Fishermen on Squam Lake. Karen Bobotas for the Laconia Daily Sun
By ADAM DRAPCHO, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LAKE WINNIPESAUKEE — When is a bass fisherman unhappy about all the fish he's catching? When he spends all day catching rock bass instead of the smallmouth bass he's looking for. It's a scenario happening more frequently on Lake Winnipesaukee, where the smaller, invasive fish have taken over much of the territory previously inhabited by smallmouth bass.
Scott Decker, program supervisor for inland fisheries at the state's Department of Fish and Game, said that rock bass are a Midwestern fish, though they are native to lakes as far east as Vermont's Lake Champlain. The fish has been present in New Hampshire for many decades, first appearing in Lake Sunapee, where it caused great disruption of that prized fishery, and in the Connecticut River.
"I can't pinpoint when rock bass first made it into Winnipesaukee," said Decker. Nor does the department have an exact understanding of how many rock bass are in the lake, or what parts of the lake it dominates. What is clear from anecdotal reports, though, is that the fish has made its way into the big lake, as well as many other water bodies in the state.
Rock bass, which grow to about 8 inches in length, rarely will weight more than a pound, and are larger than sunfish and bluegills, but don't grow as large as smallmouth bass. However, they grow quickly and eat heavily, competing with smallmouth bass for the same small fish and insects. Rock bass, as their name implies, prefer a rocky bottom habitat. They're identified by a color that ranges from brass to olive, and rows of dark spots running along its sides. Its large eyes are sometimes red.
Decker said that the fish was likely introduced to local water bodies by accident, such as by a fisherman dumping his bait bucket full of minnows into the water when he's done for the day, a practice Fish and Game discourages for this very reason. Occasionally, that bucket of minnows contains an errant species of fish, indistinguishable from the rest in minnow form.
"The thing about rock bass is they get a bad rap," said Decker. There is an irony in the situation, which is that smallmouth bass, as well as most of the sport fish in New Hampshire, are also non-native species, having been introduced from other parts of North America.
There's no limit or catch regulations on rock bass, Decker noted. They can be kept at any length or weight, and anglers can keep as many of them as they can catch.
"We treat them, basically, as an invasive species," he said.
Decker expects that rock bass are currently experiencing a population boom in Winnipesaukee, and that the numbers will soon fall. He hopes that rock bass numbers will fall and settle into a balance with other fish in the lake. In the meantime, rock bass offer great opportunities for children learning to fish, because they're so prolific and easy to catch. He also expects that they're a boon to loons and other predators, as they're likely easier to catch than trout or salmon.
At A.J.'s Bait & Tackle in Meredith, owner Alan Nute said, "Winnipesaukee is starting to get flooded with (rock bass)," and his customers are finding the newcomer to be a nuisance.
"People are spending money on bait and they're catching rock bass instead of what they're targeting," Nute said.
Nute, concerned about the effect that rock bass will have on the future biodiversity of the Lakes Region, said he would like to see a rock bass-specific fishing tournament, where the winner would be the person who catches the most fish, In doing so, he hoped to give smallmouth bass a fighting chance to take back some territory.
He is also telling his customers not to return the fish to the lake. Rather, take them home for dinner.
"They are a very good eating fish. I'm telling everyone to take them home and eat them," he said.
Rock bass typically grow to about eight inches in length (Photo courtesy of NH Fish and Game)