On Wednesday, at around 11:30 a.m., Texas Parks and Wildlife Department employees John Tibbs and Trevor Troxel released 1.2 million Sunshine-strain hybrid striped bass into the Leon River arm of Belton Lake.
If all goes well, a fraction of these will grow to around 18 inches and 3 pounds by the spring of 2024, at which time they may be legally harvested.
Pound for pound there is arguably no harder-fighting nor longer-fighting fish in freshwater than the hybrid striped bass. This hard-fighting characteristic is what has made them so popular with anglers wherever they swim in Texas waters.
As the name implies, this creature is a cross of two different species, the white bass and the striped bass, both of which are in a family of fishes known as temperate bass.
When a female white bass is crossed with a male striped bass, the resulting offspring is called a Sunshine hybrid striped bass. When a female striped bass is crossed with a male white bass, the resulting offspring is called a Palmetto hybrid striped bass.
Although TPWD began its hybrid striped bass program many years ago based on Palmetto production, a number of factors have made the Sunshine a more attractive option of late.
The most difficult part of the hybrid production process is locating and collecting fertile, egg-laden female striped bass. There are only a few locations in Texas where these may be collected in the numbers necessary, and at the time of year necessary, to sustain the stocking program.
These locations are at the tailraces of dams on bodies of water like Lake Texoma, Lake Livingston, Lake Granbury, and a few others. If the flow is too high, too low, too cold, etc. the needed number of large female stripers may not be present. It is always somewhat of a guessing game which leads to difficulty in planning and forecasting stocking activities.
Contrast that with the Sunshine hybrid. Female white bass are rather easily collected by net and/or rod and reel and can be kept in hatchery ponds year-round where they can be fed and observed leading up to the time when eggs need to be harvested.
Male striped bass are also rather easily collected by net and/or rod and reel. The predictability and ease in collecting the Sunshine parent fish allows for better planning and forecasting in production of the fry.
Additionally, through a process called cold-banking, the egg-laden white bass can be kept at a temperature of around 50F by chilling the water they are held in. This prevents the eggs inside them from maturing until fisheries personnel desire for that to occur.
Some of the white bass used to produce the fry stocked in Belton Lake this week had been cold-banked for as much as three months.
The Sunshine hybrid stocked in Belton this week came from two sources: the Dundee Hatchery in Electra, near Wichita Falls, and the East Texas Hatchery.
The 180,000 fry from the Dundee Hatchery were created using eggs from white bass, some of which were captured from Stillhouse Hollow Lake last spring. The milt (fish version of semen) was taken from male striped bass caught in nets on Lake Texoma recently.
According to TPWD employee Kristin Holbert, who drove some of the fry from near Wichita Falls to Belton, Tibbs and Troxel received the 1.2 million fry in bags filled with water kept around 60F by the thick plastic-foam boxes the bags were placed in.
Holbert said the fry she delivered to Belton were created March 11, and developed into fry about two days later, thus making them about 3-4 days old at the time they were stocked.
The boxes full of fry were loaded into a large flat-bottomed johnboat and were driven by water to a release point near Leona Park.
The bags, still tied at the top, were placed in the lake water and left floating for about 15-20 minutes to allow the bag water and lake water temperatures to equalize, after which time the bags were opened, thus releasing the four-day-old fry to fend for themselves.
Under ideal conditions, the fry would be released into water in the 60-degree range. At this temperature, rotifers, a form of zooplankton, are quite abundant, giving the fry something to feed upon.
However, waiting for perfect conditions can often mean missed opportunity.
As Tibbs and Troxel stocked the fry on Belton Lake, the surface temperature measured 62F.
TPWD personnel have no guarantee that the water bodies they manage will not flood, nor that an abundance of Palmetto hybrids will be available later in the spring, nor that nutrient conditions will be perfect at any point in time, so while the fry were available, the personnel were available and the weather cooperated, they stocked Belton Lake.
Tibbs, the District Supervisor of the Waco Inland Fisheries District, has been gathering data on Belton’s hybrid fishery for many years. He has weighed the success of stocking Palmettos versus Sunshines, and of stocking fry versus fingerlings, and continues to adjust TPWD’s approach to yield the best “bang for the buck” when it comes to the end result of ensuring high numbers of legal-sized hybrid striped bass swimming in the reservoirs he manages.
Tibbs pointed out, “While I do try to optimize benefit versus cost, my main goal is making the best hybrid fishery I can. So, if fingerlings did that, we would be stocking them.”