AG&FC study concludes anglers not hurting bass

A smallmouth bass fishing enthusiast recently sent us an email recommending that the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission restrict fishing to catch and release only on Crooked Creek.

He said this is necessary because he believes anglers are removing too many smallmouths from the creek.

A tagging survey and creel survey recently conducted by the Game and Fish Commission refutes that perception.

Vic DiCenzo, chief of fisheries for the Game and Fish Commission, briefed the commission during its monthly meeting in Ponca on a tagging study and angler satisfaction survey conducted on Crooked Creek.

The commission determined that anglers from 11 states invested 20,521 hours of fishing divided among 4,809 fishing trips. The overwhelming majority -- 71% -- targeted smallmouth bass and contributed about $300,000 to the local economy.

Anglers reported catching 25,986 smallmouth bass. They kept 0.

Of course, most of those reports came from recreational anglers, most of which do not keep smallmouth bass. It does not account for local anglers that target smallmouth bass to eat.

For the tagging study, commission employees attached tags to 195 smallmouth bass. Anglers that called in the tag numbers to the Game and Fish Commission got a $100 reward, so anglers were highly motivated to cooperate. Anglers from seven states harvested eight smallmouth bass, an exploitation rate of only 5%.

In some Game and Fish Commission lakes, crappie exploitation runs from 40-80%, DiCenzo said. Some smallmouths were caught multiple times, DiCenzo added.

More smallmouth bass die from natural mortality than die from harvest, DiCenzo said. Not harvesting fish negates the effectiveness of any regulations, DiCenzo continued.

The commission is also working to restore habitat and water quality on War Eagle Creek, another great smallmouth stream that is overlooked in Crooked Creek's shadow.

Sean Saunders, a streams biologist for the commission, said that removing four barriers that will open 434 stream miles to aquatic species, including 27 species of greatest conservation concern. The commission will propagate and release some mussel species that are federally listed as threatened or endangered. The War Eagle project will also restore 5,500 linear feet of stream bank and riparian habitat. It will also create four acres of wetlands in the vicinity of Lake Huntsville.

One project will remove a low-water bridge across the Gar Hole on Washington County Road 526. The commission will replace that crossing with a 12-foot high elevated bridge.

Another project will correct problems with the Lake Huntsville Dam. The dam and the lake's overflow structure is in dire disrepair.

A third project is at the Upper Low Water Crossing, where the commission will put a 70-foot notch in the structure. This will allow accumulated sediment to disperse while also allowing fishing to move downstream unimpeded.

The commission has secured $240,000 and a $147,000 match for the Gar Hole project. It secured $155,000 and matching funds of more than $600,000 for the Lake Huntsville Dam project.

Austin Booth, the Game and Fish Commission's director, said that this project alone will almost double the commission's annual objective of opening 200 miles of river flow. Ben Batten, the commission's deputy director, said that combined commission projects will actually open about 1,500 miles of river habitat around the state.

Myron Means, the commission's large carnivore biologist, briefed the commission about black bear densities in Bear Management Zones 3-4. The commission opened bear season in Zones 3-4 for six days in December 2022. Means said that hunters did not report any bear kills from Zone 3, where suitable bear habitat is sparse. He said he might consider recommending redrawing zone boundaries in the future.

In short, the Gulf Coastal Plain supports a low-density bear population, Means said. The region supports 1.8 male bears and 3 female bears per 100 square kilometer, compared to 21 bears per 100 square kilometers in the Ozark Mountains (Bear Zone 1).

The maximum home range for a collared bear in the Gulf Coastal Plain is 211 square kilometers or 81 square miles. The minimum home range is 14 square kilometers or 5.5 square miles. In the mountains, the home range for male bears is typically 39 square miles and 18 square miles for female bears.