State of St. Lawrence River bass fishing topic of public information meeting

Apr. 2—ALEXANDRIA BAY — The current state of bass fishing on the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario's Eastern Basin was the subject of a public information meeting hosted by the state Department of Environmental Conservation in Alexandria Bay.

Massena's Aaron T. Hardy, vice chair of the New York Chapter of the Native Fish Coalition, said the session drew about 60 local recreational anglers, guides, conservationists, bass club members, and local river community public officials.

"This public meeting was held to discuss the current data the DEC had obtained and they wanted to hear public opinions on the fishery," he said.

DEC officials say Lake Ontario's Eastern Basin and St. Lawrence River are among New York's most important fisheries.

They said the Lake Ontario sport fishery is valued at more than $546 million per year; the Eastern Basin black bass fishery is a significant contributor to that value. The St. Lawrence River sport fishery is valued at more than $134 million per year and is among the top bass fisheries in the country.

The popularity of black bass fishing has grown in recent years, drawing anglers to the region from across the country and around the world.

"They're very aware that all of a sudden there's a tremendous influx of people that are coming to experience what we have been trying to tell them for years and years now, that this area is special in a lot of ways. But, the one way that's different than any place I've ever seen is the fact that these people can come here and catch bigger smallmouth bass than in any place maybe in the world, and that's leading to a lot of pressure. A lot of new organizations want to come here," said Donald R. Meissner, the town of Massena's sports-fishing promotion director, who also attended the meeting.

One of the topics of discussion was the length of the bass fishing season and its impact.

Barbara Elliot, Altmar, conservation director for New York B.A.S.S. Nation, said she was in favor of opening the season earlier and then closing it for smallmouth bass during the spawn, identical to the Canadian regulation. Several people also suggested the change during the meeting.

Canadian early season catch and release is Jan. 1 to May 10. The largemouth regular season is the third Saturday in June to Dec. 31. The smallmouth regular season is the first Saturday in July to Dec. 31.

In New York, the black bass season runs from June 15 to Nov. 30, and catch and release only from Dec. 1 to June 14.

"I just think that mirroring that Canadian date with the earlier season is a really good idea. And then closing it for smallmouth bass until the spawn is 80% complete," Elliot said. "There's a lot of good reasons for expanding the open season earlier. The water is colder, you spread out your fishing effort across many more months. In the early season that you are talking about, you can't possess fish, you can catch and release, like almost all of the rest of the state. It's much better for the fish. It doesn't transport them. It really solves a lot of problems."

"Many of those in attendance felt that the season needs to change. The majority of the folks there felt that there needs to be an early catch and release season. There currently is no legal catch and release before the season opener in this area. The DEC should close the fishing season during the spawn, then open up the regular season post spawn. This would mimic the current season that is in place on the Canadian side of the river," Hardy said.

Meissner and Hardy said a spawning study that was conducted between 2015 and 2017 was a topic of discussion.

"June 15, we always felt that was a safe time to open the season because the bass have spawned and now it's a safe time. They found that by June 15, only 8% of the smallmouth bass had completed spawning. So, now the season's open, everybody can go out there and they can catch fish that are trying to guard their beds, and that's the future of this fishery," Meissner said.

"According to a Tufts report, by the third Saturday in June 58% of largemouth nests have reached swim up fry and only 8% of smallmouth nests have reached swim up fry. Basically what this means is according to the study over half — 58% — of largemouth babies have left the protection of the nest while only 8% of the smallmouth babies have swam away from the nest," Hardy said.

He said that topic "spurred a lot of conversation and debate in the room."

"Several people commented that the DEC isn't doing enough to prevent anglers from fishing outside of the regular season. Some felt that too many people are targeting smallmouths protecting their nest during the early part of the season, resulting in too many male bass being removed from protecting the nest allowing predator fish to eat the fry (babies)," Hardy said.

That led to a discussion about the impact of the increasing number of bass tournaments.

"Several people felt that the state needs to step in and find better ways to regulate these tournaments. Even one local bass club president stepped up and said that currently they have changed the rules in their tournaments to reduce the limit that is allowed on a boat," Hardy said. "How much is too much? How much can this fishery handle? The DEC has a tough role. They must balance the economic and tourism impact with what their fisheries specialists feel the fishery can handle. Currently, the fishery is in good shape, but according to a lot of the feedback they are getting, many feel it is in danger of being overfished."