Robert Dean Wood wants to engineer a better bass fishery at Smith Mountain Lake. Elite Series angler John Crews wants to help. And the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) has approved the first step, privately funded stocking of a northern/Florida hybrid known as the F-1 Tiger bass.
“Smith Mountain Lake is my lake. That’s why I’m doing this,” said Wood, a long-time tournament angler. “I want a bigger and better bass fishery for future generations.”
In three to five years, Wood explained, he hopes to see 50 out of 100 boats in a tournament weigh in a 5-pound bass. “And my dream is to have B.A.S.S. here for another major event.” (Elite Series anglers last competed there in 2010 Blue Ridge Brawl.)
Virginia pro Crews added, “This could be a really good deal for Virginia in general, as well as Smith Mountain Lake. I know that the Elite Series anglers loved the lake, and it would be great to bring them back.
“I’ve seen that phenomenon before,” he said. “You get the right genetics in the water, and a fishery takes off. And this lake reminds me of some out west that grow big bass. And Biwa in Japan is similar, with deep, clear water.”
Private stocking of a public fishery is rare. “But it has been done before, in places like the Rappahannock (River),” said VDGIF biologist Dan Wilson
“This is not a matter of identifying a need,” he continued. “But if they are supplying the fish, this benefits both of us. We can study what happens and see if it works in our larger reservoirs.”
The state already has tried the F-1 Tiger in three small lakes, with mixed results. In one, the biologist said, “They didn’t show up.” In another, which had been recently drained and had few resident fish, they “did okay.” While in the third, which had good forage but low numbers and recruitment, they performed “very well.”
By contrast, 20,000-acre Smith Mountain already boasts good density of bass with acceptable growth, even though it is clear and deep with steep shorelines and little shallow cover. “There’s not a recruitment problem,” Wilson said. “It’s a pretty average lake.”
Smith Mountain also has plenty of forage, including threadfin shad, alewives, and blueback herring. “Bass can feed on bluegill and crawfish too,” Wood said. “We felt that all of this forage would support a stocking.”
So if the lake already has an adequate bass population and limited shallow habitat for spawning, why do a supplemental stocking of F-1 Tiger bass? Also, most lakes in Virginia have a 50/50 mix of northern/Florida genes, Wilson revealed.
“In some, it’s 60/40 and in others it’s 40/60. And who knows how it happened?” the biologist said. “Largemouth bass are not native to Virginia and we don’t have records.”
Briery Creek, which has produced big fish and is widely believed to have been stocked with pure strain Florida bass during the 1980s, really is no different than the rest.
“We stocked pure northern and what we thought were pure Florida in there,” Wilson said. “But when we started checking progeny, we found that didn’t that we didn’t go far enough south to get those Florida bass.”
The F-1 Tiger hybrid, however, is bred especially for fast growth and aggressiveness by American Sport Fish Hatchery in Montgomery, Ala. (See related sidebar.) Wood and Crews hope that mixing in those genes could be just the jump start that Smith Mountain needs to produce larger bass and heavier limits.
“Of course, all 20,000 won’t survive. What we’re looking for is to get the number of fish per acre up and start a better strain of bass,” Wood said. “And Don Keller (at AFS) said that the fish would be fine with the colder temperatures up here.”
Before deciding to do it himself, the Virginia angler checked to see if VDGIF would supplement the largemouth population in Smith Mountain. “Virginia does stock stripers,” he said. “But because bass spawn in there, it wasn’t going to stock them. To my knowledge, no one has ever stocked bass in there.”
The first planting of two-inch fingerlings occurred in May 2015, with follow-ups planned for 2016 and 2017. Cost for each shipment is $10,600, and Wood is hoping that anglers will donate to the cause.
“But even if they don’t, I’ll buy it out of pocket if I have to,” he said
The fingerlings won’t be tagged, but VDGIF will help with the stocking, as well as conduct electrofishing surveys to assess success. It also will take fin clips of captured fish for genetic identification by Auburn University.
“Dan and I agree that habitat in Smith Mountain is not as conducive (to growing big bass) as Chickamauga (Tennessee impoundment stocked with Florida bass),” Wood said. “But we’ll never know whether it will work if we don’t try.”
Additionally, stocking is just the first step in making the Virginia impoundment a better bass fishery, he added.
“The stocking will give us a reason to start talking to people who live on the lake and manage it about getting some vegetation for the fish,” he said.
“We’re hoping that the power company (American Electric Power) will allow some grasses, maybe something like willow grass,” Crews said. “The whole key is not to do anything that would disturb power plant operation or the home owners.
“I’m going to spread the word to donate money for the stocking and to support shallow water cover. This lake is in my backyard, and I take a lot of pride in it,” he said. “I want it to be as good as it can be.”
F-1 Tiger Bass
The F-1 Tiger bass is the offspring of a special strain of northern bass and a pure strain of Florida bass. American Sport Fish is the only hatchery licensed to produce and sell this hybrid.
“Our Florida strain largemouth bass brooders are from proven trophy lines and our northern largemouth bass have been selected for 15 generations for their aggressive feeding behavior,” said AFS’s Don Keller.
Fed a diet of goldfish, shad, and tilapia, the brood stock is kept in prime condition for spring spawning.
"Our Tiger bass have already gained weights of 15 pounds in eight years,” he added. “We expect them to break state records in the next several years.”