Bass grow in size, number in Lake Erie

The closed season on Lake Erie smallmouth and largemouth bass has resulted in improvements in the numbers and size of both species, say the people who manage the fish populations in the big lake.

Most Ohioans are well aware of the abundance of walleyes in Lake Erie as anglers such as national champion Sammy Cappelli of Poland continue to popularize the fishing in our great lake.

But fewer Buckeye anglers are tuned to the burgeoning bass fishing along Ohio’s north coast.

Travis Hartman is the Lake Erie fisheries administrator for Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife. He reported at the recent Ohio Bass Forum in Columbus that the catch rate per hour for Lake Erie bass is increasing, while harvest is decreasing.

In May and most of June, anglers who catch Lake Erie largemouth and smallmouth bass must immediately release them. Released fish will return to their nests to go about their business of making more bass.

Lake Erie research, assessment and management decisions have combined to form the foundation for an emerging largemouth fishery. Long known as a smallmouth mecca, Lake Erie recently has come on strong for the smallies’ green cousins.

“It’s not just in the bays and backwaters,” Hartman said. “We’re seeing a lot of largemouths in the main lake.”

Good habitat in the form of vast areas of aquatic vegetation help encourage the growth of the largemouth bass numbers in Erie, as does the abundance of high-protein food sources.

One of those food sources is the round goby.

The goby is an invasive species, thought to have traveled from its native European waters in the ballast water of freight ships. Gobies have been in Erie and other Great Lakes for nearly 30 years now. They are known to feast on bass, perch and walleye eggs, but fears they would cause irreparable damage to the fishery have been assuaged by the fact that game fish are eating gobies – a lot of them, in fact.

Hartman said gobies today comprise nearly three-quarters of the diet of Lake Erie smallmouth bass. Relatively easy to hunt and capture, gobies are contributing immensely to the bellies and muscles of Erie bass.

In fact, smallmouth that grow to trophy class-sizes in Lake Erie – pounds and more – are generally shorter than smallies of the same weight in waters void of gobies.

Ohio has a 14-inch size limit on Erie bass, while the Pennsylvania size limit is 15 inches.

Hartman noted that the forecast for smallmouth bass in Erie’s central basin, which extends from just west of Cleveland east to Erie, Pa., shows that the majority of the smallmouth bass are more than 13 inches in length.

For the western basin, which is the Bass Island region, most of the smallmouths are 12 to 13 inches.

Regardless of their length, the bass are packing on the pounds thanks to the enormous number of gobies.

Hartman said smallmouth that are in the range of 18 to 20 inches long are more than 10 years old. He said 19- and 20-inch bass are relatively rare.

The closed season has helped recruit more and bigger bass to the Erie population. With plenty of gobies to provide pound-packing protein, the bass will be providing great sport for anglers this season and beyond.

Lake Erie Ohio waters’ bass season opens June 23.

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