April 30, 2021
For many years now, the biggest claim to fame in Bonham, Texas, is that the small community near the Red River served as the home of the late Sam Rayburn, a 24-term congressional representative who served as Speaker of the House on three occasions.
If you've ever seen the famous photo of four U.S. Presidents (Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Harry Truman) sitting together on a pew at Bonham's First Baptist Church during the November 1961 funeral of Rayburn, then you understand fully that claim to fame.
While few things are likely to top that photo of Presidential power and political clout, there is hope that the Fannin County region will be famous for something else someday soon.
We're talking about big double-digit bass, the kind of lunkers that still make the news, whether it's by way of old-school newspaper headlines, or viral social-media posts. Either way, that's the kind of piscatorial excitement that Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist Dan Bennett is hoping to see generated by Bois d'Arc Lake, the new 16,641-acre reservoir starting to fill up a few miles northeast of Bonham.
In fact, Bennett makes it clear that his ultimate hope is to steal the big-bass spotlight away from the lake he grew up around, famed Lake Fork, which is home to 30 of the state's top 50 largemouth bass, as well as the current state record, an 18.18-pound largemouth landed in January 1992 by crappie angler Barry St. Clair.
Bennett readily admits that's a lofty goal, but it's a dream that has fueled his angling and career pursuits for many years now.
"Yeah, I'll admit growing up that I did kind of dream of being the mad scientist in charge of a big-fish laboratory," laughed Bennett, who graduated from Stephen F. Austin State University in 2007 with an aquatic biology degree. "I grew up around Fork and fished there in the 1990s, when it was at its peak. Initially, I dreamed of working on that particular lake and I was able to do that out of the Tyler office before this opportunity here became available."
That opportunity—the chance to oversee the Lake Texoma Fisheries Station and the inland fisheries district that it serves—was a chance Bennett jumped at when his predecessor, Bruce Hysmith, retired a few years ago.
Dream Come True
But the world-class striped bass fishery at Texoma was only one of the things that lured Bennett to his TPWD office northwest of Denison, Texas. The other was a chance to help build Bois d'Arc and its future bass fishery from the very beginning.
"Yeah, one of the primary reasons for being attracted to this job were the new lakes that are coming into this district, Bois d'Arc and Lake Ralph Hall (another new lake being constructed in Fannin County)," he said. "It's every biologist's dream to start working on a lake from the ground up. It certainly doesn't happen very often."
As the dream of a future fishery began to turn into reality over the last few years, Bennett and his staff have turned to the Lake Fork recipe that made that particular fishery a household name and bucketmouth destination spot a generation ago.
To start with, Bennett and his crew wanted to know what ingredients they had to work with.
"In following that recipe (from Fork), we basically went in and identified some of the larger existing ponds, four of them, that would be in the inundated lakebed," said Bennett. "They totaled about 20 acres of water.
"Then, we went in and removed the existing population of fish and started over again in those ponds."
In the summer of 2018, Bennett and his staff began the renovation process of those four ponds, selectively stocking largemouth bass and baitfish into those water bodies, just like TPWD biologists did at Fork back in the early 1980s.
"That was our plan, to kind of follow some of the same methods that were used at Fork, in stocking pre-existing ponds," he said. "That's where the idea originally took place. It's been tried now at a number of other places, like Lake Ray Roberts (site of the upcoming 2021 Bassmaster Classic), where we go in and introduce Florida-strain adults and fingerlings into those ponds.”
In essence, the four ponds that are now under water at Bois d'Arc as the lake fills, served as nursery ponds for the last several years.
But one aspect of this effort that has always intrigued Bennett is the chance to use a certain kind of advanced Florida bass fingerling, one that will hopefully give Bois d'Arc even more of a lunker producing edge in the future.
"I had it in my mind that I wanted to focus on Florida bass produced through the ShareLunker program," he said. "The parents of what we've stocked were those donated fish 13-pounds and larger, who came into the ShareLunker program. In other words, they come from a known genetic lineage that is capable of growing to that size and bigger."
With that backstory, Bennett and his staff stocked the first such ShareLunker offspring in the four nursery ponds on Oct. 29, 2019.
"We put in 2,070 ShareLunker offspring bass that were one year old already," he said. "They were raised in our state fish hatchery and were anywhere from six to eight inches in length. We put about 1,000 in the biggest pond and the other 1,000 in the others that were smaller in size, about 3-4 acres each."
After that initial stocking in the fall of 2019, Bennett's crew has also stocked 415 ShareLunker offspring bass on March 11, 2020, 631 on October 22, 2020, 443 on March 31, 2021, 5,097 on April 7, 2021, 772 on April 8, 2021, and 727 on April 9, 2021.
"As fish have been available, we have stocked more and more of those fish," said Bennett. "We stocked some in 2020 and more this spring. And these fish, they've actually been about two-years old, so they are a little bigger, in the 10- to 12-inch range."
All told, more than 10,000 of these super bass have been stocked in Bois d'Arc, as the 16,641-acre reservoir begins to fill after the dam was closed a few weeks ago.
"The total that we stocked there (to date) is 10,155 bass that are at least one year old already," said Bennett. "We've stocked all adults so far, no small fingerlings, but instead, all of these advanced fingerlings. And since some males can spawn at one year of age, and the females typically get there at two to three years of age, it's possible that we could actually have some spawning take place this year, a decent amount I would expect, and certainly even more next year."
Also stocked into the four nursery ponds over time have been baitfish of various sizes—more than 19,000 bluegills, more than 1,000 threadfin shad, and a good number of fathead minnows—so that the introduced largemouth could have something to eat.
"We basically treated each pond as anyone would to create a private fishing pond," said Bennett. "We actually put the baitfish in those ponds back in the spring of 2019," so the bass would have a forage base after being stocked.
While native largemouth genetics will undoubtedly find their way into the new lake, Bennett believes that the super-charged genetics of these advanced-sized ShareLunker bass introduced into Bois d'Arc will help the lake become something special down the road as the anticipated significant growth potential of these fish kicks in.
"I wouldn't want to speak for our geneticist, but thanks to the studying that he has done, we've identified some genetic markers for that growth potential (of bass stocked into Bois d'Arc)," he said. "Obviously, Florida bass grow to a larger size than our native bass do, but not all Florida bass have the potential of getting to that large (trophy) size."
Fast Growth Rate
What size will that be if the ShareLunker prodigy reaches its full potential in Bois d'Arc?
"What will the growth rate be?" said Bennett. "Potentially, in the first year or two that the lake is open, we could see some double-digit bass coming out of there. In the ShareLunker program, the youngest fish (13 pounds or better) that they have ever aged came out of Amistad or Falcon. It was seven years old and already 13+ pounds.
"Now, they obviously grow fast down there (in deep South Texas) because they have a year-round growing season. But on a lake like this, we could potentially—as early as 2023, I'd guess—see 10+ pound fish coming from Bois d'Arc."
Bennett admits the idea of creating a fishery that can produce a state record is filled with potholes, some seen, others not. But he also knows he and his staff have done what they can to get Bois d'Arc off and running in that direction.
"When you're hoping to produce a state record, you can do all the things that you can, but you still may not get there because of one variable or another," he said.
"But we're basically trying to throw everything in our toolbox (at this lake), even before the lake is open and while it is filling up. We're doing what we can to try and make that happen."
Texas is certainly one of the country's best-known places to chase bucketmouth bass—see Bassmaster Elite Series pro Lee Livesay's winning four-day total of 112 pounds, 5 ounces this past weekend at Lake Fork, where he won after a final-day limit that tipped the scales at a staggering 42 pounds, 3 ounces. If you're keeping score at home, that's the third biggest five-fish bag limit in the history of B.A.S.S.
But the Lone Star State has also been stuck at the 18.18-pound state record mark for nearly 30 years now, a benchmark that seems unthreatened at times as the state's population grows, its lakes age, and the uncertainty over climate change ensues.
Will Texas ever produce a new state record largemouth bass? Suffice it to say that if Dan Bennett—the boyhood angler turned big-fish mad scientist turned TPWD biologist in charge of a new lake—has his way, the answer to that question is yes.
And if that happens, there's a good chance that Bonham, Texas, will have a new claim to fame. Except this time, it won't be a photo from the Presidential archives, it will be a 21st Century angler hoisting a monster largemouth for all of the world to see, one destined to rewrite the Lone Star State's hallowed fishing record book.