As we reported Wednesday, fishermen will see a dramatic change in the smallmouth bass size limit on Norris Lake in Upper East Tennessee. Thursday the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission voted in support of a less-restrictive size and creel limit for smallmouth fishermen on Norris.
Last year, at the encouragement of the Norris Lake Fisheries Advisory Committee (NLFAC), the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission voted in a strict smallmouth "slot limit." Anglers were allowed to keep one smallmouth under 17 inches in length, and one smallmouth more than 22 inches in length. The regulation was mirrored after a similar regulation on Dale Hollow which has created a world-renowned trophy-class smallmouth fishery.
However in the Norris Lake area, there was a huge backlash, primarily among tournament anglers who argued that the regulation would be a potential death knell for tournaments.
The controversy turned political and reached into the highest halls of the Tennessee Legislature... and was at least partly to blame for a threat by some legislators actually eliminate TWRA as we know it. Pro-TWRA backers were able to stave off that effort, granting TWRA a one-year reprieve from what is known as the Sunset Provision.
Since that time TWRA Fisheries Chief Bill Reeves has taken a new job as the TWRA Chief of Biodiversity. There was no evidence that the change in position had anything to do with the Norris smallmouth controversy.
Earlier this week new Fisheries Chief Bobby Wilson went back to meet again with the NLFAC. According to Wilson the Committee voted to back off on the smallmouth regulation. He says the committee suggested a change in regulation to a minimum 18-inch length limit, with a creel limit of five smallmouth, from Oct. 16 to May 31. Then from June 1 to Oct. 15 there would be minimum 20-inch length limit with a creel limit of one.
The different limits at different times is to try and eliminate tournament mortality, a serious factor in summertime bass tournaments when water temperatures are higher and fish are more easily stressed.
Wilson said, "We stayed out of it. We were only there as advisers. All the proposals came from within the committee."
The committee is only "advisory" however. Biologists nor Commissioners are under no obligation to do what the NLFAC suggests. They have generally supported the committee recommendations.
Indeed, Thursday Commissioners voted in favor of the new limit.
The amended regulations will go into effect in late April, pending processing through the State Attorney General’s office and will be re-evaluated in 2015.
Biologically Wilson said of the new Norris smallmouth regulation, "We don't feel like they'll attain the trophy status (fish) as they would have under the stricter slot limit. But this regulation is better than what they once had... it can still result in quality fish, it will just take a little longer."
Wilson said if passed, the NLFAC agreed to evaluate the new regulation until 2015. If they don't see any improvements at that time they said they would revisit the issue.
The new compromise regulation is likely to take some of the political heat off of TWRA during this legislative session. However there are other Legislators and other bills looming that could continue to keep the fires burning.