Hatching a Revolution
Fishing's great in Texas, and here's why.
By Larry D. Hodge
The last four decades of the 20th century were an exciting time to be a fisheries biologist in Texas. Sweeping societal, environmental and technological changes presented fisheries managers with challenges that, unmet, might have destroyed sportfishing in Texas.
Fortunately, revolutionary times not only spark change; they also forge leaders. Texas fisheries managers rose to the occasion; and Texas anglers today enjoy some of the best freshwater fishing in the nation. This is the story of the visionary, dedicated and courageous people who made that happen.
Ironically, the drought of the 1950s led to huge increases in the number of fish in Texas. In 1950 Texas had about half a million acres of public reservoirs. A flood of dam-building in response to the drought tripled the amount of water by 1970. Fertile and highly productive, the new reservoirs produced so many fish that biologists believed it was impossible to overfish them. Regulations reflected this belief: The minimum length for black bass was seven inches, and anglers were allowed to keep 15 fish daily, of which no more than 10 could be longer than 11 inches. This regulation failed to protect fish until they matured and spawned, and the effect became evident by the mid-1970s. Catch rates went down, and biologists realized something was amiss.
A revolution was occurring in freshwater fishing. Reservoir construction tapered off in the 1970s, but the boom in freshwater fishing spurred by the new lakes continued. Americans had moved from the farms to the cities en masse during and after World War II, and the new city dwellers had leisure time and money to amuse themselves. Interest in bass fishing exploded as bass boats, electronic fish finders and plastic artificial baits came on the market. Skeeter built the first bass boat in Marshall, Texas, in 1948. About that same time, Texan R. D. Hull engaged the Zero Hour Bomb Co. of Tulsa, Oklahoma, maker of explosive devices for fracturing oil wells, to manufacture his invention, a closed-face spinning reel anyone could cast easily. (Some manipulation of letters from the company’s name resulted in one of the most famous names in fishing, ZEBCO.) Nick Crème set up a factory to make his new plastic worms in Tyler in 1951. In 1957, Carl Lowrance of Joplin, Missouri, introduced a low-cost sonar unit, a “little green box” that enabled anglers to find fish anywhere in a reservoir’s depths.
The new technology made anglers more efficient, and they were able to catch more fish in less time. Advances in technology had yet to arrive to aid biologists. “When I came to work in 1966, we didn’t have handheld calculators, much less computers,” says Roger McCabe, who retired as an Inland Fisheries regional director in 2005. “We worked with old Frieden rotary calculators, which reminded me of an abacus. That and the typewriter were the technology of the time. We had no electrofishing equipment; sampling was done with gill nets and seines. Our water testing kits were homemade. The biggest boat we had was a 16-foot aluminum boat with a 35 horsepower motor.”
Management techniques were as primitive as the equipment, and many biologists held degrees in agriculture or biology rather than fisheries management. “When I came to work for TPWD in 1968, there was almost no fisheries management on public waters,” recalls Bill Provine, management and research chief for Inland Fisheries. “In fact, management wasn’t really needed. We had new reservoirs coming on all the time, fishing was good, limits were liberal and nobody thought you could hurt bass populations.” Individual biologists sampled fish populations using different kinds of gear and different methods, and there was little sharing of information. “There was a tendency for everyone to go their own way,” says Nick Carter, federal aid coordinator for TPWD.
But change was in the wind, due in no small part to the Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act, passed by Congress in 1950. This law authorized federal funds for state programs to restore and manage fish populations. To receive funding, states had to develop a comprehensive fish and wildlife resource management plan. Developing such plans required research into the status of fisheries, methods to improve them and the keeping of records. This proved to be a key element in the evolution of fisheries management.
Nick Carter, a Southwest Texas State University professor whose specialty was statistics applied to biological problems, was recruited to bring TPWD’s reporting up to snuff. “I was hired to teach the biologists research techniques, statistics and how to write scientific articles, and we standardized data collection methods,” Carter says. “All this evolved to where we started getting good information throughout the state.” At the same time, TPWD decided to establish a separate research section, headquartered at Heart of the Hills Fisheries Science Center near Kerrville. “The idea was that research provides the ammunition to say what we’re doing is what we should be doing,” says Dick Luebke, the center’s director.
“We started learning that we could compare lakes,” adds Provine. “We saw that some lakes were better than others, and we could identify what was going on in reservoirs. The most important thing was being able to identify the problems. We went from haphazard surveying of lakes and never seeing trends to being able to identify and address problems. That’s when we started looking at more restrictive length limits.” The result was a statewide 10-inch minimum length, 10-fish daily bag limit for black bass established in 1975.
Armed with new equipment and techniques, Texas fisheries biologists had the good fortune to be led by one of the giants of fisheries management, Robert J. “Bob” Kemp, Jr. “Bob Kemp told us the secret to success is to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you, and Texas had some of the best talent in the country,” says McCabe. “I think the most important factor in our success was having good people, and that was no accident.”
“Bob Kemp had a vision,” says Phil Durocher, the current Inland Fisheries Division director. “He may not always have been as scientific as some people, but he always wanted to make fishing better in Texas.”
Kemp’s biggest legacy was the large-scale introduction of Florida bass into Texas. “Florida bass were brought into the state not just because they grew larger, but also because they had evolved in more open systems, and it was believed they would be better suited for the reservoir environment than the native northern largemouths,” Durocher says.
The saga of the Florida bass began in the 1960s, when research convinced Kemp the fish would do well in Texas reservoirs. Unable to persuade the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission to spend money to bring in fish to experiment with, Kemp accomplished the task himself in 1971. “Bob Kemp had two insulated boxes of Florida bass fingerlings in oxygenated bags flown in from Florida,” recalls David Campbell, who worked at the Tyler fish hatchery at the time and is now in charge of TPWD’s trophy bass program, Budweiser ShareLunker. “We stocked the fingerlings into a pond and reared them to three or four inches, then we took them to Staway Ranch, a commercial fishing operation between Tyler and Athens that was one of Bob Kemp’s favorite fishing holes. We didn’t have enough pond space at the hatchery to keep them there. After a year, we harvested those Florida bass and took them back to the Tyler fish hatchery.” Those fish were used to produce future broodfish; their descendants now thrill anglers in lakes all over Texas. The severe winter of 1983 froze the hatchery ponds and killed all the remaining Florida fish from the original importation.
With the help of a colorful angler from the Texas Panhandle, Joe Bob Wells, bass from Lake Hanabanilla, Cuba, were also brought to the Tyler fish hatchery, as were descendants of Florida bass that had been taken to California in 1959. Tyler district fisheries biologist Charlie Inman proved the growth potential of Florida bass in a three-year study, giving the green light to stocking of Florida bass in reservoirs across the state. “There was also some stocking of Florida bass by individuals,” says Campbell. How early that happened is not known, but an interesting clue turned up at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens in the 1990s. “Lucy Dueck, who did DNA testing in our lab, obtained some scales from the 13.5-pound state record fish caught in 1943 from Lake Medina,” Campbell says. “She found Florida influence in that fish’s DNA. Someone had put Florida bass into Lake Medina.”
The 1943 record was not broken until 1980, and during the next 12 years the record fell again and again, reaching the present 18.18 pounds in 1992. Most of those record fish came from one body of water, Lake Fork, and therein lies another tale.
Lake Fork represents the pinnacle of fisheries management in Texas. Allen Forshage, now director of the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center, was the Inland Fisheries regional director for East Texas and headed the Florida bass program in the 1970s. “Lake Fork came at the tail end of reservoir construction in Texas,” he says. “Steve Smith, the biologist in charge of Lake Fork, drew the shoreline of the lake on topographical maps. ‘Look at that map,’ he told me. ‘If we don’t do anything at all to this lake, it will be a good bass lake. We need to do everything possible to make it a great lake.’ That was my introduction to Lake Fork. Then, as luck would have it, the person in charge of the project for the Sabine River Authority was a guy I went to college with, David Parsons, and he was eager to implement the experimental programs we wanted to try out on Lake Fork.”
TPWD biologists went into the area to be inundated and used rotenone to kill out fish in existing farm ponds, then stocked Florida bass fingerlings and some adult bass two to three years prior to impoundment. “We also asked the SRA to leave as much timber as they could,” Forshage says. “When the lake first filled, there were some areas you could not get a boat into.” Those areas served as refuges where fish could spawn and grow. The watershed itself was a key factor. Ample rains fall over the area, and there were many dairy farms in the upper watershed. “Nutrients continually washed into the reservoir and grew forage,” Forshage says. “Another key was that our hatchery system had the capability to raise all the fingerlings we needed to put into a 27,000-acre reservoir. Everything came together.”
Only one piece of the puzzle was missing that would make Lake Fork the trophy bass lake of the nation. “The philosophy of the time was to let anglers take all the fish they wanted,” Forshage says. “Part of Steve’s plan was to open the reservoir with what we considered a restrictive limit, a 14-inch minimum, five-fish daily bag.”
A week after he sent the recommendation to headquarters in Austin, Forshage got it back with no explanation, just a big red “No” on it.
The next day he was in Austin asking why.
One person after another said it was not his decision and referred Forshage to the next higher supervisor, until he found himself talking to Bob Kemp. “I went into his office and shut the door,” Forshage says. “I was upset, because the regulation was the one thing TPWD had control over, and he had said we couldn’t do it. I told him why we wanted the restrictive regulation and that research papers were beginning to show that you could overharvest a reservoir. Bob listened to me and kept quiet the whole time. When I finished he looked me in the eye and said, ‘I don’t agree with you, but I’m going to let you do it.’ Then he pointed a finger at me and said, ‘Don’t you ever come into my office mad again.’”
Lake Fork opened to fishing in 1980 with a 14-inch minimum length limit and a five-fish daily bag.
Current Inland Fisheries Division Director Phil Durocher was a data analyst at the time. He and other TPWD biologists had seen a trend toward smaller, fewer fish in many Texas lakes beginning in the early 1970s. “I took the numbers to Bob Kemp and told him there was something going on that had to do with harvest, and we had to do something,” he recalls. “I told him we needed to change the statewide bass regulation to the same 14-inch minimum, five-fish limit we’d put in place on Lake Fork.”
The 14-inch minimum length, five-fish daily bag for bass became the statewide regulation governing most lakes in 1986 and continues to the present. “What that regulation basically did was make bass a sport fish instead of a meat fish,” Durocher says. “When we put that limit on, it forced people to release fish, and they soon realized it wasn’t so bad to turn a fish loose.”
Fishing for sport rather than for food was an idea whose time had come. Bass fishing tournaments, born in Texas in 1955, were gaining in popularity every year and helped popularize catch-and-release fishing. (See “Bassin’ for Bucks” in the December 2005 issue.)
Having a sound scientific basis for decision-making and the courage to make those decisions matter little if power to implement those decisions is lacking. Until passage of the Wildlife Conservation Act of 1983, individual county commissioners’ courts could elect not to go along with TPWD regulations affecting fish and wildlife. “This law was the handiwork of TPWD commission chairman Edwin L. Cox, Jr.,” Durocher says. “It took control of regulations out of county commissioners’ courts and put it in the hands of TPWD. That’s when fish and wildlife management became science-based. Mr. Cox had some private lakes and saw what could be done with proper management. He knew it was the proper thing to do, and he did it.”
“Inland Fisheries has always tried to recruit the most talented and dedicated people who contribute new ideas and approaches through teamwork,” says Mike Ryan, who retired as an East Texas district biologist in 2005. “Field staffs have been given the freedom to be creative in developing management strategies, always with the goal of making fishing better.”
That quest continues.
The Past Is Present
As is true of all histories, this one is incomplete. The contributions of many people had to be omitted or glossed over because of space limitations. A partial list of individuals whose names were mentioned in the course of my research for this article includes Lonnie Peters, David Pritchard, Richard L. White, Bob Bounds, Bob Chew, Larry Campbell, Lou Guerra, Ed Bonn, Ernest Simmons, Bill Rutledge, Barry Lyons, Paul Seidensticker and Billy White.
If those individuals or anyone reading this has information on the history of the Inland Fisheries Division they would like to see preserved, they can send it to my attention at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center, 5550 F.M. 2495, Athens, Texas 75752. I’ll see that the material gets added to the TPWD archives in Austin.
The Carp Fiasco: How Not to Manage a Fishery
The myth of wildlife as a free and inexhaustible resource died with the buffalo, the beaver, the passenger pigeon and a host of other species, but management and conservation of wildlife were slow to develop. By the late 1880s in Texas, fish found themselves on the road to oblivion as well, and an awakening realization of what was happening led to Texas’ first efforts to conserve fish. A law governing seining was enacted in 1874; an 1879 law “for the preservation of fish and to build fish ladders” required owners of mill dams to provide fish ladders but provided no funds for construction or oversight.
Early management efforts tried to replace vanishing species rather than protect them. The federal government actively stocked fish into Texas streams, and by 1882 had stocked 3 million marine shad, nearly 200,000 salmon and a few thousand rainbow trout. Texas established its first fish hatchery in 1881 at Barton Springs in Austin to raise what many people felt would become the most popular sportfish in Texas, as it was in Europe: the German carp. Carp never caught on in Texas, however. (For an alternate point of view, see “The World According to Carp” in the March 2006 issue.) A newspaper editorial of 1885 summed up the prevailing attitude and came near putting a finger on the real problem: “The carp is a humbug, but if the legislature will pass a law prohibiting seining and blasting for fish, Texas waters will soon have a good supply of native fish which are far superior to the German carp.” The carp fiasco led the legislature to abolish the fish commission and shut down the hatchery in 1885.
These early failures foreshadowed later successes, for they showed rising public concern for the conservation of natural resources. However, scientific natural resource management and regulation by government had yet to develop. For the first several decades of the 20th century, fish continued to be exploited as a cheap food source by anglers and commercial fishers alike. State and federal fish hatcheries poured millions of fish into the state’s streams, but the emphasis remained on production and consumption rather than management and conservation.—LDH