Will Tiger Bass transform Grand Lake fishing?
Time will tell if Florida-strain genetics make trophy bass north of 36th parallel
Hold on to this one for a second reading on April 11, 2032.
Ten years should provide plenty of time for perspective.
It’ll be a Sunday.
Mark your calendar.
Set the timer on your coffeemaker.
Major League Fishing made history with the Redcrest championship at Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees a couple of weeks back, but there was much more to it than a first-time live-streamed and televised format for a major-title tourney in Oklahoma. MLF has an active fisheries conservation component as well.
The MLF Fisheries Management Division teamed up with the Union Sportsmen’s Alliance to build more than 100 habitat structures called Georgia cubes at the Redcrest Expo. All but a few were taken to Grand Lake. Mossback Fish Habitats pitched in too, to add to Grand Lake’s offering of long-lasting productive brush piles—the kinds that don’t steal your lures.
But that was just the start.
The tourney that boiled down to Bobby Lane’s last-second, 2-pound bass could become part of a landmark event that set Grand Lake on a path to becoming a lunker factory of fish five or six times that size.
Indeed, because legendary angler Kevin VanDam had an idea to help with a local conservation project as Redcrest approached, one of the country’s best lakes for 3- to 6-pound fish could become a factory for double-digit lunkers.
Time will tell.
If the year is 2032 and you recently caught a double-digit Grand Lake bass, this column might inform you as to its origins. Likewise, this might inform you if you’re still happily catching multiple 3- to 6-pound Grand Lake bigmouths and wondering why double-digit bass are so rare.
What’s happening now
Prior to the Redcrest, VanDam contacted Gene Gilliland for some advice on how the Kevin VanDam Foundation might put $5,000 to good use for the lake.
Gilliland has been National Conservation Director with BASS since 2013, but the fisheries management hall-of-famer was with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation for 32 years prior. He worked on Grand Lake bass before KVD was old enough to drive.
“I said I knew there had been a push in the past to try stocking F1 hybrid bass. I knew Josh (Johnston) had proposed something a few years ago and had some donors lined up and willing to help buy the fish, but I didn’t know for sure where that project stood,” Gilliland said.
Johnston, northeast region fisheries biologist for the Wildlife Department, said he did in fact forward a plan to stock Grand with Tiger Bass four or five years ago.
Tiger Bass is the registered trademark name for an American Sport Fish Hatchery “true F-1” hybrid. The fish combines the cold-tolerant and aggressive genetics of the northern subspecies with the rapid growth of the Florida subspecies.
But the idea didn’t fly.
“I just couldn’t get it over the hump, so to speak,” Johnston said.
Gilliland called Johnston about KVD’s possible donation the night before he just happened to be set for a meeting with new Fisheries Division Director Ken Cunningham and other department directors.
He dusted off his pitch and this time it resulted in a home run. The Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Foundation quickly matched the KVD Foundation's $5,000, Flying Squirrel Farms followed suit with $10,000, and the Swank Family Foundation and Whiskey Point at Grand Lake each donated $5,000.
Before Redcrest was a memory, $30,000 was set for a Tiger Bass boost.
“I’m sure having Kevin’s name attached to it was a big help,” Gilliland said.
Before enough Tiger Bass fingerlings can hit the lake, Johnston will need to find another $10,000 and walk through some federal and other regulatory hoops. He is optimistic, however.
“If everything works out we will be putting them in the lake this year, possibly in early June,” Johnston said.
Tiger Bass commonly are sold to folks with private bass ponds for $1 apiece, Johnston said. He secured a price with American Sportfish for less than half that rate for this huge project, which calls for 93,000 fingerlings annually. The intention is to keep stocking the fish with funding of about $40,000 a year for several years.
A matter of size and latitude
The project at Grand, if done well, funded for several years, and coupled with scientific follow-up, could set a national bass fisheries benchmark, Johnston said.
“We’re determined to make this a several-year thing,” he said. “It would be meaningless if it is a one-and-done deal.”
Repeated stockings are important to build up meaningful and impactful numbers, he said. More fingerlings can survive than tiny fry, but they still have a long and dangerous path to navigate to sexual maturity.
The repeated stockings and genetic research could help find what could be defined as a sort of equatorial line for Florida-strain genetics; the latitude at which daylight period, growth season and temperatures make the difference in the genetic potential of Florida-strain bass.
American Sportfish reports growth rates of 2 pounds per year for Tiger Bass, but biologists know that growth won’t happen in states as far north as Illinois without supplemental feeding or temperature- or oxygen-enhanced environments.
“There is a line, somewhere,” Gilliland said. “Nobody knows where that line is.”
The distance between the 35 parallel, which fairly defines southern Oklahoma, and the 40th parallel, at the northern border of Missouri, is nearly 400 miles. Draw an east-to-west swath across the U.S. between those latitudes and within it you’ll see thousands of potential big-bass lakes.
Everyone knows that Tiger Bass will survive the winters north of latitudes 35 and 36 degrees north, Johnston said. How the genetic potential in those fish manifests itself in a lake population is the unknown.
Grand Lake is just a hair north of 36 degrees north and the state’s most friendly Florida-strain lakes are south of that 35th parallel. All of the biggest bass lakes in Texas are south of the 34th.
“What no one has found out is if they are taken farther north of where that Florida genetic potential thrives will they still show that crazy growth rate? Maybe they will still top out at about 10 pounds because of the shorter growing season. No one knows,” he said.
The Grand experiment pushes the envelope but he believes it has the potential for those big bass to materialize and the potential to inform fisheries biologists across the country about F1 stocking potential.
“What I want to see in six or seven years at Grand is tournaments where the big bass are 9 to 12 pounds instead of 6 to 7 pounds,” he said.
Both Johnston and Gilliland stressed the stocking of 93,000 Tiger Bass is not about increasing the bass population.
Johnston said that, in fact, the best thing Grand Lakers can do to help the fishery is to start harvesting and eating more smaller-sized largemouth bass so the bigger bass can truly thrive.
“People hear 93,000 fish and they think Grand will be full of bass,” Gilliland said. “That’s not going to happen. This is about producing trophy-size bass.”
Of Floridas, ShareLunkers and Grand
Florida-strain bass are not new to Grand Lake, or any lake in Oklahoma, for that matter. In the 1970s and 1980s the Wildlife Department put Florida-strain bass in almost every lake in the state, Gilliland said.
Back then it was assumed that enough stocked fry would simply and eventually result in bigger bass.
An enthusiastic group called Anglers Research Foundation in Okmulgee even partnered with the Wildlife Department with dreams of mirroring a Texas Parks and Wildlife Program called Lone Star Lunkers, sponsored by Lone Star Beer. It was the predecessor of the popular Toyota ShareLunker program in operation today, Gilliland said.
Truly large bass still were fairly uncommon in Oklahoma, however, so participation was low and that made survival of every individual fish vital. Not every fish survived. The most successful individual fish contributed to the program actually came from Lake Fork in Texas, he said. So few fish were produced the attempt fizzled, he said.
It was Gilliland’s genetic research study in the mid-1980s that first provided the insight that Florida bass fry were not viable in lakes north of about Interstate 40. After years of stocking lakes with Florida-strain bass, the fish from northern lakes were devoid of Florida-strain alleles while southern lakes revealed survival and cross-breeding.
That’s why most of the Florida strain bass stocking remains concentrated in southern lakes—most of it.
In fact, Johnston’s crew stocked pure Florida strain bass into Grand Lake for the past three years. Some of the last in that program hit the lake this past Tuesday.
After his proposed Tiger Bass plan fell short of the hump five years ago, he managed to secure a three-year promise to funnel the vast majority of the state’s “extra” pure Florida strain hatchery broodstock into Grand as part of a long-term genetics study.
The broodstock number varies widely year-to-year, and other regional biologists covet those bigger fish for their own lakes, so it was no small thing for the department to commit to three years for the vast majority of those fish to go to Grand, Johnston said.
Most of those mature brood fish likely survived. As adults they could better withstand colder temperatures and they were immediately capable of joining the spawning population, he said.
With those three years now complete, genetic sampling will continue in the limited areas where the brooders hit the water, he said. In the future the genetics of large fish caught in tournaments could be clipped for testing, he said.
The coming F1s will have no impact on the study now underway, he said.
“It makes it even cooler, actually,” he said.
“When we send off fin clips for genetics tests in the future we will know if a fish is a northern-strain, F1 or an FX or whatever, or Tiger Bass, which are literally genetically trademarked. Over time we will be able to look at the growth rates of all those fish, which is pretty cool.”
If you are re-reading this in April 2032 and Grand Lake is indeed known for double-digit lunkers, that really is cool.
Time will tell.
All Things Outdoors is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.