By Bob Lusk
Wines are fascinating. Actually, I learned a valuable fisheries lesson at a wine tasting years ago, as strange as that may sound. In upstate New York, a vineyard owner was teaching chefs how to pair his wines with some of their dishes at a private wildlife preserve where I was doing some work. I knew nothing about wines at that point, so I was all ears. Listening about the microclimates where grapes grow best, hearing about sugar content, acidity, color, juice—if you’re a biologist, learning that stuff is fun.
Then, he told a story that made me sit straight up. Listen to this, it will affect how you think about your fish. He had lived in upstate New York for only a few years, coming from Napa. In New York, his grapevines bloomed late. In his mind’s eye, the grapes grew way too fast. Then, they ripened way too soon. He was worried. He checked the brix and acidity, and it was perfect. Color was right. But, grapes in Napa would never be ready this early. He knew they were still weeks away out on the left coast. He called his mentor in Napa. She asked a few questions, and then told him to harvest and get to the business of making his wine. She explained, “You have 125-130 perfect grape growing days—in a row. Out here, we have 125-130 perfect grape growing days spread out over 200-plus days.” He harvested.
I raised my hand.
“What’s a perfect grape growing day?”’
He said, “When the temperature is between 50-80 degrees.”
Holy cow…my mind changed directions.
Those are perfect largemouth bass growing days, too!
It was an epiphany.
I was trying to figure out how to grow big bass in upstate New York. I started looking through weather records over the last 20 years. Folks, upstate New York, and pretty much every state in this country, has the same number of perfect largemouth bass growing days. New York just happens to have them in a row. In Texas, we have 125-130 perfect bass growing days, spread out over 300 plus days. We have lots of days where it’s way too hot for bass to grow. What New York doesn’t have is enough days to grow the food chain that bass require to grow large. Texas has 300-plus baitfish growing days. New York has about 75, maybe 80. That’s one reason Texas can grow bigger bass than northern states.
In 2007 I got a phone call from Tim Spence, general manager at the Jordan Winery in Healdsburg, California. Seems they have two nice-sized lakes on the property, and the owner, John Jordan, loves to bass fish. As we communicated, I gave them some ideas how to begin a fisheries management program. Keep catch records, start a supplemental feeding program, start culling small bass. They understood and went to work.
As their records began to reflect over the course of two years, the key lake, about ten acres, was overcrowded with bass. By now, they’d culled quite a few fish, beefed up their baitfish population some, and wanted to see their progress. So, we decided to do some electrofishing, and figure out their status. In March, 2009, we found a local fisheries specialist who had an electrofishing boat, so I flew out with my bride and sampled the fishery. Their culling program was beginning to work, but bass were still overcrowded. Some of the smaller fish, those in the 10-14” size ranges, were still underweight, plus they had some age to them, limiting their topside potential for size. They ramped up their culling program.
They’d begun experimenting with trout stocking to help feed their fastest growing, largest fish. It was subtly changing some of the bigger bass. You could see it in their catch records—and from the electrofishing boat.
Recommendations were still pretty fundamental. Keep culling small bass, stock some adult bluegills, increase your feeding regimen with high quality feed, keep stocking those trout, if you don’t mind spending the money. The trout were of a size to only feed bass two pounds or larger. Selective feeding, we call it. I also emphasized they keep good records of fish removed and those stocked. And, be sure to track lengths and weights of bass, whether kept or released. At some point, they’d see a difference.
They were making progress, and were excited about it. Not only does Mr. Jordan love to fish, so does Tim Spence. They were happy to keep culling small bass—as long as they could see some progress. Part of their mission has been to use the lake for their business. Wine buyers get points they can use with Jordan’s purchasing program. They can redeem points, and the folks at Jordan were thinking about using events at the lake as part of that program.
Over the next few years, they were faithful with their management strategy.
Not only have they stayed the course with management, they’ve followed all the principles of good pond management. They’ve improved habitat not only for bass, but also for their forage fish. They’ve added tall Christmas trees, standing up in the best spots, each year. They’ve managed aquatic plants in healthy ways. Their feeding program has been constant and predictable. They’ve improved genetics. And, they’ve harvested, probably the hardest part of trying to keep a bass lake well managed.
In April 2015, we electrofished the lake again. I found a company in California, FishBio, and had them bring their boat and one of their top biologists to help us take a look.
The results were quite impressive. There were seven age classes of largemouth bass, in excellent ratios. Bluegills were outstanding, too. We found eight different size classes, which isn’t normal in most bass lakes. That was strong evidence their management strategy was working well. We also observed four size classes of redear sunfish. Forage was abundant. Water color was excellent, and aquatic plants were where they needed to be to provide the best habitat for newly hatched fish. This lake looked excellent. Size distribution showed the bass to still have a few too many small bass, but they are young, fighting their way up the food chain to join the junior varsity, on their way to the varsity team.
Graph 1 shows those length distributions. When we analyze a fishery, one thing we look at is the distribution of lengths. We hope to see a wide, sweeping bell curve, with a small curve on the left, showing the youngest year classes as they grow. In this graph, those 11-inch bass are crowded, but look at the numbers of larger bass to the right. Those fish larger than 16 inches are what we want. The whole lake changes when 25-30% of the bass biomass grows beyond 16 inches. At that point, many of those 10-12” bass become a food source rather than competition.
Graph 2 shows an even better contrast. Each yellow diamond represents a Jordan fish. The blue line represents standard weights of largemouth bass for a given length. Although the blue line is considered standard, normal is actually 5-10% on either side of that line, depending on the time of the year. Fish to the right are overweight, those to the left are underweight.
Here’s where this story grows fun.
Look at those bass 17” and larger. What gives with them? Those are the fish which are selectively fed with 7-10” rainbow trout. Is that program working? Look at that biggest fish. It tipped the scales at nine pounds. FishBio had a sophisticated sonar system where we could actually see the fish underwater as we were electrofishing them, and we saw several large bass that escaped as the electrical field approached. I’m confident Jordan has several huge bass, some of which are double-digit fish.
Next, look at those bass in the 14-16” size range. They are thriving as well. Those fish depend on a different food chain than their larger cousins. They’re eating medium-sized sunfish, the smaller of the stocked trout, and small bass. But, their numbers are reasonable, or their body condition wouldn’t be so strong.
Those smaller bass are hugging the line because competition at that level is more intense.
The folks at Jordan Winery not only produce award winning Chardonnay’s and Cabernet’s, they grow some pretty nice bass as well.
When you make a plan, and then have the discipline to follow it, monitoring with good records as you go, the results can be outstanding. Jordan, seeing their management plan as part of the fun of having the lake, now have excellent catch rates, are catching some nice bass, and have a legitimate chance at catching a double digit fish.
Here’s a toast to the Jordan Winery!