DNR bass directives at Lake Owen likely to fall on deaf ears
If Bayfield County's Lake Owen isn't Wisconsin's very best bass lake, it is certainly in the top five.
If you keep a line in the water it's difficult NOT to catch at least 50 quality bass in a day on these 1,323 ultra-clear acres.
Owen is home to both largemouth and smallmouth bass, with no size limit and a five-bass daily bag in place. This statistic matters little to most hardcore bassers. They release essentially every bass that comes into the boat.
Signs at two public boat ramps on the north side of the lake encourage harvest of largemouth bass.
“The DNR would like to see all smallmouth bass released and all largemouth bass removed from the system,” DNR biologist Scott Toshner said.
“Unfortunately, rule makers didn't know how to put this goal into words, which folks who couldn't differentiate between these two species could understand.”
He has a valid point. Any angler who couldn't tell a brown bass with a small mouth from a green bass with a large mouth—or recognize the difference between a pickup truck and a sedan—might find themselves on the wrong side of the law.
Government failure to recognize common sense and ethical behavior as a common trait in a substantial portion of the populace continues to write rules and regulations we all have to suffer with.
Over the past couple of years there has been intense DNR focus on proliferation of undesirable aquatic weeds and invasive species like zebra mussels. Technicians with survey clipboards and radios—and badge-packing DNR “weed wardens”—camp at boat ramps ready to come down hard on anybody who would head home with grass on the trailer axle and water in the bilge or livewell.
Fish spoil quickly in hot weather. The only way to prevent this from happening and remain within the law involves a bag of ice and a cooler.
Some lakes have fish cleaning stations close to the boat ramp. Babcock Park on Lake Waubesa is a prime example.
Another DNR rule buried in the pages of Volume I of the fishing regulations book makes leaving the lake with a fillet shorter than the minimum legal length of a fish a citable offense.
Leave Waubesa with a mess of bluegill fillets and two 14-inch fillets from a walleye that common sense screams was of legal length when swimming and you could get a ticket.
This doesn't come into play on Lake Owen with no length restrictions on bass harvest. But a stronger guiding force than law—sporting ethics—weighs heavily on those who have a moral problem with killing what they don't intend to eat.
I suppose some folks enjoy the taste of largemouth bass. Most of us would rather dine on pond-scum salad. Since Lake Owen has some of the best water quality of any Wisconsin lake, the taste might be less offensive. But Owen also has panfish and some whopping big walleyes for folks who want to dine on fish.
I spent a couple days guiding Tom Clearman, a serious bass guy, on Lake Owen and a couple of other north country lakes last week. He boated a five-fish limit of “keeper” bass in less than 30 minutes throwing Chompers Salty Sinkers.
These fish and another 30 or so were quickly released after being caught. The ratio between largemouth and smallmouth was essentially equal.
Over the past 40 years, the altruistic philosophy of catch-and-release has morphed into a more rational choice of selective harvest. Keeping some fish—typically panfish—has a positive effect on most fisheries. Two bluegills lay about 200,000 eggs. A pair of bass lays about 60,000 eggs.
Keeping bluegills is like thinning carrots in a garden. The carrots that remain will grow larger.
Harvesting large mature bass that feed on bluegills can quickly throw a fishery out of balance.
Bass management on Lake Owen is an entirely different can of worms. I understand the logic of attempting to restore the native smallmouth bass population by removing largemouth, which was introduced by a “phantom stocker” in the early 1990s.
But I have no desire to dine on a 19-inch largemouth bass. I also refuse to kill one just for the sake of killing it, even though the DNR believes the end justifies the means.
Clearman and I returned many female largemouth bass to the lake. Every one of them has the potential of dropping 60,000 unwanted eggs every year for the next few years.
Are we bad guys for not bowing to the obtuse wishes of the DNR?
I did not sleep well last night, but only because catching bass until your arms grow tired leads to sensory overload.
Ted Peck, a certified Merchant Marine captain, is an outdoors columnist for The Gazette. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.