As the site of the 2016 GEICO Bassmaster Classic, Grand Lake o' The Cherokees is a world-class largemouth bass fishery.
But that's not enough for some. They want more. They want Grand to join Broken Bow, Tenkiller, Keystone, and a few other Oklahoma lakes with thriving smallmouth fisheries, courtesy of stockings about 20 years ago. In fact, more than 700 anglers petitioned the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC) in 2008 to stock the 46,500-acre impoundment.
And the Peoria Tribe of Indians is growing smallmouth bass at its aquatic facility near Spring River in hopes ODWC and Grand River Dam Authority will approve their release into Grand.
But establishing a fishery isn't as simple as stocking them in this deep, rocky lake, which seems a natural for bronzebacks. That's because smallmouth bass already live in the tributaries of this reservoir that is nearly 75 years ago, and they never have moved down to join largemouth bass in the impounded waters.
"My contention is that something isn't right for them (in the lake)," said Gene Gilliland, a long-time fisheries biologist in Oklahoma before he became B.A.S.S.'s national conservation director. "If you stock those fish, it probably won't do any good. If they were going to make it, they already would be there."
But why did they make it in Tenkiller and other eastern Oklahoma fisheries? Smallmouth bass stocked in those impoundments aren't the same strain as those that live in the tributaries and are being hatchery raised. When Oklahoma became its smallmouth stocking program, it used Tennessee strain, the same genetic fish that thrives and grows to husky proportions in Tennessee and Cumberland River impoundments.
"That was when a smallmouth was a smallmouth was a smallmouth," Gilliland said. "But now the science is better. Now we see there are unique stocks."
And the native smallmouths of eastern Oklahoma streams are the Neosho strain. When ODWC realized that stocking Tennessee smallmouths could jeopardize the genetic integrity of its native fish, it got rid of the brood stock, Gilliland added. "There was concern that Tennessee bass would swim upstream, interbreed, and we'd lose native fish over the years," he said.
The Peoria tribe hasn't yet made a formal request to stock Grand with Neosho strain smallmouth. If genetic purity of the fish can be confirmed, though, it seems likely that permission will be granted.
"Will it make a difference in Grand Lake?" asked Barry Bolton, ODWC fisheries chief. "I don't know. If we are going to error, we want to error on the side of caution."
Justin Downs, an environmental specialist for the tribe, contends that that the Neosho strain never reaches its size potential in streams because forage is limited to crawfish and insects. But in Grand, those bass could gorge on shad and, consequently, grow to a size comparable to their Tennessee cousins.
But Gilliland is not convinced. "I'd love to see it go. But there's something just not right that those native smallmouth bass don't thrive there," he said. "Tennessee strain fish are different, more adaptable to reservoir environments.
"I fought the moratorium on stocking (Tennessee strain)," he said. "I'm not convinced that they would swim upstream and hybridize."