Other than what the limits are, fishermen put little thought into why there are limits of Texas’ freshwater fish.
It used to be a hot topic of discussion, no more so than in the 1980s when the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department changed the bass regulation from 10 fish, 10 inches or larger to the current 5-14 with some exceptions. There was also a ruckus, but to a lesser degree, when it changed crappie regulations to add a minimum length limit.
Today the fight over the bass limit might seem odd, but it was a different time then. Then people bass fished for meat. Even tournaments finished the day with a fish fry.
For most freshwater species, TPWD has a basic statewide limit with some exceptions based on the management plan for individual fisheries. Along with bass, the statewide limits are 25 with a 10-inch minimum for crappie, 25 with a 12-inch minimum for channel and blue catfish, five with an 18-inch minimum for flathead cats, 25-10 for white bass and five fish with an 18-inch minimum length limit for the stock-and-catch striped and hybrid striped bass.
There are several reasons for fish limits including management goals, spreading the harvest among more fishermen and sociology for gauging success. The 5-14 limit for bass is an example of a management regulation.
“It is a good standard rule. It protects fish to a spawning size and it helps them become a quality-size fish before harvest,” said Dave Terre, TPWD Inland Fisheries management/research chief.
The 5-14 limit became the rule in 1986, the same year as the ShareLunker program began. Combined, the two created the perfect storm for a switch to catch-and-release fishing for bass.
“Is it as effective now as it used to be, probably not, because I think a good number of fishermen catch and release everything, but we can’t measure that,” Terre said.
Unlike other sunfishes, bass are a slow-growing, long-lived species. Under the old 10-10 limit, biologists realized that on many lakes there were not enough bass maturing to spawning size with the amount of harvest undertaken.
In ramping up to the regulation, TPWD biologists determined not only would the regulation allow more bass to spawn, but also fishermen would actually take home more meat from the five larger bass than they would the 10 smaller ones.
Even with the prevalent culture of catch-and-release for bass, biologists have to factor in other causes of mortality such as deep hooking or handling. Biologists already know that mishandling fish during hot weather can lead to higher mortality of released fish, and are now looking into a similar impact during extreme cold.
Terre explained the limit for species like crappie can be more liberal because the fish do not live as long, about six years tops, and therefore grow faster to sexual maturity. This means more spawning-size fish exist in a lake.
“When a strong year class is produced, their numbers can naturally regulate the amount of spawning and production of future year classes through cannibalism or limitations of carrying capacity such as the availability of food, habitat and space availability. This can make crappie populations very cyclic or erratic in nature,” Terre said.
He added it is not unusual for there to be two or three years of good production followed by a drop-off for two or three years.
“In most locations, our 10-inch minimum acts to spread out the great crappie fishing over a longer period of time,” he said.
He said the 25-fish limit serves to spread the harvest out among more fishermen.
The sociology aspect of a limit comes into play because fishermen are by nature competitive either with others or themselves.
“Like the 25-fish per day on catfish, few harvest 25 fish per day. Crappie are probably the same thing. Very few will harvest the 25 for crappie, but a limit is a way they judge the success of their trip,” Terre said.
While there are probably not any major changes to statewide limits coming in the near future, the department continues to monitor populations and harvest on individual lakes and continues to tweak localized limits where necessary with things like slot limits or longer minimums.
A current example is Lake Nasworthy in San Angelo where the department is considering dropping the length limit on crappie. The change is being looked at because the lake has shown good spawning rates, but slow growth rates. Depending on the outcome and future sampling, a similar limit could find its way to other lakes. A statewide crappie limit of 25 fish was not instituted until 1986. Prior to that, many lakes did not have a limit at all on the species. It was not until 1990 that the 10-inch minimum was added.
Terre said another example could be with channel catfish. Although nothing is planned, he said the department knows channel cats are an underutilized fishery that would not be harmed by more liberal limits.
There are lakes in Texas where limits cannot improve a fishery because either water quality or habitat just does not stack up. However, where nature holds up its end, fishermen cannot deny that regulations have helped make Texas fishing as good as it gets.