Facts and Myths About Bass
How do bass become trophy size? How long do bass live? Does keeping a big bass harm the fishery? What causes a fish kill? Can 100% catch and release be worse than keeping a few? Can bass spawn more than once per year? These questions and more are answered by the nation's top warmwater lake manager, Bob Lusk, during the annual BassResource.com RoadTrip event!
Bob Lusk: And so, I asked him: what do you want me to talk about? He said, "Well, why don't you try to talk about some of the different myths."
Now, I want to tell you where I come from. Everybody in this room can out fish me, I promise you can, but you ain't going to beat me raising those fish that you catch. That's what I do. My world comes from what goes on underneath the water.
I spent my entire life; I knew when I was 14 years old that I was going to make a living messing with fish. I knew it. I didn't know how. I didn't know where, but I knew that I was going to make a living jacking with fish.
After I got my degree in fisheries management and hung out a shingle, about that time, I'm from Texas, I live north of Dallas near Lake Texoma. The year I went into business was the year that the state of Texas stopped giving away free fish for stocking the ponds. Well, people started having to buy their fish.
When they started having to buy their fish, they wanted to take better care of them because it used to they could stock a pond or lake, and it was good for four or five years and then it would begin to decline. They could go in and Rotenone and kill all the fish, and the state would give them more free fish, so it was a pretty cool cycle from the late '50s through the '60s into the '70s, but in 1980 they stopped all that.
What's really cool is now there's an industry that is developing and focuses on taking care of private lakes and ponds. I'm pretty fortunate because I get to go help take care of some really cool lakes. I take care of a 125 acre lake in North Carolina that was built in 1835. It was built in 1835 with slave labor, mules, Fresnos, slips, they call them, and shovels to harness water to turn a grist mill.
To bring that into perspective for you young guys, 1835 was one year before Davy Crocket was killed in the Alamo. It was ten years before Texas became a state. It was an old lake, and I get to help nurture that lake and grow some really good fish in it.
Three weeks ago I was in wine country. Who would ever think someone in wine country in the Napa Valley in California would like to grow big fish, but they do. People that have ponds and lakes are just as passionate about growing their fish and taking care of their fish as we all are about trying to bring one in on the business end of the rod and reel with our cheeks puffed up out.
I got a huge kick out of watching Glenn today. He foul hooked about a eight pound catfish, fought it like Moby Whale, and he was giggling like a little girl. I thought I was at a sleepover in the sixth grade, I did, and he was chuckling - hee, hee - and I thought, my gosh, I love it.
This is so much fun, and then he tied into the sultan. I don't know what this is, but it's this big. I thought it was going to break his rod. He caught a drum that almost weighed 11 pounds, huge fish. And what is that? I don't know. I take it for granted. I see this stuff all the time. It's just so much fun.
He asked me to talk a little bit about some of the myths out there. Keep in mind where I'm coming from. I'm coming from 30 years of lake design and studying fish and electro fishing boats and stocking ponds and draining ponds and seeing where those fish are. It comes from putting structures in lakes that fish never use to structuring lakes that I thought they'd never use but you can't keep them off of it.
I couldn't tell you one thing about what should you tie on the end and throw into that structure, but I can pretty well tell you what's going to be there once I've studied that lake a little bit.
One of the myths I think out there is how does a fish get to be big? How does a fish get big? What does it take? I want to tell you the odds of that.
The odds of a large mouth bass to make double digits is probably one in 25 or 30 million fish that are hatched.
One of the take home points I want to make sure that you get tonight is . . . How many of you guys have caught the double digit large mouth bass? Okay, five of you. I think that's outstanding.
When I go out and electro fish a lake, the instant, and I've been doing this . . . I'm 54, so I guess I've been jacking with fish 40 years. Every time I see a double digit bass, I get a chill down my back, my heart rate picks up, and I revel in that moment because I know the odds that fish had to overcome to get to that size.
First of all, it's got a 50-50 chance the day it's hatched that it isn't going to make it because it won't be a boy, it'll be a girl. Males don't get that big. The second thing is it's got to have the right genetics. Just because a Florida bass spawns with another Florida bass doesn't automatically give those babies the gene pool or the genetics to be double digits.
Once the fish does have the genetics and it's a female, it's got to live long enough. 99.6% of every spawned fish gets eaten before their first year. Most of that happens in the first six to eight weeks; they get eaten. The odds are astronomical.
Let's stay with this double digit bass. Who's caught the biggest double digit bass? Shout out a number. 13? Anybody got a 13? Show me a 13. What? Seven and a half. What's junior got?
Audience Member: I got 14.7.
Bob: Dude, you might as well quit fishing. Let me tell you. A 14.7 and somebody's got 11-1/2. Let me tell you that 14.7 could have easily been that 11. Let me tell you why.
You get past the genetics, and the fish has the genetic propensity, we know that. Then, it's got to have something that it needs to eat every day.
A fish has so many heart beats, and when those heart beats are done, that fish is done. I can't tell you how many that is, but I know it's finite. Fish live longer in the north because . . . bass, I'm talking about, live longer in the northern part of the country because their heart rate is slower because they're cold-blooded so their metabolism slows down in cooler water. There's been bass live to be 22 years old documented in Illinois, but a 13 year old bass in Alabama or Louisiana, that's old.
It's got to have the genetic propensity. It's got to be aggressive. In other words, it's got to be on the prowl, on the hunt almost all the time.
Then, it's got to have the food chain available to it every day so that it can eat because a day missed of growth, you see it at the other end of that fish's life.
If it doesn't grow now - a bass is going to grow its entire life until it gets to that point that it gets to its age where its heart beats are starting to wane. It's going to start to deteriorate, and then it's going to die. If it doesn't get the food that it needs in year two, three or four, it'll show up in year eight, nine, ten, eleven. So, that 14.7 one I'm going to tell you is exceptional.
This is my 30th year, and I haven't kept track, but I started thinking about it today a little bit. I probably held 35 double digit bass in my career, but I'm messing with fish every day. I was in my electro fishing boat, I think, nine times in the last six days before I came up here. Saw, one double digit fish, a 10.2.
The point I want to drive home is when you do get your hands on a double digit bass or you see one, give it the reverence that it deserves. That fish has overcome astronomical odds to get to the very top of its food chain, and it rules the roost.
Now, is it smart? Nope. If you ever dig into the head of a large mouth bass, even a ten pounder, its brain is not any bigger than that. It doesn't have the frontal lobe and some of the side lobes that give it the ability to reason. A fish doesn't think; it reacts. It's conditioned to its environment.
That ten pound bass, that 14 pound bass, grew up in that environment because it was able to condition to the environment, to the habitat, to what it has to eat every day and then survival. For whatever reasons, a snake didn't get it. A bigger bass didn't get it.
I was talking with Bill Dance about a year and a half ago, and we were sitting in his office and just exchanging. I love talking to that guy because what you see on TV is exactly what he is in person. He's a practical joker. He'll fall out of his chair, and just visiting with him, he asked me the question, "Bob, what do you think with the public, why aren't we seeing more double digit bass? It seems like in Florida you never hear about double digit bass", he said. "Is that environmental? Is it a genetics issue? What's your opinion about that?"
Keep in mind what I'm telling you is its opinions of what I have seen over 30 years of doing this. I said, "Bill, let me tell you, the very first thing that strikes me when you ask me that question is there's really two factions of anglers. There's catch and release anglers, and I'm going to talk about that in a minute, and then there's those that aren't.
Sometimes, somebody might catch a bass that's a trophy for them and they don't understand they can weigh it, measure it, take photographs of it and get a replica. They're going to take it and get it mounted. That was the mentality quite a bit from the '70s, '80s, into the '90s. Even today I come across people that aren't willing to release a big fish because they want to get it mounted.
So, I said, "Here's something, Bill. I studied this for a long time. When I went to Texas A&M, in Fisheries Management 101 they did not teach me this. I learned this on my own." I said, "Bill, a four pound bass can't grow to six pounds in a skillet." You're supposed to laugh.
All right. When a bass reaches three pounds, three and a quarter pounds, that fish has got a shot at getting into double digits. Those 10 to 12 inch dinks, they don't stand much of a chance because there's too many of them fighting for the same food chain.
Here's something that will help you. How big was that bass that had the thread fin shad in it today?
Glenn: About a pound, pound and a half, maybe.
Bob: I think it was a little bit bigger, a little bit, maybe. Okay. We didn't weigh that one, did we?
Glenn: Yeah. No, we didn't.
Bob: Glenn caught a bass today that was, maybe, 14 or 15 inches long. It had a six inch thread fin shad down its gullet. When a bass reaches the size just under 17 inches, its mouth is big enough that it can eat a ten inch bass. That's when its life changes. If a bass can quickly get to 17 inches, which is just a shade under three pounds, it stands a shot. If it has the genetics, if it's aggressive and if it has the food chain, it's got a shot at making 10 pounds or 11 pounds or 14.7.
The point that I want to make with you is that if you ever tie into a fish like that, treat it like you treated your date the first time you went out, the first time you dated your wife, the first time you dated your husband. Treat that fish the same way. It deserves that respect because of what it's gone through to get there.
Now, I said: can it think? No, it can't. It can't think. We spend how many dollars, how much time trying to out think a fish that can't think. That's one of my favorite things about this whole fishing thing is we try to outsmart a fish that isn't smart, technically but it survives. It can make it.
How does it do it? Does it learn to avoid lures? I think fish can receive negative reinforcement, just like they can receive positive reinforcement. There's been studies done to try to figure out how long a bass can remember. Fifteen minutes, that's it. Fifteen minutes. You jerk its lips off, throw it in the boat. You let it flop around a minute, take the hook out, throw it back, and 15 minutes later you can probably catch it again if it's got that propensity to strike.
How do they avoid lures? Well, it's not the natural food. There are basically three kinds of strikes. You guys know that. There's the feeding strike, the reaction strike, and what's the third one?
Audience Member: Territory.
Bob: Territory. That's it. They're defending a zone.
Now, I'll tell you this. The bigger a bass gets, the more defensive it becomes, the more territorial it becomes.
I was talking to Big O last night, and he's found a place at Lake Fork where he can go that he says nobody knows about. It's an underwater hump that people drive over every time they pass, they go from the marina. They go across his fishing hole to get where they're going. He found those fish, and he can go there every single time and catch fish at that same place, and they're all big fish.
Once a bass hits about four pounds, they become territorial. They get into zones, and that's where they stay because they rule the roost. They can eat when they want. They can chase away any smaller fish and they defend it. So, they're conditioned to the food. They're conditioned to the area. They don't like bare baby butt, smooth areas to hang out in. They orient to structure every time. They like to hang out and be in the same place, same time.
I electro fished in east Texas on Friday night, and I shocked up a bass that was probably four and a half pounds. It had a crappie in it that was 11 inches long. I didn't take the crappie out. I left that one this time, Keri, but I weighed and measured the fish, shot a photograph of it. We carried around in the livewell for probably 45 minutes as we were collecting fish.
It was a 35-40 acre lake. We pulled up to the dock which was directly across the lake from where we picked that fish up. We weighed and measured all the fish. It was dark. It was getting close to midnight, and we just released them right by the boat. Well, the next morning we got back out there and started shocking again and went right back in that same area where we had shocked that fish and got it again.
This time, the crappie was all the way down. We saw the tail sticking out of its mouth the night before. The next morning the tail was all the way down its gullet, but you could still see the spots on the tail. So, that fish swam probably 400 yards to get right back where it was when we shocked it up.
I want to talk about catch and release. I remember the first time I met Ray Scott. It was at a fishing show in Mesquite, Texas, outside of Dallas, and he was coming in with Earl Bentz to do a personal appearance and sell some books.
If any of you have been around Ray, you know that he's always selling something, and I love that guy. What you see is what you get. I could sit and listen to him talk about himself for hours and hours because he has done some amazing things and been to some amazing places.
I walked up, and his books were 20 bucks, called "Bass Boss". I walked up to him. I got in line. I got my turn in line, and I had a $20 bill, and I stuck it out there. He said, "You want to buy one of my books?" I said, "Yes, sir, I do. Would you sign it for me?" He says, "What's your name?" I said, "My name is Bob Lusk." He lays his pen down and he says, "The pond boss?" I thought, holy cow, how cool is this. This guy knows who I am. He says, "I love your magazine." I said, "Well, thanks a lot."
He says, "Don't you have a book out?" I said, "Yes, sir." He says, "How much is it?" I said, "Twenty bucks". So, he gave me my $20 bill back. I went and got one of my books. He signed his; I signed mine. We traded books, and I sat by him while he was signing autographs.
I decided the day I met you I wanted to ask you a question. "Do you really believe - you're the guy that started catch and release". He said, "That's right." I said, "Do you really believe that?" He said, "I believe it in public lakes." He said, "I think public lakes are pressured heavily, so if you don't have catch and release, you're going to lose the resource.
But he said, "In my lake, my 55 acre lake in Pintlala, Alabama, when somebody comes fishing over there, I tell them that I want the anglers to take out every bass under 15 inches." He said, "Then, when I think they've taken out enough, I double it and take out that may more." So, I said, "You and I are going to be friends."
Let me tell you, catch and release is one of the tools that we use as fisheries managers. Now, I want to preserve the resource. If I catch a bass or shock up a bass or get my hands on a bass that's 18 inches or bigger, I'm going to put that back in the lake because that fish can impact the rest of the fishery because it can eat those young dinks, 10 and 12 inch fish, that disrupt the lifecycle of so many ponds and lakes.
When you have a lake or a pond, it's almost like a garden. You're going to grow plants. You're going to grow animals, and at some point there's a bounty. If you don't harvest that bounty, that lake is going to lose its ability to produce the good quantities of quality fish.
So, catch and release is a great way to start. It's a great way to handle large fish, but you've got to have slot limits in there at some point in time.
Slot limits are designed to allow us to harvest those overabundant fish of certain size ranges.
Those of you that have raised animals, anywhere from dogs to pigs to cattle, not all animals are raised the same. You get a litter of puppies, you're going to have the runt, you're going to have the most aggressive one. They're going to have different personalities. They're going to grow at different rates. Fish do the same thing.
Even when you have a brand-new lake that you just stock, by the third year you're going to see the growth rates are totally different.
I electro fished a lake that I got to design for a family out of Dallas. Oh, this lake is in its fifth year, starting its fifth year. So, it's four years old.
We electro fished about 120 bass in that 50 acre lake. The largest group weighed six and a half to just under nine pounds at four years of age, but their siblings, some of them were still 13, 14 and 15 inches long. And the young fish that were hatched three years ago are about that same size or even bigger. That tells me now that there's a slot of fish right in the middle of that population that needs to be harvested.
Slot limits are integral tools that lake managers use to be able to harvest the bounty of the fish. What we have to figure out is what's the bounty? Like when I'm talking to a landowner, I'm going to ask, "What are your goals?" Johnny Morse, "Johnny, what are your goals?" Well, I'm going to grow the biggest fish on the planet.
All right. Do you want any quantity fisheries? I'll fire you if you say yes. He wants to grow big fish, but on the other hand at my house I've got eight ponds on my little 12 acre parcel of land, and the main thing I want is I've got a nine year old grandson, a four year old grandson and a little granddaughter that will be a year old in July. I want those kids to come out and catch fish every single time they put a hook in the water, which means I'm homing in on bluegill and a wide range of sizes of largemouth bass. I've got a catfish pond.
The little nine year old spent the night with us two weeks ago, Glenn. I took him down and I said, "Ethan, you want to go catch some fish?" He says, "You bet, poppa". So, I put him in the Gator. We drove down and got a bucket and two fishing poles. The feeder was going to go off down there in about 15 minutes, and that little fart caught two channel catfish, two and a half pounds, three pounds, and he fed the family that night.
I brought him back up. He fished for 30 minutes. You should have seen the look on his face. We skinned those catfish. He wanted to see the heart. We cut the heart out and he watched it beat as I was filleting the rest of the fish.
The goals that we set help determine what the limits are of the fish that we take out. Now, in public lakes you guys fish on mostly, I feel bad for some of the state agencies because they're limited to their biology management by politics and enforcement. They have to set laws that the game wardens can enforce.
When they set some of these slots that don't apply, and you guys know that, when you go out there's lakes where you're catching fish that are just inside the slot or just outside the slot. You know in your heart that that lake is overcrowded with bass, and some of them need to come out. They're constrained by regulations and by enforcement issues, but in the private sector we're not.
I'll never forget; this is probably 15 years ago. I took my electro fishing boat. I had an intern working for me. He was a young guy, a student at Stephen F. Austin State University in east Texas, and he was working for me for the summer. I took him out electro fishing to this really big lake that I'd been taking care of, about a 600 acre lake. We were just catching oodles and gobs of 10 to 12 inch bass.
The lake committee, as we got through weighing and measuring the fish for the first round, they said, "Do you think this is going to be indicative of the rest of the lake?" I said, "You know what? I've been working this lake for three or four years. It's been this way for years."
And so, they huddled and they said, "Well, you've been telling us to take some fish out. I said, "You need to". He said, "Well, why don't you keep all the bass that you catch that are under 15, 14 inches, whatever you think, and we'll fillet them at the end of the day." I said, "You go get you some coolers." Well, they brought back five coolers, and we filled them up."
I mean, we were busy, dipping these fish up, putting them in the livewell, taking them back, weighing them, measuring them, documenting the fish and then putting them in the coolers. These guys were going to have a big fish fry for the lake committee and see if they could make a few dollars to buy some forage fish for this lake.
It was hot; we were tired.
On the way back home, that intern was quiet. He was usually real talkative. In a minute, I said, "Ryan, are you okay?" He says, "Yeah, I can't believe you told those people to eat those fish." He said, "I've been raised on catch and release. You've got to throw the little ones back so that they can grow up." He says, "I've always looked at the bass as like eating the family dog."
That's a myth. That lake, for their management goals, fish need to come out. I want to impart with you that every fishery has some bounty at some point, and our jobs, as the biologist, are to figure out what that bounty is and then encourage you guys to take it. Catch and release in the public lake, love it, except for it doesn't need to happen, especially in some of the smaller public lakes that you fish.
Glenn asked me: why don't you talk a little bit about fish kills.
Well, if you don't harvest the bounty of fish, especially in a smaller body of water, nature does it for you. At some point when the fishery becomes overcrowded, and I've seen it happen with wholesale die-offs of fish. I've seen it happen with partial die-offs of fish.
I've seen it happen with species of fish, like gizzard shad are notorious. I've seen gizzard shad die off every year somewhere, and then in the summer time, especially when people have managed a lake and they have fed fish food to the catfish and to the blue gill, but they don't harvest any fish. At some point the carrying capacity of that lake is exceeded, and the water quality begins to deteriorate.
When that happens, nature is going to spank us. There's going to be a fish kill.
I don't investigate a lot of fish kills that are human caused. Most of them are caused be cause of a lack of understanding or a mismanagement of that fishery. Overfeeding or overstocking or pushing the envelope or a classic case is a turnover where the water quality starts to deteriorate just a little bit in the summer time. Especially where I live in tornado alley, we might get a vicious storm in late June that has golf ball size hail, and the water is already stratified by that time.
You've got a warm water layer sitting on top of a cold layer of water, and when the hail hits that water and the rain hits that upper layer and cools it to the same temperature as the bottom, they mix. Well, that bottom layer of water has been down there long enough. It has no oxygen. It's picking up everything that's coming out of those fish and decaying organic matter. There are water quality issues, and then when that lousy water mixes with that top layer, there's a fish kill.
Fish kills typically are nature's corrections.
I'll never forget a guy back in, I guess, '85, '86, through there somewhere. He called me, and he was almost in tears. He said, "I've had a fish kill." I said, "Well, talk to me about it." So, he explained to me how he had stocked it right, and he fed his fish. This was the fifth year of his lake or his pond. It was about five acres, if I remember right.
What I remember is that he was so upset that he was choking. He had to stop two or three times and regain his composure. I ran out there, and I looked at it. I said, "You know what? These are all your big fish. Do you have any small fish?" He said, "Well, I did." I said, "Well, you still do."
What happened was those fish died. I had him go ahead and take them out and bury them which was a chore. At least, he had a front end loader on a tractor, but I'll tell you something. Eighteen months later that pond was in better shape than it was at the time that it died.
He had more fish growing faster in two years after that fish kill because nature made a correction. Nature got rid of a bunch of those bigger fish which were getting older, and now the younger fish that were there had more room and had more opportunities, and they grew really well.
By about the third or fourth year, he was pretty happy with it again, but he started to aerate his pond. He bought an aeration system to aerate it, which helped him take care of the water.
Larry asked me to talk about . . . What don't you say something about multiple spawns? There's a myth out there about: will bass only spawn once? There's a myth that says they won't hybridize. Clear that up.
Let me tell you what I know about multiple spawns. Female large mouth bass, as soon as they deposit their eggs and their ovaries are empty, they start to develop eggs for next year, immediately after that. When they go off after they've spawned, they go out and they start to feed and start to redevelop those eggs.
Now, what's really cool, during my electro fishing studies over the years, I would see little bitty bass sometimes in Texas in April, and then by about May they were six or seven inches long but I didn't see any more little bitty bass. June would come around, and I'd see it again. Well, what I began to learn and figured out was - and there's been a couple of university studies that back up what I'm going to tell you - is that largemouth bass have one set of eggs, but they will spawn several times, especially the big fish.
Say, you have a double digit female at 14.7, she's not going to lay all her eggs at the same time because they're not mature at the same time. She wants to lay viable eggs that can be fertilized and carry on the species. All of her eggs don't mature at the same time, so the eggs that are viable doing the first phase of the spawn, she'll lay.
Now, an old, old fish farmer that I met in 1980 told me this, and I've loved it. I've always remembered it, and by golly it's true. He says largemouth bass are going to spawn the first full moon after bull frogs start to croak. I love that.
Well, it just so happens that bull frogs come out of their hibernation phase when the water temperature hits about 58, 59 degrees.
Largemouth bass do spawn in cycles of the full moon, so as soon as that water temperature hits 58-60, you'll see those young buck bass beginning to build their nests, and then when the females are ripe, he'll bump one in there and she'll lay her eggs that are viable. He'll fertilize them sideways. She'll come in; he'll bump her. The eggs will start coming out.
He'll turn sideways and dispense his milt and fertilize those eggs, and he'll bundle them up in a nest, and then he'll go look for another female. He may get three or four females to spawn in that nest, and then he'll incubate those eggs, and when they hatch, it just so happens we're coming into the second phase or the next phase of the full moon.
The next line of spawning occurs when those bigger fish that didn't spend all their eggs will come in, and then they'll go again, and they'll spawn a second time. And then, sometimes they'll spawn a third time.
Now, I'm talking about largemouth bass. Different species of fishes have different methods of spawning which leads me to the other question.
Larry said: why don't you talk a little bit about hybridization. Does that occur? Well, one of the things I love. I love God. I love Jesus. I love the plan. I just can't tell you how much fun it is to go out there and observe it and study it. God has a very cool plan when it comes to fish.
To keep them from hybridizing, he has them spawn at different depths at different temperatures and different zones.
A gizzard shad, for example, spits its eggs out of the vent, and they're fertilized and they wish them luck and they go on. A thread fin shad though spawns at daylight where a gizzard shad may do it in the middle of the afternoon. A thread fin shad will go along the shoreline and stick its eggs on grass so they don't hybridize.
Now, on occasion I do find in managed lakes where there has been some hybridization going on. There's one guy that comes onto my website at pondboss.com who has studied our website, called guys probably for four or five years. Then, he built his own pond, about a quarter of an acre, in his back yard in the city limits of Phoenix, Arizona, the desert. He fills it up with a garden hose coming out of the irrigation ditch, going through the processing plant. He's buying his water to fill up this pond. They do that in the desert.
His pond is lined and what his thinking was part of what I preach, 90% of the fish live in 10% of the water, and you've got to figure out where they are. Once you find them, then you throw something out and you make them hit. Well, he took that philosophy and says, well, what I'm going to do is get rid of that 90% they don't use. I'm going to make this whole pond totally a habitat for these fish.
Well, he stocked some largemouth bass, some blue gill. He stocked somesmall mouth bass as fingerlings, and one day he sent me an email, and he had a picture of a fish. He said, "I don't have any idea what this is." I emailed him right back. I said, "Dude, that's a meanmouth bass. That's a cross between a smallmouth and a largemouth.
In order for fish to hybridize, there's got to be something that happened at that instant in time that brought the habitat, the temperatures, the photo period for those to get together for those fish at the same time.
Where I see hybridizing occurring naturally on occasion is between sunfish.
If you're going to see a mean mouth bass, somebody did that in a lab. The hybrid striper, that don't happen out here. That happened in a lab under artificial situations. Nature, for e most part, doesn't allow hybridization because it won't allow that species to carry on as to what it is.
I don't know how long I've talked, but you guys are a great audience. Those are the things that I wanted to cover, but I also wanted to leave some time for you guys to ask some questions.