Bass with a Bounty

I've never fished for money. I fish to relax and to escape. I have always worked to make money. Therefore, money and fishing have always appeared to be on opposite ends of my motivation scale. Don't get me wrong, I do not have anything against money or what it takes for each of us to make a living. Fortunately though, I'm retired now and I guide folks on our float streams to mainly share the experience and to have fun with my clients.The fact that it costs my clients money for me to take them fishing is just common since. Some would say that fishing isn't work and to actually PAY to go fishing is akin to throwing money down the kitchen drain. However, from the guide's viewpoint, let me suggest that you spend a couple of days hauling two "good ol' boys" down a ten mile stretch of Ozark stream just for the "fun" of it. If you are of the view that fishing is simply for the sake of the outdoor experience involved and to hire a guide is a foolish waste of money let me ask you a question. Why is it called "fishing" instead of "catching"? As a float fishing guide, rule number one is to first, find the fish. Thus, you might want a second opinion about the relationship of money and fishing. Last summer I experienced a new twist to this fishing-for-money discussion. Don and Mark, clients from Alabama came to the Ozarks to fish a couple of days on one of our finest rivers, the North Fork of the White River near Gainsville, Missouri. These guys have been coming to the Missouri Ozarks for a few years now and they thoroughly enjoy their time out on our float streams. The North Fork is primarily known as a trout stream and gets most of it's fishing pressure for Rainbow and Brown trout. Less known is the fact that it is a very good Smallmouth fishery. I chose one of the more popular stretches of water to fish that day and we had started early to miss the canoeing crowd. This stream has many, large springs that add their flow to the river and so it's always floatable even during the dry summer conditions. About an hour or so into the trip, Mark fishing from the front of the canoe, hooked a nice Smallmouth on a crawdad crankbait. A good 16 inch fish, it fought well in the strong current as Mark brought it to the canoe. Several other bass including a couple of Kentucky's were swimming with this Smallmouth attempting to take the lure away as Mark fought the bass with light tackle. Mark finally lipped his prize and held it up for a photo. He was about to release it back to the river when Don, in the center of the canoe, spoke up and said "let's get that spinner bait out of it's back before we turn him loose". Something didn't sound right to me and I asked for the fish to be handed back so that I could take a look. Sure enough, the bass did have a wiring attachment and as I suspected it wasn't a lure, it was a tagged fish. Both tag and wiring were algae coated and the attachment looked more like a part of the fish then I would have guessed. Obviously this tag could have been easily overlooked and the fish returned to the water without further ado had it not been for Don's sharp attention to detail. After some vigorous rubbing on the tag, I spoke up over the noise of the stream, "Mark I've got good news and bad news". "The good news is this Smallmouth doesn't have a spinner bait stuck in his back it's a wired-on conservation tag worth $75. The bad news is "I've got the tag!" I had read briefly about the Missouri Department of Conservation's tagging program on Smallmouth. The publicly stated purpose is general in nature, "the research project will help biologists learn more about angler catch rates and fish movement in these waters". It further states "information gained from angler reporting their tagged catches will help us manage this species, which many Missourians love to fish". Turns out, 1600 Smallmouth were tagged and released in the Spring of 2011 in five different streams in the Missouri Ozarks, the Black River, Castor River, Courtois Creek, Current River and of course, the North Fork of the White and the MDC began their study trusting the public to return the tags and to provide basic information about when and where fish were caught. Ideally, they also want the length of the bass to gather some approximate detail about growth rates. Mark's bass was tag number 1524 and was about a sixteen inch fish. Later in the week, he mailed the tag and received his money reward, soon after. I contacted John Ackerson, Fisheries biologist with the MDC later as I had taken some photos to share and I wanted to know more about what the department was learning. John appreciated the photos and shared some insight about their results to date. First and foremost, they were getting a much better rate of return on the tags then they expected, almost 50% of the tags had been returned by the end of the first year. He stated that this had surprised them enough that they were going to recommend to the MDC that a "second study" be made. In my view, I suspect, to confirm that the results of the first study was not an anomaly. I've fished for Smallmouth on streams for decades and all they really need to do is ask me for the results of my own "studies". Let me make my recommendation clear: "The daily limit for Smallmouth on streams should be reduced!" Unfortunately, this presents a host of enforcement issues, not least is simply teaching folks how to identify a Smallmouth Bass. Currently, there is a daily six bass limit on bass in streams and the season is closed during much of the early Spring. This six bass limit includes Smallmouth bass, Kentucky bass and Largemouth bass. My suggestion is to keep the six bass limit, but reduce the limit to "ONE" Smallmouth bass per day, inclusive within the daily limit of six. This restriction would be much like the daily Mallard duck limit of four, but only two can be female! Why more restriction? Because the plain truth is that I alone could personally hurt the fishery on streams if I simply kept the Smallmouth that I alone catch. What I've actually learned in my lifetime of fishing on our streams is that I'll never keep another one. Once you have experienced Ozark Smallmouth fishing at it's finest, turning them loose to fight another day becomes the only reasonable choice.