The Start of a Trophy Bass LegacyThe Start of a Trophy Bass Legacy We wanted to know what are the impacts of introduced hybrid and pure strain Florida bass on the current largemouth bass population in a lake, but then this happened.
By Jessica Howell & Jason Breeggemann
Four o'clock a.m. Departure from Brookings, SD. A subdued excitement hung in the air as one by one, our group of 14 filtered into the parking lot in 9° F South Dakota weather to secure our gear in a suburban and a 12-passenger van. Our vigor had been stifled by the deep exhaustion that only an early morning departure for a much anticipated journey can summon. The first couple of hours were filled with small, quiet chatter that eventually gave way to the silence of fractured sleep and the occasional awkward cuddling due to our crammed vehicles. A simple sunrise saw the gradual waking of individuals, and soon, the vehicles gained life once more. This rejuvenation continued during a brief stop for lunch that allowed for a stretch of the muscles and the shifting of drivers. We watched as South Dakota met Iowa, then Nebraska, which melted into Kansas before meeting up with Oklahoma. By the time we hit afternoon rush hour in Oklahoma City, our lot was anxious to arrive. We distracted ourselves with the much warmer weather, allowing the fresh 40° F air to pour in as windows were rolled down, and successfully revitalized our spirits. When we reached Texas, that enthusiasm was replaced with a state of unrest. It had been over three hours since the last stop, and the repercussions of hydration weighed heavily on our minds. These thoughts were soon set aside, however, when we finally reached our destination: the home of Bob and Debbie Lusk, a.k.a. Lusk Lodge 2.0.
Lusk Lodge 2.0
Bob and his associate, Josh, gave us a hearty Texas welcome, but we found it difficult to listen. This had nothing to do with Bob or the weariness from a long trip, but everything to do with the beauty of the home and property as well as a very large dog that came to offer greetings. Later, we all confessed that we believed the Great Pyrenees, ironically named Dakota, to be a small horse rather than a canine, even though Dakota was not yet fully grown. Bob ushered us inside and bade us to choose where we would like to spend our evening hours. Debbie had designed and decorated the home and never had a finer result ensued. While Debbie prepared the most exquisite Carolina-style pulled pork for dinner, we enjoyed a bonfire and listened intently as Bob and Josh shared a wealth of knowledge about the private sector of pond management. As for the Lusks, they were, for lack of a better description, everything that embodied the stereotype of true southern hospitality. Witty and charming, they graciously offered their home to our rowdy group and without hesitation, treated us as if we were members of the family. I have never felt so instantly welcome and at ease with people I'd just met.
December 17, Another Car Ride
Day two of our excursion proved to be just as exciting as we had hoped. About half our group rose especially early to seine 40 first generation hybrids of northern and Florida strain largemouth bass from one of Bob's ponds to be transported to Grand Lake at Eagle's Nest Preserve, east of Athens, Texas. The rest of us woke around 6 am to be ready in time for the delicious breakfast burritos that Bob prepared. After everyone had gorged themselves to the point of discomfort, we once more packed our gear into the vehicles and settled in for a three hour drive. As we wound our way through northeast Texas, the large number of trees on the landscape came as a surprise to most, and the drivers gained an appreciation for the straight, open roads of the prairie. Despite being December, the landscape looked to be in the throes of a mild fall rather than winter. Some trees still displayed bright leaves and pastures were covered with grass as green as those after a soaking spring rain, while others stood barren. We expected to see less populated areas but couldn't seem to escape from towns and settlements while traveling on highways. Our three hour morning ride seemed to pass quickly, and soon we turned from a highway onto a private drive leading to Eagle's Nest Preserve.
Eagle's Nest Preserve
We passed through a large wrought-iron gate and followed an easy path through the preserve. The pond we saw from the highway was large, though not the main water body on the property. Once we stopped at the pond we saw from the highway, we were all taken aback by large schools of fish boiling at the surface, fighting over pellets dispensed from one of the many feeders on the pond. Large game fish feeding from feeders was a sight not many Midwesterners had seen before. It was near this first pond where we found our gentle host, Lee Roy Mitchell, who is decidedly the sweetest, most polite person, which speaks volumes considering the number of generous and good-natured people required to organize a field trip of this magnitude. Introductions took place at the lodge, where each student was able to meet Mr. Mitchell, his staff and family, and the rest of Bob's crew. Our group was ready to begin our work, except for the nagging in our stomachs telling us lunch was overdue. Luckily for us, the Mitchells had already thought of that and were preparing a meal as we were handed name tags and snacks. After we once again stuffed ourselves with the fine food set before us, we drove to Grand Lake, the 125 acre water body where we would both learn and teach about fish research and pond management.
Creating a Legacy: The Real Reason We're in Texas
We spent the rest of the day and into the evening working diligently on various tasks. A group of us seined more first generation hybrids and pure strain Florida bass from other, smaller ponds on the preserve, while others electrofished 83 largemouth bass (including 2 that weighed more than 8 lbs) from Grand Lake to run genetics and collect lengths, weights, and otoliths for age estimation. Yet others collected genetic samples and injected Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) tags into a total of 135 first generation hybrids and pure strain Florida largemouth bass from both locations, which we then released into Grand Lake. After all this was done, we filleted the bass we collected from Grand Lake, along with some tilapia and sent the meat ahead for a sizeable fish fry later in the evening. We worked well after the sun went down and pushed back our hunger with the excitement of our project. We weren't just helping the Mitchells create a better fishery, a noteworthy goal in itself, but we were part of a larger genetics project that has far-reaching implications. The goals of this project are to determine the genetic structure and growth rates of the current largemouth bass population in Grand Lake as well as determine the growth rates of pure strain Florida largemouth bass in a Texas lake and examine the impacts of introduced hybrid and pure strain Florida bass on the current largemouth bass population in the lake.
What awaited us when we returned instantly gratified all. A quick washing was all we could manage before we hurried into the kitchen. Plates were piled high with a variety of crispy fried fish, thick tartar sauce, coleslaw with nuts and fruits, and homemade french-fries. When the main course was finished and we were all blissfully satiated, dessert was served, and it was difficult to refuse the cook when she offered pound cake with an almond frosting, among other delights. After dinner, we hurriedly took up the offer to entertain ourselves in the game room near Grand Lake. We had to take both vehicles, and left only our professor behind on our way to a separate building packed with pool, bowling, air hockey, old-school Atari games, and more. We spent two hours there before everyone trickled over to a theater room, where an Eagles concert was playing so loudly we felt we were at the concert in person. We had all been exhausted by the day's adventure, yet stayed up into the early hours of the next day to take in an experience most would not have another opportunity to repeat.
December 18, Sleeping In
It was a welcome respite when breakfast was served at 8:00 a.m. instead of 6:30. A couple of us woke in time to watch the sunrise, and slowly, one by one, the others joined us in the common area of the gorgeous lodge where we had slept. Breakfast was served by the Mitchell family, and they left us wanting for nothing. Despite the late night, the scrumptious breakfast had the desired effect of renewing our energy and preparing us for another day. However, the heartfelt goodbyes after breakfast left us wishing for another day of work so that we may stay a little longer with the Mitchells and have more time to fully explore Eagles Nest Preserve. When all was said and done, we convened at the trucks to say one last farewell to Mr. Mitchell and his crew and were pleasantly surprised to be able to hear his account of how they created their own small slice of the fish and wildlife paradise that is Eagles Nest Preserve.
Our three hour trip back to Lusk Lodge 2.0 felt shorter because of a quick lunch stop at a Whataburger, and a pause at a charming fruit and nut stand that had every sort of preserve imaginable. On the drive back, the trees seemed less imposing and a bit more inviting, just as all the people in Texas had, from the gracious hosts we spoke with to the people we encountered in gas stations and along the way. Texas was more and more welcoming the more time we spent there. We paused briefly at the Lusks' home to tour Bob's tilapia-rearing and over-wintering facility, a sharp reminder of his aquaculture background. But soon, we were back in the vehicles for another 45-minute drive.
Another Day: Another Lake
We were headed to another property, where dam construction was in progress for what would soon be a 90-acre lake. As predicted, the short jaunt into Oklahoma was uneventful, that is, until we pulled off the highway and were finally allowed to see the back roads. The highways hid much, for the dirt roads revealed gorgeous scenery, even in the dismal month of December. By the time we arrived at the property where the lake would soon be, we were in awe. Ninety acres looks a lot bigger when you stand on a hill and look down to what will soon be a lake with an average depth around 15-20 feet. Bob gathered us around him and explained the history of the property along with the goals, then set us free to explore in groups. When we returned, he asked for our recommendations for fish habitat, and we gleaned more knowledge from this fishery sage by openly discussing the plans and asking questions as they arose. When we had slaked our thirst for knowledge, we were rewarded with a quick trip to the grotto where a gorgeous waterfall awaited our cameras. It was this area that had drawn the owner to the property and had even limited the size of the lake being created, for to build any larger would destroy the waterfall, taking with it a natural wonder.
Zip Line Escapade
After a short drive back to the Lusk's property, we devoured the generous dinner offered to us. A curious thing happened before dinner, though. One of the students had boasted the first night about taking advantage of the zip line that ended in the pond at the Lusks home. The weather had been warmer than in South Dakota, but still wasn't exactly swimming temperature. So naturally, others reminded him of this boast, and he was forced to keep to his claim that he would zip-line into the pond. Two others willingly followed his lead, even when he squealed like a piglet upon hitting the 49 °F water. After the third contender, the zip line went slack, but spaghetti distracted us temporarily from our dismay. Immediately after dinner, we resumed our interest in the pond, and another four of us along with one of the original three jumped off the dock multiple times into the cold water. It was exhilarating to go from the freezing water to the hot tub that Debbie offered, and still more so when she brought our dessert of ice cream to us in the hot tub.
The rest of the evening was spent talking outside around a fire, reminiscing on the trip and the knowledge we had gained. That evening proved, once again, how knowledgeable Bob is and how enthusiastically he shares that knowledge. As the fire died down, we filtered back into the house to entertain ourselves for another hour or so before we all settled into sleep that would too soon be interrupted by another early departure.
December 19, Sixteen-hour Return Trip
Bob and Debbie had risen to see us off at 4:00 a.m.. Packing the vehicles wasn't as tidy a process as when we began our trip, but everything managed to fit in the limited amount of space. The first few hours were dreary and rainy, and it was hard to stay conscious with the continuous pattering of rain. Yet again, the sun proved that it has the power to awaken the world. Lunch was at a local diner in Kansas and proved to be quite an adventure in itself. Three of our crew took on the "Bigfoot Challenge" that consisted of a very large chicken fried steak sandwich, mounds of french-fries, and an extra dish of gravy. Despite the fact only four other brave souls who attempted the challenge were able to finish it, two of our three contestants excelled. The last leg of the drive back began with much anticipation that those of us riding in the van would have to revisit the Bigfoot Challenge, albeit this time in a much more unpleasant state. Thankfully this fear did not come true, and our trip culminated in an unceremonious return with all going our separate ways.
We had become a family in the short time we visited with the Lusks, Mitchells, and all others we had met on the trip, and it was hard to say goodbye. When we left Texas, we left behind pieces of ourselves that we had exchanged for an incredible amount of knowledge as well as a profound gratitude for the unprecedented hospitality we received. We took with us memories of experiences that will not soon be forgotten and, more importantly, made connections with genuine people that possess the same profound appreciation for the natural world.
Editor's Note: As many of our readers know, Pond Boss supports the Jesse W. West endowment at South Dakota State University. The university and Pond Boss have a wonderful, mutually beneficial relationship and we all help each other, especially when there's an opportunity to include students. This event is fruit from that relationship.
Reprinted with permission from Pond Boss Magazine
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