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Love Is in the Water at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center
ATHENS, Texas—If you think all it takes to raise a baby bass is a momma bass, a poppa bass and a cozy pond, you’d be wrong.
March is the month when catches of big bass peak in Texas, and it’s also the month when Texas Parks and Wildlife Department fish hatcheries begin raising the next generation of lunkers.
Texas bass fishing is among the best in the nation, and no small part of the reason is the stocking of hatchery-raised fish into public waters all over the state. TPWD operates five freshwater hatcheries, but few people are aware of the complexity and artistry of the process of rearing fish.
And at any rate, most people care only about the hoped-for result: a lunker bass rising to smash their lure.
Making it possible for that to happen often enough to become almost commonplace is the job of TPWD hatchery managers and fisheries technicians.
This is how they do it.
The recipe for baby bass reads like a magic potion: acres of water, miles of plumbing, ozone, Astroturf, sodium bicarbonate, calcium chloride, sodium sulfite, cottonseed meal, phosphoric acid, the right mood lighting and a laser—not to mention two willing fish and anxious humans superintending the whole process.
Hatchery bass spawn in response to the same stimuli as their wild counterparts: warming water and lengthening days in the spring. Temperatures from 59-71 degrees Fahrenheit are ideal. Juan Martinez, the biologist who supervises the spawning of Budweiser ShareLunker bass at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens, thinks that a rising barometer also helps trigger spawning. Thus spring storms may play a part. To maximize the effects of longer days, hatchery building doors are kept open from sunup to sundown during the spawning period.
Martinez points out one other factor key to the success of the ShareLunker program, which spawns angler-donated 13-pound-plus females and stocks the offspring into public waters in an effort to improve the quality of bass fishing. “The program depends on the anglers,” he says. “If they catch a fish and keep it in good condition, it will probably spawn, so it’s very important for them to care for the fish properly when it is caught.” Guidelines can be found on the TFFC Web site (http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/fish/infish/hatchery/tffc/sharelunker.htm#Tips).
When a ShareLunker arrives at TFFC, ShareLunker program manager David Campbell gives it what amounts to a fishy physical and treats it for any apparent problems such as fungus or bacterial infections. It’s then kept in isolation for two days to be sure it is healthy.
ShareLunker females are paired with three or 4-year-old males that are themselves descendants of prior ShareLunkers. The male fish spend the bulk of the year in outside hatchery ponds and are brought into the indoor hatchery for spawning. Size matters. The big females snack on rainbow trout while getting ready to spawn. A male largemouth that is too small may end up as lunch for the female instead of becoming her mate.
As befitting fish worth their weight in gold, ShareLunkers are pampered. Water in their 475-gallon private tanks, drawn from Lake Athens, is kept at a constant 63 degrees and is treated with ozone to kill any potentially harmful organisms. Technicians add sodium bicarbonate and calcium chloride to the soft lake water to bring its hardness to 75 parts per million, and the pH is adjusted to range between 8-9. “The eggs depend on calcium to activate motility,” says Martinez, “and the fish tend to do better in hard water than in soft.”
As the spawning season approaches in mid-March, technicians place “spawndominiums” and Astroturf mats in the lunker tanks. The spawndominiums are two-sided frameworks of plastic pipe holding black mesh. The Astroturf mat is placed inside the spawndominium. It’s not for the sake of privacy; bass simply like to have some structure to relate to, much as they would a submerged log or boulder in the wild.
Bass are very territorial, and the male soon stakes a claim to the mat and begins trying to attract the female to join him by rubbing his body against her underside in a kind of courtship dance. If she likes the cut of his jib, she rolls onto her side and releases eggs, and he fertilizes them. The eggs fall onto the Astroturf mat, which are checked the first thing every morning.
Technicians collect mats with eggs and rinse them in a sodium sulfite solution for about 20 seconds to release the eggs from the mat. Fresh water is then used to flush the eggs out, and they are run through a piece of equipment called a Jensorter, which uses a laser beam to count them.
The 7,000-12,000 eggs from each spawn are placed in a separate cylinder called a McDonald jar, which has ozonated water constantly circulating through it. The eggs hatch in two to five days, depending on water temperature, and the fry are transferred to one-foot by eight-foot metal troughs, where they feed off their egg sac until they are big enough to swim, at about age 8-12 days.
At this point the fry have one thing on their mind: food. While spawning has been going on, Tony Owens, the manager of the outdoor hatchery ponds, and his crew have been busy growing that food. After filling ponds with lake water, they add cottonseed meal, phosphoric acid and liquid ammonium nitrate to the water to fertilize it. The pond is then “inoculated”—zooplankton-rich water from another pond is added. The tiny organisms multiply at a tremendous rate, and by the time bass fry are added, there is abundant food for them to eat. The fry from each ShareLunker get their own private pond—spawns are not mixed.
“We continue to fertilize the ponds two or three times a week and sample the fish to check their growth,” Owens says. “In 25 to 30 days the fry will have reached fingerling size, about 1.5 inches, and will have eaten all the zooplankton. At this point we stock them into rearing ponds.”
In yet another aspect of this complicated dance, Owens and crew have also been growing millions of koi carp to just the right size to be eaten by tiny bass. The koi are put into rearing ponds about 10 days before the bass fingerlings are stocked at the rate of 100,000-150,000 per acre. “The whole trick is to get the bass the food of the right size at the right time to keep them from eating each other,” Owens says.
The ShareLunker fingerlings are raised to 6-inch size before being stocked into public waters. Growing them to that size requires the rearing of tens of millions of koi carp for food, but the survival rate of the larger fish when released is much better than for small fry.
Some fingerlings from each spawn are held back to be used as broodfish in the future. This allows TFFC to carry on a selective breeding program in which big bass genes are concentrated from one generation to the next, and it also ensures genetic diversity.
At press time, the fish caught by Rickey Williams of Lubbock from Lake Alan Henry on Jan. 29 was showing signs of getting ready to spawn. Her mate was hovering just beneath her over the Astroturf mat. It has taken dedication, teamwork and more than a little luck to bring these two fish together to make more fish.
And somewhere out there is an angler who will, someday, pull one of those fish from the water and rejoice over the fish of a lifetime, never realizing that the bass on his line is also on the end of another, much longer line, one that has touched the lives of many other fish and people.
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