Passion for bass inspires efforts to improve lakes.
By Larry D. Hodge
Roughly twice as many people buy freshwater fishing licenses in Texas as buy hunting licenses (even though hunting in Texas is huge), and the reason swims in reservoirs from one end of the state to the other: largemouth bass.
Following the drought of the 1950s, Texas went on a reservoir-building binge that lasted for more than 20 years, and all those new honey-holes attracted anglers like flies. Bass fishing became hugely popular in Texas. Liberal size and bag limits encouraged people to practice “catch-and-release-to-grease.”
Fisheries suffered as a result of overharvesting. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department fisheries biologists responded by tinkering with regulations to encourage harvesting of surplus populations of fish while protecting those of spawning size. But something else was needed: a change in attitude among anglers. That change to a catch-and-release mentality started in the 1970s, about the time Florida largemouth bass were introduced into Texas.
The Florida largemouth bass, better adapted to lake conditions than Texas riverine bass, grows larger than native Texas bass, and this transformed the Texas bass fishery from a meat fishery to a trophy fishery. Anglers realized that fish released back into the water would continue to grow, while those released into hot grease would not.
Stocking Florida largemouth bass elevated Texas bass fishing from good to great. It took a lot of work by TPWD and partnerships with many individuals, companies and government entities.
It almost didn’t happen. When then-director of fisheries Bob Kemp proposed bringing Florida largemouth bass to Texas on an experimental basis, the department refused to pay for it. So Kemp did it on his own, with his own money. He had bass flown in from Florida and Cuba (where they’d been introduced), and he had TPWD hatchery staff and Inland Fisheries biologists do studies to make sure the bass would survive in Texas and to learn how big they would grow here.
Partnerships made it possible to do that. Private individuals and companies in East Texas allowed TPWD to stock Florida bass in their private waters and monitor them. The results were exactly what Kemp was hoping for: Florida bass in Texas waters grew much larger than native northern largemouth bass. Even better, they did it quickly.
The next step was to share the bounty, and that took cooperation from numerous reservoir-operating authorities to aid with stocking fish in their reservoirs. Even though recreational use of the new reservoirs was a sideshow to the flood control, water supply, irrigation and power generation the reservoirs were built for, reservoir authorities cooperated. Some, such as the Sabine River Authority, worked closely with TPWD fisheries biologists to groom new reservoirs for fishing. One of those reservoirs, Lake Fork, produced the current state record largemouth bass and has sent nearly 250 bass (13 pounds or larger) to the Toyota ShareLunker program.
Lake Fork also produced the very first ShareLunker, a fish named Ethel. Ethel was the catalyst for a partnership with Bass Pro Shops. Mark Stevenson, the angler who caught Ethel, loaned her to Bass Pro Shops for display in its one-and-only store at the time in Springfield, Mo. That partnership endured. Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris provided a substantial amount of the funding for the Richard M. Hart and Johnny Morris Conservation Center at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center. The memo line of his check read: “In Memory of Ethel.”
The ShareLunker program spawned a whole new crop of partnerships — or, it might be said, was spawned by them. Lone Star Brewing Company, Jungle Labs, Cajun Boats, Anheuser Busch and Toyota have provided the funds needed to operate the program from its inception to the present day. The resulting state-of-the-art DNA-testing equipment will fine-tune the ShareLunker selective breeding program so that only pure Florida females are mated with pure Florida males to produce fish that will have the greatest impact on the genetics of a reservoir’s fish population as a whole.
And the story is far from over. Natural systems (lakes) have the capacity to regenerate themselves and maintain the habitat and food sources that fish need. Reservoirs typically lack native aquatic plants and tend to decline over time as the nutrients that were present when the lake was impounded are used up. New partnerships are currently being forged with individuals, angler and conservation organizations and businesses to grow and stock native aquatic plants in reservoirs and to place constructed fish habitat in reservoirs.
Government and natural resource conservation agencies alone do not have the resources to carry out all the needed projects, but the hope is that involving anglers and others interested in maintaining adequate supplies of quality water for humans, fish and wildlife will be the ultimate partnership. The angler who catches a trophy bass off a brush pile she helped place in the lake or the waterfront property owner who no longer has problems accessing his boat dock because invasive vegetation has been replaced by native plants he helped put there appreciates the value of partnerships in a very real, personal way.
These partnerships exemplify TPWD’s core messages. Everything is connected. Everyone does play a part. When you have a big bass on the end of your line, life outside isn’t just better. It’s awesome.