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IL Smallmouth Populations- Improving or Declining?


Mike Clifford
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Saw this brought up in another thread, and didn't want to hijack it, so I figured we can discuss it in a new one.

 

What are your thoughts on the current state of smallmouth populations in IL rivers and streams?

 

We already know that education and regulations can and do work toward preserving the species, and we have worked hard towards that goal.

 

If they are on the decline, however......

 

The usual answer we hear in regards to any species is "loss and degradation of habitat".

OK.

More people, more housing, more infrastructure= more non-point source pollution.

Agriculture is of course a contributor, and always has been.

Point-source pollution is supposed to have been curtailed and regulated much better since 1973 and the Clean Water Act.

 

Fish kills.

All the education and regulation efforts geared towards watershed usergroups in a specific region are pretty much swept away if one such event takes out a couple hundred thousand fish and we have to start from scratch to rebuild an entire fishery. Nature will heal in these instances, but it can take decades.

 

Record floods and near-record floods.

Are these on the rise?

Certainly, they wipe out entire year classes and are devastating to successful spawns.

 

Your thoughts?

Anyone find any hard data to support where the smallmouth populations are today, and where they are headed?

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They are definitely down in the Mack and Vermillion rivers. When it comes to the Vermillion, the Dnr sampled it last year and noticed lower numbers as well. They are sampling the Mack this year. I don't think it has anything to do with habitat destruction or human encroachment, it all revolves around 2008 and 2009 being two of the wettest years on record. At least that is my opinion and the opinion of others who have more expertise than me.

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Would seem like two bad spawning years in a row would certainly have and effect on the population. Then also with the high water some may have gone downstream searching for better homes and haven't migrated back up stream.

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No doubt that spawning just did not take place the last two springs. But where are all the larger bass? If they moved downstream during high water, they would have moved back to their haunts by now.........I would think. What I think happened is we had so many floods during different seasons, and each high water event lasted so long, that many of the bass just simply perished as they were not able to feed effectively or were not able to counteract such long periods of high current flow. I know it seems hard to believe that a river smallie could not take high water periods, but what else could it be. The habitat has not changed and is far as I know I have not had any "fish kills" due to chemicals or anything like that.

 

Problem is no one will ever know. The fish are gone.

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I think Jonn is right on the money. Haven't had a good spawn in years with horrible weather. Also, something I can relate to my experience with trout streams, we have a high amount of siltation (is that a word?) going on with the lack of stabile streambanks and floods. Flooding washes out good habitat (woody structure) and fills the rivers in with silt coming off the banks. The size of the Mack & Vermillion, along with private property issues, likely prevents a lot of restoration work such as bank stabilization. The smaller size of the trout streams in S.W. Wisconsin, along with land owner participation, makes restoration work a lot easier.

 

I think if the bigger fish get washed downstream in high water and they find a better home there, wouldn't they stay put? I know I would!

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Jonn, What about forage base like minnows, crawfish and other good things for the bass to eat. Have you seen a drop in the forage base or do you think the sustained high water washed them downstream as they were not able to sustain position with the constant high water. They spawn also so it stands to reason they have had a couple bad years too. With this said the Smallies may be very close to the mouth of the river where it empties into a bigger stream. They may venture upstream some but not find a forage base and move back to where they have something to eat.

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I just had a thought - SMB populations could be affected by higher unemployment, under-employment, and other things that cause anglers to have more spare time. This would imply not only higher numbers of fishermen fishing(how many of us wouldn't use their off time as wisely?), but their lower earnings would entice them to keep more fish for the table. Even if they didn't keep what they catch, increased pressure always increases mortality. The more fish that are caught and handled, the more fish will die.

 

Is this too simplistic, or too small a demographic to matter? You decide. We have 11.5% unemployment, or about 777,000 people out of work in Illinois alone. This is now the third year of economic decline, and I wonder what this would do to the last few classes of fish. If this has any effect on recruitment, three successive years of over-fishing could do some real damage.

 

Maybe I'm over-reaching with this idea. I have no way of determining how many people are actually fishing instead of working. But I've seen more fishermen than usual where I fish.

 

So, theoretically, elevated unemployment is an environmental hazard. Maybe we can get help from the EPA, USDofLabor, US Fish and Wildlife, etc. If CO2 can be a pollutant, can this theory be too crazy?

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If I can insert a little bit of optimism, I've had by far my best spring ever on the Mack. Much of it likely has to do with the river actually being not only fishable, but wadeable this year, but the smallies definitely aren't gone that I've noticed. The only thing that I've found troubling is that I'm catching slightly lower quantities, but mostly quality (15"+) fish. There just don't seem to be any dink 8-12" fish, which I'd imagine has at least something to do with little to no spawning the last two years.

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James:

 

Very interesting as I am finding the exact opposite - fewer fish and all are small.

 

Fishing pressure due to unemployment has no bearing on the population of smallies in my neck of the woods. I rarely see anyone fishing the streams that I frequent.

 

Gary:

 

You bring up a good point concerning the baitfish. I must admit that I don't see the schools of baitfish that I used to see. In years past it was commonplace to see schools of minnows in the shallows nearly everywhere you looked.

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I think the populations are on the decline in my area. I can't come close to the catch numbers I had in 2004-2006 which seemed to be a peak in my area. It's pretty much a decline across the board for the Rock River all of its tribs I fish and the Apple river. There are still decent numbers of smallmouth in these places, just not like it was several years ago.

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Take this with a grain of salt because I am in Indiana. I imagine the poor populations Jonn has been mentioning for nigh two years are a direct result of the heavy rains we got in May-June 2008. In that period, most of Indiana had 10-14" of rain in a 10 day span. The floods of the century. Did this also happen in Illinois? I remember Iowa and ND flooded beyond compare at the time.

 

Last fall, I did a sampling on a creek with the USGS that is normally loaded with fish. Populations had substanitally dropped to where 47 SMB in 2007 became 9. The population drop was across all species. My own eyes wading many streams say the minnows are recovering, but small. I'm down 2 fish an hour on average from 2009 to 2007 and nearly another bass an hour from 2009 to 2010.

 

It doesn't have to do with 2008 and 2009 spawns- we haven't felt that yet. Those fish are 5-6" max.

 

I'm not a worse fisherman. If fish turnover in lakes is 20-30% a year, what must a river be after the worst flooding in 100 years?

 

Now some streams have done better than others. Namely, those that are short in length (drains quicker) and don't have other streams draining in them. Streams with higher elevation, no cities on them, etc.. have done better.

 

It seams like the Chicago rivers are doing fine, going by reports. Did you have the heavy rains of 2008? Lake Michigan is nearby for quick drain off. My guess is a lot of rain there subsides quicker. We can't have the city of Chicago flooding after all.

 

Great subject, as this is foremost on my mind lately.

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It would be easy to blame CAFO's, the public, fish kills, but the biggest event was the flooding.

 

I remember the fishing Winter 07' Spring 08 was terrific. After the floods, I had my best couple of days ever. Frenzied fish eating or dying from energy expenditure? I think so.

 

Large swaths of baitfish and other fish left high and dry or killed from energy expenditure

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Jonn, What about forage base like minnows, crawfish and other good things for the bass to eat. Have you seen a drop in the forage base or do you think the sustained high water washed them downstream as they were not able to sustain position with the constant high water. They spawn also so it stands to reason they have had a couple bad years too. With this said the Smallies may be very close to the mouth of the river where it empties into a bigger stream. They may venture upstream some but not find a forage base and move back to where they have something to eat.

 

Very astute observation. The forage isn't there. The smallies didn't move up or down. I've checked. They no longer exist in the same populations

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I have no doubts that the floods of 2008 and 2009 are a big player in how crappy my catch rate has been the last two years. When you total up my guide trips and the trips to the river by myself and friends and they all essentially suck, something is up.

 

Keep in mind that these trips were basicaly split 50/50 fly fishing and conventional tackle. When I fish spinning rod, I cannot get any numbers, and when I fly fish the same thing happens..........the fish just simply are not there.

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The smb population of all sizes certainly has dropped on both the Fox & the Dupage in the last cupl years.That was inevitable on the Dupe due to years of overdevelopment with the resulting increase in phosphate,algae,& silt pollution.It's the most heavily silted stream I've ever seen & easily the most weed /algae infested.From an environmental standpoint thank goodness the housing bubble finally burst. I wish it had done so 10 yrs earlier.As for forage the Dupage has never had much forage that I could see despite producing larger than average fish historically.I've always seen far more minnows/crawfish in the Kank & even the murky Fox than in the Dupe.

If the fishing sucks all the more reason to flyfish.As our speaker said over the weekend "if I'm not gonna catch any fish I'd rather not catch 'em flyfishing."

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The smb population of all sizes certainly has dropped on both the Fox & the Dupage in the last cupl years.That was inevitable on the Dupe due to years of overdevelopment with the resulting increase in phosphate,algae,& silt pollution.It's the most heavily silted stream I've ever seen & easily the most weed /algae infested.From an environmental standpoint thank goodness the housing bubble finally burst. I wish it had done so 10 yrs earlier.As for forage the Dupage has never had much forage that I could see despite producing larger than average fish historically.I've always seen far more minnows/crawfish in the Kank & even the murky Fox than in the Dupe.

If the fishing sucks all the more reason to flyfish.As our speaker said over the weekend "if I'm not gonna catch any fish I'd rather not catch 'em flyfishing."

 

 

Ron, looking at the pics of terrific fish you all catch out of the Dupage, those fish are eating very well indeed. I seldom see a picture of a skinny fish. They are above average girth for a smallie in a stream, certainly beats the whole of Indiana stream fish for average girth at least. Forage might be bigger and down out of sight?

 

Algae and weeds can offer very good hiding spots. There are several streams where I never see any craws, yet the bass eat tubes quite often and the fish grow very fast...for Indiana. I'd bet being close to Lake Michigan doesn't hurt.

 

You asked in another thread what I'm doing to compensate for dwindling numbers... Work harder, walk further, cover more ground, downsize baits, look at new streams in areas where floods might not have impacted as much, think out of the box more. LMB aren't an option, I need flowing water.

 

Maybe got to Ky, MI, WI... :o

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Ron, looking at the pics of terrific fish you all catch out of the Dupage, those fish are eating very well indeed. I seldom see a picture of a skinny fish. They are above average girth for a smallie in a stream, certainly beats the whole of Indiana stream fish for average girth at least. Forage might be bigger and down out of sight?

 

Algae and weeds can offer very good hiding spots. There are several streams where I never see any craws, yet the bass eat tubes quite often and the fish grow very fast...for Indiana. I'd bet being close to Lake Michigan doesn't hurt.

 

You asked in another thread what I'm doing to compensate for dwindling numbers... Work harder, walk further, cover more ground, downsize baits, look at new streams in areas where floods might not have impacted as much, think out of the box more. LMB aren't an option, I need flowing water.

 

Maybe got to Ky, MI, WI... :o

 

The fish eat very well in the dupe. I'll have to take and send you a picture come summer of the weeds. I think you'd be shocked by how weedy it gets. There are plenty of places for forage to hide in the weeds. Now what happens in winter is still something I am trying to dissect.

 

Btw most everything isn't even connected to Lake Michigan with regard to drain off etc.

 

It seems like I am catching less fish than I did several years ago but I can't say it's a direct correlation to less fish. I got out less last year. It was a different year weather wise and I didn't adjust. I've been playing around the last couple/few years with different and larger baits. I threw a baitcaster all last year which meant very little in the way of finesse baits. I haven't thrown some specific baits at the dupe in 2-3 years and I used to throw them a lot catching a lot of fish. A few sections I frequent had a lot of shoreline wood washed away from high water events from 2008 on that really hasn't been replaced. If you put just the above together leaving out all other variables you would expect me to catch less. Less outings also equals less of a chance for quality unless you hit the mother lode just right. I'm not saying there isn't a decline but maybe take a look at your own habits also. I know I'm going back to some basics this year just to see.

 

Btw how long does a fish live under utopian condintions after it hits 18 inches, 2 years, 4 years? Just curious. Perhaps all those 18's I and others caught 3 years ago went to fish heaven.

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Kevin, Northern Indiana was once a swamp, so we have man made rivers up there that are foreign to me, choked with weeds and swamplike in areas...with smallmouth. Duh.Different. The Elkhart, Pigeon and Fawn in NE Indiana would be examples of these.

 

I too, caught more bigger fish than ever before last year (and should have based on the growth of the mamouth numbers of (15-17") fish the years before), but overall, the fishing was worse, in some places way worse than each of the last two years. The 30-60 bass days almost completely dissappeared. I've heard enough mumblings around the central and southern part of our state as well as Ohio about worse than average fishing...the thing all these places have in common is June of 2008.

 

Anyways, Jonn's comments have me wondering...Illinois discussion. Sorry for the partial thread hyjack.

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A couple articles I'd like to share here with everyone.

First one was written by Jonn Graham, and included on our main site.

http://illinoissmall...uth_future.html

Please take the time to read this!

Might be the best description of all things "Illinois Streams" I have ever laid my eyes on.

 

The second I wrote for the Bulletin a few years ago and forgot all about it until I watched a video and some of the same tenets of conservation came to mind again....

 

Every River Tells a Story

 

The next time you begin a journey or fishing expedition on one of your favorite rivers or streams, take the time to look at the surroundings (I mean really look), and listen closely, as each one has it's own unique story to tell. As we begin our journey, we may see a typical farmer out in the field plying his trade, doing his best to put food on your table and eke out an existence that was handed down to him over generations. Coming around the bend, we notice the billowing white smoke of a local power plant churning out electricity to make your life comfortable and secure. As we turn our head to look at something perhaps more aesthetically pleasing on the opposite bank, we notice that elusive red fox we've been hoping to see for the longest time on this particular waterway. Watching the vixen run back and forth delivering food to the underground shelter of her cubs tells you that they are around 2 weeks old, and you can't help but think to yourself that wildlife go about the business of living not much unlike that of each and every one of us on Earth. Every living thing needs to eat the food and drink the water that this planet provides in order to survive.

 

Perhaps the hardest facts to consider are those of how we, as humans, go about existing in this environment. The river provides drinking water to the local residents, who in turn pay for this service by going to work at the plant that treats the water to make it palatable and healthy enough to drink in the first place. Like the fox and her cubs upstream, we too are characters in one long story of life along the river. Let's take a closer look at a few of the characters involved as our journey continues:

 

With the sight of the power plant just a blur on the horizon, we come upon a neighbor of ours. This man (or his predecessor) had long ago cut down his woods opposite mine, and is on his riding mower cutting his grass to within an inch of its life. This lawn exudes a bright green color that can only come from a bucket of chemicals designed for such. His mission for himself on the land, from our perspective, might be expressed as 'clear, drain,mow, spray, control. For him the story of a property owner features an actor at war with his surroundings, which can be beaten and shaped and maintained by constant vigilance. A piece of property such as his can only be described as a great place to practice with a pitching wedge before holing out a 25 footer on the putting green, all the while considering this to be a piece of recreational paradise on earth. The neighbor fully believes in his heart that he has the best that nature provides,and uses it to his full advantage.

 

Around yet another bend in the river we come upon the work crew that is clearly pouring every ounce of energy they can muster into the project at hand. Their story says a person can draw a living from nature without harming it. One can move steadily through the workday and through one's life, chopping and digging, sawing and clearing, earning an honest buck and sleeping the good tired sleep of the farmer or stone mason. They wish nature no harm, and believe they have enough knowledge about proper and improper behavior in the field. Like our forefathers, they are forging ahead towards a bright future among fresh new land, only much more efficiently with their expensive trucks, backhoes and graders.

 

The end of a reflective day is nearing as we tie up the canoe at the modest dock we've fashioned at the edge of our 3 acres of wetlands and natural prairie with a simple pathway made of stone leading up to the house. Our guiding story is that of someone with conservationist knowledge and instincts, who is willing to stand up to his neighbors for those goals. Our aesthetics embrace woods and wildlife. Thoughts turn easily to how we may better protect the species of fish we are after and the quality of our water. Like a sudden bolt of lightning in the night, a knock comes at the door and we are snapped backed to reality in an instant. Two men from a local governmental unit have come to explain the details of their latest plan to dredge and straighten the portion of river in front of our house. It is explained that our woods and the neighbor's property get flooded during times of high water, and a very generous consortium has offered to pay for the work to its completion. They go on to mention something about mosquito control and such, but we're not really paying attention at this point, as our attention is fixed on the sight and sound of some birds working feverishly to build a nest in the tree just beyond the door.

 

In each case stated above, the actors are guided by personal stories directed by specific attitudes and behaviors. Attitudes perhaps prescribed to by our own personal environmental heroes:golfers, loggers, naturalists. Spontaneously and without conscience we go about our life standing by our beliefs and traditions. I'll leave it to all of you to decide if there is a moral to the story this river has to tell. I'm certain your favorite stream has one of its own, unique in nature but common in its entirety.

 

Until next time, I'll leave you with this to ponder: "The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired, in value." ~Theodore Roosevelt

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Sand which covers spawning areas, degrades or destroys nursery areas for young of year fish, destroys habitat for crustaceans and benthic macrofauna, increases the frequency and severity of flooding, has changed flow rates and water levels and ruined weedbeds, what effect do you think that has on the smallmouth population in one of the state's premier smallie rivers, the Kankakee?

 

The floods of recent years did affect the spawn but those year classes missing won't be noticeable for a few years yet. The bigger damage was the hastening of the demise of the older year classes that made up the real trophy fish in the 18 to 20 inch plus smallies.

 

Another problem is the poaching of fish off spawning beds in the best known tributary, Rock Creek. In one stretch where is was not uncommon to see three seperate waves of spawning fish, with 60 to 80 beds in the largest wave, that has been severely depleted. Last year the biggest wave had 19 beds and by the following day 6 of those had been cleaned off. When the fish that are genetically predisposed to spawn in that tributary are removed before they pass on their genes,there will be a decline in the numbers of fish that do return. I sure there will be a few newcomers looking for new territory trying to use that creek but if they are poached, then where is the gain in numbers?

 

The fish that spawn in less accessible, less traditional, spawn earlier or later than usual will be the ones sucessfully passing on their genes, unless the sand covers the areas they use.

 

There was a study done on the Kankakee River some years back that was reported in the Transactions of The American Fisheries Society Journal. Basically it said the lower flow rates over winter were more conducive to survival on young of year and age 1 and 2 smallmoutyh bass. I have had to get good at fishing in high cold muddy water because those have been the conditions I've been faced with all too often. These conditions are exactly those which are not conducive to the over winter survival of younger fish. Increasing amounts of sand combined with more precipitation[snow and rain] have been the culprits.

 

My fishing skills didn't suddenly disappear, but my catch rates both in numbers and size have severely declined. A good day recently is getting into double digits, when in the past 40 to 80 fish days were not uncommon. I have 2 twenty inch plus smallies so far this year and it's May, it looks like the days of double digit twenty inch plus smallies in a year might be gone as well. I'm sure part of that is that the fish have adapted to the new conditions better than I have, but they have to if they are to survive. Maybe things will get better as I figure out the adaptations I need to make but I'll probably have to lower my expectations of what constitutes a good day as the loss of habitat degrades the population.

 

I truly wish that I'm just in a slump fishing wise and the fish populations are strong as ever but when I look daily upon the damage the sand and sediment are causing, I am not heartened for the future.

 

Degrade the ability to reproduce and interrupt the food chain and the population of any species will be adversly affected.

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