For fish, size is relative. A small lemon shark tips the scales at 100 pounds while a massive pumpkinseed pushes a pound. Within each species, a combination of nature and nurture fosters growth and at the same time limits it. This sizing process is the ongoing force of natural selection, a process by which biological traits become more or less prevalent in a population, as a function of the effects of inherited traits on the differential reproductive success or organisms interacting with their environments. In other words, creatures that survive and reproduce tend to pass along their traits to the next generation. This process is the key mechanism of evolution. In describing it in On the Origin of Species in 1859, Charles Darwin pointed to its opposition to artificial selection or selective breeding, which had become common at the time in agricultural societies. For the largemouth bass, the diverse environments where the species now lives have helped shape its size. Important environmental effects include water temperature, which affects growing season, as well as other weather effects, forage base, predation (including angler harvest and mortality) competition, and water quality.
In Minnesota, female largemouths reach a typical maximum size of about 6 pounds, males about 3 pounds. That’s about two thirds of state record size. In Florida and Texas, you can double that size for females and add a pound or so for males. In California, females reach greater size, while the largest males are generally smaller even than those in Minnesota.
A bass that grew as large as a goliath grouper, or even a redfish would not be a successful creature. Natural selection has limited their size due to prey availability, reproductive behavior, competition, and other factors we do not understand, all co-evolving over the millennia.
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- <h2>Troph Bass Window</h2>When trophy bass “windows” open, a body of water can produce many giant fish.
The Quest for Record Bass
After George W. Perry submitted a 22-pound 4-ounce bass in 1932, his record seemed unbreakable for nearly 40 years. The next closest state record was Fritz Friebel’s Florida-record 20-pound 2-ounce fish caught nine years earlier at Fish Lake.
Jump ahead to 1972 at Lake Mirimar, a small reservoir in Southern California. Dave Zimmerlee catches a 20.94-pound bass, reportedly on a nightcrawler. Shockwaves reverberate through the bass fishing world, which has grown exponentially since the days of Perry and Friebel. A couple years later, legendary Florida outdoor writer Homer Circle visits California to see for himself, accompanied by Glen Lau, a big bass expert and film producer.
Their dives into Miramar’s clear waters revealed what Circle described in a 1975 article in Sports Afield as a “28- or 30-pound bass.” Origins of this fish date to May 1959, when 20,400 fingerling Florida largemouths were brought from Florida and released into Upper Otay Reservoir. It began to serve as a source of brood fish for other waters including Miramar, which was stocked in 1961. California biologist Dennis Lee found that while northern bass in California outgrew Florida fish in their first year, Floridas grew far faster thereafter. The two types, then believed to be subspecies, widely interbred to produce hybrid, or F1, offspring.
Zimmerlee’s catch ignited a big-bass fever, and fish from 18.75 to 20.19 pounds were caught sporadically in San Diego waters until 1988, when the record bass hunt reached a fever pitch. Dan Kadota began it with an 18.86-pounder from Castaic, followed by a 19.04 eleven months later. Highway patrolman Bob Crupi upped the ante with his 21.01 at Castaic in 1990 and then a 22.01-pound bass in 1991, all caught during the March prespawn period when females are at their fattest. But while many observers felt Perry’s record would fall, it never did, and catches of giants subsided somewhat. Since then, several bass over 19 pound have been caught from a handful of California lakes. At Lake Mission Viejo, Joe Everett and I watched two separate bass that appeared to exceed 20 pounds during my visit there. George Coniglio, another expert on Mission Viejo, holds the lake record, a 19.7-pounder caught in 2006.
With eyes on California, trophy bass analysts were amazed by the news of Manabu Kurita’s record-breaker from Japan. He was fishing Lake Biwa in July 2009 when a 22-pound 4.97-ounce bass ate his live bluegill. Since I.G.F.A. records must be broken by 2 ounces, his and Perry’s fish are listed as a tie.
Tetsuma Akaboshi is credited with introducing black bass to Japan as a food fish, shortly after World War II, though other reports point to introductions in the 1920s. Florida bass were introduced to Lake Ikehara in 1988. Fifteen years later, a new record was caught there, 19.15 pounds. Japan’s record was 19 pounds 15 ounces until Kurita’s catch. Amazingly, Kurita reported that he’d fished for several bass at Biwa much larger than his record fish. Clearly this 165,000-acre lake holds mysteries and perhaps another record bass.
The Ultimate Bass?
The largest bass ever boated and weighed apparently was the 25.10-pound fish caught by Mac Weakley from 76-acre Lake Dixon in March, 2006. Because he accidentally snagged her behind the dorsal fin while sight-fishing her on a nest, he elected not to submit the bass for record status.
This bass, which had been named “Dottie” for the distinctive black dot just below the right jawbone, had been caught by at least four different anglers on six occasions. He did not measure her length or girth. She floated up dead a little over two years later. Biologist Steve Pagliughi used a cross-section of her sagittal otolith to age her at 16 years. Dead, she measured 29½ inches with a girth of 24 inches. In comparison, Kurita’s fish was 27.2 inches long with a girth of 26.77 inches.
California contained no largemouth bass until 1874 when northern largemouths were introduced. Nearly 100 years later, the state record stood at 10 pounds 3 ounces. The largest northern largemouth is thought be to the 15½-pounder caught through the ice of Sampson Pond in Massachusetts in 1975.
After Florida bass were stocked in 1959, California’s record more than doubled to 20.94 pounds. In Texas, the mark stood at 13.5 pounds from 1940 until Florida introductions in the late 1970s, when it progressively rose to 18.18. Florida bass similarly boosted the record size in Africa and Japan, where mild climates allowed them to prosper.
More recent stockings of Florida bass in the Tennessee River are credited with the boom in huge bass for the region taken at Lake Guntersville in Alabama and Chickamauga in Tennessee. It’s possible that milder conditions in recent decades have increased the ability of Florida or mixed Florida-northern bass to prosper in higher latitudes.
Certainly, Florida bass don’t thrive in cool climates and winters typical of the Mid-Central U.S. kill them. Temperature tolerance is another aspect of natural selection that has honed the species to its environment. That’s why geneticists have warned about introducing fish stocks from far-flung areas—there is a risk of introducing maladaptive genes. While size might increase, other aspects, such as reproductive success or disease resistance, might decline. Indeed, outbreaks of the virulent Largemouth Bass Virus, which decimated many lunker fisheries that had been stocked with Florida bass, was attributed by some researchers to those introductions.
Until about 10 years ago, most scientists considered the northern and Florida largemouth to be subspecies. Further analysis of mitochondrial DNA showed that the Florida and northern have genetic distinctions that separate them as species. But they’re prone to hybridize in regions where both occur, due to stocking, or in the region in the Southeast, and including northern Florida, where bass show a mixture of genotypes, called the intergrade zone. This region includes the Ocmulgee River where George Perry caught his record bass.
Age of Lunker Bass
When Weakley weighed Dottie at 25 pounds, she was 14 years old, quite ancient for a Florida bass (or hybrid of northern and Florida). When his buddy Jed Dickerson had caught her in 2003, she’d weighed 21 pounds 11 ounces at age-11, then the fourth-largest bass on record.
In recent years, biologists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission have undertaken extensive research on the state’s lunker bass as part of the Black Bass Management Plan. They recognize their biological importance and the value of tourism, as thousands of anglers from other regions visit, particularly during winter.
To accurately determine age, sectioned otoliths are best, but samples can only be taken from dead fish. To get around this dilemma, Florida biologists worked with taxidermists to age fish anglers brought to be mounted.
Analyses showed surprising variability in age. Florida 10-pounders were as young as age-5 and as old as 15. Biologists noted some geographical effects as well. Growth rate generally followed a latitudinal gradient, faster in more southern waters. But bass from the waters of Polk and Pasco counties in East-Central Florida grew fastest. At Lake Okeechobee, about 100 miles south of there, bass over 10 pounds averaged 8.3 years of age. Fish from the Ocala National Forest area were about three years older than that, on average.
Mark Stevenson set the Texas bass record in the fall of 1986, with a 17.67-pound fish from Lake Fork that was named Ethel. She was the most watched bass in history, as she lived in a huge aquarium at the original Bass Pro Shops in Springfield, Missouri until her death in 1994 at age-19.
For bass to reach maximum size for their genetic background and climate, they need available and abundant forage of the right size at each stage of life. This is a difficult proposition, given fluctuations in weather, unpredictable levels of zooplankton and baitfish, and other factors.
Biologists also have noted that very old bass are rare. A special set of circumstances enables such longevity. In addition, size has little to do with age in fish, even though they have indeterminate growth, meaning they can continue growing all their lives unlike most animals, birds, and insects. Based on tag results, a 3.5-pound largemouth bass caught in Montana was 19 years old. And a 23-year old from New York weighed 6.78 pounds.
Anglers and biologists alike point to the stocking of rainbow trout in California waters as one key to the tremendous growth of bass and the ungainly girth they demonstrate. California’s mild coastal climate and the deep basins and infertile water of reservoirs there allow trout to live year-round, as cool water below the thermocline contains sufficient oxygen to support them. Particularly when newly stocked, the hatchery fish show little natural instinct to flee. Reports suggest the lunkers become accustomed to stocking procedures and proceed to the access, much like channel catfish that detect the sound of the pond owner’s vehicle and swarm to the bank to be fed. Trout’s high caloric and lipid content make them far more nutritious than shad, bluegill, or crayfish.
In the case of Massachusetts and other coastal waters, anadromous baitfish can boost growth. A study at Massachusetts lakes connected to the ocean found that bass relied heavily on juvenile blueback herring and alewives in late summer and early fall, when the preyfish reached 2 to 3 inches. The researchers felt that bass growth was enhanced by consuming these preyfish with higher energetic densities, compared to resident fish and crayfish. At Sampson Pond, where the Massachusetts record 151⁄2-pounder was caught, herring and alewives are present as well.
Lake Biwa in Japan contains bluegills, though a key preyfish is the ayu, a small soft-finned species with yellow dots on its gill plates. That hue has become a popular color in Japanese baits imported to the U.S. Bass there also eat crayfish and freshwater shrimp.
Mexican bass commonly reach trophy size, but have maxed out at just under 20 pounds. These bass feed on abundant threadfin shad and tilapia, a rugged preyfish with stout fins, but one big bass seem to crave. Excessively warm summer water temperatures and huge water level fluctuations may limit longevity or length of the growing season in Mexico, factors that also may limit bass size in waters of the southern U.S.
Big Bass “Windows”
Because prime conditions for bass growth can be fleeting, big bass sometimes occur in bunches. One such window occurred at Lake Castaic in the late 1980s and early 1990s when six of Bassmaster’s Top 25 Largemouth Bass were caught. Given the number of giants caught there, it’s likely a record-size fish was present but evaded capture until it died of natural causes or lost weight due to old age.
On Lake Chickamauga, a reservoir on the Tennessee River, many huge bass for that region have been caught during the past two seasons. According to observers, maturation of stocked Florida bass, luxuriant beds of Eurasian milfoil, and abundant baitfish have combined to boost production of bass over 10 pounds. But such windows typically stay “open” for only a few years.
Growing a Record Bass
Rather than letting nature take its course, people have, for decades, attempted to grow giant bass by placing them in ponds and feeding them. While many pond bass have grown very large for their region, particularly in the Midwest and Southeast, and some state records have been established, no true giants have been produced by these casual methods.
Soon after he moved his fishing operations from Lake Erie to Florida, Glen Lau began a project called World Record Bass, Inc. in Silver Springs. After several years, he succeeded in growing bass to 18 pounds on an unrestricted diet of shiners and crayfish. But limited success and problems with poachers led him to abandon this quest in the mid-1980s.
About 15 years later, Porter Hall, who had been fascinated since youth by all aspects of giant bass, purchased land in Mississippi and dug ponds. Prior to that he’d moved to California to fish Lake Castaic and later Casitas during their boom years and had landed bass to 18½ pounds there.
In Mississippi, he worked with biologists to construct and stock the ponds, adding bottom structure. He introduced adult bass from Lake Columbia, which had been stocked with pure Florida bass, along with fingerling Floridas. This project also failed to yield record bass.
With the success of their “ShareLunker” program, which collects bass Texas over 13 pounds for brood stock, the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) began “Operation World Record.” At the state-of-the-art hatchery in Athens, offspring of pure Florida bass females over 13 pounds have spawned with males whose mothers also have achieved this size. Such fish might have a hereditary growth advantage, and offspring have been stocked into waters leased by the department.
At one waterway, young bass were stocked annually from 2005 through 2008, with all fish marked with coded wire tags for identification. Sampling in 2012 found a number of large bass from the 2006 year-class, topped by a 10.2-pound fish. Officials were pleased to see growth this fast, and plan to monitor these bass further.
While selective breeding or artificial selection has been remarkably successful at growing outsize tomatoes and pumpkins, and impressive cattle and pigs, its success with wild fish, even in small waters, has been limited. There is evidence of the heritability of huge size in bass from Texas’ program, however. In April 2013, Allen Lane Kruse verified a new record bass for Lake Naconiche, 12.54 pounds. Genetic analysis revealed that her mother was 14.28-pound ShareLunker #370, caught in Falcon Lake in 2004. The Naconiche fish had reached 12½ pounds in 8 years. But there’s more: The father of the Naconiche record was an offspring of ShareLunker #305, a bass caught from Lake Fork in 2000. And her grandmother was ShareLunker #184, also from Fork, and her great grandma was ShareLunker #9 caught at Gibbons Creek Reservoir in 1988. TPWD also stocked ShareLunker offspring, marked with coded wire tags, in small public waters. In one of them, Marine Creek Lake, growth studies showed that at age-4, stocked bass were about 2½ inches longer, and nearly twice as heavy as resident bass.
Meanwhile in the private sector, Dr. Larry Schwartz of Texas has constructed ponds and added structure to optimize bass habitat, stocked Florida bass, and begun adding freshwater prawns as supplemental forage on top of shad, shiners, minnows, and sunfish. He also built a powerful aeration system to prevent stratification, which can lead to fish kills in summer.
Schwartz had succeeded in growing trophy buck deer on his ranch in the 1980s, pioneering the use of food plots and high-protein feeds there. His fish farming concepts are based on a similar formula, with input from lake management experts. He’s produced bass to 14 pounds in one 90-acre lake and has built another lake where he hopes to grow record bass.
Far from the lunker bass waters of Florida, California, Texas, and Mississippi, Nate Herman of HB Lake Management of Peoria, Illinois, has plans to grow huge bass in Illinois. He’s well versed in lake management and has a successful business managing waterways for recreational fishing, using sunfish species, bass, catfish, hybrid stripers, trout, and more.
His new project focuses on a newly acquired property called Goose Ranch, which contains 52 lakes, the largest covering 121 acres. “The goal is to have a lake that offers good numbers of double-digit bass, here in Illinois,” Herman says. “Before I acquired it, this lake was known to occasionally produce bass over 10 pounds, so it has a history. With our management techniques, we can greatly increase their occurrence.”
Herman recognizes the need to provide adequate forage for bass at all phases of their growth, and how challenging that can be. “Few waters offer bass all they need to maximize growth,” he says. “Their dietary needs change as they go from 2 inches to 8 inches to 8 pounds. By raising fish in ponds, then moving them to new environments, we can provide plenty of food, reduced chance of predation, and less competition for prey. At each phase, you must identify limiting factors and reduce them as much as possible.
“In the Midwest, winter and cold springtime weather can cause bass to lose almost a year of growth. Fish have a difficult time making up for that setback. I work with a network of pond researchers who have broken new ground in growing big bass in midwestern waters. By training bass at a feeding site, some of our colleagues have had bass gain weight and condition over the winter, avoiding the flat or even negative growth that northern bass often exhibit in natural waters.”
They’ve found that bass eat bluegills and crayfish offered through holes in the ice. Some have even added diet supplements such as fish oils to prey. And training young bass to accept pelleted feed helps boost growth early in life, particularly if zooplankton and small preyfish are scarce.
This sort of intensive management is time-consuming but feasible in small private waters. To provide prey bass can catch and handle in cold water, pond owners sometimes must cripple bluegills. But results can’t be denied. Consider that shortly before her death in Bass Pro Shops’ tank, Ethyl’s girth was taped at 32 inches, thanks to her ad libitum diet of goldfish, shad, and shiners, which put her well into the 20-pound class.
Herman’s large lake on Goose Ranch is an old mine pit with deep, oxygenated water. He’s been growing trout in such waters and getting year-round survival. He knows how important these nutritious prey can be to giant bass, so he’s fully expecting a glut of 10-pounders before long.
It’s an exciting time for big bass enthusiasts. Management strategies on vast pubic waters and in private ponds have been fine-tuned by experienced managers and biologists. They’ve found that while you can’t fool Mother Nature, you can give her a kick in the pants. In less managed waters, abundant nutritious prey and harvest moderated by regulations and voluntary release make for prime opportunities, from Maine to California.