June 6, 2007

Smallmouth Bass Struggling to Adapt in Texas

DALLAS _ Smallmouth bass have taken a hit from golden alga, the insidious blooming plant that's caused problems in West Texas fish hatcheries and at Lake Whitney, the heavyweight champ of the state's smallmouth lakes.

Smallmouth bass are not native to Texas. They were introduced during Texas Parks and Wildlife's experimental period of testing the adaptability of every game fish from walleye to peacock bass.

Texas summers are too harsh for some species that evolved in more temperate climes. Winters proved too cold for peacock bass, which did OK in the warm discharge of a power plant lake until the plant went offline.

Smallmouth bass thrived in rocky lakes like Whitney, until the occurrence of golden alga. Now TP&W crews have trouble finding any Lake Whitney smallmouth bass during sampling surveys.

Smallmouth haven't spawned that well, even in most lakes where they grow to trophy size. The rocky lakes held decent smallmouth numbers as long as the lakes were stocked on a regular basis. Golden alga problems at hatcheries have relegated the smallmouth stocking program to token status since 2001.

That's why biologist John Tibbs was so excited last fall when a survey at Lake Belton revealed abundant smallmouth bass from 1 to 4 years old.

"The fish are obviously spawning at Belton," Tibbs said. "Three weeks ago, we returned to the lake and collected fish for the hatchery breeding program. We had no problem catching 30 smallmouth that ranged from six inches long to four pounds."

Compared with other lakes in Tibbs' region, which includes Whitney, the smallmouth population at Lake Belton is off the scale. Tibbs can't explain what happened, though he is reviewing data in an effort to solve the mystery.

"Belton has a very strong forage base right now," he said. "The lake is loaded with threadfin shad. It also has a lot of hybrid striped bass and largemouth bass. We're hoping that the smallmouth bass at Belton have the right genetics to thrive in Texas lakes. If we can use fish from Belton as hatchery brood fish, we may be able to produce smallmouth that thrive and reproduce in other lakes."

Belton has lots of smallmouth bass thanks to natural reproduction, but the lake has not produced a really big fish. Belton's record is a 6.43-pounder caught in 1990 by Ron Gardner. Gardner dominates Texas smallmouth records. The Lake Whitney fishing guide caught seven of the state's top 10 smallmouth, including the No. 2 fish and former state-record fish, which came from Whitney.

The current state record is a 7.93-pound fish caught from the Panhandle's Lake Meredith in 1998. Meredith has five other smallmouth on the top 50 list, none more than 7 pounds.

The most recent 7-pounder was caught from Lake Texoma. Jay Fuller caught the 7.06-pounder in 2006, setting a Texoma record and a state catch-and-release record.

Texoma is another Texas lake well suited to smallmouth bass. It's not uncommon for the biggest bass caught in a tournament at Texoma to be a smallmouth.

Texoma biologist John Moczygemba said TP&W has not stocked smallmouth bass at the lake since 1983, though the

Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation stocked them as recently as 1997.

"Smallmouth bass are doing fine in the rocky areas around Eisenhower State Park," Moczygemba said. "We haven't been stocking them because the population seems to be self-sustaining."


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