By: Mark Romanack
Big and beautiful, the smallmouth bass thrives in clear to stained waters all across the Great Lakes region.
It’s safe to say that during my lifetime, the Great Lakes region has experienced what can only be described as a smallmouth bass explosion. Smallmouth bass have expanded not only their range, but also their numbers in countless fisheries across the Great Lakes region. In part, the credit goes to the smallmouth for being adaptive, but environmental conditions must also favor the expansion of any species.
In the case of the smallmouth bass a few different invasive species have contributed mightily to the advancement of this species. Greatly improved water quality has also played a major role in helping the smallmouth bass to flourish.
The accidental introduction of both the zebra and quagga mussel into the Great Lakes has played an enormous role in a host of different native species. In the case of some species the proliferation of these siphon feeders has changed the environment in ways that have made it more difficult to survive. In the case of other species, namely the smallmouth bass, the zebra and quagga mussel have helped create a much better environment.
The collective impact of the zebra and quagga mussel has lead to clearer water and greater light penetration in not only Great Lakes waters, but also in Great Lakes Connecting Waters and also a host of inland waters. Better light penetration has allowed aquatic plants to expand into much deeper water, significantly increasing smallmouth bass habitat in the process.
This process has occurred in the Great Lakes proper and also has had a similar impact on inland lakes where these siphon feeders have become accidentally introduced. The truth is there are very few bodies of water in the Great Lakes drainage basin that have not become infested with the zebra and quagga mussel.
So the proliferation of the zebra and quagga mussel are directly linked to the expansion of smallmouth bass populations. Because smallmouth are sight feeders, they thrive in fisheries that feature clear to stained waters.
The expansion of aquatic plants such as common pond weed, has also played a major role in growing smallmouth bass populations. Because smallmouth are also ambush predators, they benefit greatly from aquatic weeds that not only provide invaluable cover, but an exceptional habitat for important forage species.
Smallmouth bass numbers across the Great Lakes basin have literally exploded in the author’s lifetime. Smallmouth are not only abundant, they are one of the hardest fighting fish that swims.
The round goby is a small fish that was accidentally introduced into the Great Lakes through the ballast waters of cargo ships. These benthic creatures thrive in exactly the same habitats that smallmouth bass thrive in, making them a critically important forage species.
While some argue that the “egg eating” round goby does as much harm as good, the goby and the smallmouth bass have a relationship that seems to benefit both species. Certainly the round goby eats it’s share of smallmouth bass eggs, but at the same time smallmouth bass grow fat on a steady diet of these bottom dwellers.
Not unlike the relationship between largemouth bass and bluegills, in the Great Lakes smallmouth bass have become dependent on thriving populations of round goby.
As waters across the Great Lakes have improved in water clarity, they have also improved in water quality. The Clean Water Act of 1972 has had a profound impact on helping to improve water quality. Native crustaceans such as the common crayfish have benefited from an environment that features far less harmful chemicals and heavy metal contaminates.
Just about any angler who has spent much time targeting brown bass will attest that crayfish make up a sizable portion of the smallmouth bass diet. As the environmental conditions have improved for crayfish, this has also helped smallmouth bass to expand their numbers and range.
While it may be hard to imagine for some, smallmouth bass are not nearly as popular among avid anglers as other native Great Lakes sport fish species. A lot of anglers simply have not discovered the allure of fishing for smallmouth. As a result, fishing pressure is modest in most areas.
Secondly, because smallmouth bass are not widely regarded as good table fare, the majority of the smallmouth that are caught by anglers end up released to fight another day.
The author recently caught his personal best smallmouth bass on Lake Erie near Buffalo, New York. The fish weighed six pounds, 11 ounces and was caught on a three-way rig baited with a golden shiner minnow. The fish was released unharmed to fight another day.
SUMMING IT UP
So collectively the smallmouth bass is enjoying not only an environment that greatly enhances survival, this species is also benefiting from an almost unlimited supply of quality forage species. Fishing pressure is modest and chances are when a smallmouth is caught by a sport fisherman, that fish will be released unharmed. Compared to walleye, perch, bluegill, crappie and many other species that are regarded as better table fare, the smallmouth bass swims nicely under the radar.
The moral of this story is simple. The smallmouth bass is thriving all across the Great Lakes region. The good ole days of bass fishing are here and now and that’s an explosion anglers can get behind.