Big mouths, big money

Florida has long been known as a place to catch world-class bass. In 2001, Kissimmee's Lake Tohopekaliga , or Lake Toho as it is commonly called, found its way into the record books when Dean Rojas caught a Bassmasters tournament-record five-fish limit totaling 45 pounds, 2 ounces in one day. Big money events, such as the 2006 Bassmaster Classic in Orlando, have solidified Florida's reputation as an international bass destination. But studies have shown that the average size of Florida's tournament bass have steadily declined over the past 30 years. "The state's population is going to double in the next 50 years," said Dale Jones, who leads the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's effort to preserve the bass fisheries. "The pressure on the state's bass fisheries is only going to increase. We have to have a plan to meet those needs."

Florida's fish

The largemouth, or black bass, is the world's most popular sport fish. The species, Micropterus floridanus, grows big, fat and fast, which is why it has been exported around the globe.

But even though you can catch 10-pound largemouths in Japan these days, Florida is still ground zero when it comes to trophy-sized bass.

FWC officials estimate that nearly 1 million anglers in search of the legendary Florida "bucket-mouth" pump $1.25 billion into the state's economy each year.

Many homegrown and visiting anglers target "trophy" fish — those that weigh 8 pounds or more. But the state is also home to other bass species, including the Suwannee bass (M. notius), Spotted bass (M. punctulatus) and shoal bass (M. cataractae), which is only found in a small stretch of the Chipola River.

Threats to the fishery

In addition to the decreases in the size of the fish, the number of anglers has also dropped. Freshwater fishing license sales have steadily declined since the 1980s, though sales have stabilized in the past decade.

Some blame the declining interest in freshwater fishing to a shift in demographics and urbanization.

But as more communities move from being primarily rural to more residential, traditional bass habitat is being destroyed.

"Urban sprawl affects habitat and our watersheds," Jones said. "This, in turn, has an impact on the fishery."

Faced with myriad threats, the state is reaching out to stakeholders to help develop a long-range plan (2010-30) to manage its freshwater fisheries.

The FWC board met Thursday in Clewiston and approved a plan that would develop strategies to develop "quality" and "trophy bass" fisheries.

Size matters

This summer, an angler in Japan caught a 22-pound, 4-ounce bass that, if approved by the International Game Fish Association, would tie George Perry's 77-year-old largemouth bass record caught in Georgia.

Could an even bigger bass be lurking somewhere in one of Florida's more than 7,700 named lakes? Florida fishery managers hope so. It takes about 10 years for a bass to reach trophy size, so the state's plan will have long-term goals.

One option on the table is to identify and cultivate lakes that have good trophy bass potential. These lakes may have special regulations to help promote the growth of these big, attention-grabbing fish. Other lakes may be more inclined to produce lots of 3- to 5-pound bass, a "quality" fishery for most anglers.

But a major component of any new bass management plan is public input. Anglers can help state officials by going online at www.myfwc.com/fishing and offering their ideas.

"A big part of the process will be listening to the stakeholders," Jones said. "We encourage the public to participate in the process."

Big mouths, big money 12/10/09 [Last modified: Friday, December 11, 2009 11:26am]

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