Texas races to own bass fishing's throne

With the unusual big-bass events of late — in which a 25-pound, would-be world-record largemouth was caught and released in California — other big-bass states are breathing a collective sigh of relief.

Why? Because the decision by the Golden State angler not to pursue the world record means the race is back on to determine which state will officially topple the George Perry standard &$151; that legendary 22¼-pound bass taken from Georgia's Montgomery Lake in June 1932.

One state with high hopes is Texas. That's where biologists are using advanced techniques to unlock the genetic secrets of big bass.

"We are trying to breed fish to possess more of the genetic characteristics that make a lunker," Texas Parks and Wildlife Department inland fisheries biologist Loraine Fries has told ESPNOutdoors.com.

Specifically, researchers hope that a pioneering selective-breeding program known as Operation World Record will help biologists mimic what the Texas Longhorns' accomplished against USC in the Rose Bowl.

What's that? Simple, overtake southern California for a chance to sit atop the throne, albeit this time to be the king of largemouth bass, instead of the national champions of the college gridiron.

Allen Forshage, director of the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens, says state biologists believe that what has worked with other agricultural breeding projects also will work with Texas' big-bass program.

"One reason we're doing this selective-breeding program is that this technique is used in agriculture to produce bigger beef cattle, to produce cows that produce more milk and to produce more pounds of grain per acre," Forshage said.

"We can do this with fish."

In other words, big bass beget big bass.

"Size is a polygenic and inheritable trait, which varies under environmental conditions," said Dijar Lutz-Carrillo, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department inland fisheries biologist, during an earlier interview with ESPNOutdoors.com.

"Thus, it makes intuitive sense that larger fish will on average produce offspring which reach a larger average size."

One primary key to this research is the agency's ShareLunker program, which accepts live bass weighing 13 pounds or greater for spawning purposes.

Since its debut in 1986, the ShareLunker program has recorded a staggering total of 414 lunker bass from 54 reservoirs.

Of those fish, Lake Fork leads the pack with its own remarkable mark of 226 ShareLunker bass, a figure that includes the 18.18-pound state-record largemouth bass, caught by Barry St. Clair in January 1992.

So far this year, anglers have submitted 23 ShareLunker bass; the program runs from Oct. 1 to April 30.

This season's total includes three bass from Lake Amistad, the south Texas jewel that recently wowed the CITGO Bassmaster Elite Series pros during last month's Battle on the Border tournament.

One of those Amistad fish, a 13.1-pounder landed Feb. 28 by Jason Baird of Gypsum, Kansas, was the milestone 400th entry into the program.

By focusing on selective breeding efforts with such ShareLunker bass, Forshage said that state biologists are hoping to "supercharge" the big-bass gene pool in Texas by using ShareLunker male prodigies to spawn with ShareLunker females.

Last November, some 20,000 of the program's supercharged offspring were part of a stocking effort that saw tagged, 6-inch-long largemouth bass released into Texas waters.

It is hoped that the end result of such stockings will be genetically superior fish that will help the Lone Star State crack the 20-pound largemouth bass barrier and, ultimately, break the world record.

How are such super-fingerlings produced?

"Incoming lunkers are spawned with 3-year-old males, which were produced from previous lunkers," Forshage explained.

"The reason we wait for three years is to have a male large enough to breed with a 13-pound-plus female."

The Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center director indicates that the fish are paired up for spawning on mats in partitioned raceways. Biologists then remove the eggs from the mats and hatch them in hatching jars.

When fry are produced they are stocked into outdoor rearing ponds to grow.

"We will grow them until fall, when the water temperatures cool down," Forshage said. "They are then harvested and transported to the lake to be stocked.

Like something straight out of the popular "CSI" television series, one key component to all of this is the DNA testing of bass in the Operation World Record program.

"Our DNA testing includes DNA fingerprinting much like what is used in human forensics or paternity testing," Fries explained.

"Using such tests, we can identify fish we produce in the OWR program years after we stock them. We can use the DNA fingerprints to evaluate if some crosses were more successful than others in terms of producing large fish.

"This type of work holds promise, but requires considerable effort."

Part of that considerable effort will be the ongoing study of these "super bass" produced by the Operation World Record program.

Forshage indicates that Texas scientists will study the fish through stockings in five small lakes around the state.

"The lakes were selected by the fishery management district biologist, research biologist, TFFC staff, and the Austin staff," Forshage said.

"Selected lakes were relatively small because of the stocking requirements."

Forshage indicates that these lakes, which are stocked with the 6-inch fingerlings at a 25-per-acre ratio, also were chosen because they have the ability to produce trophy largemouth bass.

These five lakes are particularly important because state biologists aren't just searching for "super bass" in the lab; they also want such fish to be able to repopulate in real world conditions.

"In each case we also apply population genetic principles to ensure that the strains we create are not only superior but sustainable and that their application is ecologically responsible," Lutz-Carrillo said.

While all of this scientific speak may be difficult for bass anglers to understand, the hope is that one day, the Operation World Record program in Texas will result in an outcome that all anglers can understand.

And that, of course, is a sprint across the finish line in the race to produce bass angling's next official world-record largemouth.