Fishermen need to change habits to save striped bass population on Smith Mountain Lake

Anglers catching half as many stripers as they caught in years prior

FRANKLIN CO., Va. – There's some trouble afoot at Smith Mountain Lake, and if things don't change, a number of other problems could float to the surface. Local anglers said they're catching fewer striped bass, and new research said they're right.

They don't call them fish stories for nothing, but these stories are now legitimate. On average, it's taking fishermen longer to catch striped bass, and they're catching fewer of them overall. No laws are changing, but a new voluntary guideline hopes to change the culture of fishing for stripers to help save the population.

Even as the rain pattered on the water Monday afternoon, the Oak Grove boat launch in Franklin County along the shores of the lake still saw traffic. Most fishermen will tell you it's really hard to spoil a day when the motor fires up and the rods hit the water, but there is a new potential spoiler lurking.

"None of us know exactly why that decline has occurred. We hope that it's temporary and not permanent," Smith Mountain Striper Club Preservation Committee Chair Bruce Brenholdt said.

Striped bass is the big get and has always been precious in the waters of Smith Mountain Lake. You can keep two legally, then practice catch and release. But now, we know in warm months, catch and release is just as bad for the population as keeping more than your limit.

"The traditional notion, let's go out and catch as many as we can, what we were in essence doing was killing them," Brenholdt said. "We used to think as long as they didn't float on the surface, they were good, but more recent research has shown with radio tagging and with underwater video cameras that they sink to the bottom and die."

According to the club's research, an average fisherman would spend 3.1 hours on the water between 2012 and 2015 before catching a striped bass. In 2016, that total was up to 4.2 hours for a fisherman to catch a striped bass. In 2012, the average fisherman caught 1.72 striped bass a day. In 2016, that number dipped to 0.92 striped bass a day, a 46.5% decline over a five-year period. It's clear something is happening to the population and there is no magic fix.

The estimated death rate of striped bass caught and released back into cold water is less than 20%. But during the warm water months, traditionally June through October, the chances of death skyrocket up between 65% and 85%, meaning on average, three out of every four striped bass released with the intention of preserving the population will actually die.

The club is pushing a new voluntary campaign, Catch 2 and Quit, to do its part to help preserve the population. It doesn't want to cut fishermen's time on the water short, encouraging them instead to fish for other types of fish.

Some fishermen are on board with the plan, while others may take a little time to see what the club is trying to show them. On the docks Monday, many were aware of the summer mortality rate, but unaware of the new campaign. Jim Stebbins always practices catch and release and is in favor of the plan.

"I really want to sustain the fisheries so that we can come back in five, 10, 15 years and have as many, if not more fish, than we do now," Stebbins said.

This year the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries also changed the way it stocks the lake, launching baby stripers into deep water instead of shallow waters off the docks to avoid predators that make a buffet out of the fresh dump.

Some states have pushed outright bans on fishing certain populations to prevent further decay. The guideline at the lake isn't a law and the club doesn't want to have to take it that far, but Smith Mountain Lake is a bass heaven and these fish are too important to lose.

"If that trend continues, that reputation is going to decline and that has negative implications relative to tourism and the economic impact," Brenholdt said.

Smith Mountain Lake is known for its annual bass fishing tournaments, the biggest one which draws hundreds of competitors. That one is a large mouth bass tournament, which is a different species, so these new suggested guidelines won't have impact on the tournament. But there were a number of smaller summertime striper tournaments that have been discontinued.

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