T he first phase in a series of tweaks to the much fabled Toyota ShareLunker program is now in place. Texas Parks and Wildlife’s Inland Fisheries Division is revamping its Florida bass hatchery brood stock while regaining angler confidence and bolstering participation in what is arguably the most high-profile program run by the state agency.
Implemented three decades ago, ShareLunker is a spawning and genetics research program founded on the belief that big bass produce big bass. The program encourages anglers to “loan” Texas-caught lunkers weighing 13 pounds or more to the state so scientists can use them for selective breeding and hopefully to one day unravel some of the mysteries behind big bass genetics.
To date, there have been 565 ShareLunkers turned in from more than 60 public reservoirs and several private lakes. The program has been a huge public relations success and has helped biologists make neat strides in genetic fingerprinting and develop some good techniques for handling outsize bass.
However, the program hasn’t done much in terms of producing the gargantuan bass that scientists had originally hoped it would.
Texas’s current state record of 18.18 pounds has been in place for nearly 25 years without any threat of being derailed. Although a few double-digit fish have been caught that biologists were able to identify as ShareLunker offspring, none have come close to the record, or cracking the Top 50.
The lack of success combined with an overall 27 percent mortality rate (only 18 percent over the last four years) has caused some anglers to begin questioning the validity of the program. It didn’t help the cause when the department got itself into a public relations pickle in 2014 over quietly stocking more than 7,000 ShareLunker offspring into a private “contract” lake.
I’m not sure that these things have negatively affected angler participation in recent years, but I do know the 2015-16 ShareLunker season produced only two entries—the worst year since the program launched in 1986-87. I am also aware of three 13- to 14-pound bass caught on East Texas lakes last season, but not turned in. More anglers have chosen not to participate in recent years, particularly those who have caught big fish from Lake Falcon.
TPWD’s Inland Fisheries Division has seen some significant leadership changes in recent times with Craig Bonds replacing Gary Saul as Chief of Inland Fisheries and Mandy Scott taking over Alan Forshage’s position as director of the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center. The department also has hired Kyle Brookshear to head up the ShareLunker program.
Last summer, Bonds and his staff began brainstorming ways to tweak the ShareLunker program to increase productivity and rekindle the positive buzz that once surrounded it. After reviewing their plans, it appears they are headed in in the right direction. Here is a synopsis:
Three Months for Spawing: The program’s historic seven-month timeline (October 1 to April 30) remains in place. However beginning this year, biologists will only attempt to spawn fish that are caught between January 1 and March 31.
The change is based on 30 years of ShareLunker data showing that 75 percent of all ShareLunkers were caught during this time frame and that 85 percent of the successful spawns have occurred during the same period.
Biologists will still be dispatched to verify weights and obtain fin clips from fish caught outside the restricted spawning period, after which the fish may be released. Fisheries experts say the restricted spawning period will minimize the risks for mortality.
Call Crossbreeds: ShareLunker program leaders adopted a protocol in the early 2000s to spawn only fish determined to have pure Florida genes because of hatchery space limitations and the belief that pure Floridas are genetically superior to crossbreeds.
Several intergrades weighing upwards of 15 pounds, including a pair of 16-pounders, have been turned away from the spawning phase of the program over the last few years.
This season, hatchery raceways will be open to intergrades. However, their offspring will be segregated from those with pure Florida genes.
Private Lakes Out: Private lakes are still welcome to loan fish to the program, but they are no longer eligible to receive a portion of ShareLunker offspring.
Rebuilding Brooders: Beginning this year, TPWD will begin replacing its Florida bass hatchery stock with offspring obtained through the selective breeding of Texas ShareLunkers. TPWD’s Chief of Inland Hatcheries Todd Engeling says the department’s current Florida bass program is built around 1,248 males and 1,159 females. The biologist says the rebuild could be complete within six to seven years.
Lunkers down the Road: TPWD is looking hard at creating a smaller weight threshold and expanding the program to 12 months under a format similar to what Florida has done with its popular TrophyCatch program. Anglers, who catch and release fish weighing eight pounds or more in Florida are eligible to win all sorts of cool prizes, provided the catch is documented properly.
Bonds pointed out that 13 pounds would remain the minimum for entering a fish in the ShareLunker spawning. However, creating a lesser threshold for the electronic entry of smaller fish, say eight to ten pounds, could mean a drastic increase in angler participation and positive publicity for Texas bass fishing.
It is worth noting that Florida’s TrophyCatch program is only four years old, and it gave away its 5,000th prize last August.
Email Matt Williams at [email protected]