Yielding three double-digit largemouth bass in January, little Lake Akins in west-central Arkansas is looking more and more as if it just might be the fishery to produce the next state record bass. The current record, a hefty 16 pounds, 8 ounces, was caught by Aaron Mardis in 1976 on Mallard Lake.
On Jan. 23, an 11.7-pound bass was taken from a public pier on the 752-acre lake managed by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC). A few days later, Sharon Vinson of the Lucky Landing Bait Shop weighed in another 11, as well as a 10 and several others that topped 5 pounds. Most of those, including the second 11, also were caught from the pier, with minnows and shad the baits of choice.
Those big bass likely were among the first Florida-strain bass stocked in the lake in 2003, after it was rehabilitated, according to biologist Frank Leone.
“That would make these fish about 14 years old, which is nearing the end of a Florida-strain bass’s lifespan in Arkansas,” Leone said. “We’re keeping an eye on the population and hoping that we don’t begin to see a decline in those fish that reach what we like to call the ‘memorable’ class.”
Lying between Interstate 40 to the north and the Arkansas River to the south, Lake Atkins originally was impounded in 1956. But over the years, it became overrun with rough fish, including carp and bigmouth buffalo, and that prompted a drawdown and renovation project. A partial drawdown and fish kill in 2002 turned into a near total drawdown when a dam gate malfunctioned, leaving only 25 acres of water left at one point.
“That drawdown enabled us to remove the rough fish and remove northern strain largemouths from the system before we stocked it with Florida-strain bass,” the biologist added. “Through our genetics testing, we’ve seen the lake begin to shift slowly back to northern-strain bass, possibly from fish entering the system from the feeder creek or people moving fish, but we still see many good 5-pound-plus fish every time we electrofish at Atkins.”
B.A.S.S. provides "major league" care for fish at every event. But at the 2017 GEICO Bassmaster Classic March 24-26 here, that phrase takes on added and historic meaning. For the first time, in the event's 47-year history, bass will be weighed in at the home field of a professional baseball team.
Anglers and fish alike must remember to "keep off the grass" at the Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros. But that won't be an impediment to continue the excellent record of fish survival at Classic venues, which typically is 97 to 100 percent, according to National Conservation Director Gene Gilliland. "We certainly expect to achieve the same level of success at Lake Conroe," he added.
Of course, "major league" fish care begins with the 52 anglers competing at 21,000-acre Conroe.
"Our anglers are very conscientious when it comes to keeping their fish alive," the conservation director said. "Dead fish mean penalties and, in the most important bass tournament in the world, they don't want any deductions!"
When competitors return to Lake Conroe Park for afternoon takeout and the 49-mile trip to Minute Maid Park, they will be met by B.A.S.S. staff, as well as state conservation directors from the B.A.S.S. Nation who have volunteered and been trained to help.
First, they will look for dead fish and make sure bass meet the legal minimum length of 16 inches for largemouth and 14 inches for smallmouth. Also they will check to make sure livewells are full and the recirculating aerators are on full time to maximize oxygen in the water. "If water temperatures are above 70 degrees, we will add a little ice to help stabilize the temperature for the trip to Houston," Gilliland said. "It's not so much to cool the water as it is to maintain it."
Barring a cold front, that's likely to be the case. Lake Conroe water temperatures that time of year typically are in the mid to upper 70s.
Then drivers will take the anglers, their boats, and fish to the ball park, which should take at least an hour. If, as expected, they are allowed to use an inbound HOV (high occupancy vehicle) lane on I-45, travel time could be shortened a bit. An hour's drive is more the norm that the exception for a Bassmaster Classic.
Outside Minute Maid Park, the fish will be checked again by B.A.S.S. staff and volunteers, more ice will be added if necessary, bass will be fizzed if needed (not likely), and the boats will be washed. Anglers will place their bass in mesh bags, which stay in the livewells.
When the weigh-in begins, each boat will enter the stadium from right field. It will drive onto the warning track and, from there, travel on an elevated platform down the right field line, go around home plate, and stop at third base.
"The stage will be set on the baseball infield between second and third base, facing the third-base line and stands," Gilliland said. "There will be a bridge there for anglers to cross over the grass and carry their bags of fish to the stage and scales."
At a Classic, bass typically are kept out of the water less than a minute total from the time the anglers check in at the takeout site until they are released into their home waters after the weigh-in. The longest part of that is as the fisherman carries his catch in a mesh bag to the stage.
"That time out of the water is usually 10 to 20 seconds at a time," the conservation director said. "For the Elite tournaments, the average total time was 49 seconds. We want to handle the fish as little as possible and keep them out of the water as little as possible. At the ramp, they might not even need to be handled and the same goes for the boat yard."
Occasionally, anglers will take bigger fish out of the mesh and hold them up for the crowd and media to see. As the remainder of the bass are passed off so that they can be more quickly placed in water, those photo fish will receive a few extra seconds in the spotlight before being placed in separate bags and moved along in the process.
For this Classic, the bass will be hustled out of Minute Maid Park to hatchery hauling trailers provided by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD).
"The most common question we get is 'Will those fish go home?' and they will," Gilliland said. "People who live around lakes are possessive of their fish and we understand that. For this Classic, the exception would be a ShareLunker (13 pounds or better), which would go to the hatchery in Athens."
TPWD will use those trailers to transport the bass to Conroe each evening where they will be released at undisclosed locations, according to Dave Terre, chief of management/research for Inland Fisheries. "I will staff those with four people.
"I will likely have two other fish transport vehicles as well," he added. "One for transporting fish back for the high school/college tournament and one for dealing with a ShareLunker if one is caught at Lake Conroe during the tournament. Each of those vehicles will have a staff member assigned to them."
Water in the trailers will be oxygenated and temperature maintained as close as possible to that of Lake Conroe, Gilliland said.
The conservation director added that the entire fish care process from takeout to placement in the hatchery trailers requires 10 to 12 B.A.S.S. staff and volunteers.
"Space is tight and time is tight, and that's all we need to keep the process moving, to handle the fish as little as possible and get them back to the lake."
We fish to spend time with family and friends. We fish to relax. We fish to compete. We fish to enjoy nature. We fish to remember. We fish to forget. We fish because --- along with our families, our religions, and our jobs --- it completes us.
From Why We Fish
Children attending this year’s GEICO Bassmaster Classic Outdoors Expo presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods will be in for a special treat March 24-26 at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston
Fishing, games, competitions, seminars, special guests, raffles, giveaways and more await them at the Shell Bassmaster Get Hooked on Fishing presented by Academy Sports + Outdoors. Kids can get in on the fun from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday, while 52 of the world’s best bass anglers compete at nearby Lake Conroe. All activities are free and open to the public.
“Shell takes great pride in our partnerships and in the events we support throughout the year that are nationally respected, help protect our environment and have a positive impact on local communities,” said Bruce Culpepper, Shell Oil Company president.
“The Bassmaster Classic and Get Hooked on Fishing are both prime examples of getting people personally involved with the outdoors and understanding how important conservation and caring for our environment is for all of us.”
While children of all backgrounds and ages will enjoy Get Hooked on Fishing, special emphasis will be on introducing multicultural youth and their families to the joys of fishing and instructing them in the basics, as well as teaching them about nature, conservation, and stewardship. Kids in grades 2 through 6 will get to experience the real thing too, angling in a pond filled with catfish. Nine hundred students from the Houston Independent School District will test their luck on Friday.
Activities also will include interactive exhibits and presentations by Coastal Conservation Association, Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Additionally, renowned anglers like Pedro Sors and Billy Murray will share their knowledge, while the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Paw Patrol characters will entertain at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., on Saturday and Sunday. Those who want to test their skills can compete in Casting Kids events, while attendees can sharpen their casting and catching skills in Learn From the Pros seminars.
Dogs on the Dock, meanwhile, will feature long-jumping competitions by retrievers, with many local canines expected to compete.
For more information, go here.