The past few weeks I have had a couple great conversations with other fisheries professionals about trying to grow the elusive 20 lb. largemouth bass in a private lake. We all know that environment, forage, and competition play a very big part in individual fish growth. This is why if you want to grow a trophy largemouth you must set up a diverse food chain first, provide excellent water quality, control vegetation, and cull bass religiously. But when talking about creating a truly world class fishery we always get stuck on two topics: genetics and catch-ability.
The problem is that each small reservoir has a carrying capacity of predators and to grow consistent trophy size fish or the unthinkable 20 lb. individual you must greatly limit the number of predators. However, by doing this you can have such a low abundance of bass that you reduce your ability to catch fish. So when selecting the strain of largemouth bass to stock we tend to go back and forth between Florida (FL) and Florida Native Cross (FX) genetics. Unfortunately no one has a concrete answer to which strain of largemouth bass will produce trophy fish consistently and be catchable enough to enjoy in a small reservoir.
The state of Texas has been trying to solve this same problem in public reservoirs by creating the ShareLunker program. The program began in 1986 with the goal of improving Texas public fisheries by spreading the Florida Largemouth genetics through selective reproduction. Basically any largemouth bass weighing a minimum of 13 lbs., caught legally in public or private waters from October 1st to April 30th can be entered into the program. Once the fish reaches the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens via a TPWD employee it is tested to determine its genetic composition. Individual fish that are found to be a pure Florida largemouth bass are then bred with ShareLunker male offspring. The resulting offspring are then stocked back into public waters throughout the state.
The very first bass entering the program in November of 1986 was a new state record at 17.67 lbs. Since that time 549 fish have been entered into the program. Some of those were the same fish multiple times. Beginning in 2009 with advances in DNA fingerprinting techniques Texas Parks and Wildlife began to explore the genetic components of each individual. The resulting data can be found at TPWD.
This data will hopefully unlock the secrets of largemouth bass growth eventually. Currently TPWD has published data for 99 ShareLunkers. Although this is a small sample size, it does give us a starting point to unlock the secrets of which strain is superior. Of the 99 individuals tested so far 47 are pure FL strain and 52 are FX strains. There is not a real statistical difference to say that one strain is superior to the other based on these numbers.
The data gets more interesting when you look at the size of each fish. At 13-14 lbs. there has been 33 FL and 36 FX. At 14-15 lbs. there has been 9 FL and 7 FX. At 15-16 lbs. there has been 4 FL and 5 FX. To this point in the data there is still no significant difference to claim a superior strain. But since 2009 there have been 5 ShareLunker fish at 16+ lbs., 1 of those is FL strain and 4 have been FX strain. This is an extremely small sample size and not the data you would want to hang your hat on.
If this trend holds true for the next 10 years then we may have something that is worth recognizing. It would be a bold statement at this point but I am enjoying thinking that based on this data someday we can say FX strain largemouth bass are superior to pure FL at 16+ lbs.
Another fun fact about the 99 fish tested so far is that 4 individuals have been caught twice. Of these 2 were pure FL and 2 were FX. Still an extremely small sample size but interesting to think that there may not be a huge difference in catch-ability of these trophy fish. Also, of those 4 three had gained weight when caught the second time while 1 had lost weight.
The ShareLunker program does have its flaws so once again this data should be taken at face value only. It is unknown how many 13+ lb. largemouth bass are caught and released without ever entering the program especially in private waters. I see a dozen of these lunkers a year but in the history of the ShareLunker program only 21 private water fish have been entered.
Hopefully as advances in genetic testing continue to improve and as the offspring of the ShareLunker program mature into a lunker size we can begin to gather more data to unlock the secrets of consistently raising trophy largemouth bass.