The science of Grand Lake

How the fisheries management approach for Grand Lake could play into the 2024 Bassmaster Classic.

Effective management of the quantity/quality equation stands intrinsic to tournament fishing success. Historically, Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees has never failed to deliver the former and, while this 46,500-acre reservoir has plenty of quality bass, state fisheries folks are working to increase the lake’s size potential.

To this point, Brad Johnston, Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC) Northeast Region Fisheries Supervisor said, while enhancement work is under way, he expects the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Classic presented by Jockey Outdoors competitors to be well-pleased with Grand’s current offerings.

“Right now, the population is really, really good; I’d say it’s at the same level or above population-wise the last time the Classic was here (in 2016),” Johnston said. “It’s just a very high catch rate lake, as far as bass goes. You have good spawns, good recruitment and lots of fish in that 3- to 5-pound range.

“It just pumps them out. I don’t know why Grand Lake does that, compared to other lakes, but it definitely does.”

How good is good? Johnston offers encouraging statistics: “The average of catch per hour over the last 20 years is around 120 fish per hour. In comparison, the most recent sampling event from spring of 2023 had a catch per hour of 156 fish, and the body condition of all size classes were excellent.”

What can bass fans expect to see at the Classic weigh-ins? Johnston offers this: “It’s not out of the realm of possibility for us to see an 8-pounder during the Classic, but the biggest we’re likely to see are 7s.” 

As Johnston notes, Grand has long been considered a high catch-rate lake, but the state’s efforts to 1) address a past forage decline and 2) bolster the quality of this incredible bass fishery point to an even brighter future.

Forage base restoration

Local favorite and 2022 Bassmaster Classic Champion Jason Christie points out that one of the lake’s most popular and recognizable areas — Monkey Island, marked by the famous Shangri-La Resort Lighthouse — owes much of its productivity to the voluminous amount of shad that often pack this Neosho River bend region.

Johnston agrees the groceries play a big role in Grand’s powerhouse reputation, but a period of challenging conditions interrupted nature’s supply chain. Fortunately, the ODWC’s actions got the train back on track.

Between 2011 and 2014, extreme winter conditions set against the drought of 2010-2013 decimated Grand Lake’s threadfin shad population. While these tough times had little impact on bass numbers, Johnston said the baitfish landscape became bleak.

“We noticed we were starting to see fewer threadfins in 2013, and we weren’t able to sample a threadfin shad from 2014 to 2015,” he said.

Addressing this problem, the ODWC started supplemental threadfin shad stocking in 2015. A few years later, the forage picture was returning to normal and between 2018 and 2020, agency sampling efforts actually showed an upward trend in the fish per hour rate. 

Johnston said this spike in bass catches was possibly a response to the threadfin shad return.

“The (catch rates) really exploded after (the threadfin shad stocking),” Johnston said. “The shad are still sustaining really good. We’ve had significant cold weather over the winters, but it hasn’t been to the point that it knocked them back like it did in 2012.”

The Florida factors

As for the increased bass size objective, the easy answer is one that has worked in fisheries from the Santee Cooper Lakes to the California Delta — leverage the Florida Bass superior growth potential. The ODWC embraced that thought half a century ago, but lessons hard learned led to a modern strategy with a more promising outlook.

As Johnston explained, the agency stocked Florida-strain fry and fingerlings from the mid-70s to the mid-90s, but the little ones simply could not handle Oklahoma winters.

“As DNA sampling became more prevalent, they started sampling reservoirs in the early 90s and we found that we had extremely low — best case scenario was 1 % — (Florida bass DNA),” Johnston said. “That was statewide when you got north of I-40.”

In 2016, the ODWC started taking year-old “grow-out” Florida bass from the state hatchery in Durant, Okla., and stocking them in Lake Eucha, located about 15 miles south of Grand. Follow-up sampling showed these slightly older, larger fish had built up sufficient fat reserves to survive the cold season.

Encouraged by this success, the ODWC stocked year-old Florida bass into Grand Lake from 2020 to 2022. When that program concluded, the agency launched a 10-year schedule of stocking Grand with F1 hybrid (Florida bass bred with northern largemouth) from Alabama’s American Sport Fish Hatchery.

With four-time Classic champion Kevin VanDam providing initial funding of $5,000 and the City of Grove, Okla., now raising ongoing funds, the ODWC stocks 93,000 F1 “super fingerlings” (2 to 2 1/2 inches) annually.

The big picture

Johnston said the ODWC will start reviewing Grand Lake genetics to see returns and growth rates shortly after the Classic. Now, it’s tempting to think the objective is finding out how the large-growing Florida bass are doing — and that is one part of the process — but it’s not the objective.

The big kids are just there to help with genetics. 

“We’re not stocking Grand Lake to have pure Floridas in the lake,” Johnston said. “If we had pure Florida’s spawn together, the odds of those fingerlings making it through winter are slim to none.

“Our hope is that the Floridas will be out there spawning with the northerns and creating our own hybrids. From what we’re seeing, once the (Florida bass stocked at a year old) get the fat reserves and they get a little older, they seem to handle the cold a little bit better, and they can make it through winter.”

Seasonal optimism

Given that this year’s Classic (March 22-24) will take place later in the calendar than the previous Grand Lake events — Feb. 22-24, 2013 and March 4-6, 2016 — questions of bass life cycle timing have curious minds pondering the possibility of a spawn event. 

The Old Farmer’s Almanac lists spring’s arrival as March 19 and a late-March warming trend would surprise no one. But while it’s too soon to predict weather patterns, Johnston tugs on reality’s reins.

“We could see a little bit of that, but (late March) is still pretty early for Grand Lake,” Johnston said. “The lake usually starts seeing bedding fish in early April and by mid-April, it’s full force. 

“I’m pretty excited to see those Classic guys fishing it later in the year, compared to previous years. It’s weather-dependent and you could have a crazy cold front and make it really tough, but I’m excited to see them catch some prespawn fish.”