—story by Matt Williams
I’m not sure when I caught my first Florida-strain largemouth bass, or one with traces of the fast-growing gene in its DNA. If I had to guess, it was probably way back in the early 1980s.
Interestingly, I didn’t have to visit the Sunshine State to catch it, either. I’m betting I caught my first Florida in eastern Texas, possibly at Lake Murvaul, Lake Nacogdoches, Kurth Lake or Lake Pinkston.
I was a regular on those impoundments back when I was supposed to be attending journalism classes at Stephen F. Austin State University, and all four were beneficiaries of some of the earliest Florida bass stockings ever carried out on Texas’ public waters.
There were lots of folks involved in getting those fish to Texas lakes, but the guy at the forefront of it all was the late Robert J. “Bob” Kemp.
Kemp was a visionary who headed up the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s fisheries division in the early 1970s. I never met the man. But to hear some his colleagues tell it, he had grit – the type of determination and spunk it took to follow his instincts and do what he thought was best, even if it meant going against the grain.
The way the story goes, Kemp had a hunch fast growing Florida-strain bass would do well in the Texas climate. With a wealth of new lakes being constructed around the state at the time, he saw a grand opportunity to take Texas bass fishing to the next level.
After several failed attempts to convince the TPW Commission to buy some of the fish to experiment with, Kemp spent his own money and placed the order himself. The first Florida bass fingerlings were flown into Texas in 1971. The fish arrived in oxygenated bags placed snugly inside two insulated boxes.
According to TPWD reports, the fish were subsequently placed in growing ponds at the now defunct Tyler Fish Hatchery, grown to advanced size and then placed in a nearby private lake for follow-up studies to determine their compatibility with Texas waters as well as their growth rates.
When the studies showed positive results, the fish were eventually harvested and brought back to the Tyler facility. There, they helped jump start what has become one of the most successful inland fisheries hatchery programs in the country.
No one can deny that Kemp knocked a home run by bringing Florida bass to Texas at a time when the state was teeming with robust, new reservoirs. Interestingly, however, the Kemp bass may not have been the very first Floridas introduced to Texas waters. In fact, scientists discovered through genetics testing in the early 1990s that Florida bass may have arrived in Texas decades earlier.
The evidence surfaced after TPWD biologists obtained scale samples from the original skin mount of the former 13.50-pound state record bass that was caught from Lake Medina way back in 1943.
According to Todd Engeling, TPWD’s freshwater hatchery chief, the analysis showed that there was some level of Florida influence in the Medina fish and that the bass presumably found its way to in the 5,400-acre Hill Country reservoir via an “undocumented” private stocking.
While that’s certainly interesting trivia to ponder, the bigger story is the one that began to unfold back when you could buy a gallon of gasoline for around 36 cents.
With limited stock to go around during the early years, TPWD opted to put it’s Floridas where they thought the fish would do best — fertile, East Texas reservoirs, many of which were still relatively new at the time.
One of the most significant stockings (197,000 fish) occurred in 1973 at Lake Monticello, a 2,000-acre power plant lake that was only a year old at the time. Roughly seven years later, the lake produced Texas’ first state record in 37 years, a 14.09 pounder caught by Jimmy Kimbell.
Some other early recipients of Texas-grown Floridas included Pinkston (1976), Houston County (1974), Welsh (1975), Hawkins (1975), Kurth (1977) Fairfield (1975), Sam Rayburn (1975), Jacksonville, (1975), Nacogdoches (1977), and a host of others.
TPWD continued ramping up its Florida hatchery program and dozens of other lakes were salted with the fast-growing offspring during the years that followed. Alas, a big bass boom was born and the face of Texas bass fishing was forever changed.
Within five years of Kimball’s monumental catch from Monticello the state record was broken four more times by fish caught from three different lakes. The heaviest (and most famous) of those fish belonged to Lake Fork guide Mark Stevenson, who caught a 17.67 pounder in November 1986.
The surge of big bass catches have since spread so far and wide that the list of Texas public waters with lake records upwards of 13 pounds now bears the names of more than 60 different impoundments. In total, TPWD’s hatchery program has now stocked about 223 million Florida largemouth bass fingerlings into 421 different reservoirs.
To fully grasp the impact Florida bass have made on Texas bass fishing over the years, one needn’t look any farther than the state’s Top 50 list of largemouths. It’s an impressive list that has been revamped so many times since I graduated high school in 1979 that the former state record caught from Lake Medina doesn’t even make the grade anymore.
Amazingly, neither does Kimball’s 14.09-pound state record caught from Lake Monticello in Feb. 1980, or the 14.3-pound former state record that John Alexander caught from a private lake called Lake Echo in Jan. 1981. In fact, the only pre-1986 fish that still holds a spot among the Top 50 is the 15.5 pounder that Alexander hauled out of Echo less than a month after he topped Kimball’s mark.
That fish, also a former state record, currently ties as the No. 45 heaviest bass of all time. Interestingly, it also is the only current Top 50 fish other than Earl Crawford’s 16.9-pound state record caught in 1986 from Lake Pinkston to be reported prior to the inception of the Toyota ShareLunker program.
Translation: Texas bass fishing wouldn’t be what it is today without Florida bass and the innovative fisheries management plans that have been implemented to protect them. Nor would it be the fat cash cow that it has become for state and local economies. As TPWD inland fisheries chief Craig Bonds points out, the positive impacts the transplants have made on Texas bass fishing are many.
“Stocking Florida largemouth bass in Texas provides opportunities throughout the state for anglers to catch larger bass,” Bonds said. “Florida largemouth bass have the proven genetic potential to ultimately grow to larger sizes compared to largemouth bass native to Texas. Florida largemouth bass and their crosses with native bass have adapted well to a wide range of habitat conditions across Texas, providing anglers high-quality fishing experiences and supporting economically-important recreation and businesses.”