To Kill Or Not To Kill: Smallmouth Bass

When you think of invasive species in New England, one name is sure to come to mind: the smallmouth bass. Most detrimental in the coldwater streams that once served as a refuge for native fish like brook trout and fallfish, smallmouth bass have begun to encroach on these waters with the sole goal to destroy. Anglers are forced to make the tough decision whether or not to kill these pesky fish.

Smallmouth bass are native to the Midwest, and have made their way across much of the country. The species was first brought to the northeast throughout the mid-to-late 1800’s by way of seemingly benign stocking programs run by the states’ Fish and Game divisions. At first, the water bodies stocked were only warmwater fisheries, already populated with resilient native species like chain pickerel and yellow perch. They quickly established strong populations, and the public realized just how fun they can be to target.

Unfortunately, some people thought so highly of them, they began to illegally introduce them to bodies of water with vulnerable coldwater species. In addition to a number of other characteristics that make them so successful, smallmouth are incredibly adaptable, and are able to live in a wide range of water types. Much like in the previous warmwater ponds and rivers, the smallmouth began to take hold.

People soon realized that they had made a huge mistake by stocking these fish where they didn’t belong. Sadly, the damage had already been done. The invasive fish forced the native fish out of their normal habitat, preyed on their young, stole their food, and overpopulated the streams. The smallies were simply out of control!

It took longer for the entire fishing community to comprehend the extent to which the damage had been done. Originally, people were happy to have another game fish to target. Let’s be honest: smallmouths generally fight harder, are more aggresive, and easier to catch than their native counterparts. It took general deterioration of the quantity and quality of brook trout in famous waters for all anglers to grasp the issue.

Now, smallmouth bass can be found coexisting (or rather, dominating) with brook trout and other native species across New England. Legendary brook trout waters like the Kennnebec, Rapid, Connecticut, Saco, Deerfield, and Farmington all have smallmouth bass, in addition to many others. In fact, to my knowledge, every major drainage in New England has smallmouth bass, save for a few coastal areas that already didn’t have strong numbers of trout. That doesn’t mean they are in every river in New England, as dams and natural barriers will occasionally prevent them from moving upstream. A well-known example of this is the Rangeley region of Maine, a brook trout angler’s paradise. The rivers and lakes up there are all inter-connected, but dams on the southwestern rivers prevent fish from migrating into the rest of the watershed. Luckily, the smallmouth that have invaded the Rapid and Magalloway are kept at bay because of the dams on Aziscohos Lake and Lower Richardson Lake.

With the problems these fish cause, you can understand why someone may be angered by their presence in a historically coldwater stream. This brings us to the main question: should you kill smallmouth bass if you encounter them in a stream with native populations of brook trout, or should you let them swim free. It is not an easy question to tackle, and I don’t hope to sway your opinion one way or another. Nevertheless, it is always good to be informed about these issues so that you can form your own opinion, and hopefully make what you believe to be the right choices so that your conscience doesn’t weigh you down in the future.

Truly, this post stemmed from an article written by John Holyoke about another article published this month from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife. IF&W claimed that responsibly harvesting your catch can be an important management tool when trying to increase the size and number of fish populations. Holyoke retaliated by claiming that there is no science that backs this up, in addition to the fact that no native fish should ever be killed. That being said, Holyoke’s article didn’t specifically mention what to do when you catch an invasive species, and that is where the question lies.

I have a wealth of experience catching smallmouth bass where they shouldn’t be. Many a time have I ventured to remote streams in the backwoods of Maine and New Hampshire only to find a strong population of smallies, and the occasional brookie if I was lucky. It is devastating to find this because it gives you a sense that the native fish are struggling there. I am often angered by these fish, but rarely do I go to the extent of killing the creatures. That being said, I am in no way an expert on the topic, and in order to learn a little more about how I should handle these situations, I reached out to someone well-versed in the dealings of native fish.

I sent my email to Bob Mallard, hoping to find the answer to solve this dilemma. As to be expected, though, there isn’t one hard-and-fast answer. In my question, I described an experience I had on my favorite stream in the world, a small tributary to the Dead River that plays a crucial role when the brook trout spawn in the fall. The last time I fished it, I found numerous smallmouth where the trout should have been (not to say there still weren’t still some nice trout and salmon there). After catching at least 20 smallmouth, and letting all 20 go, I wondered if I had made the right decision for protecting the health of the fishery. “Would [killing the fish] even make a noticeable dent in the population, or would I be killing a whole lot of innocent fish with no discernible reward?” I asked.

I quickly received a reply from Mr. Mallard, and I realized the problem may have more parts than I had previously thought. “Whether to remove nonnatives or not has a lot to do with where they are, what they are impacting, and if it can make any difference,” he explained.

He exemplified the cutthroat trout rivers out west, which have been overrun by invasive rainbows. In most water bodies there, you are actually required to kill any rainbow trout you catch; however, in the Madison and Firehole Rivers, there isn’t a mandate because there aren’t enough cutties left to make it worthwhile to protect them.

Back at home, the situation is eerily similar. Some watersheds, like the Presumpscot/Sebago in southeastern Maine, already have populations of bass far too established to manage at this point. Once, while I was fishing on Sebago, I had a neighboring cabin owner ask me to kill any smallmouth bass I caught. I was disappointed that people still have this mindset in areas like this. The bass now play a pivotal role in the region’s economy. In addition, it should theoretically discourage the stocking of smallmouth in new bodies of water since people already have a place to target them, although this hasn’t always held true.

A healthy Sebago Lake smallmouth bass.

On the other side of the spectrum are fisheries that still have a hope of getting rid of these invasive fish. Often these watersheds still have strong populations of brook trout, and getting rid of the bass will prove beneficial for the health of the system. While it isn’t always an easy thing to do, it is advised to dispatch any smallmouth you catch in these places. “I personally struggle with killing anything, …” said Mallard. “… I dodge frogs on the road, pull turtles off the road and to safety, release insects caught in my home outside, and go out of my way not to harm anything.” Obviously, taking a living creature’s life is not an easy task. In some cases, though, it must be done. When Bob fishes in these places, he does “dispatch any bass … as it certainly doesn’t hurt[,] and it might help to at least some degree.”

So, you’ve decided to kill the bass you catch because they’re hurting the health of native fish. What do you do with all the dead fish? One things for certain: don’t carelessly leave them in a heap, destined to rot, or else be eaten by carnivores undeserving of human handouts. An article released by Bangor Daily News documented the cruelty of anglers at this year’s Sebago Lake ice fishing derby. Dozens of lake trout left on the hard water, commonly known as, “‘leaving a fish for the eagles,'” continue to give ice fishers a bad name. Don’t make the same mistake; harvest an amount of fish you know you will be able to make use of, and use them responsibly. Smallmouth bass taste a lot better than you’d think (a product of a life spent in clean, cold water), but they also make great fertilizer for those unwilling to eat their catch.

An unfortunate waste of numerous healthy fish. Photo Credit: Kurt Christensen, by way of Bangor Daily News

So, in the end, there isn’t one end-all-be-all answer. “Where it can help, it’s a no-brainer,” Mallard asserted. “Where they are established and there is no plan to do anything about it, it’s a judgement call.” Personally, I think I’ll continue to let all fish go when I can. I simply can’t bring myself to end a living being’s life, no matter how much damage they might cause. In the most dire situations; however, where smallmouth threaten to ruin a healthy and crucial population of brook trout, I think I could bring myself to kill a few to better the health of the ecosystem.

Smallies can be surprisingly tasty.

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