FISHING: Oklahoma's aquaculture grows big bass
You can't tell from looking that the largemouth bass you just caught in Oklahoma has Florida genes. But if it's a really big bass, you can assume it does.
“A fish that is over 8 pounds, I can almost guarantee that fish will have Florida genetics,” said Cliff Sager, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation's senior fisheries biologist for the south-central region.
In Oklahoma, the term “Florida bass” refers to a largemouth bass that has the genetics of the tropical subspecies of largemouth bass that grows bigger than the state's native species, the northern largemouth bass.
State wildlife officials just finished stocking 1.6 million tiny Florida bass in 42 Oklahoma lakes this spring, hoping they will live long enough to go trophy-size and spread their genetics to produce other big fish along the way.
It's something they do every year, although not every lake gets fish every year. Some get Florida fingerlings every three or four years, but the lakes most conducive to producing big fish get an annual stockpile.
Arbuckle, Murray, Broken Bow, Sardis, McGee Creek and Texoma are the lakes that received the most Florida bass this year. The southern lakes get most of the fish because that is where the Florida bass have the best chance to survive and thrive.
Once the water temperature dips below 60 degrees, the immune system of Florida bass start shutting down and they become more susceptible to disease and injury, Sager said.
“We are on the northern border (for Florida bass survival),” Sager said. “We don't have orange trees growing around here like in Florida. It's a lot more challenging to grow a tropical subspecies in Oklahoma.”
The Florida strain of bass are raised at the state's fish hatchery in Durant. It is the primary mission of the Durant hatchery.
“Growing these fish is just like growing any other crop,” Sager said. “It's aquaculture.”
Adding Florida DNA to Oklahoma lakes is something the Wildlife Department has been doing since the ‘70s. In recent years, the Wildlife Department has expanded its list of lakes getting Florida bass, adding some bigger fish in lakes farther north in hopes it will increase their chances of survival.
“We are hoping that will pay dividends over time and those fish will survive and reproduce up there and hopefully affect genetics north of our old boundary line,” said Sager, who chairs the agency's bass stocking committee which decides where the fish should go.
The Florida bass program has been successful. The Wildlife Department keeps a list of the top 20 largemouth bass caught in the state. Every fish on the list the Wildlife Department was able to test either were pure Floridas or a hybrid with Florida genes, Sager said.
The state record is now 14 pounds, 13.7 ounces, caught in 2013 from Cedar Lake.
“You look at any of our trophy lakes that we have in the state of Oklahoma and it's the result of our Florida bass program,” Sager said.