Bass-O-Matic

How a radical plan for breeding huge fish transformed one of the most popular sports in Texas.
Illustration by Jack Unruh

On a frosty morning on November 26, 1986, a fishing guide named Mark Stevenson took two anglers out on Lake Fork, in East Texas. By the late afternoon, he had found a prime location on the north side of the lake at the intersection of two creeks. One of his clients spotted some commotion under a nearby bush and pitched his jig. The fish bit, but the angler couldn’t hook it. He tried two more times. No luck. Then Stevenson made an attempt, and whammo!

He yanked on his pole and quickly brought the fish to the side of the boat, where his client hauled up the gigantic bass with a net. “That’s a new lake record,” Stevenson said. But when he finally got the fish into a local tackle shop called Val’s, where he could weigh it, he discovered that at seventeen pounds ten ounces, he had beaten more than the lake record—he had beaten the state record. He named her Ethel. (Though one report stated that Stevenson’s inspiration was a member of his family, he claims that he was referring to Ethel Mertz.) Then he slipped her into Val’s minnow tank and headed back out on the lake.

When he returned for Ethel that night, the parking lot at Val’s was packed with people who had heard that a live state-record bass was inside. Admirers were taking Ethel out of the tank for photo ops. Reporters surrounded Stevenson, asking him questions. Stevenson estimates at least a hundred spectators turned out to see his big bass that night. Word had even spread to Bill Rutledge, then the director of fish hatcheries for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

The timing was propitious. For several years, Rutledge had been trying to solve a vexing problem: Whenever an angler landed a really big bass, a vital specimen was being removed from the genetic pool. The State of Texas was spending a good deal of time and money trying to breed larger and larger bass and thereby improve its reputation as a fisherman’s paradise. To achieve these goals, Rutledge needed more of the big fish left in the water to spawn. But how could he convince anglers to throw back the giant fish they had just caught? He’d have to revise the philosophy of bass fishing, which, at that point, was oriented more to the frying pan than the scale.

Rutledge was not the first to dream of building a bigger bass. A hundred years ago, only one type of largemouth bass resided in Texas waters. Known to most as northern bass—and to some as Micropterus salmoides salmoides—it topped out around five pounds, which seemed plenty big to most anglers, until the seventies, when Bob Kemp came along. Kemp, then the regional director of fisheries for the TPWD, knew that Florida’s native bass reached ten pounds or more. Bass that size were extremely rare in Texas; the state record of 13.5 pounds had stood unchallenged since 1943. Kemp decided to take matters into his own hands. In 1971 he personally paid to have two insulated boxes of Florida fingerlings in oxygenated bags flown in as brood fish. The shipment totaled several hundred tiny fish. In the following twelve years, the state record was broken six times.

Rutledge proposed something even more radical. What if anglers were asked to turn over to the TPWD any bass over thirteen pounds in return for a free fiberglass replica? The live lunker would be taken to the hatcheries, where she would spawn with males from Florida stock, and the resulting fingerlings would be released into Texas waters (females tend to be much larger than their male counterparts, who rarely top five pounds). Since bass that are thirteen pounds or more have the genetic potential to get even bigger, Rutledge surmised that this breeding strategy might allow them to grow big fish while avoiding an impossibly large number of shipments of Florida bass fingerlings.

Nonetheless, when he introduced his big idea at a staff meeting in the fall of 1986, he was met with skepticism. “I thought it was the craziest idea that ever lived,” says David Campbell, who was the manager of the Tyler State Fish Hatchery at the time (it closed in 1997). Campbell suspected he would be asked to do the heavy lifting on the project since his office was close to Lake Fork, a prime bass location. Campbell is a thin, long-limbed gentleman in his sixties, with dimples, sand-colored hair, and a brushy white mustache. He speaks with the melodious inflection and earnestness of Andy Griffith. “I told Bill, ‘Nobody’s going to catch the biggest bass of his life and turn around and give it to you,’ ” he recalled. Some staffers thought the thirteen-pound mark set the bar too high. Others, like Campbell, weren’t sure if there was sufficient interest in big bass to validate the time and enormous effort the program would require.

But Rutledge would not be dissuaded. The way he saw it, his plan was in the best interest of the fishermen, even if it involved prying prize fish out of their hands. He thought that the promise of even bigger fish would stir something primal in fishermen and help persuade them to invest in the plan. Think Moby Dick. Or the giant squid. The bonus to the state was obvious: A successful campaign could add visibility to the department’s underfunded, decades-old hatcheries and help build Texas’s aquatic facilities into some of the best in the country. Rutledge acquired sponsors—the Lone Star Brewing Company, Jungle Labs, and Cajun Boats—to pay for publicity materials and fiberglass replicas of the trophy fish. The program, called Operation Share a Lone Star Lunker, was scheduled to begin in December.

Because of Ethel’s arrival, it began earlier. After hearing reports of the giant lunker, Rutledge hunted down Campbell and ordered him to pick up the fish. When Campbell arrived at Val’s, he stood in the crowded parking lot, net in hand, completely dumbfounded. He eventually loaded Ethel into his

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