Wanna Fish Smart? Look for Dumb Fish

Fisheries researchers in Texas are breeding a more catchable, "naive" bass
August 09, 1992

So, you been bakin' like a hush puppy in the hot sun, draggin' every kind of bait you got in your tackle box over them hawgs, and you still ain't got one dang fish. Well, it ain't you, it's the bass. You're fishin' for the wrong bass! You gotta find the dumb ones!

And to help you find them, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department may soon be stocking the Lone Star State's most popular lakes and reservoirs with the dumbest bass they can breed. "It's just another tool in the toolbox of the fisheries manager, where he wants to stack the deck and make fishing easier," says Dick Luebke, director of inland fisheries research at the Heart of the Hills Research Station near Kerrville.

Biologists there have been trying to prove what a lot of anglers have suspected for years—that there are smart bass and dumb bass. "We're trying to determine whether the susceptibility to be caught on a rod and reel can be passed on from generation to generation," Luebke says. "Then we could selectively breed for that characteristic and get a fish that's easier to catch."

To that end, four years ago Heart of the Hills researchers started with about 100 one-pound bass, a genetic mix of stocked and native largemouth that had probably never seen a fishing lure. The bass were dumped in a half-acre hatchery pond and left for two months to gather their wits. Then the biologists pulled out their rods and reels.

"We flailed the water, and there was nowhere for them to hide," says Luebke. "We know that every single fish had many opportunities to strike a lure. There was a bunch of those fish that for whatever reason just said no thank you. Then there were others that seemed to be hook-happy." When the scientific anglers landed a fish, they would mark its tail harmlessly with a paper punch and return it to the pond.

After a month of fishing, 40 man-hours total, they drained the pond and inspected the fish. Nearly 25% had no holes in their tails at all. Most had one or two holes, and those fish were removed from the experiment. Nine bass had three or four holes (three others had died from overhandling). "Even the dumbest fish, it's not like they were crawling up on the bank or anything," says Gary Garrett, the biologist in charge of the experiment.

Garrett put the smartest bass and the dumbest ones in separate ponds. The following spring the two groups spawned. A year later, when the offspring reached 10 to 12 inches, 100 from each group were marked with distinguishing fin clips and dumped into a single pond.

The biologists reached for their tackle again. A second round of fishing seemed to confirm that catchability runs in families. "There was a tendency for offspring of naive parents to also be naive, and a tendency for offspring of wary parents to also be wary," says Garrett, whose work this summer with the third generation has borne out the early results.

The next step may be to try to better understand what "dumbness" is. Though Garrett himself lapses into talk of "dumb" and "smart" and "naive" and "wary" as a kind of convenient shorthand, he admits that no one really knows what makes a fish strike a lure. "A naive fish, what is that?" he asks. "Is it really a dumb fish? Or is it an extremely aggressive fish? Maybe it's both. Maybe some are aggressive, just mean as hell and will chase anything that comes near them. Maybe some are hungry all the time and just don't have good sense. I don't know what it is."

Before rods and reels, bass were probably best served by a mix of aggressiveness and wariness, Garrett says. A bolder fish would win the race for a passing minnow but might meet its end in the mouth of an otter or at the tip of an Indian's spear. But since bass boats and bait casters have occupied every available acre of bass habitat, conditions favor the wary fish that sticks to its shadowy world in a bed of water milfoil or near a flooded stump.

Whatever the indefinable quality that makes a fish easy to catch, it is a valuable trait when ever more anglers are demanding ever more fish to catch. "No one has seriously discussed replacing all wild fish with these specially bred ones," Garrett says. But they would provide great sport in state-park fishing ponds, city lakes and fishing derbies for kids and the handicapped. "You want them to catch fish," Garrett says. "If we could put just the dumbest fish in the world in there—fish that would strike at any lure you threw in—that would be ideal."

ILLUSTRATIONJOHN LOCKE

Greg Breining is a free-lancer in Minneapolis, where all the bass are smart.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)