ROANOKE, W.Va. — Four years ago when the West Virginia Natural Resources Commission agreed to a recommendation to change the long held catch and release restriction on black bass at Stonewall Jackson Lake there was widespread concern. Many bass anglers feared they would see heavy stringers of fat bass carried through the lake’s parking lots. There was a concern the state’s crown jewel for bass would become just another run of the mill fishing lake. But it turns out none that has happened.
“When people catch and want to bring fish home, they’re thinking pan fish or walleye,” said Division of Natural Resources District Fisheries Biologist Jim Walker. “They don’t usually think, ‘I want a mess for dinner, I’m going to take some five pound bass.'”
Still, the agency was cautious about allowing harvest of the hefty largemouth bass for which the lake is known. The current restriction allows anglers to keep five bass, but only one can be over 18 inches. It was a compromise at the time to address some of the concerns raised by fishermen.
“We put that there because we really weren’t sure how people were going to react,” said Walker. “We didn’t want to create some big boom where people are going there and harvesting big loads of big bass. We erred to the side caution because once you make a decision it sticks.”
Since the regulation was put into place, it has allowed for bass tournaments to flourish on the lake. But tournament fishermen werent’ the primary concern. Those fish, per tournament rules, go into a live well and are released back into the water after the weigh-in. But careful monitoring has shown very few of the non-tournament anglers are keeping the bass either.
“We tagged close to 300 bass two years in a row,” said Walker. “The aim was for anglers to see that tag, give us a call and let us know what they did with the bass. Out of that study, only one angler reported harvesting the bass.”
It was a small study, but it was backed up by fish surveys at the ramp. A creel clerk working for the agency spent two summers interviewing anglers as they came off the water. The clerk logged more than 400 interviews with fishermen as they pulled their boats out of the lake, they recorded only two bass harvested after those interviews.
“From that little bit of research, we’ve determined it’s still functioning as a catch and release impountment,” Walker surmised.
The current regulation created an interesting dynamic for tournament anglers who naturally try to catch the biggest creel possible. Under the current restrictions however, only one of their day’s fish can be over 18 inches. Many bass fishermen often have to change tactics in hopes of catching smaller bass to fill out their limit. Some would like to see the regulations loosened to change the dynamic. It could happen before long according to Walker.
“It’s possible. It’s something we’re going to be looking at over the next year or so,” said Walker. “We wanted to give it five years and then we may revisit it. We realize the regs are fairly complicated, but there’s a reason for every regulation we’ve got.”