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Expanded ShareLunker program a big hit

September 23, 2018

Through its first 31 years, Texas’ ShareLunker program showed the state’s million-plus anglers and the world just what kind of world-class, trophy largemouth bass fishery was possible through evolving science and a cooperative effort between fisheries managers and anglers.

This 32nd year of the innovative program that began by soliciting angler-caught 13-pound-or-heavier largemouths for research and selective breeding in the state’s hatcheries has seen its focus expanded and refined. And almost nine months into the first year of a major revamping of the iconic program, results suggest those modifications are benefiting efforts to build a better bass fishery in the state. They certainly are a window into just how robust and widespread the state’s largemouth bass fishery and its trophy-size component have become.

“It’s really been heartening to see the number of fish entered and the diversity of the fisheries producing big bass,” said Kyle Brookshear, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department fisheries biologist and coordinator of the ShareLunker program based at the agency’s Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center near Athens.

Entries

Through the middle of September, anglers this calendar year have entered 422 bass weighing between 8 and 15.48 pounds in the ShareLunker program. The application for entry of another 50 or so bass meeting the program’s new 8-pound/24-inch minimum are pending, Brookshear said.

That 8-pound/24-inch minimum for entry in the ShareLunker program is one of the changes made in the long-running program.

Before Jan. 1, only largemouths weighing 13 pounds or more were eligible for entry, with those fish accepted only during the winter-spring window before and during the annual largemouth bass spawn. The huge fish, invariably females, are the product of the introduction, beginning in the 1970s, of Florida-strain largemouths to the Texas waters. Those Florida bass, a subspecies of largemouth with a genetic predisposition to grow larger and sometimes faster than Texas native “northern” largemouth subspecies, have transformed Texas’ bass fishery.

Before the introduction of Florida bass, largemouths weighing 8 pounds or more were rare, and fish weighing more than 10 pounds were almost unheard of. Texas’ long-standing state-record largemouth bass — a 13-pound, 8-ounce fish caught in 1943 — was unseated by a heavier Florida-strain bass in 1980.

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Brief history

Texas’ ShareLunker program was created in 1987 to take advantage of the superior genetics of super-sized Florida bass. The fish were incorporated into the state’s hatchery program, which shifted to using only pure-strain Florida bass for its hatchery production and stocking into public waters across Texas.

The program proved a huge success on both ends. Texas’ bass fishery, especially its trophy-class fishery, boomed.

During the first 31 years of the ShareLunker program, anglers donated 570 13-pound-or-heavier bass to the project. Those fish were taken from more than 60 public waters and a dozen private lakes.

This year, after more than a year of review, TPWD moved to overhaul the program as part of a shift in research and hatchery production.

TPWD is moving to integrating the progeny of 13-pound-and-heavier ShareLunker entries as brood fish in the state’s hatcheries. All largemouth bass stocked in Texas lakes will, within a decade so, be descendants of ShareLunker fish.

TPWD shifted the ShareLunker “season” from a few months in winter and spring to a year-round project, but limited acceptance of 13-pound-or-heavier fish into the hatchery program to only those fish landed between Jan. 1 and March 31.

But the “new” program is open year round to entries of any largemouth bass weighing 8 pounds or more or measuring at least 24 inches. Those fish are divided into categories according to their size:

“Lunker” for bass measuring at least 24 inches or weighing 8 to 9.99 pounds;

“Lunker Elite” for those weighing 10 to 12.99 pounds;

“Lunker Legend” for those 13 pounds or more and not caught between Jan. 1 and March 31;

“Lunker Legacy” for those 13-plus-pounders landed between Jan. 1 and March 31 and accepted into the hatchery production program.

Only the 13-pluses caught between Jan. 1 and March 31 can be donated to the program. Anglers participating in program in the other categories do not donate their live fish to the program. Instead, they enter the fish by creating an account on the ShareLunker’s digital platform and completing an online entry. The new program has digital applications for smartphones available for free downloads with the entry form and rules included. Part of that entry process includes a requirement the angler submit two photos of the fish — one against a rigid measuring board and the other showing the fish weighed on a digital scale.

Complete rules for the program, as well as links to download the ShareLunker app and instructions on how to help fisheries managers increase their genetic database of large largemouths by removing and sending a few scales from ShareLunker-qualifying fish, are available on the program’s website at texassharelunker.com.

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“Catch kit’

Anglers whose entries are accepted are rewarded with a “catch kit” that includes a program participant decal recognizing the category of the angler’s catch and a selection of fishing-related gear. As added incentive, participants also are entered in an end-of-year drawing for a fishing-related prize package valued at $5,000.

Through mid-September, almost xxx anglers have submitted applications for almost 500 super-size largemouths. Of those, 422 have been accepted. That tally includes six “Legacy” ShareLunker bass anglers caught and donated to the program between Jan. 1 and March 31. Four of those fish spawned, and the fish and their fingerlings released back into the lake from which the big fish was caught. One fish, which proved a pure-strain Florida, was spawned, with more than 18,000 of her progeny retained at TFFC, where they are candidates for incorporation into the hatchery’s brood stock.

In addition to the six 13-plus “Legacy” ShareLunkers, five “Legend” entries — bass weighing more than 13 pounds but caught outside the Jan. 1-March 31 window, have been entered. Ninety-six bass weighing 10 to 12.99 pounds have been entered, and 315 fish weighing 8 to 9.99 pounds have been certified.

Many of those fish were taken over the summer — a season when overall bass fishing can be very good, but tradition says truly huge bass are seldom caught.

Several huge largemouths were caught and entered in the ShareLunker program this summer. A 14-pounder was taken from Lake Tawakoni in May. July saw an 11.90-pounder from Palestine and a 12.85 from Marine Creek entered, and August produced a 12-plus from Ray Hubbard.

“Catching 11- and 12-pounders during July was a bit of a shock to me,” Brookshear said. “But it shows you can catch big fish in Texas any time of the year and from almost any lake.”

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Stunning number of entries

The 422 ShareLunker entries accepted have come from a stunning number of Texas waters.

“So far, we have had entries from 80 different waterbodies,” Brookshear said. “They range all over the state. We’ve had ShareLunker entries from more lakes than some states even have. It shows how just about any body of water in Texas is likely to hold trophy-quality bass.”

ShareLunker fish have come from reservoirs, rivers and small lakes in parks. But some Texas waters have accounted for an outsized number of this year’s entries.

Lake Fork, considered Texas’ premier trophy bass lake in a state full of them, leads this year’s ShareLunker entries with 64 fish. Anglers have entered 36 8-pound-plus from Lake Conroe. Lake Athens ranks third in this year’ ShareLunker entries with 28 huge bass.

As typical for any first-year program, the overhauled ShareLunker program has asked potentially participating anglers to navigate a fairly steep learning curve. And while there have been some blips — mainly with anglers not providing the required photo documentation for entries — overall acceptance and cooperation from anglers has been encouraging.

“I’m very pleased on all fronts,” Brookshear said.

As autumn arrives and with it cooler, more comfortable fishing conditions and a shift in bass behavior as they move out of deep water and into the shallows, where they will gorge ahead of winter, Brookshear expects this year’s tally of ShareLunker will surge.

“It’s going to be interesting to see just how many fish we end up with in this first year,” he said.

shannon.tompkins@chron.com

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