In southeastern Oklahoma one winter, hatchery ponds for the state’s Florida bass stocking program were covered by ice for three weeks. One hundred miles to the south, at Lake Fork, just three days were below freezing.
Anglers at Fork during that time probably found the bite tough, but the world-class fishery suffered no long-term damage. In those ponds, meanwhile, 60 percent of the Florida bass brood stock died.
Yes, Florida bass grow faster and larger than their northern counterparts. And stocking them outside their native range has resulted in the creation of some spectacular trophy fisheries in states such as Texas, California, Georgia, and Alabama.
But desired outcome from the expensive effort is not a guarantee.
“In Oklahoma, we finally decided that stocking Florida bass was a waste of time in some places, no matter what fishermen want,” said Gene Gilliland, B.A.S.S. National Conservation Director and former assistant chief of fisheries for that state.
Still, anglers continue the drum beat to stock Florida bass in waters that biologists say are inappropriate, as Ron Brooks knows all too well. And in their arguments for stocking, they cite “evidence” that really isn’t evidence at all, explained the Kentucky fisheries chief.
“We receive requests to stock the Florida strain fairly regularly, and they always site Tennessee’s stockings in Kentucky Lake and the larger bass there as a result,” he said, echoing the experiences of fisheries managers in several states.
But biologists haven’t verified that those large bass are the result of Florida strain stockings. “The truth of the matter is that Kentucky Lake is a very fertile lake with very abundant forage species,” Brooks added.
Recently, some wanted Kentucky to stock Florida bass in Cave Run Lake, an infertile fishery east of Lexington, with limited forage and almost no habitat in the lower end. And, oh yeah, muskies, fish that like cold water, do quite well there.
Still, Brooks said, explanations for why Cave Run is inappropriate fell on deaf ears.
In a nutshell, here’s what introduced Florida bass need to thrive: mild climate, abundant forage, and plentiful habitat, preferably vegetation. Originating in subtropic Florida, they’re most at home in shallow water with a long growing season and plenty to eat.
Simply for survival, climate is the most critical of the three. Temperature drop of just a few degrees can stress Florida bass, and rapid and/or severe drop can kill them. Unfortunately, a clear geographic boundary for determining where Florida bass can live and where they can’t does not exist.
“It’s not a north/south thing,” Gililland said. “It’s a diagonal, with cold moving from the northwest to the southeast.”
To thrive, meanwhile, Florida bass require plenty of food both throughout the year and during all stages of their life cycle. In their native range, that means mostly golden shiners, shad, and sunfish. But they will grow large and fat on other species, including trout in California and tilapia in Mexico’s Lake El Salto.
Shallow-water, vegetated habitat is the least critical of the three components, especially if the climate is mild and food plentiful.
Okay, some of you say, “I understand that. But what’s the big deal if you stock Florida bass in a lake and they don’t do well. No harm, no foul. Right?”
Introducing Florida bass is not the same as a supplemental stocking to enhance a depleted fishery. There’s only one reason to stock them: To grow trophy fish. If a water body isn’t conducive for that, then Florida genes mixed into the native strain actually can harm the fishery, making them less hearty, at least in the short term. Eventually, Florida genes will disappear from the population.
But the money wasted to maintain brood stock, spawn them, and stock the offspring still will have been wasted.
Additionally, as Florida bass breed with native bass, the potential for growing to trophy size is lost over time. “You can’t just stock and leave them,” Gilliland said. “As long as you have 50 percent or greater Florida genes, there’s still the potential. Below that, it’s no greater than with just native fish.”
Still, many anglers who want big bass in their home waters continue to lobby for something that is not in the best interests of their fisheries.
“Believe me, if past research projects indicated that Florida strain bass would produce lunker bass in Kentucky, we would have stocked them years ago,” said Brooks, voicing the frustration of many fisheries managers. “We strive to produce the best fisheries possible within the limits of our resources.”
(This article appeared originally in B.A.S.S. Times.)