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Oklahoma anglers get pass to take more small bass as new fishing rules go into effect

 A hand holds a smallmouth bass. The background is out of focus, but it's a lake and a line of trees with autumnal colors.
Jeff Vanderspank
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Unsplash
The new regulations are meant to encourage anglers to harvest more small bass from Oklahoma's lakes.

The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation has developed new rules for black bass fishing that encourage anglers to take home more small bass.

The new rules allow anglers to keep six black bass every day, but only one can be longer than 16 inches. These regulations took effect on Sept. 11 and apply in all of Oklahoma’s lakes except Texoma and Doc Hollis.

The change is an effort to achieve and maintain healthy bass populations. Recent data from over 100 Oklahoma lakes have revealed that the state is home to an abundance of smaller bass. Across the state’s lakes, about 80% of the black bass are smaller than 14 inches.

But as the number of small bass increases, there’s only so much food that’s small enough for them to eat.

“They're not growing because they don't have enough to eat,” said Josh Johnston, the northeast fisheries supervisor for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. “They're competing too hard.”

The previous rule was designed for a time when there weren’t enough small bass to grow into big ones. Previously, most lakes only allowed anglers to take bass bigger than 14 inches, enforcing a “catch and release” approach that may have contributed to today’s stunted bass populations.

“It's just becoming pretty blatant that we need to find a way to harvest some of these smaller bass,” Johnston said.

The new rules are designed to reflect that, but they rely on enthusiasm rather than enforcement. It’s one thing to write citations for anglers who keep too many fish, but the Department of Wildlife Conservation can’t force anglers to take more bass home with them.

Johnston likened the new bass rule to a mid-1990s attitude shift among white-tailed deer hunters. After hunting nearly eliminated deer in the early 1900s, the state strictly regulated the doe harvest for decades. This restored Oklahoma’s deer population, but eventually led it to become crowded and imbalanced.

Even after the rules changed to encourage doe harvest, hunters couldn’t shake the mindset that doe were off limits. The Department of Wildlife Conservation started using the slogan “Hunters in the Know Take a Doe” to encourage doe harvest that was once taboo. Now, over 40% of the deer harvested during Oklahoma’s deer hunting season are does.

The Department of Wildlife Conservation hasn’t unveiled a catchy bass slogan. But Johnston said that it’s planning a campaign to encourage a shift in fishing habits, including videos about how to cook bass.

“It’s all going to be on that culture change,” Johnston said. “I hope it takes hold pretty quickly.”

Johnston said the new rule has been in the works for over four years. He worked with Cliff Sager, a fisheries biologist with the state agency, to design a rule that encourages more small bass harvest while leaving flexibility for trophy fishing and tournaments.

For example, they didn’t want to impose a size maximum without any exceptions.

“Somebody goes out and catches the fish of a lifetime—a real trophy or a world record,” Johnston said. “And they can't turn it in; they can't show anybody. It's not a legal fish, so they have to return it to the water immediately.”

Johnston said the Department of Wildlife Conservation wanted to avoid those heartbreaks. Under the new rule, anglers can take home one fish over 16 inches long every day.

The Department will also offer a streamlined process for fishing tournament organizers to obtain exceptions to the new rule. Tournament organizers can apply for an exemption using the Department’s Go Outdoors Oklahoma app and website. Johnston said the application should only take a few minutes for organizers. Tournament participants don’t need to apply.

If the public shifts their fishing habits to harvest more small bass, Johnston is optimistic that the state could see healthier bass populations within two to five years. Johnston projects that those effects could trickle down the food web to foster more diverse blue gill populations and reduce bullhead catfish, which are often seen as a nuisance.

“It could have some good effects,” Johnston said. “It 100% depends on whether or not anglers start keeping some of these smaller bass.”

Graycen Wheeler is a reporter covering water issues at KOSU as a corps member with Report for America.
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