THE PROS AND CONS OF FLORIDA BASS

NUGENT IN THE WILD by Ted Nugent
December 25, 2017
DOGGETT AT LARGE by Joe Doggett
December 25, 2017

It’s no secret that Texas is home to a passel of blue ribbon largemouth bass fisheries—more, perhaps, than any other state in the country.

Texas’s Top 50 heaviest bass of all-time range in weight from 15.38 pounds to 18.18 pounds. Those fish are divided among 16 different impoundments, including 14 public reservoirs that represent nearly a half dozen geographic regions. Only two states have produced bigger bass than Texas—California and Georgia.

Furthermore, bass weighing upwards of 13 pounds have been documented on more than 60 different Texas lakes, and dozens of other reservoirs across the Lone Star state have produced lake records of 10 pounds or more.

Catch an eight pounder in Texas these days, and it won’t even raise eyebrows. In fact, most anglers will just call it a “good fish.”

Tournament weights are another reliable gauge of the quality of Texas bass fishing on certain lakes. Five fish sacks cracking the 20- to 25-pound marks are brought to derby weigh-ins pretty frequently around here. This is especially true on tournament workhorses like Sam Rayburn, Toledo Bend, Falcon and Amistad at the height of a really good year.

Terry Scroggins is one of a dozen tournament anglers who have topped the 100-pound mark in a Texas event.

2008 was one of those pinnacle years on Falcon. That’s when Mississippi Elite Series pro Paul Elias set a BASS four-day weight record of 132 1/2 pounds on 20 bass. That record still stands today.

Amazingly, 11 other anglers busted the 100-pound mark in the same tournament, including Florida’s Terry Scroggins who finished second on the heels of a mammoth final round limit of 44 pounds, 4 ounces that may be the heaviest five-fish limit ever recorded by one angler in a Texas bass tournament.

You don’t hear about stuff like that happening in a lot of other states. You might not have heard about it happening in Texas had the late-Bob Kemp not took it upon himself to bring the first Florida-strain bass into the state more than 40 years ago. 

Kemp was chief of fisheries with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in the early 1970s. The Texas landscape was bustling with new reservoir construction at the time. The biologist had a strong hunch that the fast-growing strain of bass native to Florida lakes might do well in Texas’s fertile waters and bring a few goodies to the table that the northern largemouths native our river systems don’t.

Kemp reportedly approached his TPWD bosses with the concept. When no one seemed interested in funding the idea, Kemp took the reins and used his own money to do it himself. TPWD’s Florida bass hatchery program was born.

In hindsight, Kemp’s hunch that Florida’s would do well in Texas was right on target. Some of the earliest Florida bass stockings occurred at small lakes around eastern Texas.

Lake Murvaul was the first in 1972, followed by lakes Monticello, Houston County, Kurth, Nacogdoches, Houston County, Welsh, Hawkins, Fairfield and several others.

Just a few years down the road, evidence of the early stockings began showing up in a very big way. Monticello produced the first Texas state record (a 14.09 pounder) in 37 years. Soon, other lake records began falling like dominos, some of them multiple times in relatively short order.

Between 1980 to 86, the state record was broken four more times by fish caught from three different lakes. The biggest was a 17.67 pounder caught in 1986 at Lake Fork by fishing guide Mark Stevenson.

Stevenson’s bass stood as the state record until Barry St. Clair reeled in the current 18.18-pound record while crappie fishing at Fork in January 1992. The bass also jumped started the TPWD’s popular Toyota ShareLunker program, which has since taken in 570 entries weighing upward of 13 pounds for spawning and genetics research.

In the midst of all of this, Texas garnered a reputation as a premier big bass destination that still lives on today with anglers around the globe. Moreover, communities located in close proximity to the lakes known for producing outsize bass discovered a lucrative cash cow that pumped big bucks into local economies.

A 1996 economic survey conducted at Lake Fork showed the lake generated more than $27 million annually for the three counties around it. The survey revealed that Lake Fork attracted as many as 325,000 bass fishing visitors each year. A different survey on Sam Rayburn showed that fishery to be worth upwards of $47 million annually, the majority generated by bass tournaments and recreational bass fishing.

Realizing the obvious benefits that Florida bass brought to the table in the form of accelerated growth rates and overall size, TPWD gradually began expanding its Florida bass program and stocking criteria to include more and more lakes.

Today, the department produces an average of 8 million Florida bass fingerlings annually for stocking in 40 to 50 water bodies statewide. This is largely from the addition of new hatcheries in Athens and Jasper combined with updates performed on existing ones.

State hatcheries also produce 100,000 to 200,000 northern largemouths for stocking in reservoirs in far North Texas as well as small community fishing lakes where producing big bass is not a priority, according to Dave Terre, TPWD Chief of Inland Fisheries Management and Research. 

Interestingly, TPWD hopes to completely revamp its self-sustaining Florida bass brood stock within the next few years using Toyota ShareLunker offspring. Terre says TPWD research has shown that ShareLunker offspring grow faster and larger than current hatchery brood stock as well as fish spawned in the wild.

Floridas Are Here To Stay

Given the spectacular performance record of Florida bass in Texas thus far, it is hard to imagine why anybody wouldn’t want them here. I know I can’t.

There has been some speculation that Floridas are inherently more sensitive to weather changes—particularly cold fronts—and can become more difficult to catch than native northern largemouths. But according to Terre, there is no scientific research available to support such a theory.

“We are not aware of studies that support this claim or make this comparison,” Terre said. “I’ve spent a lot of time fishing for northern largemouth bass in Wisconsin, and I can tell you that bass are very tough to catch there after a cold front. They don’t have Florida bass in Wisconsin. Other species of fish seem to be affected by cold fronts, too, in both parts of the country.”

Veteran Texas pro Tommy Martin of Hemphill offered up a different theory based on nearly 50 years of chasing bass on lakes all over North America.

“Florida bass are harder to catch, whether after a front, or not,” Martin said. “They just aren’t as aggressive as the northern strain largemouths, and they can be particularly difficult to catch after a cold front. It’s that way on any lake you go to. Personally, I don’t see that as a negative, though. It just makes them a little more of a challenge to catch.

“In my book Floridas are all around great fish. They get bigger than northern bass, grow quicker, and they fight really hard. Sometimes you just need to slow down and change your tactics to get them to bite, especially after a cold front.”

Terre says he agrees with the idea that northern strain  largemouths are generally more aggressive and easier to catch than Floridas. However, catchability can vary from one lake to the next.

“Controlled studies have been done in Texas that show northern largemouth bass will take lures more readily than Florida Bass, and this trait is heritable,” Terre said. “These studies have been conducted in hatchery ponds or in a single reservoir.

“In reality, most Texas bass populations are a blend of northern bass, Florida bass, and intergrades. Conditions such as habitat, water quality, lake levels, etc. vary widely, which could affect many things, including the fishing. In other words, we think this would be a very difficult thing to measure or manage and could vary from reservoir to reservoir, season to season, or year to year.”

Terre pointed to Fayette County Reservoir as one Texas lake where Florida bass break the conventional mold of being difficult to catch. “Fayette is a power plant lake with near 100 percent Florida bass influence and 60 fish days are very common,” he said. “If Florida bass are tough to catch on lures, you would never know it on Fayette.”

 

 

—story by AUTHOR

 

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