Looking at Facebook on Wednesday evening, a post by the Denison District of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Inland Fisheries division caught my eye.
With pictorial support, the social media note from Dan Bennett and his TPWD biologists read: “Bonham City Lake got a truckload of Florida largemouth bass today (36,000). Plenty of aquatic vegetation for them to hide in too. Thanks to Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center (Texas Parks and Wildlife) for another great healthy truckload of fish.”
That Fannin County stocking comes on the heels of last week’s planting of more than 6,000 Florida bass fingerlings in Denison’s Waterloo Lake, something I detailed in this space last Friday.
When I posted the story link on social media, a few people responded, proving that my mom — and occasionally my wife — aren’t the only ones to read the outdoors drivel that I put into this space each week.
One of those readers was an old Denison High School classmate of mine, Billy Sammons, quite an enthusiastic bass angler here in Grayson County. He made a solid observation after reading the story, wondering why TPWD doesn’t stock Florida bass in Lake Texoma more often than they have done in the past.
That honest question — and an observation that Sammons made about how such Florida bass genetics are routinely stocked in other lakes around the state like Fork, Sam Rayburn, etc. — forced me to put my thinking cap on and do a little more research.
Here’s what I found out as I looked a little deeper into Texoma’s Florida bass history, starting first with TPWD stockings. While the Austin-based agency hasn’t stocked Florida bass in Texoma since 2000, they did routinely stock the fish species in the late 1990s, once in the 1980s, and several times in the 1970s.
The high-water mark for Florida fingerlings stocked into Texoma by TPWD was 2000 when 324,444 one to two-inch Florida bass were released. A year earlier in 1999, TPWD stocked 327,191 fingerlings at Texoma to go along with the 1998 stocking of 110,500 fingerlings and the 1997 stocking of 109,950 fingerlings.
A decade earlier, TPWD stocked 231,850 Florida fingerlings in 1986 as the state’s Florida bass program began to really take off. That goes with the 223,748 Florida bass fingerlings put into Texoma in 1977; 25,000 fingerlings in 1976; and 312,000 fingerlings in 1975.
And don’t forget the 1975 stocking of 80,000 Kemp’s bass, a Cuban strain of largemouths brought into the Lone Star State by the late Bob Kemp. As you might recall from last week’s story, Kemp was the head man for TPWD’s fishery division in the 1970s, a biologist that believed so much in bringing the Florida (and Cuban) bass genetics into the state that he reportedly used his own money to fund the first stocking efforts.
Add it all up and TPWD has put 1,664,683 Florida bass fingerlings into Lake Texoma over the years in eight different stockings. Add in the Kemp largemouths planted in 1975, and the Florida and/or Cuban bass stocked into Texoma adds up to a total of 1.74 million fingerlings that have delivered plenty of big bass genetic potential at the local 89,000-acre reservoir.
Will TPWD resume stocking more Florida bass genetics into the lake in upcoming years?
“It’s possible, depending on (hatchery) production, but at this point, it’s not likely,” said Bennett.
While a district manager like Bennett can request Florida bass fingerlings to stock in a lake like Texoma, those requests must be justified according to the agency’s primary Florida bass stocking criteria.
According to Bennett, that includes research efforts, the stocking of a new reservoir (like Bois D’Arc Lake in Fannin County), the reestablishment of a Florida largemouth bass population, and in reservoirs with a demonstrated ability to crank out eight-pound or better largemouth bass.
“We (district managers) can put in our requests, and we have to justify those requests with pertinent information, but there’s a committee that meets annually and determines where those fish get allocated,” he said. “That is based upon our hatchery production, what they think can realistically be achieved each year, and that determines how far down on the list they can go (fulfilling requests).”
Last year, a total of 8.4 million Florida bass fingerlings were produced and stocked in Texas according to Bennett, a number that while impressive, fell far short of what district managers were hoping to see delivered in state hatchery trucks. And since supply is far below demand, the state’s stocking criteria basically determines who gets what.
“Essentially, the underlying goal is still the same with Florida bass, and that is to boost the trophy potential of a fishery,” said Bennett. “Often the public thinks that we’re trying to increase the number of fish in a lake with these Florida bass stockings, which is really difficult or even impossible to do since our stockings may only be as small as one to three-percent of what is produced naturally in a lake each year.”
While Florida bass obviously can grow to big sizes north of the Red River, Texoma’s spot on the map doesn’t work in its favor either.
“Texoma is pretty far north in latitude, which can impact the ability of Florida bass to contribute to the trophy potential of a lake,” said Bennett. “We had relatively consistent stockings from the 1970s through the 1990s, but even with that, the percentage of Florida bass genetics within individual fish at Texoma — a figure known as the Florida bass allele — never exceeded 30 percent. At a lake like Fork, that number has been observed to be as high as 80-percent at times.”
While TPWD hasn’t stocked Florida bass into Texoma in a generation now, ODWC continues to do so since the lake is one of the Sooner State’s better bass fishing locations. Such periodic ODWC stockings include one in 2018 when the agency put 100,000 Florida fingerlings and 202 18-inch long Florida bass adults into Texoma.
Incidentally, Oklahoma’s first stocking of Florida bass at Texoma came back in 1974 when the Sooner State put in 10,000 fry. Since then, a total of 3,327,901 Florida bass (3,117,086 fingerlings; 210,000 fry; and 815 adults) have been stocked into Texoma by ODWC biologists.
Add TPWD’s figure (1,744,683) and ODWC’s number (3,327,901) together, and all told, a total of 5,072,584 Florida bass fingerlings — along with some fry and adults — have been stocked into Texoma off and on since the mid-1970s.
Unfortunately, the result has been that while Texoma continues to be known as the best freshwater striped bass lake in the country, as well as a developing trophy smallmouth bass fishery, it isn’t one of the Lone Star State’s top trophy largemouth destinations, at least as far as eight-pound or better bucketmouths are concerned.
While there’s no doubt that Texoma is a worthy largemouth fishery — see the 1979 Bassmaster Classic visit, periodic stops by the Bassmaster Elite Series and FLW Tour over the years, and a myriad smaller local and regional tournaments as proof — the big lake hasn’t been able to develop a reputation as a top spot to come catch the largemouth bass of an angler’s dreams.
Despite all the Florida genetics stocked into the lake over the years, the current Texas side record largemouth is an 11.9-pound specimen caught by Don McFarlin on Feb. 17, 2013 while the Oklahoma side record largemouth is a 12.4-pound bass caught by Royce Harlin on March 3, 2012.
While this isn’t to say that Texoma will never break the coveted 13-pound ShareLunker mark — and I’m betting that one day, it will — such a catch hasn’t happened yet despite millions of Florida bass fingerlings boosting the genetic potential of the two-state fishery.
Why is that the case?
“I would say that it’s due to the habitat more than anything else,” said Bennett of Texoma’s struggle in the trophy bass department, noting that the lack of vegetation and woody cover is part of that observation.
“(And) every lake where we have such a routine annual fluctuation like we do at Texoma, we don’t really see high quality trophy bass populations.”
Without the grass of a Sam Rayburn or the timber of a Fork, the topsy-turvy nature of Texoma’s water level — see the lake going from several feet below normal in late March to currently being nearly 10-feet high in mid-May — doesn’t help much in the habitat department.
For what it’s worth, his counterparts at ODWC agree with Bennett’s observation about habitat, noting in their Texoma lake management plan: “Natural fish habitat consists of large expanses of open water, offshore humps, and areas of limited submerged standing timber, rock, coarse gravel, and mud or sand flats. Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) is common along the shorelines in many areas of the lake, growing at or above Conservation Pool elevation. This species provides good spawning and nursery habitat when seasonally inundated. Aquatic vegetation is very sparse due to fluctuating water levels and herbivorous fish. Transplanted colonies of submerged vegetation have yielded poor results. Additional habitat includes man-made structures such as rip-rap, natural and artificial brush piles, and boat docks.”
Bennett points out that some of this could change over time, especially if water levels stabilize and more reports of trophy largemouths can be documented. If that proves to be the case someday, then perhaps more Florida bass fingerlings might be earmarked for Texoma in the future.
“The public can help us justify our requests by participating in the revamped ShareLunker program that documents bass catches greater than 8-pounds,” said Bennett. “In addition to helping us document the lake’s trophy bass potential, it’s also a nice way to see a great catch be celebrated.”
Hopefully, such trophy bass catches — and big ShareLunker largemouth celebrations — will become more commonplace at Texoma in the years to come.