La. defeats attempt to drop beneficial fishery rule

BATON ROUGE, La. Louisiana BASS Federation Conservation Director Will Courtney was told by the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commissioner that he'd "never received so many phone calls in all his life."

The commissioner, one of seven appointed by Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, is responsible for reviewing and voting on management issues relative to Louisiana's fish, wildlife and aquatic life. Had the commissioner known better, he would not have been surprised over the outbreak of feedback from Cajun BASS clubbers. For the past three decades and counting, and especially in Louisiana, Federation members have earned the nickname "conservation minutemen" for rallying behind a cause known to benefit bass fishing and the environment.

In this latest case, the flood of calls came from an army of Federation members who rallied to shoot down an attempt at squashing a long-standing and successful special management plan at the Atchafalaya Basin. The regulation is a 14-inch minimum size limit for largemouth caught from the south Louisiana fishery ravaged by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. According to estimates, some 5 million largemouth were killed by the storm's furious wrath.

Shortly after the damage was assessed, the Federation emerged a strong advocate of the 14-inch regulation designed to protect brood stock and the millions of largemouth released into the Basin as part of a massive restocking effort.

The regulation has been an overwhelming success, according to data from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF). Prior to the hurricane and the special management regulation, the largest number of bass harvested measured 11 inches, followed by 10 inches and then 9 inches. Catch rates for fish caught and kept averaged about one bass per hour.

With the regulation, 14-inch bass fall into the largest catch category and far more 15- and 16-inch fish are taken. Courtney's own data adds to the benefits of the regulation. Data from a tournament he runs set the catch rate at 3 fish per hour, up from 2 fish before the period when the stats were recorded.

By 1996, four years after the hurricane, the 14-inch limit had done its job. Bass numbers had recovered and the LDWF considered lifting the regulation. It stayed in place after an overwhelming number of anglers expressed support for the rule and it was subsequently made permanent.

In recent years, the quality of bass fishing has slightly declined. As a result, complaints reached the LDWF, which pointed out to the impatient naysayers that uncontrollable variables were at work, namely the natural cycle of floods and droughts responsible for influencing annual recruitment numbers of bass. Even then, a vocal movement to kill the rule soon developed, although there had been plots in the past to eliminate it altogether.

"These attempts were largely sponsored by the Louisiana Wildlife Federation and the East Ascension Sportsman's League," said Courtney, who added the opponents launched a lobbying attempt this year to sway the opinions of the commissioners.

Meanwhile, the LDWF had conducted a follow-up angler poll in 2003 at 18 boat landings throughout the Basin. Support for the regulation remained, with 62 percent of the bass fishermen surveyed wanting the 14-inch limit to remain.

Courtney rallied the troops after a notice of intent to drop the rule was released by Commissioner Henry Mouton. A news flash appeared on the Federation's well-read Web site, while Vice President Steve Streeter bonded with several of the commissioners. The flames were also fanned by Wayne Allemand, Federation secretary and president of the Association of Louisiana Bass Clubs. A flyer was circulated to the latter group while Courtney loaded the fax machine, sending the news to the commissioners. More flyers were distributed at boat ramps, tournament weigh-ins, marinas and bait and tackle shops.

When the day came for the pivotal vote, the Federation was joined by another ally, Rep. Karen Gaudet St. Germain, D-Plaquemine, who took a seat beside Courtney at the commission meeting table. Mouton tabled the issue and asked for a motion to move it forward. A second to the motion never happened and the rule stays intact.