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Bass Under the Microscope

Some of TPWD’s best researchers wear gimme caps instead of lab coats.

By Larry D. Hodge

Because of their recreational and economic importance, largemouth bass are probably the most-studied fish in Texas. While Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologists and researchers lead research efforts, some of the most valuable studies would not have been possible without the help of anglers.

By far the most visible and long-lived research program involving anglers is the ShareLunker program, which has been ongoing since 1986. In an effort to improve the quality of fishing in Texas — and perhaps produce the next world-record largemouth bass — TPWD uses 13-pound-plus females for spawning and stocks the offspring into public waters.

Any angler can tell you 13-pound bass aren’t found in every bush in a lake. However, about 500 fish have been entered into the program — and every one of those fish was donated or loaned to TPWD by the angler who caught it. (All were females except for one male, a 6-pounder that was the largest male largemouth ShareLunker Program Director David Campbell had ever seen.)

Besides being scarce, big fish tend to live in deep water, where the main method biologists normally use for collecting fish for research, electrofishing, does not work. “Electrofishing using shocking boats is good for collecting small fish, but it only works in water less than about 8 feet deep,” says Dave Terre, of TPWD’s Inland Fisheries. That’s where anglers come in. “Using fish collected by anglers saves time and money, gives much better coverage of a lake and provides us with the larger fish that are hard to collect by shocking. Without anglers, we would never be able to collect enough large fish to conduct some of the studies we’ve done,” Terre points out.

Anglers and biologists are both very passionate about what they do, and both love and care for the resource.

Campbell calls the anglers who donate fish to the ShareLunker program “the best conservationists in Texas” and says he is humbled by their attitude. “One of the biggest things I’ve learned from this program is that people who fish want to help TPWD,” he says. “Anglers have made this program. They want to donate and help sportfishing. I’ve never met one of those people who was mad at TPWD — I may meet someone at midnight at a boat ramp to pick up a fish, and he has his friends there with him, and they are all smiling. Getting to deal with those folks makes my job the best job in TPWD.”

Other biologists might feel their job is best. One is Todd Driscoll, a fisheries biologist whose territory includes Sam Rayburn Reservoir, the largest reservoir totally within the state and a prime destination for both recreational and tournament anglers, hosting about 300 tournaments a year. “I got into this field because of my love of fishing, particularly bass fishing,” Driscoll says. “I started participating in tournaments several years ago. I fish three tournament trails and belong to two different bass clubs. Being a serious angler helps me do my job better, because I see the angler’s point of view. I think angler opinions should drive fisheries management activities, as long as they make good biological sense. Anglers are our constituents, and we should manage for the kinds of activities they desire.”

Fittingly, Driscoll turned to anglers for help on two groundbreaking studies conducted on Sam Rayburn. “The first study used results from bass tournaments to supplement our existing database on largemouth bass populations in Sam Rayburn and Toledo Bend reservoirs,” Driscoll says. “The information we gather using electrofishing and creel surveys is biased, because neither provides us with much information on large bass abundance.” Driscoll regularly harvests data posted by bass clubs and tournaments. “That information is incorporated into the management plans we write,” he says. “This allows us to make more informed, better management decisions that ultimately provide anglers with better fishing.”

A case in point was an exploitation study Driscoll and colleague Jay Smith conducted on Sam Rayburn in 2004. “Exploitation means removal of fish by anglers,” Driscoll explains. “We asked anglers what they thought of our current 14-inch length limit on bass. Half wanted a more restrictive limit. In order to determine how that regulation would work and how much benefit it would provide, we had to know what percent of the overall fish population in the lake is removed by anglers each year.”

Restrictive regulations have played a big part in maintaining the fishery on Lake Fork.

With the help of biologists from across the state, about 6,000 largemouth bass were electrofished and tagged. Over the next year, anglers were asked to report each tagged fish they caught. “We found that only 6 percent of the bass were taken home to be eaten, and only about 5 percent were caught by tournament anglers and taken to a weigh-in,” Driscoll says. “While the latter group of fish was released, we estimate about 30 percent of them later died. Still, this represents only 1.5 percent of the total population. We concluded that a more restrictive regulation — a longer length limit — would increase the abundance of 20-inch fish only 3 to 4 percent. Without the cooperation of anglers, we would not have been able to get this information — and this had never been documented before. We interviewed some anglers as many as 30 times during the year. It took a lot of patience on their part to be interviewed so many times, but most of them were all for the study and were excited when they caught a tagged fish.”

Anglers can take comfort from one of the main findings of the study, that angler harvest is not limiting the number of big bass on Sam Rayburn. “This study told us we can’t use length limits to increase the quality of fish in Sam Rayburn,” Driscoll says. “Habitat and genetics are more important. In a large reservoir like this, we’re limited in what we can do to affect habitat, which makes more important our stocking of Florida largemouth bass to improve the genetics of the fish in the lake. Anglers helped us learn what we needed to know to make fishing better for them.”

While individual anglers and TPWD biologists sometimes disagree on the best way to manage a fishery, they tend to pull together when there is a threat to fishing. When largemouth bass virus (LMBV) struck several Texas lakes in 2000, anglers played a key role in providing fish for a study to determine how widespread the disease was. “We collected 2,876 adult largemouth bass from 49 reservoirs,” says Terre. “Sampling efforts included 71 electrofishing and 56 angler-assisted collections. Angler collection was far more efficient because tournaments gave us the fish, and all we had to do was show up at the boat ramp and collect them. One thing we learned was that it did not matter whether the fish were collected by electrofishing or by angling. They were equally likely to have LMBV. This showed biologists across the nation that collection by anglers was a valid method, and this had never been done before.”

LMBV seems to have run its course in Texas — the last outbreak was on Lake Bastrop in 2002 — but Terre knows what he will do if it shows up again. “The first calls I will make will be to the anglers of Texas, because they saved us a lot of time and money, and we greatly appreciated that. But the greatest benefit of the study was that it got our biologists comfortable with working closely with anglers and that work established a lot of good relationships with anglers, and there’s nothing better than that.”

Recognizing what a precious resource Lake Fork is (a 1996 study showed anglers spend $27.5 million annually on fishing trips to the lake), the Lake Fork Area Chamber of Commerce and the Lake Fork Sportsman’s Association cooperate with TPWD on an ongoing trophy bass survey. Anglers catching a fish weighing 7 pounds or more report their catches using forms made available at marinas around the lake. “One objective of the study is to create publicity for the lake and its great fishery,” says TPWD Inland Fisheries District Biologist Kevin Storey. “On a deeper level, electrofishing and creel surveys don’t provide much information on the catch of large fish, and it’s difficult for us to judge the effectiveness of the slot limit without this information.”

Storey deliberately kept the information collected to a minimum: the date and time the fish was caught, the angler’s home ZIP code and the length and weight of the fish (estimated length and weight are accepted if the angler chooses). “We do not ask where or how they were fishing,” Storey says. “We felt if we kept it simple, we would have better participation. The data show that the slot limit does seem to be working. Almost one-third of the fish that are measured are actully above the top end of the slot. About 80 percent of the fish that are weighed are more than 10 pounds. We estimate that 12 percent of the fish that are caught are actually reported. If that is true, more than 15,000 fish weighing 7 pounds or more are caught each year.”

It’s that reputation for big bass that keeps the cash registers jingling at marinas, motels and restaurants all around Lake Fork. “The trophy bass survey proves that we don’t need to change the slot limit on Lake Fork and risk killing the goose that lays the golden egg,” Storey says, “we just need to let her keep laying eggs. When you have a lake that is so special — Fork is 25 years old and is still churning out these big fish — it demands and deserves special treatment. It doesn’t need to be exploited, because when it’s gone, it’s gone. Restrictive regulations have played a big part in maintaining the fishery on Lake Fork, and the other big factor is the popularity of catch-and-release on the lake. There are guides on that lake who tell clients they will not keep any fish on this trip, and if they don’t like it, find somebody else to fish with. Those two things have done an amazing amount to prolong this boom.”

Someone who catches a monster bass usually would like to have a memento of the occasion. At one time skin mounts were the only way to preserve a fish, but that required killing the fish. Today, with length and girth measurements and a photo, anyone can have a fiberglass replica on the wall while the fish continues to swim around the lake.

Bass Life Associates, an organization dedicated to maintaining and improving the quality of bass fishing in the lakes of Northeast Texas and adjacent parts of Louisiana, found an unusual and highly effective way to encourage anglers to let big bass live. “We started out stocking fish in the lake, then thought, why don’t we have a program to keep them there,” says Dudley Beene of Shreveport, a former board chairman. The resulting Trophy Replica Program provides a free or subsidized fiberglass replica of big bass caught from Caddo Lake. With the help of the program, anglers pay only $75 for a replica of a bass weighing between 8 and 9 pounds and $50 for bass weighing between 9 and 10 pounds. Replicas of bass weighing 10 pounds or more are paid for by the organization. Since 1993, the Trophy Replica Program has encouraged anglers to return more than 700 trophy bass to Caddo Lake. Anglers need only take the fish to Caddo Grocery in Uncertain, Texas, or to the ranger station in Earl Williams Park near Oil City, Louisiana, for weighing. Once the fish’s weight was recorded, the angler could release it.

Texas is acknowledged to be a national leader in fisheries management. What is often overlooked is that this leadership status would not be possible without the cooperation and active assistance of the very people who benefit most from that management — the anglers themselves. “If I could say one thing to the anglers of Texas, it would be this,” says Dave Terre. “Thank you for your past help, and I look forward to a lot more. It’s so important that we work together on projects and move in the same direction.”

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