Texas specializing in bigger, better bass

 

By Shannon Tompkins Updated 6:42 pm, Saturday, November 7, 2015

Roy Euper of Lufkin holds a 13.2-pound largemouth bass he caught Nov. 2 from Sam Rayburn Reservoir. The fish is the 564th 13-pound or heavier largemouth donated to Texas' ShareLunker program. Photo: Picasa

Roy Euper of Lufkin holds a 13.2-pound largemouth bass he caught Nov. 2 from Sam Rayburn Reservoir. The fish is the 564th 13-pound or heavier largemouth donated to Texas’ ShareLunker program. Photo: Picasa
Photo: Picasa
Roy Euper of Lufkin holds a 13.2-pound largemouth bass he caught Nov. 2 from Sam Rayburn Reservoir. The fish is the 564th 13-pound or heavier largemouth donated to Texas’ ShareLunker program.

Texas carries a deserved reputation as home of some of the nation’s premier freshwater fisheries, especially its largemouth bass fisheries. No state can match Texas’ abundance or mix of bass fisheries, some offering high-quality bass fishing and others producing high-quantity bass angling.
Not coincidentally, the scientists and technicians of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s inland fisheries division have a similarly high standing among their peers from other states for the Texans’ aggressive, progressive, often-outside-the-box approach to monitoring, managing and enhancing the state’s almost unimaginably extensive and diverse freshwater ecosystems and equally huge and varied community of anglers.
A pair of events this past week illustrate both points.
This past Monday, Texas notched the 564th entry into its ShareLunker program – a TPWD-invented project that solicits anglers to lend the agency live, 13-pound-or-heavier largemouth bass caught between Oct. 1 and April 30. The huge bass, invariably females and obviously carrying the genetic predisposition to grow much larger than most largemouths, are used in hatchery production of fingerlings to be stocked in Texas waters.
An eye on the future
Two days after ShareLunker 564 was landed, TPWD fisheries managers laid out a handful of ideas they have for potential fishing regulation changes aimed at enhancing the quality of fish or fishing in the state’s public waters. In presentations to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, inland fisheries staff floated ideas they say could improve the trophy-fish potential for largemouth bass anglers on one of the state’s newest public lakes and adjust fishing regulations to account for the population dynamics of one of the state’s most unique largemouth bass fisheries.
First, the big bass.
On Nov. 2, Roy Euper of Lufkin was working a crankbait in about 30 feet of water on Sam Rayburn Reservoir when he hooked and landed what would become the first entry in the 2015-16 edition of TPWD’s ShareLunker program. The 25.5-inch largemouth weighed 13.2 pounds on the certified scale at Jackson Hill Marina, one of the scores of official ShareLunker weighing and holding stations on Texas lakes.
Euper contacted staff at Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens, which dispatched staff to retrieve the fish.
In a strange twist that turned out to be lucky for Euper, after TPWD staffers returned to the Fisheries Center and placed the bass in a tank, the largemouth regurgitated a crappie it had eaten. The crappie weighed 0.3 pounds. Had the bass not eaten the big meal before Euper caught her, the fish would have weighed a shade under the 13-pound minimum to qualify for the ShareLunker program.
Euper’s bass was the first entry in this year’s edition of a program TPWD began in 1986. At the time, the idea of asking anglers who catch a huge bass to keep the fish alive and lend it to the state for use in producing genetically superior fry and fingerlings had never been tried. Texas pulled it off, and in Texas-size way.
TPWD put in place a system whereby anglers anywhere in the state could contact agency staff (who were on 24-hour call) if they caught a 13-pound or heavier bass. The agency picked 13 pounds as the minimum because bass of that size were almost certainly either pure-strain Florida largemouths or early-generation hybrids between Floridas and Texas’ native northern largemouths.
In the 1970s, soon after scientists discovered Florida largemouth bass were a subspecies that had the genetic predisposition to grow much larger than other largemouth species, Texas fisheries managers began incorporating the fish into its hatchery program. They hoped the fish, native only to Florida and southern Georgia, would grow as large in Texas waters as they did in their native range.
At the time, Texas’ state record for largemouth bass was a 13.5-pounder caught from Lake Medina in the 1940s. A 6-pound largemouth was a huge fish. A 10-pounder was statewide news.
That changed with the introduction of Florida bass. Within five years, the Texas state record was broken and then broken again and again. All proved to be Florida bass or Florida hybrids, identified through DNA testing.
Lake Fork leads the way
In November 1986, when Mark Stevenson set a record with a 17.67-pounder from Lake Fork and kept the fish alive in a bait tank at a Lake Fork marina, TPWD had its first entry in its avant-garde program to incorporate Floridas with proven genetic superiority into its hatchery program. TPWD began stocking pure-strain Florida bass in lakes across the state, and trophy-class bass began popping up all over the state.
In the 29 years since Texas’ ShareLunker program began, its 564 entries have come from 65 public waters and a dozen or so private waters. Lake Fork has accounted for 257 of those entries, including the 18.18-pound bass currently holding Texas’ largemouth record. Most states haven’t produced a single largemouth bass weighing more than 13 pounds.
Inspired by Texas’ success, a couple of other states, including Louisiana, have developed their own versions of the ShareLunker program. But none has been anywhere near as successful.
TPWD’s intense research and monitoring programs identifies fisheries with the potential to produce high-quality fishing for a particular species (a good shot at catching large fish) or high-quantity fishing (lots of fish, maybe no so many truly big fish), and fisheries managers designs fishing regulations to take advantage of that potential.
That policy was evident this past week in the package of ideas for potential freshwater fishing regulation changes that Ken Kurzawski of TPWD’s inland fisheries division offered in a briefing to the TPW Commission.
The agency is considering proposing a change to largemouth bass regulations on recently created Lake Naconiche, a 700-acre reservoir near Nacogdoches, with the goal of increasing the lake’s trophy-bass fishery. Naconiche, which opened to public use in 2012, has outstanding potential as a trophy-bass fishery, thanks to excellent habitat and water quality, stockings of Florida bass and regulations TPWD designed to allow the “new” fishery to get off to a good start.
Those regulations, which set an 18-inch minimum length limit for largemouth bass, were designed to keep harvest low, allowing the bass fishery to establish a quality population, Kurzawski said. To maximize trophy-bass potential, TPWD is considering changing the regulation to a 16-inch maximum length limit. This will allow harvest-oriented anglers to keep some of the fish they catch but protect the larger fish with trophy potential.
An exception to the 16-inch maximum rule would allow an angler who lands a bass measuring more than 24 inches to temporarily retain the fish in a live well and weigh it, if the fish is more than 13 pounds it can be offered to the ShareLunker program; if less than 13 pounds, it would have to be released.
Changes proposed
The agency is considering just the opposite tact – reducing or even eliminating the minimum size limit – for the bass fishery in the marshes, rivers and bayous of the lower reaches of the Sabine and Neches rivers and Taylor, Hillebrandt and Big Hill bayous in Jefferson and Orange counties.
There, research shows, the bass population is healthy, but the fish grow very slowly, annual mortality is high and few bass reach the 14-inch statewide minimum length requirement. To allow anglers to harvest some of this renewable resource, TPWD is considering proposing reducing the minimum length in this fishery to 12 inches or, perhaps, eliminating it altogether.
The agency plans to come back to the TPW Commission in January with official proposals for fishing regulations changes, taking public comments into March when the nine-member commission would make a decision to adopt, modify or reject the proposals.
By then, count on anglers having landed another dozen or more 13-pound-or-heavier largemouths from Texas lakes.