The ethics of bed fishing

Religion and politics. Not the best topics for polite conversation. For bass fishermen, there is sometimes a third subject: bed fishing.

Depending on the participants, it's a conversation that can be volatile. Is it good for the resource? Is it contrary to bass fishing sportsmanship? In terms of public image, does it represent the Achilles Heel of tournament competition?

Even with intense tournament coverage in recent years, the subject of bed fishing has largely been ignored. When the technique is mentioned, it generally is discussed under the larger umbrella of "sight fishing," a euphemism that describes any technique of catching bass the angler can see, in or out of the spawning season.

More accurately, "bed fishing" involves visually locating a bass' spawning bed and then catching bass off their nests during the spring spawning season. A broader term, sight fishing also encompasses fishing for bass that can be seen away from spawning beds and even in other periods of the year.

While this distinction may appear subtle, it most assuredly makes a huge difference to those who support and encourage bed fishing and those who do not.

Although Guido Hibdon and Shaw Grigsby popularized sight fishing in the 1980s and 1990s, it wasn't until the new millennium that the subject of bed fishing could no longer be pushed aside. After Dean Rojas decimated two high-profile Bassmaster records at Florida's Lake Toho with a five fish limit weighing 45-2 and a four day winning weight of 108-12, the tactic was laid bare for all to see.

It was bed fishing, not sight fishing, which was now the coin of the tournament realm. There were guys like Rojas who were very, very skilled at this specialized tactic, and when the stars aligned in the competitive heavens, they were nearly unbeatable.

Thrust into the spotlight and perhaps the developing argument about bed fishing, Rojas is understandably taken aback by the criticism directed at those who excel at this technique.

"If someone doesn't like it, that's fine. I don't have a problem with it, if that's the way they feel. But, it is a legal way to catch a bass in tournaments. If it were against the rules, then it would be a whole different thing. But as it stands now, it is legal to bed fish," observes Rojas, who views his bed fishing abilities as no less exemplary than Denny Brauer's mastery of flippin', or Kevin VanDam's dominance with spinnerbaits.

"It comes down to how much time an angler will devote to learning about fish behavior, and what triggers them. Bed fishing only offers a brief window. In the past, we only had maybe two tournaments a year where sight fishing was dominant or even played a key role. The fish only spawn two or three months out of the year, so it's not like learning how to throw a crankbait or spinnerbait, which you can throw 10 months of the year."

As four time Bassmasters Classic champion Rick Clunn puts it, "Bed fishing is a skill within its own parameters. It's definitely a talent. Within every technique there exists that kind of skill."

But elsewhere in the tournament cosmos are anglers like Missouri's Randy Blaukat, a seven time Bassmasters Classic qualifier, who doesn't discount any bed fisherman's abilities, but simply finds the practice a negative in almost every respect.

"As far as catching bed fish, I'm totally uncomfortable with it. I don't think it's good for the fish or the fishery. There is a brief period of time and a seven or eight degree range in water temperature in the spring, when this takes place. I think the fish need to be respected and honored during that time," states Blaukat.

"I don't think anyone can justify saying that it does not impact the fishery during the spawning season — unless it's a resource manager who sees our fisheries purely as assets, without any real consideration for the genetics or any type of long-term stress."

One resource manager who takes exception to these assertions is Dennis Lee, a senior fisheries biologist in California who has spent 30 years researching and managing fisheries. To Lee, Blaukat's comments come as no surprise. He's heard similar statements, which are "usually based on ambiguous notions of fair play and sportsmanship."

"When you talk about 'honor' and 'respect,' it has nothing to do with the biological world. The lion does not honor and respect the gazelle it takes down; it eats it as part of the food web. That's the biological system. When you start throwing in those social aspects, it's a whole different ball game. If you want to justify bed fishing socially, you can argue it. It's a philosophical argument. You may not like it. You may not want to see other people doing it. You may not practice it yourself — those are your decisions. But all those have nothing to do with the biology of the system."

Central to this argument, says Lee, are the overwhelming bulk of data and the years of historical precedent with largemouth bass fisheries — all of which refute this notion. Pointing to 5 feet of file cabinets that hold 30 to 40 years of reference work studying these relationships, he can offer no biological, genetic or life history data that supports spring lake closures or restrictions on bed fishing. While he admits that some exceptions may exist, these are generally where environmental factors are the culprit, not fishing.

"There is so much evidence showing that the number of fish spawning does not determine the number of fish in a year class. I could send you a stack of references to support that assertion. One of the best arguments to come out recently is the use of DNA to analyze the stock recruitment thing. They go in and examine individual nests and determine the DNA composition for that nest. They might do a hundred of these a day. What they're finding out is that only a very, very few nests are successful and produce a population of fish that then recruit to the lake and the fishery," offers Lee, who is an accomplished tournament angler in his own right.

"If the bed fishing scenario were true, then we should have lousy bass fishing in California. Right now, the catch rates are higher than they were in the mid-'80s, and we have records to document it. From all our tournament results, people are catching more fish and bigger fish in some waters, especially in places where we've introduced Florida largemouth bass. The Delta is a prime example.

"If bed fishing will be the demise of a fishery, then we should have seen that by now, but we haven't. So if fishing is better, then I could make the other argument that maybe tournaments and bed fishing are making fishing better."

In tournament circles, bed fishing brings up yet another prickly argument that goes right to the heart of sportsmanship. This has become even more at issue since all Bassmaster events are now built around a pro-am format where the amateur in the back seat is at the mercy of the professional up front.

Put simply, it's not much fun being relegated to the back of the boat while your pro partner is trying to catch a bass off a bed in front of him. But is that an argument for outlawing the practice?

"You should be very careful about limiting people who have developed new techniques, new ideas," cautions Clunn. "Back when flipping first came out, I'm sure you could have gotten into an ethical conversation about how partners were being treated, and how guys were getting an unfair advantage by using long rods, and so on. This is the danger of saying it's right or it's wrong. I don't think there is a right or wrong.

"In a draw format, a guy wouldn't sit back there — he would be up there fighting you for that same fish, unless you were a smooth talker. Now (in pro-ams) a guy doesn't have that option. Of course, there is always the argument that he can do something else, which is true about half the time. But the other half — when you're bed fishing — every fish in that area has its mind on the same thing. This is the only area where I personally have trouble with bed fishing," continues Clunn.

This partner problem is also of concern to Blaukat, who isn't pointing any fingers at the pros, whom he believes have "basically been forced into this situation" as a result of tournament scheduling.

"The one thing that stands out in my mind during our spawning season tournaments is that probably 75 percent of the amateurs I fish with say to me at registration, 'We're not going to bed fish, are we?' It's like their greatest fear, and one that comes true for most of them."

While Rojas is not blind to the plight of his amateur partners, he believes that getting paired with a bed fishing pro does not have to be a negative experience.

"It's all in your attitude. If you approach it from a negative perspective, instead of perhaps learning something, it will be a negative experience. While I've been fishing for a 2-pounder, I've had amateurs catch 5-pounders on a Carolina rig out in the middle of the cove. This is what I always tell my amateurs: Fish out deep, because that's where the prestaging females will be. In some situations, they may only catch two or three a day, but at Toho, my second day amateur caught a limit behind me.

"My first round partner caught two fish, but only because he stopped at 11 o'clock in the morning because he didn't want to fish anymore. And my third day partner got four keepers for almost 9 pounds and cashed a check," notes Rojas.

"I'll use David Fritts as an example. He could put you out in 30 feet of water and be fishing the sweet spot with a crankbait. He's not going to put his amateur right on the spot and tell him exactly where to cast. In that respect, it's almost the same analogy."

Dealing with attitudes and ethics within the ranks of bass fishing is one thing, but countering negative public images is something else. In this regard, bed fishing may pose the most vexing problem, as the sport is exposed to a broader, less technically informed audience. For someone like Blaukat, this is where the real danger lies, especially with those who have axes to grind.

"Bed fishing is terrible public relations for our sport, especially in how the nonfishing public and some of the animal rights groups view our sport. All it does is provide fodder for them to attack us!" Blaukat asserts.

"My views are designed to protect the future of the sport, not to project my own personal interest or bias. I'm interested in protecting the (amateur partners), the resource and the image of the sport."

Of those who have witnessed the evolution of bass fishing and benefited from that growth, Clunn may have the most unique perspective from which to draw conclusions about bed fishing. Even so, he is hesitant to make sweeping changes if the biology supports the practice.

"Criticism should make us ask, 'Is there a better way of doing what we do?' And there may be a day when we have to consider the public opinion part of it.

"It will continue to be a gray area. But I don't want us to start limiting techniques, and I don't want us to be guilty of sour grapes (because some anglers are very proficient at bed fishing). At the same time, we have an ESPN camera over our shoulders, and we're pestering a fish until it hits. We've always had to ask that question."


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