The all-America bass hound is, on the average, 25 years old and awash in monthly payments for a $6,000 boat and a $2,500 trailer. His -- sometimes her -- biggest wish: to land an eight-pound largemouth bass.
And that's the rub.
There aren't enough trophy-sized bass anywhere in the United States. Forget the fabled lakes and inland rivers of Florida, although they are home to a fast-growing strain of fish called the Florida bass. (As a matter of fact, the Sunshine State probably has more stunted, six-inch throwbacks than the rest of the southern states combined.)
The reason for the largemouth's scarcity is its popularity. This fish is at the top of the list for more than 50 million freshwater anglers throughout the land. It has generated a monstrous multibillion-dollar industry in highly specialized lures, reels, rods, boats, sneakers, rain gear, shirts, jackets and hats. You can consider yourself an oddball if you don't own a special set of polarized Roland Martin sunglasses. Martin, you must know, is the high priest of organized bass tournament fishing. Were he to endorse a brand of chewing tobacco, no doubt the company's stock would triple.
If you have all this gear, you can understand why that green-black creature is the object of such fevered search. The largemouth bass is fished avidly from Washington, D.C., to Spokane, Wash. In the Maryland-Virginia corridor, question 100 sport anglers and 60 will tell you they favor the largemouth.
Such popularity also is the reason for a growing movement here and elsewhere to gain the fish special protection. In Maryland and Virginia, for example, the law says a freshwater bass must measure at least 12 inches long before it can be kept. The "real" bass fishermen scoff at such measly minimums and more often than not throw back the "dinks" or "bankrunners," as the little ones are called by insiders.
Adding weight to demands that the minimum length must be increased is the startling results of a recent Missouri study. In that state's Lake of the Ozarks, the bass had been steadily declining for years. According to B.A.S.S. Times, the official organ of the international Bass Anglers Sportsman Society chapter system, the annual survival rate of a 2-year-old largemouth (10 to 12 inches) to age 3 (13 to 15 inches) was only about 55 percent.
But after Missouri began rigidly enforcing a 15-inch minimum, the survival rate climbed to 80 percent. After a four-year trial, suddenly 50 percent more 15-inch-plus bass are being caught.
State biologist Gary Novinger and others are urging more aggressive management of the fish. "It's a matter of protecting your young bass," Novinger says. "By returning a 12-inch bass to the water, you give him another year to grow and another year to spawn other bass. It has a stockpiling effect."
There were the doubting Thomases, and at first opposition to Missouri's move was vigorous and bitter. Marina operators feared business would fall off. Vacationing fishermen were afraid they couldn't catch enough fish. Today the objections have all but died out.
When a $75,000 bass tournament at Lake of the Ozarks ended earlier this year, the professionals were surprised. It took 51 pounds 2 ounces to win, and to finish in the money a competitor had to catch at least 30 pounds over the three-day tourney. All that with a daily five-fish, 15-inch limit. Touring pros from Georgia, Oklahoma and even California, which is known for its huge bass, were ecstatic and hoped their states would follow Missouri's lead.
Now North Carolina is experimenting, in at least one lake, with an 18-inch minimum for bass. You can keep anything under 12 and over 18 inches in length. The fish in between, it is thought, are the prime breeding stock and must be left alone. The early results have been astounding.
Maryland and Virginia could well consider a 15-inch minimum bass size for starters. When we want to eat freshwater fish we'd just as soon stick to catfish, crappie or bluegill, anyway. There are more of them and they are easier to find.