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Texas Parks and Wildlife Departm

Ray Sasser: ShareLunker program still works

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Ray Sasser, Outdoor Writer

Only days remain in what's already been a successful Toyota ShareLunker season. Successful because there are five fish in the program. Last season, there were two ShareLunkers, and it seemed that the big bass hatchery program had lost angler support.

The ShareLunker program was built around the theory that just a few largemouth bass have the ability to gain extraordinary size. Breed those fish in a controlled environment and the offspring should all share the growth gene.

That theory hasn't panned out, at least not yet, which doesn't make the program a failure. ShareLunkers have succeeded in promoting Texas bass fishing, solidifying the idea of catch-and-release fishing for big bass, and teaching anglers how to cause the least damage while handling big fish.

This year's entries include three fish from lakes that have never before yielded a ShareLunker. Two of the entries have been genetically linked to ShareLunker parents.

Forty-five years ago, when I became serious about fishing, anglers kept every legal fish they caught. Now they're releasing more game fish of all species, and overall Texas fishing may better than it's ever been.

At the high-tech A.E. Wood State Fish Hatchery in San Marcos, scientists are testing the DNA of every ShareLunker. That's how they figured out that a fish from Marine Creek Lake in Tarrant County, and Lake Naconiche, in Nacogdoches County, were ShareLunker offspring.

Big Texas bass resulted from the introduction of Florida-strain bass beginning in the late 1970s. Fisheries director Bob Kemp figured bass in Florida grew bigger because of genes, and he was right. Kemp personally paid for the first Florida bass the state agency brought to Texas.

Native Texas bass are a Northern strain of largemouth. They don't grow as large as Florida bass. An eigh- pounder is a big native bass. From 1943 until 1980, the Texas record bass weighed 13 1/2 pounds. It was caught in an unlikely place: Medina Lake. Genetic testing of the mounted fish revealed Florida bass influence.

Private citizens were bootlegging Florida bass into Texas before TPWD had the idea. The fish weren't coming in big enough numbers to make a noticeable impact, except in a few, small, private lakes. Since the full scale introduction of Florida bass, more than 200 fish have been documented that weighed more than the Medina record that lasted 46 years.

DNA testing is best known as a law enforcement tool and it was once too expensive to be used on fish. The laboratory equipment remains expensive, $50,000 to $100,000 per setup. TPWD has two DNA sequencers, one dedicated to ShareLunkers and donated by Toyota.

While the equipment is expensive, Todd Engeling, TPWD's Freshwater Hatchery Chief, said the per-test cost of examining fish DNA is cheap.

"For example, taxonomy analysis used to determine purity of a Florida bass costs $1.45," said Engeling. "Parentage analysis, as used on ShareLunker entries, costs about $6.24.

"For many years, we've had a cutting edge genetics program that has allowed us to do many great things in fisheries. We use it to evaluate our Florida bass stockings, certify and maintain the genetic purity of hatchery brood stocks [Florida bass, Northern bass, Guadalupe bass, striped bass and white bass], and properly identify angler-caught fish coming into our Angler Recognition Program.

"We have tried to take full advantage of the technology and we've been a leader among natural resources agencies around the country in this regard. We highly value how DNA technology enhances our ability to manage fish populations, both game fish and endangered species. We plan on continuing to invest in this technology."

Smallmouth bass can hybridize with Guadalupe bass, a variety of sunfish can interbreed and Northern largemouth bass can cross with a Florida bass.

With the ShareLunker program striving to breed the purest and biggest of Florida bass, the largest fish of the season weighed 15.7 pounds. It was a cross between a Florida bass and a Northern bass.