N.H. Weekly Fishing Report -- June 5, 2008

In today's report, fisheries biologist John Viar gives us the lowdown on "the gamest fish that swims" -- the smallmouth bass -- and the best ways to find and catch them while avoiding disrupting nesting males. (Happy Fathers Day, fish dads!)

This Saturday, June 7, is New Hampshire's annual FREE FISHING DAY!

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Small Mouth, Big Heart
By John Viar - Fisheries Biologist, Region 2/New Hampton

Many anglers agree with the famous "inch for inch and pound for pound, the gamest fish that swims" adage attributed to the smallmouth bass.  Once you've seen the rare combination of forceful bulldogging and aerial acrobatics generously employed by the "bronzeback," you will become a believer, too.  Mid-May through June and the first half of July are prime times to test this old adage in New Hampshire's Lakes Region.  This time frame will encompass the pre-spawn, spawn, and post-spawn period on most of the large glacial lakes such as Winnipesaukee and Big Squam.

Pre-Spawn Madness

Unfortunately, some anglers miss the pre-spawn feeding binge when some of the largest, typically female, smallmouth bass are caught -- probably because they believe the water is still "too cold."  Actually, this "bite" starts even before the ice is out (as evidenced by many late-ice monster bass taken by ice anglers), but in practical "casting" terms, it begins when the water reaches the upper 40s to low-mid 50 degree F range (although vertical jigging, live bait, float and fly, and other subtle methods can shine at colder temperatures).  Prepare your wrist and forearms, because this is when a well-known tool, known as the suspending jerkbait, comes into play.  There are many varieties and everyone has their favorite, but the real key is twitching these suspending lures sharply, and then pausing to let the lure remain motionless -- the pause being dictated by the water temperature -- colder water, longer pause.  Be ready, because when this bite is "on," your forearms will ache from pulling in numerous chunky pre-spawn bass adjacent to spawning flats.  Twitch, twitch, pause -- BOOM!   

Dad's Babysitting Duty

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A male smallmouth bass guarding a future generation. Photo by John Viar.

By the mid-high 50 degree F range, smallmouth bass have begun the physical act of spawning.  Males construct gravel nests, or beds, by forcefully pulsating their caudal fin (tail) along the bottom until clean gravel is present.  An egg-laden female is coaxed into the nest where she releases eggs and the male, alongside, releases milt (sperm) to fertilize the adhesive eggs.  The female may spawn in more than one male's nest.  Now, Bass Dad begins the arduous task of diligently guarding the nest/eggs/hatched fry from a myriad of predators.  As you can tell, Dad does yeoman's work in bass family affairs!

Anglers can help male guardian bass by refraining from "picking beds" -- the practice of coaxing the male to bite lures intentionally placed in or near the nest.  With no interest in food during his guard duties, the male will not "eat" the lure, but will grab it with his mouth to move it away from the nest site.  The stress on these fish is already enormous without the additional rigors of being caught multiple times.  No guardian male, and you can guess what will happen to the eggs or fry -- gulp! It only takes seconds for a whole nest to be lost to a predator. Repeated removal of guardian males can lead to nest failure, either from predators or simple abandonment. Multiple hook wounds and even lures are frequently observed in guardian males' jaws or lodged on the bottom in or near the nest. 

Keep in mind, not all bass spawn at exactly the same time on a given waterbody, so there are always other options -- pre-or post-spawn fish that are legitimately feeding can be found in deeper water near the spawning grounds (including the larger females noted above) or in different parts of the lake where temperatures can be several degrees lower or higher.  Fish and Game does not recommend targeting nested guardian male bass, and catch and release is mandatory from May 15 to June 15 per statewide regulations.  Additionally, only artificial lures and flies may be used to target bass during the month-long catch and release period.  Remember, the eggs and/or fry in those nests are the future of the fishery.   

Post-Spawn Popping

Once Dad has completed the grueling task of guardian duties and eventually relinquishes his school of "black fry" around the nest site to their fate, he goes on a full-throttle feeding mission, joining the ladies for fine dining.  This period is approximately mid-late June through the first half of July, and as with the other "fish calendar" periods, exact timing depends on factors such as weather, water temperature, individual lake location (north, south) and size, and location within the lake.  Water temperatures during this period are typically from mid 60s to 70 degrees F.  Welcome to topwater fishing heaven -- floating stickbaits and poppers (spin or fly tackle) lead to some water shattering strikes -- as well as gentle "suction" takes as if Mr. Smallie were subtly sipping a mayfly.  It is debatable if there is anything more powerful and juiced with stamina (again, the old adage) than even a modest-sized smallmouth taken on a sporting-weight fly rod via popper surface take.  The further time elapses during this period, generally speaking, the better the smallmouth topwater action will be from dawn through early morning, and at dusk.  Likewise through the period, larger smallmouth will generally move deeper, until they take up their mid-late summer haunts in as much as 20-40+ feet of water in our clear glacial lakes, where they will chase juvenile perch, rainbow smelt, and crayfish.

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Large Lakes Landlocked Salmon and Rainbow Trout Catch and Release Reminder 

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Severely hook wounded age-2 landlocked salmon from Lake Winnipesaukee's 2007 fall netting survey.  Photo by Don Miller.

A reminder to all large lakes coldwater anglers, particularly at this time of year -- one-year-old rainbow trout and landlocked salmon have been or will soon be stocked and will be feeding ravenously. These fish have a minimum length limit of 15 inches in most large lakes, and great care should be exercised in their release. Severe hook wounds impede their growth, as they must divert calories into repair instead of growth and body condition.  Fish and Game fall netting surveys have revealed that hook-wounded fish of the same age class can be several inches shorter and a pound or more less than non-hook-wounded counterparts.  At Lake Winnipesaukee, for example, hook-wounded landlocked salmon comprise 22% of the population; this means a nearly a quarter of the fish will never grow to full potential and/or trophy size.  Remember, yearling/sub-legal fish are the future 3-5 lbs. quality size fish we all enjoy catching.  And since stocking levels are balanced to the amount of forage fish available in large lakes, and cannot be increased, this is a finite resource -- each fish should be treated as such.  To minimize the effects of hook wounding, consider the following:

  • Use extreme care when unhooking and releasing fish -- have pliers/hemostats/other gear organized and prepared; minimize handling and exposure time; NEVER shake a fish off the hook, NEVER attempt to unhook a fish suspended in the air, NEVER sharply pull hooks out while the fish is moving and twisting.
  • Use rubber or other "fish friendly" landing nets when catch and releasing, whether from shore, wading, or boat -- rubber nets can even be better than no net, since they allow you to cradle the fish upside down in a stationary position, with less stress, and quickly and efficiently remove the hook. Rubber nets prevent loss of slime coat and scales, fin splitting, and other damage, as well as minimize or eliminate fishing gear/hook/net tangles.
  • If choosing to harvest/keep fish, select those more severely wounded.
  • Consider harvesting/keeping a previously hook-wounded fish instead of a more robust fish which is lightly hooked and thus more easily released -- the latter has more potential to become a "trophy"/quality salmon in the future.
  • Remember, all hooks can and do cause damage -- many variables come into play such as fish size and hooking location, as well as angler experience and execution in proper handling/release techniques.  

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