Athens Review, Athens, Texas

April 27, 2013

MATT WILLIAMS: Test tube baby

Naconiche giant first ShareLunker offspring documented at whopper size

Matt Williams
The Athens Review

ATHENS — The big bass drums are thumping to a rhythmic beat these days at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens. That's because fisheries biologists there have confirmed that a 12.54 pound whopper caught on April 13 from Lake Naconiche is a test tube baby produced eight-years ago at the Toyota ShareLunker headquarters.

In case you have been living beneath a rock for the last quarter of a century, ShareLunker a highly-publicized program run by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department since 1986. The program solicits anglers to donate Texas-caught bass weighing 13 pounds or more to the state. In exchange for their fish, anglers are given a free replica of their catch and other goodies.

Each ShareLunker entry is DNA tested to determine its genetics and the results are filed in a data base for future reference. Female fish with pure Florida genes are paired with pure Florida males for spawning in hatchery raceways, while hybrids (Florida/native crosses also called intergrades) are immediately returned to the lake from which they were caught, regardless of size. The theory behind TPWD's current protocol is cut and dry: Crossing two bass with pure Florida genes provides the best formula for producing fish with the superior genetics.

Not all of the Florida females retained for use in the program are able to spawn. But those that do are highly successful in terms of survival, largely because of the controlled environment in which the process takes place.

Once hatched, a percentage of the ShareLunker offspring are stocked into Texas lakes at fingerling size. Others are nurtured to advanced growth (6-8 inches) before stocking, and a few grown into adulthood for use in the selective breeding program.

While ShareLunker began as a public relations tool to promote catch and release and popularize Texas bass fishing, it has since shifted a lot of its emphasis to spawning and genetics research aimed at unraveling the mysteries of big bass DNA and, ultimately, producing bigger and better bass for Texas anglers to catch.

Nearly three decades down the road, the verdict is still out as to whether or not the ShareLunker program and selective breeding are truly making a significant difference in the quality of Texas bass fisheries.

A common thread among naysayers is the state might be better off channeling its efforts towards producing more good ol' fashioned Florida bass, since those fish are the foundation of Texas bass fishing as we know it today. Others are beginning to wonder if the 27-year-old experiment has run its course, and if the returns are worth the time and money that is being spent on it by the state as well as program sponsors.

By no means is this to say ShareLunker hasn't accomplished some good things.

As earlier mentioned, the program has sounded a continual trumpet worldwide about the high quality of trophy bass fishing Texas has to offer.

Furthermore, with more than 500 ShareLunkers caught from dozens public reservoirs over the lengthy history, its data base provides a reliable road map to steer anglers in the direction of the state's hottest trophy lakes. It also sheds some light on best months to target big fish on the top lakes, and which baits and water depths might be the most productive.

More recently, the program has made some really cool strides in genetic fingerprinting that allows scientists to identify ShareLunker offspring years down the road, and even the parents that produced them.

A Naconiche record

The 12.54 pounder caught from 690-acre Lake Naconiche by Lane Kruse of Garrison is a glowing example of how TPWD geneticists are able to trace a ShareLunker's family tree. Amazingly, this one's pedigree has genetic ties to huge bass caught from three different Texas lakes, including Lake Fork, Gibbons Creek and Lake Falcon way down on the Texas/Mexico border.

Just for the record, Kruse, 46, was sight fishing on Naconiche that sunny Saturday afternoon with his wife, Tracie, when he spotted the big bass along with much smaller male on a spawning bed in about three feet of water.

The angler said he pitched a Texas rigged Zoom Baby Brush Hog onto the bed and caught the male bass in short order. The female stayed put and he caught her four casts later.

Kruse said he knew the fish was big, but he didn't know how heavy until he ran into a friend who had a scale. The bass weighed 14 pounds on the uncertified scales, so Kruse made the call to ShareLunker Coordinator, Juan Martinez.

When Martinez arrived a few hours later he scanned the fish using a electronic device that detected a passive integrated transponder (PIT tag) inside its body cavity. PIT tags are implanted in every fish entered in the ShareLunker program for future identification purposes. The tags also are placed inside many adult size ShareLunker offspring before they are stocked in public reservoirs.

The mere fact the Kruse bass was wearing a PIT tag told Martinez he was onto something special. That's because Lake Naconiche, which opened for fishing just seven months ago, has been the recipient several hundred adult ShareLunker offspring since 2009.

"We felt like if we got a ShareLunker out of Naconiche that there was a good chance it would have a PIT tag indicating it is one of our ShareLunker offspring," Martinez said. "It turned out that this one did (have a tag).

When Martinez weighed the bass on certified scales, it fell just shy of the 13-pound mark necessary to be officially entered in the ShareLunker program. In the meantime, Kruse released the fish and has submitted applications to have his catch certified as a water body and catch and release record for the new impoundment northeast of Nacogdoches.

A big fish with a family history

While the tank on Martinez' transport truck was empty when he drove away from Lake Naconiche, he left with a 10 digit PIT tag number and a fin clip from the Kruse bass in his pocket. Together those two things combined to tell a very compelling story in the days that followed.

For starters, the PIT tag identified the fish as one of 173 adult ShareLunker offspring released into the new East Texas lake in 2009. The stocking included fish from three different year classes — 2005, 2006 and 2008.

Martinez said he is certain Kruse's fish was one of the 24 adult females from the 2005 year class. He said those four-year-old fish — all intergrades — ranged in size from 2.46  to 3.38 pounds.

TPWD geneticist Dijar Lutz-Carillo of San Marcos performed DNA analysis on the fin clip to learn more about the fish's pedigree. Not surprisingly, the analysis indicates the Kruse fish comes from a family with a rich history of weight problems.

To wit:

Lutz-Carillo's findings identified the bass' mother as a Lake Falcon 14.28 pounder that was caught in 2004 by Jerry Campos. That fish was originally believed to be a pure Florida, but upgraded testing methods have since identified it as an intergrade.

The pure Florida daddy of the Naconiche bass was little guy weighing only 2.25 pounds, but its descendants included a long line of fat girls.

Among them were its 14.67 pound mother caught from Lake Fork in 2000, its 14.25 pound grandmother caught at Fork in 1994 and its 16.13 pound great-grandmother caught from Gibbons Creek in 1988. Interestingly, former ShareLunker Coordinator David Campbell said the Gibbons Creek bass was aged at only seven-years old.

Just the beginning?

So what might be expected down the road from from brand new bass lake that has been open to fishing for only seven months and is already kicking out lunkers pushing 13 pounds?

 I posed that question to TPWD fisheries biologist Todd Driscoll of Jasper, but first I asked if he was surprised to see a bass stack on nine-plus pounds as quickly as the Kruse fish did.

 "I'm not surprised by it at all, not at Naconiche," Driscoll said. "The watershed up there is extremely fertile and the forage base — particularly the threadfin shad population — is unlike anything I have ever seen. Plus, it has all the right habitat to along with it.

Matt Williams is a freelance writer based in Nacogdoches. He can be reached by e-mail,