September 30, 2010
What are the chances of catching a new state-record black bass from the lakes that established the present marks? Let's take a look. (April 2007)
Anthony Denny's record of 18.15 pounds for a largemouth bass is most likely to be broken at Lake Calling Panther.
Photo by Robert H. Cleveland Jr.
When you study Mississippi's official list of state freshwater fish records, one anomaly jumps out at you that is as unusual as a catfish attacking a Zara Spook.
It's that odd, but it's right there in print: S. Ross Grantham caught the 8-pound, 2-ounce spot on Sept. 2, 1975 — from a farm pond in Jones County.
It is with that line that any story about Mississippi's state-record fish must start, especially one that looks at the records for the Magnolia State's three native black bass species — spotted, largemouth and smallmouth.
An 8-pound, 2-ounce spotted bass is a world-class catch. On the other hand, catching it from a farm pond just seems too weird to be true. And every time you mention it to a member of the Fisheries Division of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, you get the same kind of response.
The person will laugh, sort of under his breath, shake his head a bit, and then say something like, "Oh yeah, the record spot — here we go again."
Even the biologists charged with keeping such state records have a hard time accepting the accuracy of that spotted bass record. They have to maintain it, because their predecessors accepted it.
The original paperwork reporting the catch is still in the file, albeit in a far different form than most other state records. There is even a picture of Grantham in the file with what looks like a spotted bass, but even that does little to end the doubts.
"It does seem odd that a Kentucky spotted bass that big would come out of a farm pond," said Ron Garavelli, chief of fisheries. "That species is not one you relate to a farm pond. They are a river fish.
"I'm not saying they can't live in a farm pond, or that it's impossible that one could get that big, but, yes, it does seem odd."
Of the three black bass species on the state-record list, the Kentucky spotted bass is the one for which most fishermen say the record will be the hardest to beat — even harder than the 18.15-pound record for largemouth bass!
And let there be no doubt that it is the one with the longest odds of having its record broken in the same lake as the existing record — or any other farm pond. Just look at the other two bass species.
The smallmouth record of 7 pounds, 15 ounces should be the easiest to break, even though Thomas Wilbanks' fish has topped the list for 20 years. It was caught Jan. 24, 1987, in the Yellow Creek area of Pickwick Lake. It is also the bass record most likely to be broken by a fish caught in the same waters.
"I can't believe it hasn't been broken already," said Larry Pugh, a state fisheries biologist in the northeast Mississippi region, home to the only habitat in the state where smallmouths swim. "I've seen a lot of fish come close in the past few years, and I guarantee you there are 8-pounders out there swimming around, lots of them.
"But you're wrong if you think that Pickwick Lake is the only place capable of producing one. That was probably true 10 years ago. Not anymore. They have moved down into Bay Springs Lake and even farther down the Tenn-Tom Waterway."
Pugh said that Pickwick is the likeliest spot for the record to be broken in, but only because it gets the most fishing pressure from people looking for the smallmouth of a lifetime.
"Well, sure, it's still the place to go for trophy smallies," he conceded. "It's so big and there are so many options, but not much of Pickwick is in Mississippi. We've got the Bear Creek, Indian Creek and Yellow Creek areas, and about 10 or 12 miles of shared bank with both Tennessee and Alabama.
"But what has been exciting is to follow the spread of smallmouths over the past decade down the Tenn-Tom Waterway."
The Tenn-Tom, which starts at the Yellow Creek arm of Pickwick and runs through northeast Mississippi into western Alabama, eventually emptying into the Gulf of Mexico in Mobile.
"They haven't moved that far down the waterway, but then there's not a whole lot of it that is suitable smallmouth habitat," Pugh added. "The canal section of the waterway itself, which connects Pickwick to the first pool, Bay Springs, has good quality smallmouths.
"Bay Springs, which is as deep and clear as Pickwick, has really become productive for smallies. You don't catch as many in Bay Springs as you do in Pickwick, but the quality is so good. I wouldn't be surprised if the first 8-pounder was caught there, but it's still not my prediction."
To get to Bay Springs from Pickwick, you go through the lock with the biggest difference in elevation of any in the country.
"The river section below the Bay Springs lock and dam is really starting to produce great smallies," he also noted. "I've seen several 7s come from down there in recent years, and I really feel it could happen there. I kind of hate to say it because it is such a small fishery that it can't take a lot of fishing pressure. But it could happen."
As for the other, most popular black bass species, it is not likely that anyone will match Anthony Denny's 18.15-pound record largemouth with another fish from Natchez State Park Lake, where he caught the fat sow on New Year's Eve in 1992.
"I doubt that Natchez State Park has any fish left in there in that class," said John Skains, the fisheries biologist for southwest Mississippi. "If you remember, the agency drained that 250-acre lake, renovated it and restocked it with Florida largemouth in the mid-1980s.
"That fish was probably, if not obviously, from the original Florida stocking in that lake that had survived long enough in the deep waters to get that big. You know the story on lakes like that. They go through a period of great growth in the first decade, hit a peak and begin to fade out."
Natchez State Park is 10 or 15 years past its prime, but that's not to say that it can't produce trophy bass. Skains said it still gi
ves up a few 10-pound-and-bigger fish each year. Great fish, yes, but not record-class.
"The thing that amazes me most about that fish is not that it was caught in December, or on New Year's Eve, or that it was as big as it was," former fisheries director Jack Herring said at the time. "What amazed me about it was that she was not carrying a lot of egg roe. She was empty. Imagine if that fish had been caught three months later, just prior to the spawn, when her belly was full of eggs. She could easily have topped 20 pounds.
"Even more amazing," Herring said, "was where and how it was caught."
According to a story reported in The Clarion-Ledger newspaper on New Year's Day, the previous day was extremely warm with temperatures in the 70s. Denny caught the fish in about 2 feet of water in one of the shallowest coves in the lake, right next to the boat ramp and a long, long way from the deeper parts of the lake.
"I saw a swirl in about a foot or two of water, and fortunately I had just retrieved my lure when I saw it," Denny said. "I was able to throw at the swirl right after it happened."
Denny was using a Rattlin' Rogue jerkbait, and his cast landed just beyond the commotion. He twitched the bait a couple of times, and another swirl erupted in almost the same spot as the first.
The huge fish, one of the top 10 bass ever reported in the country at that time and the No. 4 largest state-record largemouth in the country at the time (Georgia, California and Florida), was hooked and headed to the record books. It replaced a fish that had been caught just a year before in the same lake.
According to Olen Walley, the Natchez State Park manager in 1992, it was just a matter of time back then before someone caught a monster that would stand the test of time.
"We had seen some fish in the 15- and 16-pound range in the lake," he said. "We found one floating dead that weighed 16 pounds without the 2-pound catfish that had killed it. That bass had tried to eat a 2-pound catfish, and the catfish's spines had lodged in its gullet. Biologists said that it couldn't breathe and that's what killed it.
"Biologists had actually shocked up a couple of other 16-pound fish earlier that year, including the one that Anthony caught."
Obviously, after almost 20 years, none of the original Florida-strain fish still exist in Natchez State Park, and it's doubtful that their genetic strain is still prevalent.
"But," Skains pointed out, "there is some good fishing there, and I guess there's a chance that the lake could produce something like that again. It's doubtful, but not impossible.
"I do think that our next record will likely come from a very similar lake. You have to have certain things for a fish to grow that big, and that is a good original genetic strain of fish, lots of cover and even deep water, and a productive, fertile soil base. We had all of that at Natchez."
All of that type of habitat — and more of it — is available at another state public lake managed by the MDWFP. A betting man would have to consider putting money on Lake Calling Panther, near Crystal Springs about 40 miles southwest of Jackson, as the state's most likely public water to produce a new record.
It is a new lake, impounded in the last four years in the same type of fertile ground with almost identical topography to Natchez State Park. It covers nearly 500 acres, which is double Natchez Lake's size.
"I don't think there's any doubt that it will grow bass in the record class," said lake manager Kellum Herrington last November. "We've already got a lake record over 11 pounds, and I know one guy who is a great fishermen, who knows his bass, who said he had one on in October that would have been 13 or 14 pounds.
"He's not the kind of guy prone to exaggerate, especially about bass. He hooked the fish on a Spook and had it on for several minutes before the fish broke the line."
But even if the fisherman had exaggerated the size of the fish by as much as couple of pounds, Skains said, it is evidence that the lake is capable of breaking the state record within a year or two.
"The record is already over 11, so we know we have fish that big," he emphasized. "We're not guessing there. And the thing you have to remember is that those bass could not have been over 3 1/2 years old, because that's the longest they could have been in there. We know that."
Garavelli was quick to agree.
"If the lake can grow bass to 11 or 12 pounds in less than four years, the potential for what it can do in five or six years is — well, I don't know that we've seen it in Mississippi. Maybe not even at Natchez in the first years after it was stocked."
But Calling Panther is in a race. Since state records are not restricted to public waters, it is highly possible that the next state record will come from a "designer" lake — one of those private high-dollar lakes, heavily managed to produce quality bass.
Which brings us back to the Kentucky spotted bass record.
"I'd have to say that the next record would have to come from public waters, like a river," Garavelli said. "I'm not sure we'll ever see one that big from another farm pond."
If indeed that's even what happened the first time.
Nobody is questioning whether or not Grantham, of Seminary, caught an 8-pound, 2-ounce bass that day in 1975. The question is whether or not it really was a spotted bass. An attempt to find Grantham last year for this story was unsuccessful.
According to the agency's records, the fish was never examined by a state fisheries biologist, which is now required of any fish submitted as a record.
"We have a letter from a professor at the University of Southern Mississippi who writes that he did examine the fish and that it was a spotted bass," said biologist Tom Holman, keeper of the records for the MDWFP. "We have an affidavit from a man at a store verifying the weight. We even have a Polaroid-type photo of Mr. Grantham and his fish."
But adding to the mystery of the catch are a few other facts.
The biologist at USM, who also couldn't be reached, was also named Grantham.
The picture of Ross Grantham with the spotted bass is of the angler and the bass after a taxidermist had already mounted the fish.
And, of course, there's the fact that spotted bass are not considered pond fish and are rarely found in such waters.
It's not that current MDWFP officials don't believe the fish was truly a spotted bass, but the situation does create doubts.
In Ross Grantham's letter to the state that accompanied the photo and report, he said he caught the fish on a purple CrÃ¨me worm. He had caught some other big fish in recent trips to different farm ponds owned by family and friends.
But a spotted bass?
"We don't know anything about the pond, like where it is for sure, and whether or not it could be close enough to a river or a creek that could have flooded," Ron Garavelli said.
He went on to note that such an event could have put some spots into a pond.
Tom Holman said he didn't know of any other explanation of how a spot could have gotten into a farm pond and gotten that big.
"Even in that era, no way could a hatchery or a biologist have mistakenly put spotted bass in a pond," he said. "Just didn't happen. People weren't raising spotted bass in Mississippi hatcheries."
But accept it we must, until it is broken.
"Don't think for a minute that it won't be," Larry Pugh offered. "I'd say it was just a matter of time. Maybe this year. Who knows?
"All I can tell you is that I have personally put my hands on and weighed several spotted bass in the last few years that were well over 7 and even 7 1/2 pounds. They're out there. They'll get caught."
Does he know where or when?
"The where is easy," Pugh said. "It will come from the Tenn-Tom, either the connecting channel between Pickwick and Bay Springs, or from Bay Springs Lake, or from that same section of the river below Bay Springs where I told you the smallmouth could come from. I saw three from there this year. I hate to tell you that, because again, it's such a small area and it could easily be overfished.
"As for the when? I'd like to think in a year or two, and probably in the spring, when they are at their biggest."
One other river system could produce a record spot.
"I wouldn't bet too much against the Pearl River or Barnett Reservoir," said bass pro Shannon Denson of Fannin. "In the past two years, we've started seeing spots moving down onto the main lake at Barnett, and when they get down there in that shad base, man, they get fat. I've seen some 5s and some 6s, but to be honest I don't know if I'll ever see a 7 there.
"Not because they aren't there, but because spots are so strong and mean, a spotted bass that big would be tough for the average guy to land."
Find more about Mississippi fishing and hunting at: MississippiGameandFish.com.