Building Bigger BassBuilding Bigger Bass They went where fisheries management had never gone before - and it's working.
By Larry D. Hodge
A 15-pound bass is as rare—and valuable—as a 180-class buck. Gary Schwarz grows both.
Allen Forshage has a dream: To grow a Texas largemouth bass weighing 20 pounds or more.
It's not unrealistic. The two current world record fish, caught in Georgia and Japan, weighed 22 pounds 4 ounces, and a California fish reportedly tipped the scale at 25. Largemouth bass can live upwards of 20 years, and as long as they remain healthy and get enough to eat, they never stop growing.
The trick, if there is one, is to keep a fish alive and fed well long enough for it to express its genetic potential. Just like people, all fish are not created equal when it comes to the ability to grow.
But, bringing all three elements together— age, nutrition, and genetics—requires a combination of circumstances that is nearly impossible to achieve.
But, it is happening, right now, on a South Texas ranch. How that came to pass is a story that will become legendary.
It started some 30 years ago when Forshage was Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's regional director of inland fisheries for East Texas. Now retired, Forshage oversaw the pre-impoundment preparation of Lake Fork. As much timber as possible was left standing in the lake to provide nutrients and habitat when flooded. Existing stock ponds in the lake footprint were stocked with Florida largemouth bass. Dairy farms in the surrounding watershed assured a continuing supply of nutrients to the lake.
But, one factor remained: Harvest regulations. Following the lake-building boom of the 1950's and 1960's, TPWD opened lake after lake to fishing with a 10-bass, 10-inch minimum length daily bag limit, and anglers raped those lakes. Full ice chest after full ice chest left the lake until so few fish survived long enough to reproduce that fish populations crashed.
Forshage understood what was happening, and he recommended that Lake Fork be opened under a 14-inch minimum length, 5-fish daily bag regulation. Perhaps knowing the resistance that would meet from anglers, Forshage's boss, the head of TPWD fisheries, sent the proposal back with a big red NO! scrawled across the page.
The next day Forshage was in his boss's office demanding to know why, after he'd done everything he could to create a great fishery, he was not being allowed to institute the one thing that could ensure it remained great.
After a heated discussion, his boss approved the regulation, and time proved Forshage correct. To date Lake Fork has produced more than 250 largemouth bass weighing 13 pounds or more, including the current state record of 18.18 pounds.
Forshage was the driving force behind TPWD's ShareLunker program, which uses 13-pound or bigger bass loaned by anglers to spawn offspring for stocking into public waters. Advances in genetic research now enable TPWD to identify fish that are pure Floridas, which grow larger than native northern Largemouth bass. Only pure Florida ShareLunkers are spawned, and so certain are TPWD biologists of the superiority of Florida fish, that only pure Floridas are used in the production of regular largemouth bass for stocking. More than 60 public reservoirs and two dozen private lakes have now provided fish weighing 13 pounds or more to the program.
Forshage suspected that bass that reached 13 pounds had something special in their genes that allowed them to outperform other pure Floridas, but to prove that, he had to be able to grow bass in controlled conditions where they could not be harvested by anglers, and keep them there for the 7 to 10 years it takes for a bass to reach that size. That was not possible in public waters, so Forshage obtained permission to do the research in privately owned contract lakes, stocking ShareLunker offspring, and then periodically checking their growth using fish caught by both traditional angling methods and electrofishing. After proving that the fish did grow bigger, faster, than non-ShareLunker offspring, additional studies were carried out on a few public lakes, where the results were the same: The offspring of ShareLunkers grew significantly bigger than wild fish of the same age.
A 20 pound bass?
But, the 20-pound bass continued to elude Forshage. Then a fish from one of the contract lakes gave him an "AHA!" moment. Forshage took a six-pound fish from the contract lake known as Lake X, on Luminant Energy property, to the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens, and instructed staff to feed it all it would eat. Some days the fish ate as many as six rainbow trout, and in three months it weighed nine pounds.
"That told me that the limiting factor was the availability of forage," Forshage says. But, feeding one fish all it can eat is one thing. Feeding thousands of fish unlimited amounts of food is not possible.
Unless your name is Gary Schwarz.
From Big Bucks to Big Bass
Simply put, Schwarz is obsessed with raising big bass, and what he is doing, on his own property at his own expense, has never been done before. It's not his first rodeo. He's best known for his success in raising big white-tailed bucks using techniques very similar to those used by Forshage in raising big bass: Take genetically superior animals, feed them all they can eat, and let them live long. Working strictly with wild, free-ranging deer native to his ranch, Schwarz uses expansive food plots on his La Perla Ranch near Laredo to grow monster bucks, using a proprietary blend of seeds called Tecomate he developed. Management bucks are those scoring up to 140 Boone and Crockett. Bucks scoring 150 to 180 are normal trophies, with 200 not out of the question.
Once he'd solved the white-tail puzzle, Schwarz turned his attention to bass. An internationally known oral surgeon from McAllen, Schwarz loves nothing more than sitting atop a bulldozer pushing dirt. And so was born the 100-acre lake known as La Perla, which is stocked with bass and surrounded by other ponds where forage fish, including bluegills, fathead minnows, and freshwater prawns, are raised and regularly dumped into La Perla. But learning by trial and error, Schwarz contaminated his stock with bass that were not pure Florida and stocked some species that competed with bass for food.
Determined to correct his mistakes, Schwarz started moving dirt again, for a 60-acre lake named Jalisco. Built on formerly dry land and fed with water piped from the Rio Grande supplemented by rainfall, Jalisco was sculpted to be a bass heaven, with every kind of structure bass need to thrive. Surrounding forage ponds assure the bass will have more than enough to eat at all times. Nearly 30 acres of forage ponds surround Jalisco, giving the lucky largemouths a steady diet of threadfin shad, fathead minnows, bluegills, and freshwater prawns. No one had thought of using prawns for bass food before Schwarz came up with the idea. "Prawns provide the highest level of nutrition for the least amount of effort on the part of the bass to catch them," he says. In fact, the prawns have no idea they are bass prey, and the fish gorge on them to the point it's not uncommon to find fish with prawn pincers sticking out of both ends.
Now Schwarz had the habitat and the forage, but he lacked fish with the best genetic potential to convert all that food into the greatest possible amount of fish flesh. Through a happy set of circumstances, professional angler Alton Jones, a friend of both Schwarz and Forshage, connected the two. Forshage immediately realized that Schwarz had the key to success, the ability to provide the food the fish needed to reach their maximum potential. Soon after, through an agreement with TPWD arranged by Forshage, the lake was stocked with ShareLunker offspring and placed off limits to fishing for 15 years.
A hint of what lies in store came in December 2016, when electrofishing on La Perla Lake brought in a 13.2-pound and a 15.3-pound fish within 10 minutes of each other. Those fish were ordinary Largemouth bass, though likely pure Florida. Jalisco should grow even larger fish. Electrofishing in Jalisco in December 2016 produced 2.5-year-old fish weighing up to five pounds. Rod-and-reel sampling produced a 7-pounder that same month.
Forshage and Schwarz are confident that the 20-pound bass will come. Even though he is now retired, Forshage consults with Schwarz at no charge and at his own expense. "All I ever wanted to do during my career was make fishing better," Forshage says. "Texas anglers sometimes forget that the reason they have the great bass fishing they do is because TPWD imported Florida bass into Texas, learned how to rear them, and stocked them into public waters all over the state."
What are the Limits?
However, limited state resources meant that TPWD alone could never take the research to the next level and find out just how big bass really can grow. "Private partners like Gary Schwarz are able to bring an added dimension to the effort by providing the resources needed to grow the biggest bass possible," Forshage says. "Other contract lakes enabled us to do research on age and growth, catchability, and temperature tolerance of Florida largemouth bass. This information was necessary to better manage this fish new to Texas and helped us to use them where they would do the most good. This study on Jalisco could change the management of private lakes where forage augmentation is a bigger part of management. Texas anglers on both public and private waters will benefit if these new techniques work like we think they will."
Falcon Lake became the first public reservoir to benefit in May 2017, when 1,000 adult bass weighing up to 2.5 pounds were removed from Jalisco and stocked into the lake. These stockings are expected to continue as Jalisco bass keep multiplying.
Both men are well aware that even in a 60- acre lake, they are working with free-ranging fish that will do what fish do. There is no guarantee of success, but the challenge is what keeps it interesting.
What will happen if 13-pound bass come to be as common as 10-pounders today and 20-pound bass prove to be within the reach of ordinary anglers? If I know Texas anglers, they will want more.
Given the importance of bass fishing to the Texas economy, I suspect they will get it. Ironically, few anglers on the end of a line connected to the bass of their dreams will realize they have Allen Forshage and Gary Schwarz to thank for it.
But Forshage and Schwarz won't care. For them, the satisfaction of knowing they went where fisheries management had never gone before will be more than enough.
For More Information
La Perla Ranch offers guided hunting and fishing trips that include lodging on the ranch. For more information visit www.tecomateranch.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (956) 802-9128.
Larry D. Hodges travel and outdoor writing career spans three decades. He recently retired from his position as information specialist for TPWD's Inland Fisheries Division. In that capacity he photographed and wrote press releases for some 250 ShareLunker entries in addition to writing magazine articles, shooting video, and managing social media sites for TPWD. In a previous life he served as Wildlife Editor for Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine. He is a longtime hunter and angler.
Reprinted with permission from Pond Boss Magazine
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