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Bass population takes a hit

July 24, 1997

By KAREN MASTERSON

Staff Writer

Up to half of the Potomac River's smallmouth bass died this spring, but the fish already has begun making a comeback, according to Ed Enamait, fisheries manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

"The fish were under a great deal of stress last year," he said, but the final blow came this spring when water temperatures remained cold longer than normal.

To help the population recover, Enamait is asking anglers to voluntarily release bass back into the river, even if they meet the 12-inch legal length.

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He also suggested bass tournaments be canceled for a few years until the fish population has returned to normal.

"This is something that's happened ever since I was a kid. When there are floods the fish go down. Then it's five or six years before decent fishing returns," said Butch Ward, vice president of the Maryland Bass Federation.

Tim Abe, a local fisherman and assistant principle of Bester Elementary School, said he believes the floods did more damage than officials were willing to report.

"There was a time when I fished the river for bass three or four times a week. You just don't catch them anymore," he said, referring to conditions in the last two years.

But Enamait said the 1996 January and September floods were only partially responsible for this spring's dramatic smallmouth bass mortality rate.

High waters last year created murky conditions, which made it difficult for the sight-feeding bass to find food, he said.

He also said the high waters caused stronger currents, forcing the bass to exert too much energy during their final feeding phase last fall.

Enamait said that final feeding determines body fat for the winter resting period, which is a type of hibernation for bass.

Going into winter in fair and poor condition meant that the fish simply had no extra strength to survive cold water temperatures that did not warm up until the middle of May, he said.

"Spring never came. Winter just continued. I think that was the final blow," he said.

Other bass experts say the floods may have played a big role in this year's low bass population.

"We got reports from anglers that last year's catch wasn't good," suggesting that the January flooding killed a lot of bass, said Jim Cummins, associate director of the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin.

"It happened during their winter resting period" when their reaction time was slow, he said.

Cummins and Enamait agree that this year's river conditions should help restore the bass population.

More good news, according to Enamait, is that the remaining bass managed to spawn and lay eggs.

"Reproduction was very successful despite the low numbers of fish that spawned," he said.

Enamait said another good sign is a reappearance of aquatic insects and small fish.

Ward said he didn't understand why Enamait would suggest bass tournaments not be held for a few years. He said it's against tournament rules to kill bass.

"But if Ed thinks it will help, we'd be more than happy to cooperate," he said.

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