ARE BASS STOCKS REALLY DECLINING?

Lead image: Henry Gilbey (https://www.henry-gilbey.com/)

Recently Dr. Mike Ladle was asked by Robin Bradley of the BASS club if he had any evidence to prove whether or not bass anglers’ catches have declined over the years. After giving it considerable thought this is Mike’s response.

“I guess, on the face of it, this is a simple question; do I (and my pals) catch more bass now than we used to in the past? However, a bit of thought shows that it is far from being simple :-

  1. We cannot simply assume there has been a decline because there may have been no change or even and increase.
  2. Although I’ve done a fair amount of bass fishing, I’m only one person (not a statistic) every trip is different, and like everyone else my catches vary (a lot) from day to day, and year to year.
  3. Both myself and the people that I fish with are not all strictly bass anglers and we spent far more time fishing for mullet, conger, rays, pike, salmon and the like than we dedicated to bass.
  4. Bass, like many fish species, have good spawning/survival years and bad ones (probably mostly weather dependent) so the numbers are likely to go up and down dramatically. Since they are long lived fish (up to 15 years plus) these fluctuations will take place over periods of several years and the relative numbers of large and small fish present will change.
  5. I am certain that my skill at choosing times, places and methods to fish has improved over the years, even though my physical ability may have declined a bit (a lot). On the debit side, since I started bass fishing in the late 1960s almost every venue on my bit of coast has had access restricted by the MoD, Landowners and parking problems. This is worse than it sounds because it means that many places can no longer be fished on the most appropriate tides, times and conditions.
  6. Tackle and tactics (lines, hooks, lures, baits, methods, etc.) have certainly changed dramatically – not only with respect to what we fancied doing but how we did it.

The results of the first five factors may be random or certainly unpredictable, but the last one SHOULD result in an improvement in results. So, the numbers and/or size of bass caught SHOULD have gone up. If catches have neither improved nor stayed the same then that could represent some sort of decline.

trophy bass and captor

To get down to ‘brass tacks’, it may be a good idea to dig back into pre-Ladle times and see what can be gleaned. The first real evidence I have is from reports given to me by the late Don Kelley, who probably knew as much about post-1930s bass angling as anyone. A lot of this relates to shore fishing which should fit in with my own, more recent, observations.

From May 1946 to September 1948, Don was fishing from the shores of Devon and recording details of his own bass catches. He was already talking about bass and bass stocks to scientists at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory.

He writes, that of the 233 bass he caught in those two-and-a-half years 67 (29%) were less than 1.5lb and the remaining 166 ranged from 1.5 to 8.0lb. Don also mentions that of over 2000 bass caught, by others, in the same area over that period only three weighed over 10lb and the best was 12.25lb. He comments that any bass over 7lb was exceptional.

In the early 1950s Don penned a series of what he called ‘Random Notes on Bass’ based on fishing in Devon and Cornwall. He said that although ‘pier’ anglers in the area caught lots of schoolies (under 1.5lb) boat fishing was much better for larger fish. However, (like me) he preferred shore fishing. He writes that ‘A normal bag for the shore angler is two or three fish (of over 2lb) on a tide’ and bags reaching double figures were red letter days rarely experienced in an angler’s lifetime.

Interestingly he comments that, even if you know an area, ‘A place which fishes well one season may be hardly worth a visit the next’. On a slightly different tack, Don says ‘Reading press reports (suggests that) one must get away from Devon and Cornwall’ to stand much chance of catching larger bass. He comments that of forty-four double figure bass reported in magazines only ten came from Devon and Cornwall, with by far the most from Hampshire and Sussex.

Even more strikingly: of the thousands of bass netted annually in the two Western counties, they very rarely took a fish of over ten pounds and never a twelve pounder. In terms of numbers however Devon and Cornwall easily came out tops. Then as now, netting for bass clearly took a heavy toll on the fish in the south west. He mentions that tons of bass were, at times, netted in a single night from various points along the coast.

The importance of this is revealed by the fact that after netting had been suspended during the war years ‘…parts of Devon and Cornwall had the finest bass fishing they have ever known’. Similar, temporary, post-war recoveries of depleted stocks are well established for other, more heavily commercially exploited species of fish. By definition, if stocks improved due to reduced fishing during the wartime then they WERE ALMOST CERTAINLY DEPLETED before that.

In an article written in 1956 Don quotes “Seangler” (John P. Garrad) who said there was no evidence of decline in bass stocks. Garrad, however, was not a bass angler. Don did not agree with him and made a strong case for restrictions on netting based largely on the improvement in stocks during the war.

A further dip in the quality of bass fishing seems to have occurred following the 1962/1963 winter freeze. I remember that winter very well, as I was sampling, alone on mud flats of the north-east Coast; large areas of the shallow sea froze that year, even in the English Channel, and bass (as well as other fish such as wrasse and conger) were killed by the cold. After this event Don said that “the spring bass fishing” for the following three years “was so bad it was really not worth the effort“. Recovery seems to have occurred by 1966, The fish being caught then were however, smaller than usual. Don thought at first that this might have been due to netting activities but later ascribed it to the impact of the big freeze rather than that of commercial netting. At this time there was noted to be an extremely strong 1959 year-class coming through. This was said to be due to lots of spawning fish that year, unusually warm weather around spawning time, good growth the following year and good survival of young fish.

Trophy bass

So, now we have reached 1965 when I moved to the south of England and gradually took up shore fishing. At first any bass catches seemed unattainable for me and my pals. Our traditional shore fishing methods, following the advice in angling magazines, failed to produce bass – clearly an example of using the wrong approaches, times and places. We eventually learned to catch small schoolies from places like Poole harbour where the hungry little fish would attack any worm baited hook. Our results were so slow to take off that I remember one of my pals saying that the tiny schoolies were “big enough to eat!” Sadly he did take them and eat them!

After a further year or two we began to develop plugging and fly-fishing tactics and from the early seventies to the mid-eighties bass became common catches. In fact, the early to mid-eighties saw a particularly rich vein of bass fishing here in Purbeck. Several years from 1983 onwards produced some spectacular catches and then, from the end of that decade into the early 1990s, disaster! One of my friends, who had been very keen and successful until that time, had such a long succession of blanks that he gave up fishing for bass and switched to the easier option of catching salmon.

This is substantiated by my fishing pal Richard Gardiner (a fishery scientist) who was fishing professionally off the Dorset coast in the late eighties, and I quote, “…my skipper continued fishing off the Purbeck Coast and did well for several years. I returned to Dorset in 1991 and in ‘92 or ‘93 my skipper gave up bass fishing as it was no longer viable and became a tiler”.

Of course, this wasn’t the end of bass fishing as we know it, and still today we continue to catch bass. However, as I’ve suggested things have changed, notably in the way we fish.

At first, we were using conventional beach fishing gear with small hooks and various baits including worms. This resulted in catches of small schoolies, including the small fish which don’t migrate away in winter, hence the catches of schoolies continued through the year. Then, as we began to spin, using spinning rods, eight-pound nylon and buoyant, shallow-diving plugs, we were able to fish shallow, weedy, rocky shorelines and the number of decent fish caught increased markedly.

Over the same period, we were also developing methods for catching mullet on fly-gear armed with tiny hooks and maggot-flies. Although catching mullet interfered with our bass angling, a by-product of this was that we were also catching a number of bass (mostly smaller ones) on fly gear.

By the late seventies and early eighties, we had become very competent plug fishers and, at the same time, we were learning a lot about exactly where and when to fish (although mainly along the same stretches of the Purbeck coast). Good sized bass were still reasonably common and some of the catches we made were spectacular. As I’ve said, by the late eighties to early nineties the stocks of bass, of all sizes, seemed to have diminished, and catches were depressed for several years.

Meanwhile, more anglers around the UK had taken up spinning and fly fishing for bass. The application of many minds to the practice of spinning resulted in some real innovative lure introductions, mostly derived from the bass anglers (freshwater and salt) of the U.S.A. Hard bodied, floating, surface poppers provided an exciting and interesting way of fishing rocky ground; too shallow for even the shallow divers we had been using before. Then, weed less soft plastics permitted us to fish virtually anywhere at any time. Together with the massive increase in breaking strain of fine lines following the introduction of braids these were nothing less than a revolution.

Side casting lure.jpg (Gilbey)

Of course, catches inevitably increased as we explored new possibilities, and I have often wondered what we might have caught had these developments been available in the early years of my Dorset fishing.

Let’s take a look at some catch records for various periods of time over the past fifty years or so. Although the fishing effort differs the patterns seem (to me) significant :-

Catches 1969-1975

catches 1981-1985

catches 1998 - 2005

catches 2015 -2019

The overall numbers of fish caught (all three colours) in the four periods depicted clearly increases. This is certainly a function of better tackle, better lures, improved knowledge and greater bass-fishing effort.

The blue bars show numbers of fish of less than about two pounds, and clearly, despite the improvements in our fishing they, represent a much larger proportion of the catch in the 21st millennium than in previous years. the numbers of decent fish (orange bars – the ones we like to have on the end of our lines) also appear to have increased, although perhaps to a lesser extent than the tiddlers.

The number of bass over 8lb in weight (grey bars) is consistently better in the earlier groups, despite my recent successful efforts with freelined live and dead baits. The virtual absence of these larger fish in 2000-2005 may, reflect their relative absence at this time.

To sum up: I think that :-

  • The period from May to October always produces the most bass (probably due to more actively feeding fish and more fishing effort).
  • Although many more fish are now being caught (by us) than in the 1970s and 1980s, this will be due largely to improvements in tackle and tactics as well as the increase in effort. However, this is despite fishing times and places being more restricted.
  • The larger proportion of small bass being caught in recent years is probably a reflection of changes in population structure, which is partly influenced by the presence of recent successful year classes and is probably affected by commercials ‘fishing down the stock’ to maximise their catch of smaller but marketable bass.
  • To catch good sized bass in decent numbers these days it is probably a good idea to use large, weedless soft plastic lures and/or big live and dead baits.
  • Finally, I cannot show whether stocks have declined but I think that the size structure has changed (more smaller fish), which is a less attractive proposition to bass anglers. Younger anglers may not notice the deterioration due to this ‘shifting baseline effect’.
  • Bass stocks fluctuate widely due to the influence of climate/weather conditions on survival and growth of the young fish.
  • Commercial netting is not the be-all-and-end-all, but it certainly has an impact which is adverse to the requirements of bass anglers for a good range of sizes to catch.”

If you want to read more on bass fishing from Dr. Mike Ladle then check out a couple of his books:-

Hooked on Bass – Alan Vaughan & Mike Ladle. ISBN-13: 978-1861266293. This is still the definitive book on bass fishing.  Hooked on Bass Amazon

Operation Sea Angler – the Second Wave – Mike Ladle & Steve Pitts. ISBN-13: 9781408187876. The first chapter deals specifically with bass. Operation Sea Angler – The Second Wave

 

 

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