Safety and social distancing protocols associated with the COVID-19 pandemic helped take a big bite out of Texas Parks and Wildlife’s overall freshwater hatchery production numbers this spring, but the setbacks didn’t stop one Toyota ShareLunker Legacy Lunker from making a slew of little ones.
Though 2020 wasn’t the best year on record for the spawning phase of the 34-year-old spawning and genetics research program, there were a handful of jumbo bass turned in. James Maupin’s 13.15 pounder caught from Lake O.H. Ivie in March produced nearly 30,000 fingerlings produced for stocking in select Texas lakes.
Additionally, hatchery staff at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center dipped into their growing ponds and found more than 14,000 advanced-growth ShareLunker fingerlings from 2019 available for release into public waters.
Likewise, nine Texas lakes, including a half dozen impoundments in the eastern half of the state, have been stocked in recent months with thousands of Toyota ShareLunker offspring collected from super-size female largemouth bass.
All of the mother fish — Legacy Class ShareLunkers weighing upwards of 13 pounds — were caught from Texas reservoirs and loaned to Texas Parks and Wildlife’s selective breeding program by anglers who reeled them in during the program’s official spawning season, which runs Jan. 1 - March 31 each year.
Three public reservoirs including lakes Nacogdoches, O.H. Ivie and Alan Henry produced a total of four Legacy Lunkers in 2020. In June, the donor lakes were stocked with prodigy from the O.H. Ivie bass. Maupin’s fish spawned successfully two times in hatchery raceways, resulting in 28,676 fingerlings. It was the only Legacy Lunker from 2020 to spawn successfully.
Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center hatchery manager Tony Owens said Lake Nacogdoches received 5,016 of the fingerlings, 4,828 went to O.H. Ivie and 8,933 were stocked at Alan Henry.
Alan Henry received the most fish because it produced two of the program’s four entries, a 14.36 pounder and a 13.28 pounder. Both bass were caught less than a month apart by the same angler, Blake Cockrell of Lubbock.
Owens added that 9,899 of the fingerlings from Maupin’s fish were retained by TPWD for use in rebuilding the state’s Florida bass hatchery program with ShareLunker offspring. In time, the department’s Florida bass brood stock will be comprised entirely of fish whose ancestors weighed upwards of 13 pounds.
Several attempts were made to get Cockrell’s 13.28 pounder to spawn with different males, but none were successful, Owens said.
Sadly, the two biggest fish turned over to the program this spring died at the TFFC. Among them were a 15.34 pound Nacogdoches lake record caught by Joe Castle and Cockrell’s 14.36 pounder from Alan Henry.
Owens said he believes Castle’s bass died from stress complications related to a protozoan parasitic infection called white spot disease or “Ich.” It’ is a common disease in fish that results in encysted parasites that appear as tiny white nodules on the body, fins and gills. Owens said he does not know if the fish already had the disease when it was caught or not.
The biologist believes the Alan Henry fish died from stress after injuring its lip injury while attempting to chase down a rainbow trout that had been placed in its holding tank as forage.
Despite the latest mortalities, TPWD says the program maintains an 86 percent survival rate among entries over the last five ShareLunker spawning seasons.
Anglers who loan the Legacy Lunkers to TPWD are given several options once the spawning effort is complete. Most choose to have the fish returned to the donor lake.
Cockrell elected to leave his 13.28 pounder at the TFFC until next spring in hopes that it might spawn before it is returned Alan Henry sometime in 2021. Maupin, meanwhile, donated his fish to the TFFC for display in aquariums and diving exhibits.
In addition to the 2020 offspring, TPWD hatchery crews released 14,203 advanced-growth fingerlings from last year’s Legacy Lunker spawns into lake’s Gilmer, Pflugerville, Kurth, Tyler, Murvaul and brood ponds that eventually will be inundated by Bois d’Arc Lake, a 16,600-acre North Texas Municipal Water District reservoir currently under construction in Fannin County.
Advanced-growth fingerlings are typically 6-8 inches long. The bigger fish are believed to have higher survival rates after stocking than offspring that are only a few months old. The downsides are pond space and the additional cost of raising the fish on live prey like koi carp and fathead minnows.
It costs about $4 per fish to raise bass to 6 inches and 14 cents to raise one to 2 inches, according to Todd Engeling, director of hatcheries for TPWD’s inland fisheries division.
A bright spot worth noting about this year’s class of Legacy Lunkers revolves around Castle’s whopper from Lake Nacogdoches.
The 15.34 pounder was the fifth Legacy class ShareLunker caught from Texas lakes since 2017 to be identified as an offspring from TPWD’s selective breeding program launched in 1986. Others include 13.07 and 14.57 pounders caught from Marine Creek Reservoir near Fort Worth, a 13.06 pounder from Lake Naconiche and a 13.79 pounder from a private TPWD research lake.
Genetics testing performed on the fish by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department fisheries scientists identified the big bass as the offspring of a 14.50 pound Toyota ShareLunker caught at Tyler State Park Lake in March 2008.
The 12-year-old fish was stocked in Lake Nacogdoches as an “advanced growth” fingerling in 2008, according to TPWD fisheries biologist Todd Driscoll. Testing also indicated Castle’s bass was an intergrade, meaning it did not have pure Florida genes.
Clearly, evidence continues to mount to support the premise on ShareLunker was founded when it launched more than three decades ago: Big bass can be selectively bred to produce more big bass.
TPWD inland fisheries director Craig Bonds agreed that the big Nacogdoches lunker was truly a special fish.
“It is yet another important piece of evidence supporting the value that the ShareLunker program adds to our efforts to increase the odds of current and future anglers experiencing a catch of a lifetime in Texas waters,” Bonds said. “Improvements in our genetics analytics, anglers’ continued willingness to partner with us by donating large bass for selective spawning, and the ongoing conversion of our Florida largemouth bass hatchery brood fish to include ShareLunker offspring will have a long-term positive impact on the quality of bass fishing in Texas. These observations, evidenced by growing numbers of documented angler catches of formerly-stocked ShareLunker offspring, continue to mount and validate our approach.”
Matt Williams is a freelance writer based in Nacogdoches. He can be reached by e-mail, email@example.com.