Smart Bass? Dumb Bass?Smart Bass? Dumb Bass? Are there differences in tendency to strike lures between different bass? You might be surprised.
By Ronald F. Dodson, Ph.D.
I started working on this article by researching the findings that some bass have a greater tendency to be caught than others. But soon I became involved with the spin-off issue of what do we know about the impact of introducing the Florida strain into Texas lakes and maybe a bit about what we don't know. To start with for those who may be too young to remember bass fishing in Texas before the introduction of Florida bass, a 6-pound northern black bass was a good fish and an 8-pound bass was a really unusual fish, which turned heads. As man-made lakes started popping up in Texas the quality of the fishery, measured by the number of catchable fish, greatly improved but until the widespread stocking of Florida strain bass the definition of a lunker stayed about the same. In fact the list of the top 25 bass caught in Texas and the year in which they were caught are directly linked to the maturation of a state fishery that reflected the impact of Florida and Florida/ Northern crosses.
Originally the Florida bass was as the name implies a native of Florida and the rest of the largemouth bass were called northern black bass. I mentioned crosses between the two and this readily occurred wherever they were stocked in Texas. What was actually being done and what is still being attempted is to genetically tailor populations of bass in the stocked lakes in order to take advantage of the growth pattern and size attained by the Florida sub-species. Is this a good or bad concept? Well if you want larger fish it is good as long as some undesirable traits do not come along with the cross. In other words nature often puts certain creatures in a certain place and genetically refines these populations through natural selection to better suit their environments. We have actually altered that process by importing fish that are not native to our region. There are often boundary zones where the sub-species of related creatures naturally cross breed. In fact many have suspected that the 22 pound, 4 ounce record bass caught in Montgomery Lake in Georgia in June of 1932 may have been the result of such a natural cross. The only problem with this explanation is the lack of other giant bass coming out of the same potential overlap of the natural range of the Northern and Florida strains.
This brings us to the subject at hand - do some bass hit lures more readily than others and where do the Florida strain and the crosses with native Northerns fit into the answer?
Dr. Gary Garrett is a fishery biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Research Center at Heart of the Hills facility. It is some of his research that has started the discussion and the end results may be changes in the way that stocking Florida bass are used to impact a fishery. He was not ready to buy into the concept of "dumb" or "smart" fish. He felt there was a clear difference in the aggressiveness of the Northern bass (natives) as measured by the differences between the likelihood of these hitting a lure as opposed to Floridas. Some of the data was from controlled environments with limited variables, but one project was in a more natural environment. The project he referred to was under the watchful eyes of Mr. Bobby Farquhar, a District Biologist with TPW in San Angelo.
Mr. Farquhar said the test facility was a small lake (500 acres), which had been targeted for total fish eradication due to the influx of an unwanted exotic species, which someone had introduced. After allowing the proper time after the fish kill, the lake was stocked with Florida bass, which had been treated as eggs in the hatchery in an attempt to make them sterile. This was important since the sampling of the lake was to be carried out over several years and they did not want the Florida strain to cross with the Native (northern) strain which were also stocked in the lake. This was particularly important in trying to keep crosses from occurring since Dr. Garrett felt the tendency to be less aggressive (hit lures less readily) could be passed on to offspring. The game plan was to follow both populations of bass in the lake by selective sampling at periodic intervals by electro-shock technique as well as a concerted collection by angling. The collection of bass by the shocking technique was used to determine the percent of each group at any given time. Once they got large enough, 200 bass were collected by each method. The real eye opener was that the percentage of Floridas by shock was irrelevant to the catch rate on lures. In the lure group the winner, hands down, were the Northern bass. In other words both populations were there and saw the lures but an overwhelming majority of the fish that got caught (just as Dr. Garrett had said), were the Northern strain (native). Garrett had said that in one sampling only one fish out of 100 caught was a Florida.
This brought back fond memories of my bass club days in Houston. At that time a real lunker was a 7-pound bass with an 8- being very rare. There were for some reasons two lakes in which all the factors came together to create the setting where the greatest potential for growth occurred in the Northern strain. These were Murvaul and Houston County Lake. There would always be two sides in the lake selection debate for tournaments between those who wanted to catch one large fish versus those of us spoiled by having Livingston, Raybum, and Conroe in their prime and on which we could reasonably expect to catch a large number of 2- to 4-pound fish.
So what are we actually trying to achieve in our stocking programs? Large numbers of catchable fish, large numbers of larger fish, or a combination of these are what fishermen might think of as a perfect world. Roger McCabe is the Fishery Management Program Director for TPW. He has the challenging task of getting the regional reports from the field biologists and working with them in trying to use the resources of the hatcheries to distribute fry to the various lakes designated to receive them. He is in an interesting hot-seat in that he is dealing with an aging population of lakes and some fisherman would believe that stocking is the total answer to bringing a lake back to the peak productive form of its youth. In fact folks who should know better sing this song and seem to forget that cover, pressure, water quality, adequate forage, and a whole list of things dictate whether you can bring "back" lake. I have seen several larger lakes revert back to a quality of fishery similar to when they were new and while adding Florida strain definitely had an impact of the presence of larger fish, the real link for bringing back the total number of bass (in my humble opinion) was the presence of vegetation in the lake.
The concept for determining stocking in an existing lake starts with the biologist for that region doing a lake survey by collecting 30 bass by electro-shock. The plan is to collect young of the year fish or the first year fish. This is important in getting a handle on what the population looks like with regard to actual reproduction of pure Florida strains or cross Florida strain as represented by the young fish. If the genetic data indicated there is less than 20 percent Florida influence then the lake qualifies for stocking with more pure Florida strain. The other qualifiers in selecting a match for stocking is that the biologists know from experience that Floridas don't do well in some takes and thus tend to shy away from stocking them in some the Panhandle and Northern lakes in Texas since the winter temperatures periodically reach extremes which reduce the likelihood of the Florida strain doing very well.
So now the information about the variation in potential catch rate between Florida strain and crosses when compared with that of Northerns has gotten into the public eye. The folks planning stocking are going to eventually be pulled between two directions. Actually the "pulling" is more verbal than anything else at present since the stocking policy has not changed. However it does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that the attraction of bass fishing is catching fish and those who make a living catering to the fisherman realize a lack of action can soon lead to a lack of business. So already folks are calling for the stocking of native (Northern) bass in some lakes. If you want to think of this in another way realize that many fisherman who fish for bass on most large lakes make a considerable investment in boat, motor, tackle, etc. not to mention travel costs. Place him or her in a position where they are going to only catch few fish, or are essentially only fishing for an occasional lunker bass, and it is going to take a unique commitment from the fisherman that many will not have. From an economic standpoint the "dropouts" are those folks who are important as consumers in the fishing industry and you can be sure marina owners and marine dealers know this.
It is interesting that as I think back my greatest concern from a biological standpoint when the department first started talking about stocking Floridas was that they were not native and nature usually puts things in certain places for a reason. I had real concerns that the fish may not be able to take those periodically very cold periods of winter weather. Fortunately I was apparently wrong. I guess that I should have considered that the English sparrow is doing very well in its new habitat. Even our own Northern strain of largemouth was once only in the southeastern US, but now through stocking has a range as far north as the Canadian border, west to California, and outside the continental United States in Hawaii, Mexico, Cuba, Europe, Asia, South America, and South Africa.
There are some reports that are beginning to raise questions about the advantages of stocking lakes with the Florida strain of bass. A study in a heated reservoir was carried out in Oklahoma by researchers from their Fishery Research Unit and at Oklahoma State University. The game plan was to compare growth and survival patterns between Northern and Florida strain. This environment could be argued to favor the Florida strain in that the water temperature was warmer during the winter than in adjacent unheated lakes. Their conclusions were that stocking Florida strain offered no advantage and actually was less preferable than Northerns based on survival rates - an issue about which I might add, I have been able to find little.
The study in the west Texas lake was noted by Mr. Farquhar as raising an interesting future option for stocking (if there are enough fish produced in the hatchery to pull this off). You could have sterile Florida bass stocked to create a population of potentially harder to catch fish but which would have the potential to grow larger and create a population of lunkers. You would want them to be sterile if you also stocked the easier to catch Northern strain, since these would be stocked to create a population of bass for folks who just want to catch a bass of any size. The concept of keeping the two strains from crossing is important because if Dr. Garett is right then when the Florida crosses with northerns the gene for making the bass less likely to hit a lure probably goes along to the offspring. If our game plan to date was to stock lakes with Floridas so that we could have lunkers, then the reduced numbers of fish entered into the Share-A-Lunker program over the last few years shows that something went astray with the plan. Logically the continued stocking of Florida strain into the lakes should have kept a rather constant flow of large bass coming from a number of lakes. But this is in a perfect world, which is not the case with most lakes. For reasons not presently understood, the Florida strain does better in some lakes than others and data is not clear what factors govern this variability. Nevertheless there has been a noticeable reduction in the numbers of Share-A-Lunker fish entered in the last few years and those haven't come from where you would have expected based on the past.
If you wanted numbers of catchable bass, as the result of past stocking then maybe we should have stocked native bass. It is a little late to try and undo the past, but we better figure out what we want as desired results from stocking in the future as well as what we can reasonably expect to get from a lake using that particular scheme. Some of the folks who are raising the issue of wanting to have native bass stocked were the same folks who were hot to have the impact of the Super bass - Florida or Florida/cross created in Texas water. I like to catch a large bass as much as anyone, but was among the group in the bass club who opted for numbers rather than the all day attempt to get one large fish. The folks at TPW doing the research are to be commended for getting a number of answers regarding the two strains of bass because future management (if given proper funding) can to some degree point the bass population in the direction that the fishing public wants.
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