A Successful Fishery: Its Impact on A Close-Knit Family
As seen in Pond Boss Magazine
The welcome feeling and organic energy surrounding tight-knit family and friends spending time together are incredible. Meals shared around activities. Recalling past adventures fuels traditions that became part of the culture. These times of stories and laughter set the stage for new memories. In these environments, the energy is in the air, palpable, and you sense these moments are some of the best life has to offer.
The Willis family outside of Abilene, Texas has built an incredible culture, as well as an incredible fishery shared with friends as they draw loved ones closer. They understand how blessed they are and make the most of their time together. Spending time outdoors is a common theme amongst families who have been able to accomplish a culture of this nature and this case is no different, with a thriving fishery playing an important role in the culture and traditions created.
This fishery was built on a strong foundation and, as a result, it is highly successful. Thirty-one acres in size, the lake is the focal point of the family ranch. A seasonal stream entering the lake transforms into a meandering channel 10-feet deep and ranges in width from 50 to 150 feet across during a normal year. (Whatever “normal” means anymore.) The creek is lined with vertical, rocky limestone bluffs and standing timber. The main body of the lake has a great deal of character, with standing timber along the perimeter as well as a couple of pockets of standing timber in open water that provide unique character. The lake is a Largemouth bass paradise, with a nice mix of both deep and shallow water.
How SOLitude’s Fisheries Biologists Created the Ideal Fishery Habitat
Back in 2012, fisheries biologist Paul Dorsett worked with the family to transform their beautiful, newly-built lake into a trophy bass fishery with the main goal of producing bass greater than 10-pounds. Water quality samples were collected and analyzed and forage fish were stocked, starting with bluegill, redear sunfish, and fathead minnows. Fish feeders were installed and fish fed aggressively. Next, a fertilization program was implemented. To promote healthy water quality as well as support a productive plankton bloom, a bottom-diffused aeration system was installed. All these techniques were focused on fundamental aquaculture practices to produce as many baby forage fish as possible while establishing a base of sunfish to grow and spawn for years to come.
That summer, the same year the forage fish were stocked, F1 Largemouth Bass (50% Florida, 50% northern genetics) fingerlings were stocked as well as some channel catfish. The genetic selection was based on providing the best-of-the-best genetics to grow big bass and retain the aggressive nature inherited from northern strain fish in order to try to provide good catch rates.
A data-driven adaptive management strategy was implemented to assess the fishery’s progress, and then pivot as needed based on the data collected. To do this, the fishery is sampled using an electrofishing boat each spring and fall. Water quality samples are also collected and analyzed seasonally. Since 2013, threadfin shad have been stocked annually, which is key to maintaining a robust forage base for this lake.
A Fishery Runs Into Trouble…
Not long after the bass were stocked, the area suffered an intense drought. It intensified and lasted until 2015. With the waterline constantly receding, dense shoreline fish cover once protecting bait was now collecting dust on dry land. Less water, cover…and ultimately less plankton…created an environment where forage fish no longer outpaced their predation rates.
The lake was shrinking as bass were growing. Diligent management was important. One of the most important keys to creating a trophy fishery is to maintain forage fish numbers that can outpace predation rates. With lake levels constantly falling here, the density of bass per surface acre shifted to an unfavorable ratio for a trophy fishery. To solve this, a portion of the initial bass population was harvested to reduce their population. Although it was a difficult decision to make, it was the right decision. The fishery had to be culled to thrive in a lake with a declining water level.
Decisions surrounding bass density seem simple, (cull more bass) but as seen repeatedly, these decisions often impact the extent of “trophy status” that the fishery achieves. This drought was a fork in the road and they chose to take a right. Looking back years later, harvesting bass was the correct decision. Selective culling kept the lake on track by keeping the best fish and culling those that, in Paul’s opinion, couldn’t make the cut over the long term.
Getting to Work to Build An Outstanding Fishery
In 2015, rains came—all droughts seem to end with a flood—and management decisions followed by hard work led to an outstanding fishery that began producing a great deal of quality fish. When the lake expanded, the fishery responded with heavy reproduction of bait fish and faster-growing bass. They had more room, and fresh habitat that had been sitting on the sidelines for several years. Catching these fish was fun for the family, but catching them with electricity was better. Each spring and fall when Paul sampled the fishery as part of a data-driven management strategy, family and friends took a liking to the electrofishing boat, netting fish as well as collecting the data.
It’s so much fun when a family is involved in the science. The property is set up to handle a crowd. The shop/camp was built overlooking the lake and a short hike from the boat dock. With plenty of room for people to hang out as well as sleep, it is a natural gathering place. Within a few years, Paul was showing up on a Friday to electrofish. A fish-sampling excursion transformed into a multi-day weekend tradition where as many as 30 family members and friends come together to fish, with and without electricity, as well as share meals, stories, and laughter.
The weekend often starts with some fishing by rod and reel. This is an opportunity to harvest a few bass while showing off trophies reeled in. As family and friends continue to arrive at the ranch, the electrofishing kicks off. The electrofishing boat comfortably holds six people at a time, so within a few sampling runs most people who desire have a chance to join in.
Following each sampling run, the crew weighs and measures fish, placing all intermediate-size bass in a cooler to be cleaned later. The kids, in particular, have gravitated to this task. It started years ago when Danielle took it upon herself to weigh and measure every fish. Now, as an adult and a full-time nurse, she still jumps into the data collection process and has been an inspiration to the other kids who may have otherwise been shy. This younger generation’s desire to get involved strengthens the tradition as well as their individual love for the outdoors.
With hundreds of cull bass on ice, the family sets up a fish-cleaning assembly line using portable tables. With able bodies willing to roll up their sleeves and help, a few hundred bass are filleted, washed, vacuum packed, and put in the freezer in a short time. Of course, a portion of them is fried up and eaten.
A Family Achieves the Fishery of Their Dreams
That’s part of the tradition. As the sun begins to set, everyone gathers to relax. Storytelling and laughter abound, and their ‘work hard, play hard’ mentality is fit for times like these. A fun story that comes to mind is when an incredibly fat bass was netted and placed into the live well of the electrofishing boat. Within a few minutes, much to everyone’s surprise, the bass regurgitated an adult duck (pied-billed grebe). Naturally, this led to a gag gift presented the following year of a rubber chicken converted into a homemade “lake lunker lure.”
Over the years, stories from the past naturally become embellished, which energizes the group. Each gathering looks slightly different, but all involve good storytelling, great memories, and excellent food, surrounded by people who truly care for one another.
It is common for many to stay up late playing cards and just enjoying each other’s presence. Unsure what the night will hold, it is certain it will be fun either way. Evening or night electrofishing to harvest more intermediate-size bass is often a desired activity.
Trying to break the lake Largemouth bass record draws out a competitive family spirit, reinforced by celebrating and documenting the record holder with wall photos as well as the cover of the ranch’s photo album. The current lake holder is a teenager named Aiden who managed to catch his double-digit bass out of a kayak. Needless to say, it was a memorable moment.
As the tradition has strengthened over the years, the quality-size bass have grown and more of them are now double-digits. These big fish add to the energy level and experience of those involved, but are not the true success story. The memories, the stories, and the traditions are the true reward for all of the hard work and effort.
SOLitude Lake Management is a nationwide environmental firm committed to providing sustainable solutions that improve water quality, enhance beauty and preserve natural resources.
SOLitude’s team of aquatic scientists specializes in the development and execution of customized lake, stormwater pond, wetland and fisheries management programs. Services include water quality testing and restoration, algae and aquatic weed control, installation and maintenance of fountains and aeration systems, shoreline erosion control, muck and sediment removal and invasive species management. SOLitude partners with homeowners associations, golf courses, private landowners, businesses and municipalities. SOLitude Lake Management is part of Rentokil, a leading business services company, operating across the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico.