Is bigger always better?
I wondered as I dove into a recent article. It seems the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation plans to stock Grand Lake with mature Florida-strain bass after initially stocking Florida fingerlings in an attempt to create more hybrid largemouths. These F-1 hybrids, according to a press release, are “kind of the perfect fish,” quickly growing large and tolerating various water temperatures.
Such genetic modifications in our fisheries are nothing new – biologists all over the country have been stocking Florida-strain largemouth bass for decades in an attempt to bring out more anglers in pursuit. Some stocking has worked, leading to incredible fisheries and big bass booms. California’s shot at the world record immediately comes to mind, as does KVD’s record-setting Classic in New Orleans. Both were direct results of introduced Florida-strain bass.
However, for every stocking success story, there’s likely an equal failure, often costing taxpayers more money than the game and fish agencies would like to admit. From the same article on Grand, we learn that “from 1982 to 1998 the department stocked fingerling Florida-strain bass in the lake. It didn’t work …”
But, yet, here we are again. More on that in a minute.
Turning back to the subject at hand, I doubt I’ll find many readers who aren’t interested in catching larger bass. But consider one fact: Once a native fish population is altered, it can never be restored. Never. The genes, the characteristics of the population, the inherent traits; all are lost forever.
The thought is that breeding for specific traits is the way to go, as our desires as bass anglers are pretty basic. Big fish that pull hard and like to bite. Simple.
But there’s a very good chance we’re not considering underlying details that could make a tremendous difference in the fish population. One, for certain, is resistance to disease and environmental stress. As in other species of wildlife, native fish populations build immunities to local adversities, while introduced or exotic species often suffer massive die-offs in the same scenario.
Is that worth the money?
And what about the principle of it all? Should that matter?
Now, just consider my real-life example. I’ve got a fishing buddy who’s done it all in the world of big bass; his conquests include several largemouths over 15 pounds. His biggest fish, a California monster caught in the heyday, flirted with 20. Yet it’s his biggest natural Florida bass, taken from a remote pond in the '60s, that he claims as the catch of his lifetime. As he put it, the Western giants were “too artificial," as if those fish deserve an asterisk in the record books.
Getting back to our Grand example, to be fair, I must state that the larger stocked bass are being retired from a state hatchery, so they need to go somewhere. But the earlier fingerling stocks were not.
In addition, according to our release, Grand Lake is listed as Oklahoma’s “top bass fishing lake” and “is often listed as a top bass lake nationally and is already a tournament destination with numerous pro tourneys to its credit, including two past Bassmaster Classics and the Major League Fishing REDCREST set for 2021.”
Which, then, poses the obvious question: If it’s so great, why change anything? What can be accomplished?
Okay, enough beating up on fish and wildlife guys. My argument within really doesn’t stem from a taxpayer issue. It’s more … theological?
I, for one, enjoy the uniqueness of fisheries all throughout our nation. I think of the little creek bass I caught once in northern Florida. At the time I didn’t know it, but I’d wager they were actually a unique specie, like a Suwannee or shoal bass. In any case, I’d love to hold one again, knowing what I know now, and appreciate its unique lifestyle.
I remember the little spots of the Ohio River; the real “Kentuckies.” And I’ve often marveled at the biggest of the northern strain largemouths from the glacier lakes. Such stout frames and wide shoulders, true predators of their environment, at home taking down baby ducklings and field mice in the lily pad fields.
I’ve fished across much of the eastern U.S. and been marveled by the bass all across the region. The tidal maniacs of the Potomac, just waiting for the water to move. The super-shallow swimjig suckers of the Mississippi. The shad gorgers of Kentucky and Barkley. Each bring back unique memories.
But today, all the headlines are about Florida bass. Guaranteed to grow big and keep the boat ramps busy. A big win-win.
But I often wonder if it's that simple; is that all there is to it? Will the time come when every body of water capable of supporting Florida bass does so, or at least a hybrid of their offspring? Will all the fisheries offer more fulfilling angling opportunities? And could all be susceptible to a danger we might not know of now, but someday find out the hard way?
Sometimes, it’s best to take a step back before taking the plunge.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)