Targeting Our Manmade Bass

Hybrid bass are critters developed in fish hatcheries. So where are they created in Bama, and which waters hold them? (April 2008)

Photo by Daryl Bauer.

The aggressive fish known variously as "hybrid bass," "hybrid striped bass" or "wipers" result from crossbreeding white and striped bass. Hybrids combine some of the best traits of both parents -- the white bass' tolerance of warmer water, the stripers' larger size -- but are short-lived, and don't ever really become giants.

On the other hand, the cross does produce the meanest fish in Alabama.

Our state record, caught below the Lewis Smith dam in 1996 by Chelsea's E. H. Hodges, weighed 25 pounds, 15 ounces. The world-record weight is just 27 pounds, 5 ounces.

The first successful hybridization of white and striped bass occurred in 1965 in South Carolina. This original cross, created from the egg of a striped bass, is called a "palmetto bass," and is the type of hybrid produced and stocked by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. (Hybrids produced from the egg of a white bass are referred to as "sunshine bass.")

According to the DCNR's assistant chief of fisheries Nick Nichols, our state fish hatchery at Marion chooses to produce palmetto bass for a number of reasons. "The striped bass has a much bigger egg and subsequently has a much larger hatch larvae than the white bass," he explained. "They are a little easier to raise, and we can actually hold them for about a week after they start feeding before stocking them in our rearing ponds" -- thus providing a great deal more working flexibility than does the reciprocal cross, which, using a white-bass egg, produces a really tiny fish. "We are fortunate with our program in that we have good sources of female striped bass and can make the original cross."

Importing fish from other states, Alabama began stocking hybrids in the mid-1970s; a few years later, the state started producing fry at the Marion hatchery, and since 1975 has stocked 26,580,000 hybrids. (To put that into perspective: Alabama stocked a little more than 16.5 million striped bass in the same period.)

WHY STOCK HYBRIDS?
"Both striped and hybrid bass provide our anglers with other species to target with great trophy potential, especially with striped bass," Nichols said. "Additionally, both species feed almost exclusively on shad. Contrary to what many believe, they don't feed much on other species of fish. Both species, especially the bigger fish, can feed on large gizzard shad, which are not useable by our other sportfish."

Nichols pointed out that biologists can't establish a striped bass fishery in waters lacking thermal refuge areas. But as hybrids can tolerate warmer water, it's usually possible to create a hybrid fishery in those reservoirs.

The production of hybrids begins with the collection of broodstock, which the state gets from the wild during the spring spawning run. "Looking at spawning runs," Nichols explained, "white bass usually arrive at spawning areas early. In South Alabama, it can be late February or certainly into March. As you move to the northern part of the state, it can be mid-April. Striped bass tend to spawn a couple of weeks behind white bass, and the hybrid, as you would expect, is in the middle.

"For example: On the Coosa River below Neely Henry, usually the male white bass arrive first, followed by the white bass females. Then you will start seeing some hybrids followed by striped bass males and striped bass females."

In terms of water temperatures, Nichols said, white bass spawn in the upper 50s to low 60s, while striped bass do it in the mid-60s.

The state collects female striped bass for hybrid production from the Coosa River in the tailrace area of the Neely Henry Dam. Since the Atlantic coast strain reproduces naturally in the Coosa's headwaters, it's not used to produce striped bass, as Alabama is trying to restore its native Gulf Coast striped bass. But the eggs from the Atlantic strain are great for producing hybrids.

"We expect striped bass to be there the first week of April," Nichols added, "but we can usually collect fish eligible for spawning throughout the month. In an hour or two, a two-man crew using an electrofishing boat will collect the four or five fish we need for our annual production. We prefer fish in the 12- to 25-pound range."

To collect the roughly 100 white-bass males needed for the process, biologists use an electrofishing boat on the shoals above Lake Martin on the Tallapoosa River in late March.

On arriving at the hatchery in Marion, broodfish are injected with hormones, inducing ovulation among striped bass and enhancing milt production among white bass. Upon ovulation -- detectible by eggs flowing freely when slight pressure is applied to the fish's abdomen of the fish -- spawning for hybrid production occurs by manually stripping the eggs and milt into a container and carefully mixing to ensure the eggs are fertilized; fertilization is complete within two minutes. Biologists expect to strip 750,000 to 1 million eggs from a healthy 20-pound striper.

"Once the eggs are fertilized," Nichols continued, "they are decanted into jars, usually 75,000 to 150,000 eggs per jar. The jars are designed so water is introduced at the bottom and slowly rises to the top. This maintains the eggs in suspension. Typically, with the water temperatures we work with, the eggs hatch within 38 to 45 hours after fertilization.

"The hatch rate is highly variable. We are satisfied when hatch rates are in the 50 to 60 percent range. In many cases, it has approached 100 percent, but typically, it's 30 to 75 percent."

Newly hatched hybrids are placed in troughs, remaining there until they develop swim bladders and begin feeding. "As soon as that is confirmed and we have a rearing pond ready to go, -- it has an adequate food supply and good water quality -- then we can transfer those fish," Nichols resumed. "Depending on the number of fry in a particular batch and how the pond looks, we stock 75,000 to 200,000 fry per acre."

In addition, hybrid fry from Marion are also sent to the hatcheries at Carbon Hill and Eastaboga. All the hatcheries intensely manage their earthen rearing ponds. They infuse them with parent zoÖplankton (microscopic crustaceans that the hybrid fry consume), introduce large doses of organic and inorganic fertilizers and, finally, aerate (because of the heavy nutrient load).

"The ponds are pushed hard to maximize food production," Nichols remarked. "These fish are voracious. Seven-day old fish that just started eating feed f

ast and furious. We must crank out a lot of food for the fish to grow and do well.

"Our strategy is to produce a larger, more robust fingerling, but not to produce as many of them. Our goal is to raise a solid 1- to 1 1/2-inch fingerling for stocking."

When the fingerlings have emptied the ponds of food -- this occurs in May on into early June -- they're harvested and stocked in our lakes and rivers. Stocking rates have changed over the years as our biologists have learned to produce fingerlings with higher survival rates -- and to be more selective about the locations in which to stock hybrids. For example: Alabama no longer stocks the Tennessee River, as fish released upstream and downstream in Tennessee migrate across the state line, providing us with excellent fishing.

On average, stocking rates have declined from 10 to five fish per acre, but, Nichols noted, numbers are highly variable, depending on the river or reservoir and the sampling conducted by biologists in their respective districts. "When our districts sample stripes or hybrids," he explained, "they collect the otoliths from the fish and take its length and weight. The otoliths gives the age of the fish, so they can actually look at the history of the fish to see how well it has grown throughout its life. From that, we can adjust our stocking rates."

Using the DCNR's current stocking strategy of releasing high-quality hybrids in selected fisheries, they planted nearly 2,260,000 hybrids in the last four years.

"Looking at our combined totals," Nichols stated, "we stock fewer fish now, but we are more efficient with those stockings. We are getting better fisheries from those lower stocking numbers than we did in the '80s, when we stocked larger numbers of fish."

So which fisheries should anglers target this spring? "That's easy," Nichols said. "The tailrace fisheries on the Coosa are always good, especially below the Neely Henry and Logan Martin dams. Below the Bankhead Dam on Holt is traditionally a good tailrace fishery for hybrids, as well as below the Warrior Dam, which is at the upper end of Demopolis Reservoir. Also, the Alabama below Jones Bluff and Millers Ferry have good fishing."

Nichols added that the best fishing occurs in the current when the power turbines are generating electricity.

Veteran angler Barry Brasher of Pell City agrees with Nichols. "When they turn those turbines on, it creates a feeding spree," he said. "It might last a couple of hours, and it might last all day long."

Brasher's biggest hybrid weighed 14 pounds; his best day produced 53 fish in four hours of fishing. He said to expect to catch 10-pounders when the turbines are operating. His favorite place to fish for hybrids and stripers is the stretch below the Neely Henry Dam, although he sometimes fishes below the Logan Martin Dam.

Depending on turbine operation, Brasher uses three different approaches below Neely Henry, plus a separate technique for Logan Martin. One of these techniques will probably produce below a dam near you.

In waters offering both hybrids and stripers, Brasher stated, no one targets hybrids. "Fishing techniques are not specific to hybrids," he noted. "When you drift in the tailrace, you are either going to catch a hybrid or a salt.

"At Neely Henry when the turbines are running, it's safe to run up to the dam and drift back. If they are running turbines No. 1 and No. 3, for example, run up between them using your big motor, which you never turn off. When you get within 15 to 20 feet of the dam, lower your line to the bottom, shift into neutral and start drifting. You can drift for 100 yards."

If you haven't fished the tailrace before, watch how the boats approach the dam and their drift. Also observe the flow of the boat traffic: In April, it's not unusual to see 20 to 30 boats taking their turns at drifting the tailrace. At times, it's like watching airplanes in a holding pattern to land.

"We don't try to control the speed of our drift with the trolling motor," Brasher explained. "It would make a mess for everyone else. We just go with the flow."

Brasher's terminal tackle is a bottom-bumping rig made with a three-way swivel. To one eye he adds a 5-inch leader tied to a 1- or 2-ounce bell sinker, its size determined by current speed. The other eye also sports a short leader, but has a 3/0 hook and a 3-inch or larger gizzard shad. His main line and leaders are 20-pound-test monofilament.

"The biggest mistake anglers make is not keeping their bait on the bottom," Brasher cautioned. "If you are not bumping the bottom, you are not going to catch a fish."

Brasher's game plan for the flowing water below Logan Martin contrasts markedly with his tactics at Neely Henry: He anchors close to dam and out of the current. "It's totally different," he emphasized. "Rocks near the surface make it too dangerous to drift."

Using a 3-inch grub or a Sassy Shad on a 1/4- or 1/2-ounce jighead, Brasher casts into the current and lets the lure drift. Just as with live bait, he said, the bites come when the lure is bouncing along on the bottom. His favorite lure colors are white and chartreuse.

Back upstream below Neely Henry, Brasher noted, it's possible to wade-fish for hybrids and stripes -- if only one turbine is running. "This is wild!" he enthused, "If they are running one turbine, many of us wade out into waist-deep water so we can reach the fish with our casts. I have caught 20 fish in three to four hours of fishing.

"At times, anglers line up to take turns casting just like boats waiting to drift. I've been out there when it was so cold your body would feel numb. Sometimes, I wear chest waders, but mostly I wear blue jeans and tennis shoes. The problem with chest waders is they may fill up with water if they decide to start a second turbine. When they blow the horn, you have three or four minutes to reach the bank, because that additional turbine is going to send water over your head."

When wading, Brasher uses the same grub and Sassy Shad that he casts at Logan Martin. For distance, he recommends casting with at least a 7-foot rod and downsizing line to 14-pound test.

The last of Brasher's methods for catching hybrids doesn't involve fishing in current. The pattern doesn't always produce, but when it does, the fishing is outstanding. Since you could get skunked, arrive a couple of hours before turbine operations are scheduled to begin, and you'll have a fail-safe plan.

"The only time this is possible," Brasher advised, "is when the water is not flowing. It's possible to catch 15 to 20 fish in a couple of hours -- and three-quarters of the fish will be hybrids.

"Anchor about halfway down the wing wall. The water there flows over the wing wall and washes the little yellowtails with it. You can actually reach out and catch them, but it's easier to use a dip net. It's always conveni

ent to have a few in the tank, because at times the fish bite as soon as the bait reaches the bottom."

Without current and with the smaller threadfin shad, Brasher downsizes his terminal tackle to a 3/0 hook with a 1/8-ounce split shot on the line next to the eye of the hook. "The weight carries the bait to the bottom," he explained, "but it's not so heavy that the bait can't swim."

Brasher noted that hybrids caught from still waters tend to run a little smaller, with the smallest weighing 4 pounds and the largest weighing 13 pounds.

When you fish waters hosting both hybrids and stripers, is it possible to identify the species before landing the fish? "Most definitely!" Brasher exclaimed. "A hybrid is mean. He's very aggressive. The salt will make a straight run, but a hybrid will go anywhere -- including straight for the boat."

For more information on Barry Brasher's fishing techniques, visit the Web site www.bamabassfishing.com.

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