A Fish Called Ethel
How a 17-pound largemouth bass changed the world.
By Larry D. Hodge
When Mark Stevenson pulled a 17.67-pound largemouth bass from Lake Fork on November 26, 1986, he had no idea he had just set in motion a chain of events that would touch millions of lives, change careers, make fortunes and inspire conservation efforts. The fish Stevenson named Ethel after a close relative played a big part in making bass fishing what it is today.
This is her story.
Ethel owns the distinction of being the first fish entered into what was called Operation Share a Lone Star Lunker at the time and has since become, first the Budweiser and now, Toyota ShareLunker program. Anglers donate or loan 13-pound or larger bass to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department for use as brooders in a program designed to increase the size and growth rate of largemouth bass in Texas public waters.
Bill Rutledge headed TPWD's freshwater hatchery program in the 1980s, and the idea sprang from a problem. "At the time the lunker program started, our hatcheries were old and had zero visibility with the public," he recalls. "A member of the TPWD Commission had an office right down the street from one of the hatcheries, and he didn't even know it was there. We were looking for a way to increase visibility. Ultimately we hoped the impact would be to get funding for more hatcheries from the Texas Legislature."
What Rutledge came up with was Operation Share a Lone Star Lunker, though that was not the original name suggested for the program. "I wanted to call it 'Wanted Dead or Alive,' with the word Dead crossed out, but Bob Kemp, the director of the fisheries division, didn't like that," he says. Kemp's assistant, Charles Leigon, was friends with Bill Roth, who was the marketing director for the Lone Star Brewery in San Antonio, and through that connection the program gained a name and a sponsor.
The second reason for the program was to improve the genetics of bass being raised in TPWD hatcheries. "For years, hatchery managers had been keeping the fastest-growing fish from their ponds for brooders," Rutledge says. Without intending to, they were selecting for fish that, in Rutledge's words, "lived fast and died young. By bringing in Florida largemouth bass from the wild we could add a little science to our brood stock program."
The idea was not an easy sell. "We pitched the idea to the sportswriters first, and none of them thought anyone would give up a 13-pound bass," Rutledge recalls. "However, the Texas Taxidermy Association agreed to provide anglers with a fiberglass replica of their fish, so they could put their fish back into the lake and still have a mount."
Other people had doubts the program would work, including David Campbell, who was manager of the Tyler Fish Hatchery, where the lunker program was headquartered, and who became the program's manager. "Rutledge was always coming up with something new," Campbell says. "I thought this was just another one of his wild ideas. We already had more to do than we could handle; I didn't think anglers would give up the biggest fish of their lives; and I thought it would be bad publicity if a fish died. As time went on I was proved wrong on all three counts."
Ethel decided to bite Mark Stevenson's jig at a point in history that was tailor-made to transform a megabass into a megastar. Texas had begun stocking Florida largemouth bass into public waters in the early 1970s, and the state record was broken numerous times as the Florida genes kicked in. Although we don't know for sure, Campbell thinks it's likely that Ethel was one of the bass stocked into ponds in the lake before it was filled. Lake Fork was impounded in 1980, and Ethel was between 9 and 10 years old when caught.
Bass tournaments had been growing in popularity since the 1960s, and the standard procedure until 1972 was to bring a stringer of dead fish to the weigh-in. Then Ray Scott started promoting catch-and-release through his Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (B.A.S.S.), and anglers began returning fish to the lake after weigh-ins. Part of the reason was that no one believed that really big fish could be kept alive in captivity after being caught.
Ethel changed that perception, but not without a struggle.
Stevenson, a guide on Lakes Lavon and Fork, had two clients with him the day he caught Ethel. "We got a late start that morning because a big cold front had come through and there was a heavy frost," he says. "We let it warm up a bit and then started fishing a creek channel. Fish were holding around stumps along the side. We got to this one spot, and I got lucky. Instead of burying herself in the bush, she swam out. We were all excited about catching a fish that size, but we guessed she weighed about 15 and a half. She was so fat we didn't realize she was as long as she was [27.5 inches]. After a while we decided to go in and weigh her. When we put her on the scales and I realized I had a new state record, I got really excited."
Leaving the fish in the minnow tank at the store where she was weighed, Stevenson and his clients went back to fishing. "I called some people in Dallas, and when we came back in, the parking lot was absolutely full. There were people everywhere. The excitement was contagious. It was amazing how quickly the news got out over the grapevine," Stevenson says.
What Stevenson did not know until later was that Ethel was taken from the tank a number of times by people who wanted to be photographed holding her. As a result, she was not in good condition when David Campbell arrived to pick her up, and she developed a serious fungus infection. "Treating the fungus was a big deal, and I spent hours each day trying to get her to eat," Campbell says. "I would sit there at night for two or three hours with the lights on low, dangling a koi carp on a length of monofilament line in front of her. It was probably a month before she ate."
But while Ethel wasn't eating, the media was in a feeding frenzy. "All three major television networks covered the story of how we kept that fish alive," says Campbell. "People came from everywhere to see the fish. I lived on the hatchery, which was next to a tire plant, and I would go out at 5 a.m. and there would be people waiting to see her. In the six months she was at the hatchery, 10,000 people signed the guest book in the room with her. I did not realize people would be that interested in a fish. My opinion about the importance of the program changed because of that, and so did my career. Until Ethel I was in the fish production business. Because of her I got into the public relations business." He logged 43 phone calls about the fish in one day.
Ethel's survival prompted Rutledge to ask David Campbell to set down the procedures on caring for big fish, and those rules, now publicized through Budweiser ShareLunker posters and marinas and on the TFFC Web site, still hold true today. "What we learned from taking care of Ethel changed how people treat big fish," Campbell says. "I went to work for TPWD in 1965, and we had a book we thought was the Bible on raising fish. Now I look at that book and have some good chuckles. Knowledge has changed over the years, and it is our responsibility to change with it."
Ethel's popularity attracted the attention of Johnny Morris, the founder of Bass Pro Shops, and Mark Stevenson decided to give the fish to Bass Pro for display in their Springfield, Missouri, store. "I agonized for a long time over whether to put her back in the lake or give her to Bass Pro," Stevenson says. "David Campbell felt that at her age she would not live very long if put back in the lake." After consulting with Campbell on how to transport Ethel, Stevenson equipped a galvanized livestock watering tank in the back of his Suburban with an oxygen bottle and air stone and put a top on so she could not jump out, and Ethel rode in style to Missouri. "They had a pathway cleared into the store, and I backed the Suburban all the way up to their big waterfall tank. She took to it immediately, staked out a territory and became their main attraction," Stevenson says. "What it boiled down to was it inspired catch-and-release and showed people that if trophy fish are handled right, they can survive. Ethel also showed that the program TPWD had for developing Lake Fork worked - that stewardship of wildlife and management can actually work better than if you just let nature take its course, especially with our growing population and shrinking water resources."
"She was the best thing that ever happened to Bass Pro Shops as far as getting people in there," Johnny Morris says. "She was an unbelievable inspiration to a lot of folks." No one knows just how much Ethel impacted Bass Pro's business, but when she went to Springfield there was just the one store; now there are 43. Having a monster bass customers could get eyeball to eyeball with made the store a tourism destination and certainly did nothing to hurt business.
Ethel's legacy can be measured in other ways. At the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens, the current home of the ShareLunker program, a caricature of Ethel appears on signage. And while it can't be said that Ethel built any stores for Bass Pro Shops, she played a major role in construction of a $2.1 million conservation center at TFFC that bears Johnny Morris' name as well as that of the fund drive's organizer, Richard Hart. Morris gave a $650,000 challenge grant for construction, and the check bore the inscription "In Memory of Ethel."
"That fish was one of our biggest motivations for support for this building," Morris noted at the dedication ceremony in April 2007.
Ethel's memory lives on at Bass Pro Shops across the country, where replicas of her are displayed. There's also a memorial to Ethel at the Springfield store. Ethel died in 1994 at the age of 19. An Ethel memorial service held at the store on August 25, 1994, drew a crowd estimated at 1,500. "The absolutely remarkable thing was how many people showed up," says Mark Stevenson, who spoke at the service along with Johnny Morris and other Bass Pro staff. "There were probably 35 or 40 outdoor writers there from all over the United States."
Ethel was viewed by millions of people during her reign as the queen of largemouth bass. "To young and old alike, Ethel was the star of daily fish feeding shows. She filled the dreams of many fishermen and the imagination of many young anglers," the memorial service program reads.
The dreams Ethel inspired lured many people to Lake Fork hoping they could catch a big fish themselves. "Catching her made me want to go out and catch another one, and I'm still trying," Stevenson says. "The publicity was tremendous for my guide service. Plus it changed the whole perception of Lake Fork. Almost overnight it went from being a sleepy little East Texas lake to just absolutely crowded. Motels on the lake went from one-third occupancy to full. Restaurants had all the business they could handle. Catching Ethel showcased the lake. Instead of people coming from 150 miles away to fish, we started seeing people from out of state. As far as David Campbell and the rest of the guys at TPWD are concerned, it solidified what they did to this lake with their management program. It put them in the limelight and gave their fisheries management program a boost - it proved it worked."
Ethel's impact went far beyond Lake Fork, however. "I think the ShareLunker program changed us from having lakes where you can just go out and catch fish to having lakes where you can catch trophy fish," Stevenson says. ShareLunker program records bear him out. Whereas 236 of the 442 entries into the program have come from Lake Fork, ShareLunkers have now been caught from 55 public reservoirs and a number of private lakes. "It's gotten to the point that if you want to have a chance to catch a big bass in Texas, just fish in water," Campbell jokes.
"Everybody thought the ShareLunker program was the silliest thing when Bill Rutledge started it," says Phil Durocher, the current head of TPWD's Inland Fisheries Division. "It turned out to be one of the best programs we've ever had in getting our conservation message out and getting people to recognize the value of big fish. A 13-pound bass is probably worth as much to an angler as a 170- to 180-class whitetail buck is to a hunter. These big fish are too valuable to kill, and that's what we've been able to teach people through the ShareLunker program."
And what of the original purpose of the big bass program, trying to wheedle money for fish hatcheries out of the Texas Legislature? "I don't know if Ethel was responsible, but everything fell into place, and the Legislature appropriated $8 million for hatcheries," Rutledge says. Never underestimate the power of a fish.
Especially one named Ethel.
Keeping the tradition alive
The ShareLunker program has shown people that big fish can be returned to the lake and caught again. One fish, from Lake Alan Henry, was caught and entered into the program in three successive years, and others have been caught twice. Anglers have the option of donating the fish to TPWD or having it returned to them after the spawning season.
Entries are accepted into the ShareLunker program from October 1 until April 30 each year. Fish must be legally caught in Texas waters. Handle the fish according to the procedures at <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/sharelunker> and call David Campbell at (903) 681-0550 or page him at (888) 784-0600 as soon as possible after catching the fish. He will try to arrange to have the fish picked up within 12 hours.
Fish are taken to the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens, where the big females are paired with males and, if all goes well, spawned. The resulting offspring are stocked into lakes that contributed ShareLunkers that season.
Ethel was not spawned while she was with TPWD - "I was afraid I might do something that would kill her," says Campbell - but she lived in Lake Fork through a number of spawning seasons, and undoubtedly many of her descendants swim in the lake today.
Perhaps an Ethel II is out there waiting for you.
Give David Campbell a call when you catch her. He'd love to meet her.