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Last updateThu, 19 Nov 2015 8pm

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Can VA Beach’s Back Bay be restored to its grandeur?

Anglers literally came from all over the world to fish in the unique freshwater impoundment located within sight of the pounding surf of the Atlantic Ocean.

Over thirty years ago Back Bay, located south of Virginia Beach, was known for a world-class largemouth bass fishery. Anglers literally came from all over the world to fish in the unique freshwater impoundment, located within sight of the pounding surf of the Atlantic Ocean. Anglers from our area regularly made the trip down there to fish in what was known as a huge

“honey hole” in terms of black bass.

In 1980, the fishery peaked with a record 240 citations for largemouth being registered. Back then the fish had to be weighed so there was no catch and release or length citation.  All the fish weighed 8 pounds or more!

So what happened to the fishery?
 Well, there are several theories about the demise of the once stellar fishery. Certainly anglers over-harvested too many citation bass. However, the one variable that has come to light and remained constant for fisheries biologists who have studied the problem is the lack of submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV).

I spoke with Chad Boyce, VDGIF fisheries biologist, several times over the past five years about the project he has been conducting at Back Bay and the role that SAV has on the bass population (and other species) has come up in conversation several times. Boyce applied for grants and got some cooperation from various groups to study the issue and ultimately found that SAV was extremely important in the health of the entire ecosystem.

SAV had declined quite a bit in the 80’s and 90’s and coincidentally the fishery did, as well. This may sound quite similar to our Chesapeake Bay fisheries. While SAV was not the only variable in the decline of the fishery, it may have been a key player.

The high sedimentation of the shallow bay area kept SAV from growing. No light could reach the plants trying to grow. But without SAV there was nothing to filter the water to clear it and allow it to grow. A vicious cycle started and the fishery pretty much collapsed. Wind churns up sediment and given the bay’s location near the ocean and the large surface area, the place is almost always breezy.

Boyce teamed up with Back Bay NWR and came up with a floating turbidity curtain project to see if the sedimentation could be curtailed enough to allow SAV to grow. The project is ongoing, but promising.

Visitors or anglers to Back Bay may see an oil boom-looking structure with a floating vinyl curtain on the water now.  The two sites have curtains 300 yards and 150 yards in length. Last time I checked with Boyce he told me that the curtains were set in an east to west direction to curtail the southwest winds that are predominate in the spring and summer, which is the growing season for SAV. During the experiment Boyce monitored water quality and light penetration on the leeward side of the curtain.

Stocking planned!

VDGIF did an experimental stocking in 2009 of largemouth bass into Back Bay to see if they would improve the fishery. The experiment was deemed a success and now VDGIF is planning to stock largemouth bass for three years starting this May. Approximately 125,000 largemouth bass of the F-1 hybrid variety will be stocked. This strain is commonly stocked in many places and is well received. The hybrid is a cross between a northern strain and a Florida bass. The northern strain is known for its aggressiveness and the Florida strain is known for its growth.  Pure strains do not exist in our region of the country. In fact, largemouth bass are not even native to the mid-Atlantic and, like blue catfish and other gamefish, are non-native sportfish stocked for anglers to enjoy.

As with the previous stockings, these fingerlings will be chemically marked to allow DGIF staff to track their movement, survival, and distribution within the Bay. Boyce reported that Back Bay is seeing incredible growth of SAV and conditions are approaching those that allowed the bass fishery to thrive in the early 80’s. It is hoped that the additional stockings, combined with the ideal habitat now available, will equal a great bass fishery once more.

Rappahannock Bass update
Local anglers should be aware that there will be a Rappahannock River largemouth bass restoration workshop on March 13, at 6:30 p.m. at Gander Mountain in Fredericksburg. VDGIF fisheries biologists will be there to present and offer a question and answer session.

Dedicated largemouth bass anglers are already aware that there was a study and stocking of the Chickahominy River with largemouth bass several years ago. The stocking had mixed results the first time it was attempted. Changes were made and the last stocking went better.

A river system is a much more complicated fishery to manage with tides, anadromous fish, salinity levels, and flows due to rainfall. Stocking bass is not a cure-all to the problem with a fishery. However, VDGIF has found that initial studies show that, depending on the conditions and timing, a supplemental stocking of largemouth may aid a fishery. For instance, during a year or after a year where the recruitment (spawning success) was low or poor, stocking may help that year class and fill “holes” in year classes in the fishery. As of now the Rappahannock bass fishery has been showing signs of improvement, but it has a ways to go.
Interested in learning more?

Go to the workshop and listen to what the biologists have to present. A lot can be learned by those who go with questions and are willing to listen to what the science and experience has shown.

FOR INFORMATION CONTACT:
 BRUCE LEE @ (540) 226-2047
 SHAWN TATE @ (540) 295-3771
 BUDDY FINES @ (540) 775-7294

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