In the world of the economy, fishing is big business. The American Sportfishing Association calculates the total economic impact of fishing in Arkansas alone to have exceeded $1.5 billion in 2003. So it only makes sense for state game and fish agencies to attempt to maximize fishing opportunities, as practically everyone feels the effects: Anglers enjoy more productive fishing; the businesses along the lakes receive income from visitors and local guides line up client after client.
And at the point at which fishing and economics intersect, the largemouth bass is king, accounting for far more revenue than any other fish species. Why? Simple: The largemouth is the most popular fish in the country.
The extreme popularity of largemouth bass and all the resulting consequences — including economic impact — have led many states to implement extensive largemouth bass management programs. Every bass angler wants the local lake to offer the best angling possible, but if it doesn’t have topnotch fishing, traveling to another lake to experience a great day on the water isn’t a problem.
One trend in largemouth bass management is the stocking of Florida-strain largemouth bass. When conditions are appropriate, Florida bass grow larger and faster than do northern-strain bass. Years ago, the only place in which pure Florida-strain bass were found was, obviously, Florida. According to some scientists, “Florida bass” (as they’re commonly called) are a separate species, but their appearance is so similar to that of the northern-strain bass is so close, as is their genetic relation, that the International Game Fish Association and many biologists choose to keep both in one category.
With the appearance in the 1970s of bass approaching and exceeding 20 pounds, California proved what Florida bass stocking can do under the proper conditions. The state soon started stocking Florida bass in lakes and rivers all over California.
Texas soon followed suit. Lake Fork was impounded in 1980 and stocked with Florida bass. The lake had completely filled in 1985, and by the late ’80s was one of the hottest largemouth fisheries on the planet, with double-digit largemouths being caught on a daily basis and anglers from around the world flocking to the lake with the expectation of catching the fish of a lifetime. Texas officials then started stocking Florida bass around their state.
Now all the Gulf Coast states have stocked Florida bass to some degree, and other states, from Arizona to Oklahoma to South Carolina to Arkansas, also have active Florida bass stocking programs.
“Historical stocking records show that Florida largemouths were stocked in some Arkansas lakes in the ’70s,” said Kevin Hopkins, assistant black-bass biologist with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. “However, it was not until the early ’90s that the Andrew Hulsey Hatchery in Hot Springs began maintaining and producing genetically pure Florida largemouth bass for stocking into public waters.”
ARKANSAS FLORIDA BASS PROGRAM
The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission has set aside a handful of lakes for regular stockings of Florida bass. These waters tend to be in the southern and lowland parts of the state, because they lie amid a climate slightly warmer than that typical of the highlands of the Ozarks and Ouachitas. With the exception of Lake Millwood, all of the lakes receiving regular stockings of Florida bass also tend to be relatively small, so each gets more of a boost from the injection of Florida genes.
According to Hopkins, the following lakes have been stocked with Florida bass over the past couple of years: Atkins, Bois d’Arc, Chicot, Columbia, Monticello, Greenlee, Millwood, SWEPCO and Lower White Oak. Lakes stocked with Florida bass follow different management plans, and are managed on the basis of different harvest restrictions.
“Many of the lakes that are regularly stocked with Florida largemouth bass have some type of special harvest restriction in place in order to offer these fish more protection and ultimately reach a larger size,” Hopkins said. “Lakes Austell, Pickthorne, and Mallard have received Florida largemouth bass in the past, but are not being stocked any longer due to reduced growth rates, which most likely had occurred from the lack of harvest of smaller fish on these lakes.
“Lake Monticello, Millwood and Columbia are probably the most productive big-bass producing lakes in the state, and reports of fish exceeding 10 pounds are not uncommon.”
As mentioned earlier, Florida bass fisheries in Arkansas can be difficult to maintain because of the interaction with northern-strain bass. So how many Florida bass are typically stocked in Arkansas waters?
According to Stein, over the last couple of years, Lake Millwood has received an average of 175,000 Florida largemouth bass fingerlings, Monticello has received an average of 60,000, Columbia has received an average of about 100,000, and Lower White Oak has received an average of 90,000 Florida largemouth bass fingerlings.
At 25,000 acres, Lake Millwood needs more Florida bass stocked to transform the genetic makeup of the lake’s bigmouth complement. Even with 175,000 Florida bass fingerlings stocked into Millwood each year, only 15 percent of the bass caught are either pure Florida bass or fish designated “F1″ — first-generation hybrids. (See below for a more detailed review of the science relevant to the Floridas and their genes.) On the other hand, the percentage of pure northern-strain largemouths in Millwood is less than 5 percent, so most bass in the lake at least minimally exhibit the presence of Florida bass genes. Continued stocking will almost certainly continue to advance trophy potential at Lake Millwood.
Lake Monticello’s percentage of largemouths that are either pure Floridas or F1s — 40 — is the state’s highest. This relatively new lake was built with a future as a trophy bass fishery in mind, so no northern-strain bass were stocked in the lake — only Floridas. Such as they are, the lake’s northern-strain bass are “stocked” courtesy of the feeder streams.
Said Hopkins, “The AGFC Largemouth Bass Management Plan states that approximately 500,000 Florida largemouth bass fingerlings will be produced annually, and that state lakes” — i.e., AGFC-owned — “will have top priority, along with lakes that have shown to have adequate habitat and conditions, including a sufficient amount of forage, that are favorable for growing larger bass.”
Lake Millwood serves as a prime example of what Hopkins means by a lake with “adequate habitat an
d conditions”: large amounts of forage, extensive vegetation and other cover, large spawning flats, deep channels and just about the warmest climate to be found in the Natural State. Given all this, it’s hardly a surprise that many Arkansas anglers pick Millwood to surrender the next state-record largemouth. (The current state record, incidentally, was caught at Mallard Lake in 1976; it weighed 16 pounds, 4 ounces.) And Columbia, Lower White Oak and Monticello all exhibit many of these same characteristics acknowledged as ideal for growing monsters.
With Millwood, Monticello, Columbia and Lower White Oak receiving most of the available Florida bass fingerlings each year, it’s easy to see why it would be difficult to develop other trophy largemouth lakes in the state. Those four lakes, however, provide bass anglers outstanding opportunities to catch largemouths topping 10 pounds, with larger fish possible. Millwood and Monticello regularly produce bass of 12 pounds and even larger.
SWEPCO Lake, a unique component of Arkansas’ Florida bass program, is notable for its better-than-average bass fishing. Though the tiny lake near Siloam Springs is well north of the Florida bass’ preferred range, it’s artificially heated by a power plant, which, like the nuclear plant on Lake Dardanelle, uses the lake’s water for cooling. Unlike Dardanelle, however, SWEPCO is small enough for the hot-water discharge to affect the entire lake’s water temps, which in January can reach 70 degrees.
As a result of this singular situation, Florida bass are stocked in SWEPCO. Because of the lake’s size, comparatively few Florida bass were needed for the original stocking and are now needed to maintain the lake. A dozen bass per day exceeding 4 pounds is certainly possible, and trophy fish are very possible. The only downside with SWEPCO is its dependency on the power plant: If the plant shuts down in the winter for an extended period, the Florida bass die, and kills have been reported in the past.
SPRING FISHING TACTICS
March and April are the best months for landing a monster bass in one of Arkansas’ trophy bass lakes. The spawn in Columbia, Lower White Oak, Millwood and Monticello will start in March and extend into April. Because SWEPCO is artificially heated, the spawn takes place earlier there.
As big bass often prefer to spawn in protective coves near the main lake and like to have cover nearby, target stump- and vegetation-covered flats in main-lake coves that provide quick access to deep channels. Water in the 2- to 8-foot range is ideal.
Big bass like big meals, and big Florida bass like big, slow meals, so jigs, Texas-rigged plastics and weightless Senkos are smart choices for the stained waters of South Arkansas. Other baits, however, such as big Rat-L-Traps, spinnerbaits and topwaters will also draw strikes from big prespawn and spawning females. When you’re dealing with shallow-water cover and big largemouths, you need heavy equipment. Monofilament in 17-pound-test or heavier and even braided line in 50- to 80-pound-test is used. To horse big Florida bass out of cover, a 7-foot medium-heavy flipping stick is a must.
Florida bass aren’t hair-trigger aggressive fish, so be patient and work spawning flats methodically. Spend enough time on one of Arkansas’ top trophy lakes, and you’ll improve your chances of catching a monster largemouth bass.
FLORIDA BASS FACTS
The biological and genetic terminology associated with Florida bass research can get downright confusing, but a few elements of that are worth knowing. First, as noted earlier, a cross between a Florida bass and a northern-strain largemouth creates an offspring that biologists call an “F1″ — a first-generation hybrid. And from there . . .
“An ‘F2′ is produced from an F1 mating with an F1,” said Hal Schramm, a nationally-known fisheries biologist from Mississippi. “An ‘Fx’ results from an F1 (or ‘F2′ or ‘F3′) mating with either parent.” It’s worth noting that while genetic predispositions for size and growth rates are still very strong in an F1, Florida traits often diminish in each “F” generation.
Many myths surround Florida bass. Here’s one: All that’s required for Florida bass to grow larger and faster is for water conditions and/or climate suiting their needs to be present.
Now, Florida bass do prefer warmer climates, where water conditions rarely if ever drop below 50 degrees, and while the exact temperature threshold for Florida bass is not known, most fisheries biologists agree that anything lower than 40 degrees is lethal, along with extended temperatures in the lower 40s.
“There is no established minimum temperature for Florida largemouths,” Schramm said “I’ve got Florida bass in my pond, and I’ve had ice cover for up to a week. I think (the threshold) might be more like how long or how often the water drops below some temperature — probably around 40 degrees. The ‘magic line’ above which Florida bass can’t survive (in the Southeast) is from Virginia to Tennessee to southeastern Oklahoma.”
Even then, severe cold snaps in the South the can kill Florida bass. One year, according to the AGFC, one such cold snap killed a cycle of one hatchery’s Florida bass fingerlings.
Stocking Florida bass in lakes and rivers that do not meet the biological needs of Florida bass is basically impossible to justify. “Research in Northern states has indicated that stocking Florida largemouth bass into conditions that are not favorable has actually been counterproductive,” Hopkins said. “For example: Florida largemouth bass and F1 intergrades in Illinois were shown to have slower growth rates and higher mortality than the native northern largemouth subspecies.”
Biologists in Oklahoma found that, for the most part, Florida bass stocked north of Interstate 40 actually grew slower than did the native bass. When conditions are favorable, however, Florida bass can easily put on 3 pounds or more per year — in Mexico and California, amazingly, up to 4 pounds per year. Growth rates in Texas often average 2 or more pounds per year.
For the most part, Florida bass thrive throughout the Southeast United States, including many Arkansas lakes. Constant stocking, however, is necessary to maintain large populations of largemouths that are mostly Florida strain. The northern-strain bass is, after all, the native largemouth, and is better adapted to survive in the region’s lakes and rivers.
Research has shown that the subspecies of bass that’s fitter in terms of its environment will outperform the other, eventually taking over the fishery in the absence of subsequent stocking of the other subspecies. Say that a lake is built in Southeast Arkansas, and half the bass stocked are Florida bass and the other half northern-strain; in such a case, the northern-strain fish will likely dominate, and without additional stocking, the Floridas’ genes will more or less disappear. On the other hand, if northern bass were stocked in South Florida, the Florida bass would dominate.
Fishermen often ask why more lakes with conditions appropriate for Floridas aren’t stocked with the fish. The answer lies in numbers: For a large lake suc
h as Ouachita (which isn’t stocked with the fish), feeling the effects would necessitate hundreds of thousands of the fish being stocked annually for many years before any significant difference could be seen in the lake’s largemouth population.
“What we have seen is that if very intense stocking does not take place, it is very hard to alter the genetic makeup of bass populations,” said Jon Stein, AGFC fish pathologist. “For example, we have stocked Lake Conway in the past with a small number of Florida largemouth bass . . . and the population has very low numbers of Florida largemouth bass and F1 bass.”
Another stumbling block: The cost of producing fingerling Florida bass and available resources prevent the AGFC from stocking more Florida bass.
The positive effects of stocking Florida bass, even in relatively warm climates, are subject somewhat to debate. Some biologists argue that northern-strain genes can be negatively affected. Northern-strain bass, while not as known for trophy potential, often exceed 10 pounds. Pure northern-strain largemouth bass exceeding 14 pounds have been caught in Arkansas lakes. It’s possible that introducing Florida bass genes into a northern-strain population can decrease the average size of the latter, but the jury’s still out on that.
Other arguments against stocking Florida bass exist. “There is some evidence that shows the stocking of Florida largemouth bass may affect (native) bass populations, but it is limited because the field of fish genetics is still fairly new,” Stein said. “Also, some of these studies are considered a worst-case scenario.
“For example, some researchers from Illinois showed that stocking Florida largemouth bass in Illinois . . . might affect (the native bass’) ability to survive colder weather. As you can probably see, this is a worst-case scenario, and Arkansas has a much friendlier winter climate.”
All in all, the positive impacts of Florida bass stocking are at this point in time felt to outweigh clearly any negative effects.
An interesting and little-known characteristic of Florida bass involves behavior. While many fishermen ask for Florida bass to be stocked in local lakes, they don’t realize that Florida bass are, as remarked earlier, less aggressive than are northern-strain bass — meaning that Florida bass have proved to be harder to catch, being less avid to attack a lure. Many anglers that target Floridas fish slower, more deliberately and with larger baits.
Overall, across the Southeast and in some Western states, Florida bass stocking has produced exceptional bass fisheries. Stocking of Florida bass is usually required annually to maintain many of these trophy fisheries — but most agree the cost and effort is certainly justified.