Entering its 28th season, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Toyota ShareLunker program is a numbers game.
Ever since the afternoon of Nov. 26, 1986 when Lake Fork guide Mark Stevenson caught a 17.67 pound state record bass and brought it in alive to the old Star Mart store the program has been about the numbers.
The most important is 13, the weight it takes to enter a fish into the hatchery program. The second is 548, the number of bass 13 pounds and larger that has been taken in to the program since its inception.
There have been ShareLunkers caught on 64 public lakes and 21 private lakes. Of those, six have weighed more than 17 pounds. Two, Stevenson’s and Barry St. Clair’s 18.18, were state records.
Nine years old is the average age of a ShareLunker.
There has been zero pure Northern largemouth bass entered in the program. Pure Florida bass have made up 49 percent of the entries since genetics techniques were changed in 2008. Only 9 percent since then have been first generation crosses between a Florida and Northern. The remaining 42 percent have been FX crosses.
Then there is Oct. 1, Tuesday, the day the program starts again.
After almost three decades most programs have run their course. Averaging almost 19 entries a season the last five years, including 33 in 2009-2010, ShareLunker isn’t showing signs of slowing down anytime soon.
Of course the program does have pockets of detractors, and that has meant few or no entries from some lakes, but it hasn’t slowed fishermen at others willing to participate.
TPWD continues to push the program that provides fish for the department’s hatcheries, allows for scientific research on the rare big fish and helps sell the quality of fishing in the state.
“Anglers should enter their fishing into the program so that they can play a role in bass conservation,” said Juan Martinez, ShareLunker program coordinator. “By entering their largemouth bass into the program they are sharing their catch with other anglers.”
Martinez explained that the sharing comes in different ways including the bass’ release back into the lake it was caught so it can be caught again and because of the offspring that can be used in stocking reservoirs around the state.
There has been debate over the program’s relevance in recent years. Some fishermen have used low spawning rates of fish taken into the program as one reason not to participate. Martinez said success is different from perception once the spawning program is understood.
“Since the start of the program we have only spawned ShareLunkers that were identified as pure Florida. Due to this it might appear that ShareLunker spawning is low. When looking at 2012-13 entries, we only had two out the 12 entries spawn. It would appear that we had 17 percent spawning success, but in reality we only paired the two ShareLunkers that were identified as pure Florida,” the biologist explained.
He also add that the department only has a limited number of ponds available at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center for ShareLunker offspring, and that once those are utilized they won’t attempt to spawn additional entries.
“If we look only at the ShareLunkers that are paired for spawning, we have on average 98 percent spawning success,” Martinez said.
Along with the results fishermen see, the program has provided a living laboratory for biologist unaccustomed to working with bass this large and mature. Not only have they learned how to spawn the fish in a hatchery setting, biologists have also learned how to care for them and passed that information along to fishermen. That includes using a second hand to support the fish’s weight instead of just holding it by the jaw which can become dislocated, and to wet hands before handling the fish and only holding it for a short time to keep from removing the fish’s protective slime covering.
Work with the ShareLunkers has also helped the department improve its genetic testing on bass and other game fishes.
The department also used the program as a gateway to economic studies around a number of Texas lakes to determine what impact fishing has on local communities.
Anyone who catches a 13-pound or larger bass between Tuesday and April can donate it by calling (903) 681-0550, or in case of poor cell coverage call (888) 784-0600 and leave a phone number with area code.
Fishermen donating a fish will receive a free replica of their bass, a certificate and ShareLunker clothing and are recognized at a banquet at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens. The person who catches the season’s largest entry will be named Angler of the Year. If the Angler of the Year is a Texas resident, that person also receives a lifetime fishing license.