By Ron McDonald (A/K/A Ronnie Mac)
Publisher & Editor, Southern Fishing News
Southern Fishing News readers will recall my article published August 13, 2023, on our website entitled, “Smallmouth May Get A Rival As The Favored Catch: Florida Strain Bass Stocking In Pickwick Lake (https://southernfishingnews.com/news-stories/smallmouth-may-get-a-rival-as-the-favored-catch). In this article, mention was made about the prospect of future largemouth bass in Pickwick possibly growing to 15-plus pounds over time. I decided to follow up that story with more research to determine if that prediction held water.
Back in high school (way back) I once asked a teacher why I needed to learn about biology. The teacher simply explained, “Learning biology was just one way to keep you from being stupid.” Well, it happened something like that. I don’t think that explanation really sank in. So, that’s why I went to a professional biologist to address the realities of stocking Florida strain bass in Pickwick Lake.
I reached out again to the Alabama Wildlife & Freshwater Fisheries Division and received an enlightening response from professional biologist Damon Lee Abernethy, Assistant Chief of Fisheries of the division.
Mentioned in the earlier article I referred to, was that Alabama Wildlife & Freshwater Fisheries Division stocked Pickwick with Florida largemouth bass in the early 90’s. The agency estimates the Pickwick largemouth bass population currently has about 25% Florida genes. It’s not that 25% of the bass are Florida largemouth bass. It means an individual bass in Pickwick is made up of 25% Florida genes and 75% Northern genes. Basically a “mutt”. The population is not uniformly 25/75 though. That represents the average. Individual fish may be 15/85, 35/65, 50/50, 30/70, 20/80, etc.
Abernethy noted, “Recent genetic developments indicate that those genes may have always been there, naturally. Or, they could have been a result of the early 90’s Florida largemouth bass stockings. Either way, the impact is the same. The largemouth bass in Pickwick already have Florida genes.” My reaction was, “All of them, really?” Biologist Abernathy, who certainly knows what he is talking about, also said Pickwick will never produce bass in the 20-pound class of bass, “Fish that large are rarely produced anywhere, even in controlled environments where they’re given absolutely every possible advantage.” You probably agree with his assessment that 20-pound bass are “unicorns.”
The expectation that the largemouth bass in Pickwick will grow any larger than they’re growing right now would be unrealistic. My question was then why all the stocking of Florida strain bass if the largemouth bass size will not exponentially increase? Mr. Abernethy was kind enough to explain.
“As with most things in nature, there’s a long list of variables that limit the growth potential of every bass population. Few anglers really understand what’s happening (biologically) when a successful stocking program produces trophy fish.”
“The measure of success for a stocking effort is rarely pre-determined, but it should be. So, what does success look like? If 100 bass are weighed in during a tournament, instead of 99, is that success? Is it worth 500 anglers contributing $200 to a GoFundMe stocking effort? Is it worth the investment to have one potential trophy bass in a 43,000-acre reservoir, 10 years from now? To me, success requires something far more substantial than that. ”
He continued, “The goal [of stocking Florida strain bass] is to naturally produce F1s, (F1s are the first generation offspring of a pure Florida and pure Northern parent) which is impossible in Pickwick because that requires a pure Northern parent and a pure Florida parent. Since the Pickwick population already has a significant amount of Florida genes, stocked pure Florida will be crossing with “mutts”, which will only produce more mutts.”
Do you get all that? Only the offspring) has the potential to produce the “hybrid vigor” that produces trophy fish. That is, only the first spawn of a pure Northern strain bass and a pure Florida strain bass has the remote chance of producing a bigger bass. Abernethy added, “The F1s are a flash in the pan, so to speak. Once the gene pool has been compromised by introducing strains [like previous stockings], there will never again be any pure strains [no pure Northern strain or Florida strain] which is why no amount of stocking will ever produce trophy fish in Pickwick above and beyond the current trophy bass being caught.”
“It’s important for bass anglers to understand some of the basic science behind stocking Florida strain largemouth bass. No one seems to be peddling that message. The reality is that there are almost no reservoirs anywhere in the southeast that will benefit from Florida strain largemouth bass stockings. Once the resident gene pool has been compromised by introducing foreign strains, it eventually eliminates an essential ingredient in the recipe for producing trophy bass, which is the pure Northern parent. There are no reservoirs in Alabama that have populations with pure Northern genes.”
He continued, “In reservoirs that lack pure Northern genes, or those located in climates where stocked Florida strain largemouth bass fingerlings cannot survive, the only biological option that remains is to stock hatchery F1s. The survival of stocked hatchery fingerlings is extremely low.”
My question of why bother to stock Florida strain fingerlings at all, at least in Alabama waters, still remained. The explanation given because anglers are being fed a constant diet of information of reservoir stocking that simply isn’t true. That information comes from primarily other anglers, but also from industry professionals and private fish producers. The anglers want to believe what they are hearing so most of them do. This is the fuel that fires the political pressure to stock lakes that cannot benefit from stocking.
Abernethy added, “Anglers should be careful not to be duped into thinking stocking will work anywhere because it worked somewhere. Opportunities for successful reservoir stocking programs are few and are becoming even more rare with the passing of time. Eventually, there will be none, and I think we’re basically there, now. Anglers should be trusting their eyes, not their ears.”
“If the genetics aren’t right, the opportunity to increase the abundance of trophy fish through stocking doesn’t exist. Most southeastern states have been stocking their reservoirs with Florida-strain largemouth bass for many years, so where are the results?”
So I asked, “Is there any way to get bigger bass from an impoundment?” Abernethy gave a simple explanation, “Bass have indeterminate growth which means they continue to grow until the day they die. In addition, only half the population is female and has the potential to reach trophy size.”
Producing bigger bass really boils down to helping them live longer. The simplest and most effective way to do that is to reduce fishing mortality. All of our bass populations have the potential to produce bigger bass if they’re given the opportunity to live long enough.”
That ended my inquiry on a positive note.