By Suzi Parker
LITTLE ROCK, Ark (Reuters) - The Arkansas River's bass fish population faces tough times.
Various types of bass fish are shrinking in both population and physical size along the 320-mile river that stretches from the Oklahoma border to the Mississippi River in southeastern Arkansas.
The reason? Blame Oklahoma, said Colton Dennis, a black bass biologist with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.
Heavy winter and spring rains in Oklahoma for the last four years have created tough living conditions for fish downstream in the Arkansas River.
That is not good news for Arkansas, a premiere place for bass fishing tournaments.
"Normally, high water is a good thing, but it doesn't help with the bass population over time," Dennis told Reuters.
More water results in a swifter flow, creating muddy conditions and complicating fish eating habits.
"They are expending more energy to capture their prey, which are smaller fish," Dennis said. "Whatever food they get isn't going into growth but rather they are just trying to maintain themselves."
The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission has pumped hundreds of thousands of fish into the river over the last four years -- including 100,000 this year -- to keep the population steady for fishermen, who often prefer to fish on the river instead of lakes.
The commission encourages fishermen to catch and release any fish less than 15 inches. This rule may change, Dennis said, as conditions improve.
A decrease in vegetation has also caused the river to shift in its flow.
Dennis said the heavy floods Arkansas experienced last spring did not affect the bass as much because they subsided quickly.
The spring rains this year did help to fill backwater reservoirs where fish often breed.
But even the backwater areas are endangered.
Since the early 1970s, when the river's navigation system was created, more than 10,000 acres of backwater habitat have been lost. A series of droughts can quickly dry up these reservoirs and make spawning difficult.
Fishing on the Arkansas River is a revenue engine for the state.
A 2008 study showed river anglers contribute about $20 million a year to the state's economy. Largemouth bass fishing is the most prevalent type of sport fish in Arkansas, according to the Game and Fish Commission.
One solution to help the bass population is the renewal of the backwater restoration project. But such a project is not cheap. At least three projects are needed to dredge the sediment that hampers the fish. Each project cost about $1.5 million.
In tough economic times, such projects are not a priority for state and federal governments.
But Jeff Quinn, stream fisheries biologist for the Game and Fish Commission, said they are much-needed.
"The river is aging and some of the habitats are getting worn down," Quinn told Reuters.
He pointed to one area in southeastern Arkansas that is a prime fishing spot for anglers. But because the backwaters are so overgrown and unsafe, fishermen have a hard time reaching the area and it's becoming a "real hazard," Quinn said.
Fishermen agree that the river can be dangerous.
"I never feel safe boating that," said Mark Simpson, a life-long fisherman from Benton, Arkansas.
"Personally, I've never had super luck fishing the river. It's not as good as a lake that is better stocked with crappie and bass."
Quinn worries that without restoration, anglers will stop going to places along the river to fish.
"From a fisheries biologist perspective, we would like to invest in the river where we could get bang for the buck," he said.
(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Greg McCune)