"This wasn't arrived at lightly," he said. "We debated this for quite a while before we went forward with it."
Biologists proposed the change last February, at the winter meeting of the state Natural Resources Commission, the seven-man panel that sets hunting and fishing regulations.
"We then told the public about the proposed change during a series of 12 public meetings we conducted in March," Preston said. "Based on input from those meetings, the commissioners asked us to get additional information. For four to six weeks late last spring, we surveyed anglers and boaters at Stonewall about the proposal. On top of all that, we held an additional public meeting at Stonewall in early July so people could comment."
Commissioners approved the new regulations at a late-July meeting. Preston said DNR officials plan to conduct surveys to monitor the numbers and sizes of bass kept and released by anglers, and to closely monitor the overall health of Stonewall's bass population.
"It generally takes a fishery a while to adjust to a regulation change, so we'll probably leave this regulation in place at least three years to see if it's having the desired effect," Preston said. "If it clearly isn't helping, we'll go back to the drawing board."
One significant effect of the new regulations is that organizations will now be allowed to conduct bass tournaments that have official weigh-ins. Under the previous regulations, only "golden rule" tournaments - those in which fish were measured for length and released immediately - could be held.
Preston said, however, that the presence of largemouth bass virus is forcing DNR administrators to limit the number of tournaments.
"We're not going to allow large weigh-in tournaments during June, July or August, when water temperatures are at their highest," he explained. "We want to reduce stress on the bass, and we don't want large numbers of them held in a tank where the virus could be spread."
Current plans are to allow only about 10 tournaments a year that attract 10 boats or more. DNR officials have scheduled a meeting on Thursday to draw lots for the allowed tournament slots. The meeting, at the Stonewall Jackson State Park administration building, will begin at 6 p.m.