A blast with bass

Bass are quite a popular fish throughout much of the United States. Judging by the increasing number of bass tournaments scheduled and new bass boats on the water, North Dakota anglers are taking notice too.

While largemouth bass are credited with giving growth to mega-events like the annual Bassmaster Classic, there’s plenty of other bass that fishermen enjoy – smallmouth bass, rock bass, striped bass, spotted bass, black bass, yellow bass, white bass. North Dakota boasts some fine largemouth bass waters, but the primary species caught in this state is the smallmouth bass.

Surprise! By today’s standards, the feisty smallmouth might fall under the label of “invasive species.” They are not native to state waters. In fact, according to Bassmaster Magazine, any bass found west of the Mississippi River would have to have been introduced.

“The oldest stocking record that we have is 1893 in Lake Metigoshe,” said Greg Power, North Dakota Game and Fish Department fisheries division chief. “They were listed as black bass so they could have been either largemouth or smallmouth. One of the first stockings ever that we have good records of is moving adult smallmouths to Clear Lake in Kidder County in 1934.”

Records of fish stocking prior to about 1980 aren’t considered to be nearly as reliable as today’s recordkeeping by Game and Fish, but they are interesting. An example is one of the early introductions of bass known to be smallmouths. It occurred in 1940 when a shipment of fingerlings was stocked into Spiritwood Lake.

“The first state record was recorded in 1971 from the Sheyenne River,” said Power. “It was 3 pounds, 10 ounces. Since then, we’ve had eight more state records up to the 6-pound, 13-ounce smallmouth record today.”

Lake Darling holds the smallmouth bass record. The record largemouth, 8 pounds and 8 ounces, was taken from Nelson Lake.

Jerry Weigel, NDG&F fisheries development and production leader, said the first stockings on smallmouth in the state had to come from out of state. Exactly where remains unknown, but no matter. Smallmouths have found a number of state waters to their liking and continue to flourish.

“In the late ’70s through the ’90s, we were very active in introducing them to lakes across the state,” recalled Power. “We’ve not done a lot of bass stocking in the last 15 years because they are kind of a self-sustaining population. We never see any problems with them or any biological issues.”

According to Weigel, the last year North Dakota raised and released smallmouth bass was 2001. During the 1980s and ’90s, smallmouths were hatched at the Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery. Eggs were taken from brood fish captured in Lake Sakakawea.

“I started in 1979 and remember the fisheries guys talking about earlier stocking of smallmouth in Lake Sakakawea,” said Power. “It definitely happened but was never recorded. It was an introduction that is still paying dividends today.”

Since those early days when smallmouths were stocked into the east end of Lake Sakakawea, the impoundment has evolved into a notable smallmouth fishery both in numbers and average size.

“2012 was an exceptional year,” said Dave Fryda, NDG&F Missouri River biologist. “There was a little bit of a surprise in 2013 when they just didn’t pan out in our nets. They should have been there. It’s not like they are getting harvested real strong.”

Fishermen reported good catches of smallmouth bass from Lake Sakakawea in 2013. However, finding smallmouths on such a huge body of water is not always easy. Catch rates by fishermen might not always provide a precise picture of the population, particularly since a majority of Lake Sakakawea anglers target walleyes and not smallmouth bass, which are often a bonus fish for walleye fishermen.

“There’s not a lot of harvest, that’s for sure,” said Power. “North Dakota lakes have a fair amount of rock, decent crawfish numbers and smallmouths find a niche to take care of themselves. They are definitely a nice supplement to the fisheries.”

Smallmouth are homebodies. They tend to colonize and remain close to favorite haunts. They may be found shallow or deep, depending upon the time of year, but usually not too far from favorite habitat. Nevertheless, it proved to be only a matter of time before the initial stocking of smallmouths in Lake Sakakawea spread to other areas of the lake.

“They are up to about New Town now. It took them a long time to spread out,” stated Power. “It was 15 to 20 years before they started showing up at Deepwater.”

Records show that 78 adult smallmouth bass were stocked into Lake Audubon in 1972. The last stocking of fingerlings into Lake Audubon was a release of 40,000 in 2001. The stockings have yielded big benefits, turning Lake Audubon into one of the nation’s top smallmouth fisheries. In fact, Bassmaster Magazine placed Lake Audubon in its top 100 best smallmouth lakes in America in 2013.

“Lake Audubon has flourished in recent years. Anglers are getting better at figuring out smallmouth and targeting them,” said Jason Lee, NDG&F fisheries biologist. “Smallmouth are an alternative to pike, walleye and perch. At Audubon we typically see a lot of young of the

year fish in the nets. They are self-sustaining.”

Most bass fishermen practice catch-and-release, returning caught fish to the water soon after catching them. That means little harvest occurs to reduce the resource. The result has been that smallmouth continue to do well in a variety of state lakes and rivers.

“Without a doubt,” said Power. “Our premier smallmouth waters are the lower Sheyenne River, Spiritwood, Sakakawea, Audubon and the Canal Lakes.”

“It seems like there’s a lot more opportunities for smallmouth bass today than, say, 10 years ago,” said Lee.

Lake Darling suffered a winter kill on smallmouth bass a few years ago, but the population has shown signs of rebounding. Last year, 149 adult smallmouth were stocked into Lake Darling to help boost recovery.

To date, almost every North Dakota lake that biologists consider possible to grow smallmouths has been stocked. Not every lake will support a population of smallmouths.

“The lakes that the bass are in, those are bass lakes,” stated Weigel. “We have limited largemouth lakes. That’s because we are on the extreme northern fringe of their range. They spawn so late that the fry are generally too small to survive the winter.”

Tournament surge

In 2005 there were no recognized bass tournaments in North Dakota. This year will see three bass circuits staging 24 organized days of tournament bass fishing. The growing number of tournaments is another reminder of the impact of bass fishing in the state.

“They bring an interest to an under-utilized species in the state,” said Power. “There’s a lot of new interest.”

American Bass Anglers

The American Bass Anglers started a couple of years ago. Founder Dan Christ, Minot Air Force Base, moved to New Mexico and turned over the reins to bass enthusiast Dick Roland of Crosby. It was a good choice. Roland is sold on the ABA circuit in North Dakota.

“It’s really a great group of fishermen to learn from,” said Roland. “Anybody can fish the ABA even though military people actually started it. We’ve got a few guys from Bismarck and quite a few from Minot AFB.”

According to Roland, there’s a new pool of bass anglers from which to draw participants too — people moving into the state to work the Bakken oilfields.

“‘You’ve got bass up here,’ they’ll say,” said Roland. “I tell them there’s no pressure on these lakes and these southern guys get pretty excited. They are used to largemouths but they get excited with a 3- to 4-pound smallmouth at the boat.”

The ABA has nine dates set aside for tournament fishing in the state in 2014. The tour concludes with a two-day event in September on Lake Sakakawea. ABA participants not only have a chance to fish local events, but have the opportunity to qualify for nationals.

“The Angler of the Year gets an automatic invitation to the ABA national tournament,” explained Roland. “This year it is at Old Hickory, Tenn. Last year it was at Grand Lake in Oklahoma.”

Roland encourages those interested in fishing ABA events to log on to the ABA website and learn more about the organization. They can sign up for tournaments on the website as well.

“You have to be at least 14 and have a good livewell,” said Roland. “Other than that, anybody can fish it. You can even sign up at the first tournament you come to. Just show up. There’s no rules against pre-fishing either.”

Badlands Bass Bandits

The Badlands Bass Bandits formed in 2006 and held what is believed to be the first organized bass fishing tournament in North Dakota. Slowly but surely, their numbers began to grow as an avid bunch of bass fishermen touted their sport at a variety of state lakes. They are still going strong and have nine dates on their 2014 tourney calendar.

MidWest Bass Trail

The newest bass tournament circuit in North Dakota is the MidWest Bass Trail. MidWest Bass Trail had six dates set aside for tournament fishing this year. Shawn Keena, Bismarck, is the MidWest Bass Trail president.

“It’s our first full year,” explained Keena. “I kind of started it. I wanted to fish something you can actually win some money at, to be competitive for a chance to win bigger money.”

With a $150 entry fee, MidWest Bass Trail events have the potential to provide paydays of $3,000 to $5,000 or more, estimates Keena. In contrast, the Bass Bandits charge a $30 entry fee.

“We’ve already got 10 members,” said Keena. “It’s actually taking off pretty well. We’re seeing more and more interest with the oilfield and people from down south. The younger generation is looking at different things. The more people interested, the more people fishing.”

Keena says he hopes to expand the MidWest Bass Trail as early as 2015. He envisions holding two tournaments each in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Montana.

“In the third year, we’ll pick up another midwest state until we have all of them,” said Keena.

The goal, says Keena, is to expand to 50 members, which would be enough for North Dakota bass fishermen to be recognized by the national FLW bass circuit.

“We’re the only state in the country without FLW,” said Keena. “Eventually we’ll bring it in.”