The inclination to end up stuck on a hook seems to be a heritable trait in bass, according to a study published in a recent issue of the Transactions of the American Fisheries Society.

The study, which was carried out by researchers DP Philipp, SJ Cooke, JE Claussen, JB Koppelman, CD Suski, and DP Burkett, focused on Ridge Lake, an Illinois lake where catch-and-release fishing has been enforced and strictly regulated for decades. Each caught fish has been measured, tagged and then released back into the wild.

Largemouth bass Are fish getting increasingly suspicious of hooks?
Picture by: Clinton & Charles Robertson from Del Rio, Texas & San Marcos, TX, USA

David Philipp and coauthors commenced their study in 1977, checking the prevalence of Largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides) on the hooks of fishermen. After four years, the experimental lake was drained and 1,785 fish were collected. When checking the tags, Philipp and his team found that roughly 15 percent of the Largemouth bass population consisted of specimens that had never been caught. They also found out that certain other bass specimens had been caught over and over again.

To take the study one step further, the research team collected never caught bass specimens (so called Low Vulnerability, LV, specimens) and raised a line of LV offspring in separate brood ponds. Likewise, the team collected bass specimens caught at least four times (High Vulnerability, HV, specimens) and placed them in their own brooding ponds to create a HV line.

The first generation (F1) offspring from both lines where then marked and placed together in the same pond. During the summer season, anglers where allowed to visit the pond and practise catch-and-release, and records where kept of the number of times each fish was caught.

As the summer came to an end, HV fish caught three or more times where used to create a new line of HV offspring, while LV fish caught no more than once became the parents of a new LV line.

The second generation (F2) offspring went through the same procedure as their parents; they were market, released into the same pond, and subjected to anglers throughout the summer. In fall, scientists gathered the fish that had been caught at least three times or no more than once and placed them in separate ponds to create a third generation (F3) HV and LV fish.

A following series of controlled fishing experiments eventually showed that the vulnerability to angling of the HV line was greater than that of the LV line, and that the differences observed between the two lines increased across later generations.

If this is true not only for bass but for other fish species as well, heavy hook-and-line angling pressure in lakes and rivers may cause evolutionary changes in the fish populations found in such lakes. Hence, a lake visited by a lot of anglers each year may eventually develop fish populations highly suspicious of the fishermen’s lure.

More information can be found in the paper published in Transactions of the American Fisheries Society: Philipp, DP, SJ Cooke, JE Claussen, JB Koppelman, CD Suski and

DP Burkett (2009) Selection for vulnerability to angling in Largemouth Bass. Transactions of the American Fisheries Society 138, pp. 189–199.