Norris Smallmouth Continue to Haunt Wildlife Agency - and Response (2)

Like a sore that will never heal..

Friday, May 21, 2010 - by Richard Simms
<i>Richard Simms - Chattanoogan.com Outdoors Editor</i>
Richard Simms - Chattanoogan.com Outdoors Editor

Editorial Opinion - Instructions for sharing your opinion follow.

Like an ugly sore that will never heal, the Norris Lake smallmouth issue continues to haunt the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission.

The TWRC recently instituted a strict "slot limit" for smallmouth in Norris... restricting anglers to keeping one smallmouth shorter than 17-inches long, and one smallmouth greater than 22-inches long. The new size limit, fashioned after a similar successful "trophy" size limit on Dale Hollow, was approved by a special 25-member Norris Lake Advisory Committee. After it went into effect March 1 however, there was a firestorm of protest, mostly by bass tournament anglers who fish Norris.

On Thursday the Tennessee House unaimously passed a joint resolution (HJR1051) "urging" the TWRA to restore the creel limit for smallmouth bass on Norris Lake to five per day with a minimum length of 18 inches. As originally introduced by Rep. Chad Faulkner (R - Dist. 36), the resolution would have "directed" the Commission to restore the previous size limit. However the resolution was amended to change the word "direct" to "urge." The resolution now goes to the Senate.

Chattanoogan.com Outdoors first ignored this ongoing controversy. The fact is, Norris Lake is a very long way from "the strike zone" of most of our readers. However when the issue boiled over into an effort by some legislators to actually eliminate the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission, it became a statewide story and we have followed it closely. So closely in fact that even some Norris Lake area anglers came to rely on Chattanoogan.com Outdoors as their information source.

Hence, one angler who is adamantly opposed to the new size limit asked me very directly, "I would like your honest opinion."

Here it is... my opinion (from someone who lives very far away) is that I think fishermen should give the new slot limit a chance. If indeed it is as successful as the effort on Dale Hollow, than it will pay great dividends for Norris lake fishermen and businesses alike. It would be a win-win situation for everyone. Even though I live far away... I often make a couple multi-day trips to Dale Hollow every year specifically to pursue trophy smallmouth, as do thousands of other people. If the scenario were repeated on Norris, supporters will look like heroes. Detractors... not so much.

However it requires patience. It will be an absolute minimum of three years to determine any impact of the new regualtion ... more likely five years.

I believe tournament anglers can survive for that long in order to see if the resource and opportunities do improve.

Tournament anglers should compare it to the often televised Professional Redfish Circuit. Those anglers aren't trying to catch the biggest redfish... they must try to catch the biggest reds possible that aren't more than 27 inches long. Yet they have managed to turn it into a multi-million dollar, televised circuit. I believe that is a perfect example of the fact that size limits do NOT dictate the success or failure of tournaments. As long as everyone competes under the same rules, it is fair. Tournament success is based upon organization and marketing ... not on size limits.

Will winning weights go down for the next few years?

Of course they will.

But does that make the tournaments less fair?

No, it doesn't.

I do believe anglers should have a say in this sportsman’s choice issue. And I believe they did. I don't believe TWRA "slipped anything under the rug."

This is just a partial list of the efforts TWRA staff made to inform the public long before the regulation took effect March 1:

  • June 3, 2008 TWRA officials and the Norris Lake Fishery Advisory Committee (NLFAC) discussed a trophy smallmouth bass regulation similar to Dale Hollow Lake (16"-21" slot limit allowing the harvest of one fish under 16" and one fish over 21"). Committee members did not want to pursue the regulation proposal at this time.
  • April 28, 2009 Again TWRA officials and NLFAC discussed a trophy smallmouth bass regulation. Committee members recommended a regulation to be more strict than Dale Hollow lake (17"-22" slot limit allowing one fish under and one fish over the slot range). Members were to solicit responses from their peers and other anglers (Received very few negative comments).
  • August 20, 2009 - TWRC 2010 Sport Fishing regulations, including new Norris Lake proposal was presented to Commissioners and the public. TWRA issued news releases about the changes and asked for public comment.
  • Late September 2009 - Second TWRA news release asking for comment.
  • Late September and early October, 2009 - Then TWRA Fisheries Chief Bill Reeves made presentations about the new limit to the county commissioners of Union and Claiborne counties; Then Asst. Chief Bobby Wilson made the same presentation to the county commissioners of Campbell and Anderson counties. There was no opposition from any of the county commissioners.
  • October 29, 2009 - Smallmouth bass slot limit proposal on Norris Lake presented and discussed at the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission meeting (Technical Committees). Very little opposition from the public.
  • October 30, 2009 - TWRC approved the regulation on smallmouth bass slot limit at Norris Lake.

This effort represents a greater effort by TWRA to provide sportsmen advance input on the issue than any other such effort I've covered in my 25-year outdoor reporting career. In spite of this effort, many anglers claim they never knew the new regulations were coming until they went into effect March 1.

I say if Norris Lake area media outlets didn't cover the issue, you should express your displeasure there. If they did cover them, and you didn't "keep up" .... oh well.

I believe sportsmen in general are ignorant of how the wildlife management decision-making process works. But as long as everything is going their way, they don't care. Then suddenly when things don't go their way... they get mad and go looking for someone to blame. When in reality they must bear some of the responsibility for not being educated on the process and staying involved before the fact, rather than after.

I can understand your animosity regarding the measure... and I respect your right to object and try to rescind. The recent actions of legislators make it very clear they are hearing you.

However I believe your animosity and lobbying efforts should (continue to be) directed toward NLAC, County Commissioners, maybe your local news outlets or your area wildlife commissioners who all knew all about this measure LONG in advance.

I do not believe your animosity should be directed toward TWRA staff. Their goal is to make the resource better. I don't believe that... I know that. This situation is simply a matter of disagreement on the definition of the word "better."

But I believe TWRA performed due diligence in advance notification and discussion of this matter. And that the actions of the TWRC are intended, by their definition, to create a "better" smallmouth fishery on Norris Lake. If it doesn't work, in five years it will be gone.

And to Legislators... our sporting predecessors in Tennessee were wise when they opted to separate and buffer the management of our wildlife resources from the whims of election cycles by creating the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission. And while I have been critical of Commissioners' refusal to comment publically on the controversy, I still believe in the process.

The process works... the process helps assure me that our deer, bear, boar, fish and fowl won't be quite so significantly influenced by campaign donations.

I respect and admire your right to represent your constituents ... but please do so within "the process" designed to best protect our wildlife resources.

To submit your response to this opinion, send an E-MAIL. Opinions will not be posted unless you include your first and last name, and town as well as your phone number where we may call you for verification. Do not write in all caps. We will not publish phone numbers and you can request that your email address not be published. Responses will be added below.
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Matt Lewis
Elizabethton, TN

It is pure fallacy to believe that size limits are the deciding factor for the number and size of bass in a fishery. TWRA’s own smallmouth management plan plainly proves this fact. Look at the plan, and pay attention to the graphs showing sizes of smallmouth caught during electro fishing over the years and show me the correlation between size limits and increased numbers of “trophy” size smallmouth bass.

The fact is, none of the fisheries targeted by this pie-in-the-sky “trophy” smallmouth management plan are in any trouble. In fact, one could just as easily argue that they are in their prime, especially South Holston. At the end of the day, tournament fishermen, fun fishermen, and meat fishermen all pay the same license fee. Why should any of those groups be put at a disadvantage or told they can’t fish the way they want to when there is not a problem with a fishery?

This has never had anything to do with helping out a fishery that is in trouble. Nowhere does anyone from the TWRA, TWRC, NLAC, express any concern that any of the fisheries in question are in danger, trouble, or even on a decline. The trophy smallmouth management plan is nothing more than a marketing scheme designed to allow dock operators and guides to advertise “trophy smallmouth” at the expense of resident sportsmen and women. These are drastic measures that should be saved for drastic times.

While I agree that under normal circumstances politicians should stay out of it, in this case it’s the only recourse we have.
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David Hickman
Cleveland, Tenn.

Looking at how Chickamauga and Nickajack have flourished with the limits that have been put in place, I am sure Norris would as well. TWRA should be able to manage Tennessee wildlife without politicians getting involved. I remember very well in the 1980's when TWRA did not support the massive killing of aquatic vegetation but politics ruled. As great as Chickamauga is now, if milfoil was still in place it would be even better.
Let our elected officials solve our education and budget issues and let TWRA manage our wildlife resources.
They are Biologist and Fisheries experts and they know what is best for a particular lake or river, not a state or national representative.
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