Bass fishing, then and now


As I was readying gear and planning for an upcoming bass outing, a thought suddenly emerged: how bass fishing has changed over my lifetime. I caught my first bass 75 years ago, at age 12.

Bass fishing then was done mostly from banks, because Depression days made the cost of a boat impossible. Ditto the cost of rods and reels. Our fishing was done with a cane pole, which cost 10 cents; a strong line; and a nightcrawler, or crawfish, we caught for bait.

We walked lake and stream banks, drifting or dunking our baits into dark holes. The bass we kept averaged a couple of pounds because they were the least fishy-tasting. Lunker bass were turned loose — not from a sporting angle, but because they were less flavorful.

We didn't play bass to elicit exciting jumps or prolonged battles. We yanked them out as fast as possible to reduce lost fish and ensure food for the family table. In short, bass were a food fish, not America's favorite sporting species, as they are today. And this pattern held until the 1970s, when professional bass tournaments emerged.

Although Ray Scott held his first money tourney in 1967 on Beaver Lake in Arkansas, which I covered for the Rogers Daily News, the larger purses didn't happen until the Classic competition began in 1971.

The initial Classic for the world championship was held on Nevada's Lake Mead, and the purse was all of $10,000. Quite a sum then, but a pittance compared to today's Classic payoffs, where the winner can maximize winnings, sponsorships, seminars and endorsements totaling more than $1 million.

One of the unique aspects of the early tourneys that is absent today was the secrecy attached to the competitive site. Members of the guest press were flown to Atlanta, then transferred to another plane.

We took off, all making guesses as to our destination. About halfway there, Scott would stroll up and down the aisle, chitchat about several things, then get to the point: "Well, gentlemen, here it comes … we're headed for the Classic at Lake So-and-So, and a high point in the career of the winning bass angler. Enjoy, hear?"

These annual events, and the qualifying tourneys each year, brought about drastic changes in overall bass fishing. Due to the rule of keeping bass alive for the weigh-ins, careful handling of all catches became a necessity. And all were released to live on.

This had a double-aspect effect on bass fishing in general. One, it eased the concern of nontournament bass fishermen that their favorite lakes were being negatively affected. And, two, it gave professional tournaments a more positive image.

It also spawned the national movement to return bass for others to enjoy catching — especially the lunkers, which could be the gene pool for other giants of this species.

The sport of bass fishing — Thanks to tourneys, and the interest they have stirred in bass fishing as a sport, the bass has become America's favorite gamefish. And much of all 49 state fishing budgets goes to the propagation of this species. Alaska is probably the only state not inhabited by bass. This is likely, as I have observed many times, because the bass is too smart to live where it would have to wear mukluks and long underwear.

Three states are mainstays in the race to top the present world record of 22 ¼ pounds. Florida once attracted the most traveling bassers, and its state record is 20 pounds, 13 ounces, caught in Big Fish Lake, in 1923.

Texas has a promising and aggressive program that rewards fishermen for turning in giant bass. These are used for hatching broods, hopefully with genes that evolve into more giants. The Lone Star State's record bass is 18.18 pounds, caught in promising Lake Fork, Texas, in 1992.

California, with an aggressive program, looms as the heartland for lunker bass, and has come the nearest to setting a new record with a 22-pound monster from Lake Castaic, in 1991. Five of the Top 10, all over 20 pounds, have come from this and nearby bodies of water.

So, what does all this mean to average bass fishermen like you and me? Well, it means our favorite gamefish will continue to get favored treatment as long as it remains popular with residents. This means that we, as bass anglers, should be concerned with the fact that our sport is diminishing as a youth activity.

Today there is a growing preponderance of one-parent families. In most cases, the child winds up in the single mother's care, and she must work to make the living. Usually, she was not exposed to fishing in childhood and either can't find the time or has no desire to learn along with her offspring.

And the youngster is attracted to other sports, like baseball, basketball, game rooms, soccer, TV and neighborhood activities. For kids to be lured into fishing takes a special program that involves teaching the skill of casting, then finding and catching fish.

I was part of such a program in the 1950s, when Dr. Julian Smith of Michigan State University developed a fishing curriculum for public schools. I was one of an industry team that traveled the nation and taught fishing fundamentals to the physical education mentors.

They, in turn, held casting classes for pupils interested in learning the sport. But in those years, it was much easier to hike, or drive, a few miles from many towns and reach a lake or stream with catchable fish. Many states augment this with panfish and catfish planting programs today.

Most states with favorable bass fishing have a continuous planting program in an effort to maintain satisfactory return. However, if you have done extensive traveling of our nation, you too have noticed the effects of widespread drought on bass fishing.

Some streams I used to wade, in hip-deep water, I now can cross by stepping from one dry rock to another. And in Florida (at the time of this writing), we have many lakes with docks 7 to 10 feet above water. Some anglers believe this should make better bass fishing because they are so concentrated in a smaller area.

But, so is their food supply of minnows and shad. They can gorge anytime they feel the urge, so with full stomachs, our lure offerings have very little appeal. Today we need to be more mobile in our bass fishing and select those lakes that have normal water levels.

One good way to learn which lakes are promising is to fish those selected for CITGO Bassmaster tournaments. Most have been chosen because they reveal good bass populations, and poor catches usually are due to adverse weather, like cold fronts — not lack of bass.

Many savvy bass anglers make it a point to be on a tournament lake all three days of competition and take note of the spots these professionals are fishing. Be sure to stay far from the action so as not to interfere with unneeded boat and motor sounds.

Lakes that are overly populated with permanent or weekend homes make a negative bass fishing environment. Many nonfishing residents and guests enjoy water-skiing behind high powered boats, and using ever popular, noisy, pounding jet skis. Continuous noise and waves intrude on bass fishing enjoyment.

In Florida, more and more bass anglers are traveling to remote lakes, like those in national forests. It takes travel time, a map to keep from getting lost in some, and patience to find those in an "up cycle" for catching bass.

Pollution from overpopulation, industrial and farming needs causes some once-abundant bass lakes to deteriorate. Besides infecting the water, it also causes overgrowths of some dense weeds, algae, and negative visibility. As a result, it becomes harder to find nearby productive waters.

So, what are the answers? It won't be easy! We need more accessible public ponds and lakes, with plantings of easy-to-catch panfish so beginners can hook fish and the fishing fever. Work with a BASS Federation club to impress the need on your state fisheries department.

Also, let your youngsters fish with other kids who will share the how-tos of catching fish. I like the old saying: "Teach a kid how to fish, and that kid will never grow old. That's because the kid in the fisherman never grows up!"

In addition, we need more states with a permanent tax to provide funds for maintaining the good fishing in clean waters, and cleaning those in degrading bodies. Many have this now.

Nationally, we need more enforcement of our Clean Water Act. This will place a burden on existing enforcement personnel, because our present national crisis inhibits the hiring of more officers. In short, bass anglers must unite and become active in clubs. Only in unity will we find the solution to our problems, and assure the continuity of our cherished sport.

Special invitation: During National Fishing Week, 42 states and the District of Columbia waive fishing license requirements to encourage people to spend a day of fishing — free. It's a good time for parents to introduce their kids to fishing, and the refreshing outdoor atmosphere that goes with it. Check with your state conservation department for details.

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