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A grand experiment on Grand Lake: Trying to grow bigger fish in state's top bass lake

State Wildlife Department employees pose with three adult Florida bass raised at the Durant fish hatchery before the fish were released into Grand Lake. Biologists hope the adult fish and others added to the lake will spread their genetics to grow bigger bass. [PHOTO PROVIDED]
State Wildlife Department employees pose with three adult Florida bass raised at the Durant fish hatchery before the fish were released into Grand Lake. Biologists hope the adult fish and others added to the lake will spread their genetics to grow bigger bass. [PHOTO PROVIDED]

Grand Lake in northeastern Oklahoma is regularly listed on top 20 lists of best bass fishing lakes in the country. It has that reputation because of the numbers of bass it produces and not because of their size.

Grand Lake is full of 3- to 5-pound bass, and a 7-pounder is a real quality fish there, said Josh Johnston, northeast region fisheries supervisor for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.

Catching a 10-plus pound bass at Grand is considered a fluke but not so at a handful of southern Oklahoma lakes. Johnston would like to have the best of both worlds at Grand Lake. A lot of bass and some really big ones, too.

Working toward that goal, state wildlife officials added 1,350 mature Florida-strain largemouth bass to Grand Lake this spring in hopes the fish will reproduce with Oklahoma's native northern largemouth bass species and spread their big bass genetics around the lake.

"In five to seven years, hopefully we'll see that trophy potential come to life," he said.

For years, state wildlife officials stocked finger-size Florida bass in Grand Lake in hopes of building a trophy fishery, but it never worked. While genetic studies of some southern Oklahoma lakes were showing bass populations with 15 to 25% of Florida genes, Grand Lake's percentage of Florida genes was zero, Johnston said.

"There was one year we got 1%," he said. "That was way worse than anywhere else we were doing it."

Grand Lake was just too far north for the Florida bass to have success. It's believed the fingerlings didn't live through the initial winter because the climate is too cold.

The Wildlife Department eventually quit putting Florida fingerlings in Grand Lake. But in recent years, the Durant Fish Hatchery, where state wildlife officials raise Florida bass to stock in Oklahoma lakes, has produced a surplus of brood stock. As a result, the agency has decided to stock older Florida bass in Grand Lake to see if they can live long enough to spread their genes.

Biologists added 1,250 pure Florida bass that were 1 year old in Grand. Then they dumped another 100 of the hatchery's retiring brood stock, even older and bigger pure Florida bass, into the lake last week. One fish was a 7½-pounder, Johnston said.

"The hope is they got the fat stored to make it through the winter now and can go through colder climates," he said.

It will take seven to 10 years to know if the experiment will work, Johnston said. The plan is to put adult Florida bass in Grand Lake the next two springs.

State wildlife officials in recent years have added adult Florida bass in lakes near Grand such as Spavinaw and Lone Chimney. They have seen evidence of Florida genes in the fish populations at those smaller lakes, but it is unknown if that will translate to trophy-size bass in the future, he said.

"It is a waiting game," Johnston said.

In 1972, the Wildlife Department began stocking fingerling-size Florida bass in a few Oklahoma lakes to see if they would cross with the native bass and reproduce.

The first lake to receive Florida fingerlings was Lake Lawtonka. In 1983, a largemouth bass weighing 11 pounds, 1.6 ounces was caught at Lawtonka and broke the state record which had stood for 42 years.

State wildlife officials began putting Florida fingerlings in multiple lakes in the '80s and '90s. Anglers kept catching bigger bass and the state record was broken several times. The state largemouth bass record today is 14 pounds, 13.7 ounces.

Now, there are designated trophy bass lakes in Oklahoma that receive Florida fingerlings every year, such as Sardis, Broken Bow, McGee Creek and Arbuckle. The bass populations in those lakes have a high percentage of Florida genes and consistently produce trophy fish, said Cliff Sager, fisheries biologist for the Wildlife Department.

About 20 other Oklahoma lakes receive stockings of Florida bass every two to three years, said Sager, who chairs the committee that decides where Florida bass are stocked. Between 1.2 million and 1.3 million Florida bass raised at the Durant hatchery each year are put in Oklahoma lakes, the vast majority being finger-size fish.

Not every lake in southern Oklahoma can produce trophy fish even with the boost of Florida bass genes. Some lakes just don't have enough food to produce really big bass.

That's why state wildlife officials are optimistic the adult Florida bass experiment will work in Grand Lake. Even though the climate is not ideal for Florida bass, the lake is very productive because of river systems that provide it rich nutrients from Kansas farmlands.

"In most cases, if you've got the groceries, it works," Johnston said of places where Florida bass have thrived.

If Grand Lakes does start producing trophy fish, look for it to zoom up on those lists of best bass fishing lakes.

"Twenty-pound bags (in bass tournaments) are pretty common on Grand Lake," Sager said. "If those start turning into 30-pound bags, that would be unbelievable."

Ed Godfrey

Ed Godfrey was born in Muskogee and raised in Stigler. He has worked at The Oklahoman for 25 years. During that time, he has worked a myriad of beats for The Oklahoman including both the federal and county courthouse in Oklahoma City for more... Read more ›