Choose Which Fish to Lose: It’s Not Only About Genetics
By Bob Lusk

There were no straight retrieves.

Spending time with a professional angler always energizes me. One day, on Richmond Mill Lake, home of the King Fisher Society, I spent a big part of a day sharing a boat with Marty Stone. Marty fished both B.A.S.S. and FLW and is now analyst of Jack Link’s Major League Fishing show on the Outdoor Channel television network.

Choose Which Fish to Lose

Marty Stone with a fish on. You can tell by looking at that fish that it would be a cull. Thin belly.

After a few casts, and judging my fishing ability as well as the direction of the conversation, I knew it was time for this fisheries guy to take a seat and learn from a master as I rested a wrenched back. Ironically, what happened over the course of a few fun hours left both of us fulfilled with a proverbial boat load of knowledge and some fine examples of good-sized bass.

When Marty made a cast, he hit the perfect spot every time, and then molded his retrieve around the water and habitat with his interpretation of how a fish might act. He not only tried to match the hatch, he was doing what he knew to mimic that hatch’s behavior to elicit a bold response from his target. There were no straight retrieves.

I watched intently.

Each time he cast, he shared a nugget of information and asked some questions of his own.

Look at that fish. Keep it, or release it? Thick shoulders, nice belly. What would you choose?

That day, in a boat, we each made the other think more deeply about one of our passions—fish. One subject seemed to dominate the conversation, though.

“What makes fish grow?”

The most obvious answer to that question was plenty of food. In theory, fish grow based on what they have to eat. It’s that simple. Or, is it?

As Marty and I navigated around the lake, our minds took a similar path with this topic. Marty picked up another rod, this one with PopR on it. I love to see a big bass blow up on one of those. After he made his cast, he asked, “What do genetics have to do with fish growth?”

Great question. Genetics play a huge role in the maximum growth potential as well as the rate of growth. But, that’s not as simple as it sounds. Think about it this way—when a top-notch hunting dog births a litter of pups sired by the best male, are all those puppies destined for excellence? Not necessarily. That’s great genetics at play. Just because a creature has the genetics for the bestqualities, doesn’t mean those great qualities will manifest themselves as dominant qualities in any particular animal.

How about this beast? That’s definitely one you want to release. Look at girth compared to length. That’s an excellent fish.

It’s the same with fish. You have to figure out those qualities in your pond, with your fish.

Marty wrestled a five pounder into the boat as he asked the next question.

“So, you are suggesting that these lakes with the best genetics don’t necessarily grow the biggest fish?”

He was baiting me a little. I knew this. You won’t grow a double-digit bass without Florida genetics, plenty of food, and longevity. I also knew not all Florida strain bass are destined for greatness, or the states of Florida, Georgia, and Alabama would continually report giant bass. When you ask a knowledgeable angler where to go to have a legitimate shot at a double-digit bass, Florida isn’t often at the top of the short list. There must be more to it than simply genetics or a great food chain.

He picked up a rod with a jig and flipped it perfectly on top of a stickup on the left side of the boat. Nothing. The conversation was moving faster. For bass, only the females grow large—that’s common knowledge. As we drilled down further, some other answers revealed themselves.

In order for fish to grow, dear pondmeisters, we need to understand more than the basics. Yes, you need great habitat with clean, healthy water. We know that, too. We need a dynamic, ebbing and flowing food chain, resilient enough to never be overgrazed. We need the best genetics. And, we need a harvest plan. A pond or lake is like a garden. At some point it needs harvesting. Ah, maybe that’s what we’re looking for—selective harvest and the picky culling of bass. After all, how many times has your biologist told you to take every bass under 15 inches? That’s a safe strategy.

Is it?

Nice looking fish. But, is it one to leave in the system?

Think about that litter of puppies. How many champions are in that litter? Compare that concept to your fishery. You are the judge, jury and executioner of your fishery. To truly understand what it takes for your fish to grow at acceptable rates, we need to provide great groceries, the best genetics for that situation, fit it all into the best habitat, and implement a super selective harvest program.

Zero-in on that concept for a few minutes. Super-selective-harvest-program.

Can you judge a litter of your fish to figure out which ones might be those elusive champions—those fish with a destiny, influenced by your choices of habitat, food and whether or not they should live beyond that moment? If you truly study your fish, you’ll see the differences. You’ll see some fish that look like the sheriff in Smokey and the Bandit. You’ll see others that just don’t seem to excite you. When practicing your culling, don’t simply rely on some mathematical formula that says you need to pull out all fish within a given slot size. Just because you’ve been advised to remove bass less than 15 inches doesn’t mean that’s an order of some giant magnitude. If you can discern the differences between average bass and bass with great potential, don’t pitch the potential.

Look at that fish. Definitely one you want to preserve and see where it can go.

Short, stocky bass fit the category of bass with potential. If the girth/depth of body is striking, that’s a fish to consider keeping in the lake. Small mouth, deep body…let that fish grow, regardless of its length. If it’s a female, that bass may be on the depth charts for your varsity team.

Watching Marty cast was like watching an artist create a great painting. They do it in layers. Marty is analytical by nature. He thrives with numbers. As a professional financial planner, Marty deals with numbers every day. He does the same thing in a boat, but does it as an artist. Watching him strip away the layers of that lake that day was akin to watching a painter putting together a canvas of scenic wonder.

First, the big background colors. Marty intuitively judged the weather. It was overcast and misty, one day post-front. The water was shallow and the temperature had dropped ten degrees at the surface overnight. He focused on three different baits and used them as he stripped away the different structural offerings under water. His baits and technique were a direct reflection of his experience, based on odds of a fish being where he expertly placed that bait. Even when we both knew fish would be manning the expectant cover beneath that particular hole, he lingered long enough to see whether or not he would beat the odds of a closed-mouth fish at that moment.

Then, a six-pounder yielded to that temptation.

At one point, we compared the fish we caught. Some had rotund bellies and thick shoulders while other seemed healthy, yet not so heavy as their brethren. Those are perfect examples of how different fish of the same species in similar environments can behave totally differently, which affects their growth rates.

Those longer fish seem to be muscular, similar to a long-distance runner, while those stocky-looking bass resemble a linebacker. Here’s the bottom line. Your fish grow based on those simple, fundamental concepts that have been pounded into your brain for years—healthy water, great food chain, good habitat, and genetics, followed by a thoughtful harvest plan.

However, my friend Marty Stone and I would suggest there’s more to it than that. If you can learn your fish well enough to figure out which ones are thriving in your pond or lake, you can be even more selective about which fish you need to harvest.

Judge your fish as a livestock judge might see a champion steer at the county fair. Look at muscle mass, thickness of shoulders, and depth of body. Judge the way that fish fights as you land it. If you can feel a difference, one of sharper aggressiveness, and that fish is thick shouldered, throw it back. Look at the differences between each fish you catch and you’ll soon fine-tune your ability to judge.

That quality, your eyes, may be just what it takes to bring your fishery to its next level. Not only is fisheries management a numbers game, it’s also a fine art.