Fisheries managers in Alabama have worked diligently to produce outstanding opportunities for the state’s anglers to tangle with big bass. Their efforts have centered on producing increased quantity and size in the bass available to fishermen.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
For many years, the Fisheries Section of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries stocked the Florida strain of black bass in reservoirs across the state, attempting to change the genetic makeup of the northern bass already in the reservoirs. It was hoped that crossing the two would create a F-1 hybrid of the two strains.
Such an F-1 hybrid was expected to exhibit the Florida bass’ tendencies to live longer, grow faster and put on weight more quickly than the northern strain. They were also attempting to breed into the F-1 the characteristic aggression of the northern strain, which more readily attacks artificial baits.
Nick Nichols, the assistant chief of the Fisheries Section, said this program has not had much success.
“When we did some genetic evaluation of the program, we couldn’t see any effect at all of stocking Florida bass in state waters,” he lamented. “We realized that part of the poor performance of the Florida bass stockings may have been because our stocking rate was only about one Florida bass fingerling per surface acre of water in each reservoir we stocked.”
A CHANGE OF MANAGEMENT FOR BASS
Several years ago, the Fisheries Section came up with a new plan to increase the amount Florida-strain genetics in some state reservoirs.
“The state started putting almost all of our hatcheries’ production in one or two parts of two reservoirs, to see if we could increase the genetics of the Florida strain largemouth bass, at least in a portion of some public waters,” Nichols explained.
The state tested this theory on Lay Lake, on the Coosa River chain near Birmingham, and Lake Demopolis at the confluence of the Warrior and the Tombigbee rivers in southwest Bama.
Before this stocking program began, fishery scientists took tissue samples from several bass in each of these reservoirs to develop a baseline study of the genetics in the two test areas.
“Once we got our baseline of the genetic makeup of the bass in these two reservoirs, we divided the number of Florida bass fingerlings produced in our hatcheries and stocked them into Lake Demopolis and Lay Lake,” Nichols explained. “We had chosen good, isolated locations in these two reservoirs where we could study the effects of stocking intensively.”
The biologists used Beeswax Creek, the largest significant embayment on Lay Lake, as the study area there and chose two smaller embayments on Lake Demopolis.
“Although we didn’t see a significant shift in gene pattern in the bass in Demopolis, we eventually did see a change in the gene pattern in the bass in Lay Lake,” Nichols reported.
Next, the managers turned to Wheeler Lake on the Tennessee River and stocked several embayments, including Flint Creek, with large numbers of the Florida bass. On this lake, as on Lay Lake, a small shift in the genetic makeup of the bass was noted in the study region. The ongoing study has now moved to Smith Lake near Jasper.
“This past year represents the fourth or fifth stocking of Florida bass there, primarily into the Ryan Creek arm of Smith Lake,” Nichols explained. “We had an unusually good year for bass production in 2005 and were able to stock even more in some embayments north of Ryan Creek.”
In 2006, fishery scientists will do genetic studies on the bass in Ryan Creek.
“If we keep seeing incremental changes in the genetic makeup of the largemouth bass in these study areas, then we’ll plan to continue using this type of stocking of Florida bass in major public reservoirs,” Nichols added.
THE TALE OF THE B.A.I.T. REPORT
To learn which are the best bass lakes in the Heart of Dixie, let’s look at the 2004 Bass Angler’s Information Team report. The B.A.I.T. report ranks all the quality indicators for reservoirs that have held five or more bass tournaments. Results from those events are submitted to the state by club or tournament organizers.
When looking at the B.A.I.T. report, remember that reservoirs with minimum-length limits or slot limits on bass display skewed figures. On those lakes with minimum-size limits, fishermen can weigh in only larger fish. For that reason, the average fish size may be larger, but the numbers caught are likely to be smaller. If a slot limit is in effect — for instance, requiring the immediate release of 14- to 18-inch fish — then more bass are likely to show up at the weigh-in, but many are likely to be only 12- to 13-inchers.
That said, the lakes are evaluated based on the highest percentage of success per angler-day (how many anglers caught at least one keeper bass); the average weight of the bass caught; the number of bass caught per angler per day; the number of pounds of bass caught per angler per day; and the number of hours required to catch a bass of 5 pounds or larger.
(Lakes Listed Alphabetically)
|LAKE||% OF ANGLER SUCCESS (At least one bass)||BASS PER ANGLER PER DAY||AVG. WEIGHT IN LBS.||HOURS FISHED PER 10-LB. BASS|
|Data from most recent B.A.I.T. report)|
If we look solely at lakes where the highest percent of anglers catch a bass, Lake Martin ranks No. 1, followed by Logan Martin Lake, R. L. Harris Reservoir and Millers Ferry Lake.
Guntersville takes No. 1 as the lake where an angler has the best chance to catch the largest bass, based solely on the average weight of fish brought to the scales. Of course, that’s no surprise, since historically, Lake Guntersville has produced large numbers of big bass, year after year. Guntersville has an abundance of aquatic weed growth, which provides ideal habitat for bass and the baitfish on which the bass feed. Guntersville also holds an expanse of shallow water that’s close to drop-offs and has consistently produced good spawns. A heavy infestation of aquatic vegetation at Guntersville gives the big bass a place to hide as well.
Wilson Lake occupies the No. 2 spot for big bass, with Lake Eufaula, Demopolis Lake and Jordan Lake rounding out the top five in Alabama.
BIG BASS IN A HURRY
If you want to know which reservoir offers you the best odds for catching a big bass, the number of hours required to catch one of 5 pounds or more is important.
That table lists Guntersville, Millers Ferry, West Point, Eufaula and Weiss as providing the best chance of catching a lunker bass in a short time.
This ranking of Lake West Point in the 2004 B.A.I.T. report may surprise many anglers, because West Point has traditionally experienced either a boom or a bust situation in its bass population.
In the early years of impoundment, West Point, like many other new impoundments, had so many bass that each angler could easily catch and release 50 to 150 bass per day. Rarely would these fish weigh more than 2 1/2-pounds each.
Today, West Point Lake has a 14-inch minimum-length limit for largemouths, as does Lake Eufaula. Thus on both waters, the average-size largemouth bass has to be larger than 14 inches, and thus more big bass are present. In the case of both lakes, however, there is a fly in the ointment regarding the usual equation of bigger bass on a length-limit impoundment, but smaller numbers of fish caught. Both of these lakes have expanding populations of spotted bass, which are not subject to the length limit.
“The lakes with length limits do seem to rate higher in this particular category,” Nichols said.
“However, other factors contribute to why these five lakes — some with length limits and some without — rank as high as they do on this report.
Catch-and-release is second nature to most bass anglers these days –so much so that it’s increasingly hard to get fishermen to take a few of their favorite fish home for dinner.
“For instance, Guntersville, West Point and Eufaula all have length limits,” he continued. “But Millers Ferry doesn’t, and it’s an extremely fertile lake and historically cranks out a lot of bass.
“Although Weiss Lake doesn’t have a length limit, it’s a very fertile reservoir and has always been a sleeper bass lake. The crappie get the most attention of the fishermen at Weiss, which may be why you don’t hear much about what a great bass lake Weiss really is.”
Fisheries biologists can point to slot limits as very useful tools for managing some of the Cotton State’s waters for bigger bass and better fishing — but such limits are no panacea.
Biologists have pinpointed one major problem with using this tool to increase the size of bass. It simply does not work unless anglers harvest some of the smaller fish that are legal. This type of regulation is imposed on lakes that are overpopulated with smaller bass. Some of them need to be removed so that the remaining fish will have enough forage available to put on some inches and extra pounds.
Catch-and-release is second nature to most bass anglers these days — so much so that it’s increasingly hard to get fishermen to take a few of their favorite fish home for dinner. When this situation occurs on a slot-limit lake, the length limits can actually make the situation worse! Not only are the smaller bass not being harvested, but anglers who do usually keep their catch have to put back some slot-limit bass as well. Thus, there are even more fish in the lake than if no limit were imposed in the first place.
When this happens, expect the diehard catch-and-release gang to be the first to complain about all the small bass they encounter. All the while, they wonder why no bigger bass are present, when in fact they could mimic the comic-strip possum Pogo in stating, “We have met the enemy and he is us!”
If you are fishing on a lake with a slot limit, the best thing you can do is release any 2 1/2-pound bass back into the water, but “release” a few of your 12-inch ones into a hot pan of grease.