.Twenty-one southeastern state and federal natural resource agencies have signed a Memorandum of Understanding that officially establishes the Southeastern Aquatic Resources Partnership, or SARP. The partnership was formed after the realization that the individual members lack sufficient resources to achieve their missions and must therefore work cooperatively to design a process that will realize the common goal of restored fisheries. The idea is to approach Congress with a consistent, unified plan to improve our fisheries and recreational opportunities on a much broader scale.