In 1986, the Lone Star Lunker Program was a public involvement plan whose time had come.
Texas had begun to reap the benefits of stocking Florida-strain largemouth bass in lakes around the state, and the public needed a nudge toward conservation of a rare resource, trophy bass that suddenly were weighing more than 10 pounds and sending shock waves through the fishing community.
The lunker program was begun with Lone Star Beer as a title sponsor and quickly caught on with bass anglers. The very first fish was Mark Stevenson’s Lake Fork bass caught at Thanksgiving of 1986. It weighed 17.67 pounds, an astounding weight for a state where previously an 8-pound bass was considered a trophy.
The program caught on big time with anglers and with other states trying to produce larger and heavier bass, which would pay off in terms of money and national visibility. Catch-and-release became the mantra for anglers who previously often kept and ate even their largest bass.
Big bass became a commodity in Texas and around the country, and the lunker program cashed in on all of that. Using a 13-pound standard for fish in the program, Texas fisheries personnel began collecting giant bass from around the state and carrying them to their East Texas hatchery operations for spawning and research.
The fish would be released again in the lakes where they were caught, and the anglers who donated them would receive free replica mounts of their fish. Everybody benefited, and the program hummed along for three decades. The state was able to build its flagship Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Tyler 20 years ago and begin accepting visitors for tours of the facility, which included giant aquaria and habitat ponds.
Some of the things we learned about bass are universal and are always in place; others called out for adjustments to the program. Craig Bonds, new director of inland fisheries for Texas Parks and Wildlife, has begun some tweaking he thinks will help keep anglers involved and lead to even more big bass in Texas lakes.
“The program overall will still run from October through April,” Bonds said in an interview. “But Jan. 1 through the end of March is when we will be accepting fish for our selective breeding program. We’re trying to reduce the number of unnecessary trips to bring back fish to the hatchery, when we know there’s very little chance we will be able to get those fish to spawn.”
History has shown that the bass brought in earlier than Jan. 1 are unlikely to spawn, and so the department intends to focus solely on the fish with the best chances.
“If there’s a fish caught right now, we will go down to that lake to weigh and take a fin clip because that genetic information is important,” Bonds said. “The anglers will still get their replica mount, but we will release the fish there and not transport it.
“Another thing we’re doing is we will try to spawn all lunkers, no matter their genetics,” Bonds said. Under previous programs, only 13-pound-plus fish that were pure Florida-strain bass would be placed into the spawning runs. “The pure Florida bass we will grow to create brood fish for our hatchery programs.”
Those fish already have shown a genetic tendency to achieve great size, and they will be paired with pure strain male bass in an attempt to push the top end of bass weights even higher.
“Every Florida bass we stock eventually will be selectively bred from those fish,” Bonds said.
He said current figures indicate about half the lunkers turned over to the state are pure Florida-strain bass, and the others are some percentage of intergrade. “But our wild populations are only about 10 percent pure Florida, which means those genes have a greater chance to grow to very large sizes.”
With a four- to 10-year time frame to make all the changes and to convert the breeding stock to pure Florida bass with trophy genetics, Bonds is also considering other changes to the program that could increase public participation. One of those would be offering some kind of incentives to anglers to weight photograph and submit information about bass that reach certain weights.
“The bar is set so high right now (13 pounds minimum) that we’re only able to involve a very small percentage of the fishing population,” he said. But with a lower threshold of 8 or 9 pounds, the state could gather a tremendous amount of information that could be valuable to anglers.
“We would hope to offer some incentives for anglers to submit their fish to a database with a picture of it on the scales,” he said. “It would help angler recognition and also help us know which lakes are hot and which lakes are producing big bass at any given time.”
Bonds is always looking for new ways to energize public fishing programs and believes this would work for the lunker program, which is now called ShareLunker.
“The program generated lots of buzz when it started, but it has been around 30 years, and it’s time to re-energize it and expand it if we can,” Bonds said.