The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency recently shared results of an extensive DNA analysis on trophy Chickamauga Lake bass.
Throughout late winter and the spring of 2013, TWRA's Region III fisheries crew, led by biologist Mike Jolley, went to several weigh-ins of tournaments held by the Chattanooga Bass Association. There, they collected harmless fin clips from every bass weighing more than 8 pounds for DNA analysis. And like on-call emergency room doctors, they also responded to calls from individual bass fishermen with exceptionally large bass.
In genetic terms, biologists place Chickamauga largemouth into four major classes: pure northern bass, pure Florida bass, hybrids and "backcrosses"—a cross between a hybrid with another hybrid, a pure Florida or a pure northern.
In 2010, during lakewide electrofishing collections, biologists found 22.6 percent northern bass, 4.8 percent pure Florida bass, 11.3 percent hybrid and 61.3 percent backcross.
That showed the Florida bass stockings were having a significant impact on the bass fishery. However, the impact has grown even more since then.
In the 2012 lakewide DNA analysis, biologists found 7.8 percent northern bass, 2.3 percent Florida bass, 15 percent hybrids and 75 percent backcross. That means 92 percent of all the bass in Chickamauga Lake carry at least some Florida bass genes.
Tournament fishermen—the guys who are looking exclusively for big bass—are seeing even greater returns.
In 2013, when Jolley and his crew collected DNA samples exclusively from bass weighing more than 8 pounds, they found no pure northern bass and no pure Florida bass. However, 75 percent of the big bass were hybrids, and 25 percent were backcross.
"Hybrids, which are thought to have more vigor and better growth rates, made up the majority of the big fish and were confirmed to have superior growth rates versus the native northern strain," said Jolley, explaining why it was not surprising that a large percentage of the angler-caught fish were hybrids.
It is little wonder that tournament anglers especially are excited about the Florida bass stocking. In its most recent rankings, the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society declared Chickamauga Lake the Sixth-Best Bass Lake in the United States. And after a 25-year hiatus, both major national bass tournament tours, FLW and BASS, have added Chickamauga back onto their regular tour stops.
"It amazes me to see how Chickamauga has become such a big bass factory over the last few years," avid bass angler Kevin Drake from Cleveland said. "I am getting used to seeing the big bass that are being caught daily by local anglers, but it still is pretty unbelievable."
On Dec. 10, Drake broke his own personal best largemouth on Chickamauga with what he called "a 9.61-pound giant."
Jolley said he thinks it is certainly possible that Chickamauga will produce a new state record largemouth, eclipsing Logue Barnett's 14-pound, 8-ounce bass caught in 1954.
Drake goes one step further.
"I am positive that Chickamauga will produce a state record," he said. "I wouldn't be surprised to see it happen any day now. There are so many big bass in the lake; you just need to find a really long one that is really fat."
Obviously, Drake hopes he is the one to catch it, but more importantly, he says, "I hope it's someone who has put a lot of their time into fishing the lake."
The stellar results on Chickamauga obviously mean other bass anglers across the state would like to see similar stocking in their lakes. However, Wilson said there are four factors that limit other such Florida bass stockings: the zone that limits the number of "heating degree days" on many lakes, the lake's existing productivity, the ability to obtain enough Florida bass fry from outside sources and TWRA's available hatchery space for raising the Florida bass fry to stockable size.
"When we started stocking Florida bass into Chickamauga, we said that everyone needs to understand that there are limitations to where and how many fish we can stock in other bodies of water," Wilson said. "That still holds true today."
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