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Is Fishing Pressure Fake News? Part 1: The Data

Author’s Note: One of the topics I often discuss with my fishing clients is the effects of fishing pressure. I started the research for this article, which combines my math skills with my passion for fishing, several months ago, knowing it would require a fair amount of number crunching to compile and graph the analysis. Now, in April 2020, we are experiencing a pandemic, and are bombarded daily with data, charts, and graphs. Hopefully, the ones below will be more enjoyable for you to contemplate.

I have always been curious about how fishing pressure affects a lake. What do we actually mean when we say “fishing pressure”? Are we talking long term or short term? Is fishing pressure a real thing, or is it all in our heads when we see five boats sitting on our spot? You often hear about it in tournament circles and read about it in fishing magazines, and we all have our own anecdotal cases we use to justify a tough day, I certainly do. But, as people are asking on a lot of subjects today, “what do the numbers say?”, and what do they look like on a larger scale over time?

One of the hats I wear is that of a math teacher and tutor, as well as one that labels me as an engineer. So I won’t deny that I love numbers. This article, the first of two parts, will present graphs showing national tournament results to look at the big picture. I have selected four lakes of various types from around the country, and chosen ones where tournaments happen at each body of water’s “prime time”.

When presenting data, it is always necessary to make some statements about the data for

context: First, I do not present this data as being conclusive to any end. It is simply data. I have tried to think about it logically and assemble it carefully. Nevertheless, there are holes and certainly room for further study. It is important to understand that while national tournament data is presented, hundreds of other anglers are on these major bodies of water at any time, so l stress this throughout the article. The data presented here should be viewed with this in mind.

· Outside factors like Asian Carp in Kentucky Lake, extended drought in places like California, flooding on the Mississippi River, or tropical storms in Florida can have significant effects on fisheries- sometimes for prolonged periods of time. Time of year is always a factor in fishing pressure so at least for each lake I chose its “prime time” even though many are fished throughout the year.

So here are my observations:

The St. John’s River, FL: Why this body of water was selected:

I chose this body of water for several reasons. First, the Bassmaster Elite Series has been there five times since 2011 offering a nice data set with comparable numbers. Second, it’s a nationally ranked big bass fishery that receives significant pressure. Each time Elite events highlight this fishery, scores of anglers from around the country book trips to hit that water. Locally, there are tournaments nearly every weekend, often very large with skilled anglers. Third, I wanted to analyze a body of water from Florida since Florida waters seem to present a unique set of conditions, and the St. John’s River is a prime example. The last reason, and possibly the most important one, is that each of these tournaments were held in the spring (around the spawn), and were largely dominated by sight fishing, or blind bed fishing. So what will the data tell us about how sight fishing and/or bed fishing affects a fishery short, medium, and longer term? I’ll

leave it to you to draw your conclusions.

How the data is presented:

Since all events represent Elite Series tournaments, which follow the same four-day format, the data shown represents all four days of the event. For events from 2011-2016 there was a cut to the top 50 for day three, and only the top 12 fished day four. For 2019, there was a cut to the top 35 for day three, and the top 10 fished day four. For simplicity, and ease of comparison, I rounded the weights to the nearest whole number- which is why there are flat points in the data.

BASS Elite Series Events – The St. John’s River, FL


· The highest weight was the most recent 2019 event. Nearly all of the top ten in 2019 tallied higher weights than the winning weights in previous years. Yet 2019 also has the most precipitous drop through the middle of the pack. Keep in mind that hurricanes wiped out much of the grass before this event, which could account for that drop.

· After very successful Elite events in 2011 and 2012, the St. John’s River was thrust into the national spotlight as a world class big bass fishery. Yet the events in 2014 and 2016 brought even better tournament results, especially through the middle of the pack.

· Keep in mind that while these are five separate national tournaments, there were literally weekly local tournaments happening during this same time period, yet from 2011 through 2016 weights continued to go up overall.

One could conclude that the St. John’s successfully survived the national exposure and resulting pressure. It is important to remember this is where, in large part, the fishing is shallow bed fishing. The fish here are also often taken long distances to weigh-ins and, in many cases, are unlikely to be returned to their original area. For the record, I know sight fishing can spark controversy among anglers. I am not suggesting that I believe sight fishing has no impact on a fishery, long or short term. That is why I suggested each angler draw their own conclusions.

Sam Rayburn Reservoir, TX

Why this body of water was selected:

This body of water was chosen for the shear volume of data available from various tours. Any who follow the Texas anglers of iBass360 know there are A LOT of tournaments on this lake. I don’t think I am overstating when I say that Sam Rayburn hosts as many 100+ boat tournaments during the year as any other lake in the country- many even in excess of 200 boats- and there is no shortage of skilled anglers in Texas. In addition, Sam Rayburn sees hundreds of recreational anglers, including a host of guided trips, every single day. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Sam Rayburn is one of the most pressured lakes in the country.

How the data is presented:

Because data from several different tours were used, for comparability, only results from the first two days of each event is shown. This was done because qualification for days three and four varies across the tours, and also varies within the same tours in different years. Again, for ease of comparison, weights were rounded.

FLW Series, Elite Series, & FLW Tour Events – Sam Rayburn Reservoir, TX


· When the pros come to Rayburn, they catch fish. It doesn’t seem to matter how many guides or local tournaments are happening, anglers catch a sack full of quality 2.5 lb to 3 lb bass to stay “in the money” in Sam Rayburn tournaments.

· At the same time, the data clearly shows that 2016 and 2017 were banner tournament years, with the following year, 2018, being the lowest. Did the national tournament exposure bring too much pressure? It is hard to say, especially since the 2019 tournaments were significantly better than 2018.

· The weight distribution for the same place grows as you progress down the standings. For instance, 20th place has a 10 lb spread (25 lbs to 35 lbs), whereas 70th place as a 15 lb spread.

· One other thing to keep in mind, Sam Rayburn has been in the top three of Bassmaster’s top lakes in the country for the last three years. This also brings additional fishing pressure.

Lake Chickamauga, TN

Why this body of water was selected:

One of my all time favorite fishing books is titled “Bass Wars”, by Nick Taylor. In one chapter of the book he recounts a Bassmaster event held in 1986 on Lake Chickamauga in which legend Zell Rowland tallied a 4-day total of 39 lbs 6 oz to win. In recent years, Chickamauga has burst back onto the scene as a fishery capable of producing one-day five bass bass tallying in excess of that whole tournament. The introduction of Florida strain largemouth has certainly been a major reason for the turnaround, as good habitat and fisheries management. With this recent uptick in the quality of fishing, and the lake’s central location in the Mid-south or south Midwest, Chickamauga is hosting a plethora of tournaments- large and small- annually, and there has

been an increase in the number of full-time guide services and vacationing fishermen.

How the data is presented:

Data from the FLW Tour, the FLW Series, and Bassmaster Opens are presented here. I have chosen to use the first three days of the events, as finding incremental weight data for days one and two from Bassmaster Opens was difficult to find. As a result, you will notice a jump in the

weights as each tour makes a cut after day two. The only exception is the 2017 FLW Series event, which was shortened to two days due to weather. Regardless, we can still examine days one and two through the field over the years, as well as top finishers and winners through day three. I truncated this data set to the top 100 places to better see the separation. The only Bassmater Elite event held in this period was in 2015, but it featured a unique scoring format that skewed some of the weights, so it was not included. Weights were again rounded to whole numbers. This method shows just how strong this lake is when it comes to 2.5 to 3 lb fish.

FLW Tour, FLW Series, & BASS Open Events – Lake Chickamauga, TN


· The data is, in a word, tight, and, on this lake, are remarkably consistent through the entire field, especially if the 2019 FLW Series event is removed.

· In compiling the data I was surprised by the number of anglers totalling 28- 32 lb over two days. The number of 2.75 lb to 3.25 lb bass in this lake is remarkably consistent throughout the years.

· A possible caveat is that oftentimes a five fish limit around 15 lbs includes a “kicker” bass in the 5 lb range, with four others in the 2.5 lb range. Even so, it would mean the lake holds an incredible number of 5 lb fish!

· In all my graphs you will notice no data from Major League Fishing’s Bass Pro Tour. This is because of their short history. They did , however, visit Chickamauga in 2019, and they broke a lot of records, again showing the strength of the fishery despite the pressure it receives.

The St. Lawrence River, NY

Why this body of water was selected:

We can’t leave our study without evaluating a smallmouth body of water. The St. Lawrence was selected, similar to the St. John’s, because the Bassmaster Elite series has consistently visited this body of water over the last ten years, providing a very nice data set. Where the St. Lawrence differs slightly from the St. John’s is that the St. Lawrence also hosted a large number of other major national tournaments. The FLW Series has visited this body of water nearly every year.

BASS Opens, national college tournaments, and major northern open tournaments, each with 150- 200 boats, have been consistently held on the St. Lawrence over the last ten years. Like all the other Lakes I analyzed, this body of water also hosts local and regional tournaments nearly every weekend, and, keeping in mind my northern bias, each featuring very skilled anglers. No question this body of water gets hammered as much as any southern reservoir.

How the data is presented:

While I acknowledge that this data only represents the Bassmaster Elite Series, it does not matter because regardless of what circuit is chosen, that tournament shows the profile of the fish that live in the lake or river system. The fact that the Elite Series comes nearly every year at the same time of year provides a consistent measurement year to year of the state of the fish in this body of water- and it’s pretty amazing. The data represents all four days of fishing. From 2013 to 2018, there was a cut at the top 50 and the top 12. In 2019, due to the lower number of anglers, the day two cut was at 35th place and the day three cut was at 10th place.

BASS Elite Series Events – The St. Lawrence River, NY


· The low end tournament is the 2015 event. What is interesting is this was the earliest event in the year of the five, but only by two weeks. It was held in late June when the smallmouth may not have been as “grouped up” as they are as the post-spawn phase progresses into summer. Regardless, it still took over a per fish 3 lb average to make the money.

· On the high side, the 2018 event was a remarkable tournament that took over 90 lbs of smallmouth to win. The 2013, 2017, and 2019 events were nearly indistinguishable.

· Speaking from my tournament experience on smallmouth waters, it is amazing how much of a difference in the event data a 3.25 lb fish is vs. a 3.5 lb fish makes. It might not seem like much, but adding just one more pound to the daily total ends up making a significant jump in the


· It is worth noting that the St. Lawrence is a relatively clear body of water. That means there is a lot of sight fishing. Even though New York has a closed season (catch and release only) through the 3rd weekend in June, the participants in a BASS College event in late June needed 20 lbs a day to make the top 50. The report from that event stated most fish were caught off beds or by sight fishing cruising fish. Even with significant sight fishing happening, this body of water seems to be holding to the pressure.

· It is also worth noting that for most of the year, these smallmouth are caught very deep. Years ago we did not fully understand how to take properly care for fish caught deep. This data would suggest that despite our lack of knowledge, Mother Nature may have picked up our slack. We are much more knowledgeable now, and we should absolutely continue improving our practice of that knowledge in our conservation efforts. For example, the New York DNR does a fantastic job training anglers.

Wrapping Up My Observations

It is not possible for me to study the 2,000 acre lake by your house that hosts 100-boat tournaments, nor can I study the 500 acre lakes in your region that host at least one evening derby per week over the summer. I recognize that the picture from this data is incomplete as it not possible to extrapolate it to fishing pressure throughout seen in any particular part of the country on any body of water. What I have tried to do is show data from four regions of the country on some of the most pressured bodies of water in those regions. I have tried to show that even on the most pressured bodies of water, nature will take care of itself, when combined with responsible tournament management, all things being equal. There are natural cycles in a body of water, and natural disasters and the occasional man-made mismanagement will, unfortunately, happen. However, if we continue to consistently and intentionally take care of our fisheries and hold each other and our legislative bodies accountable, our fisheries, the data suggests nature will take care of us and allow us to continue to enjoy its bounty, even on the most pressured ones.

Author Notes: Part 2 will be published next week. In Part 2, I will provide feedback from two professionals who see the impact of fishing pressure on a more day-to-day basis- Bassmaster Elite Series Pro Chad Pipkens, and Tim Chandler, a long-time guide on northern Alabama lakes, including one of the most “pressured” bass lakes in the country- Guntersville.

Ryan Said is a tournament angler and U.S. Coast Guard licensed guide on Lake St. Clair. He also

guides Lake Erie, and many of Michigan's inland lakes. He books trips through Marcels Guide Service - an affiliation that is beginning its seventh season. In 2011, after winning the Bassmaster Northern Open points championship, Ryan had the honor of fishing the Bassmaster Classic and the Bassmaster Elite series trail. He has fished the Bassmaster Open Series several times, as well as the Costa Series. Ryan is an engineer and teaches high school math. He coaches the college bass fishing team at Lawrence Tech, and offers seminars and "on the water" instruction for high school anglers. Ryan is pro staff for Dobyns Rods, Lew's Reels, Costa Sunglasses, P-Line and Blackfish Gear


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