Preserving native smallmouth

It's easy to understand why Ivan Martin wants the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC) to stock smallmouth bass in Grand Lake O' The Cherokees.

Martin has been a largemouth and white bass guide at Grand Lake for the past 40 years. Because he also guides for smallmouth bass at New York's Lake Champlain every September, he knows firsthand how an acrobatic smallmouth bass takes your breath away.

Martin points out that smallmouth bass have been stocked in several other Oklahoma reservoirs where they have established self-sustaining populations. These lakes also grow trophy smallmouth, including the 8.19-ounce Oklahoma record that was caught at Lake Eufaula. Martin claims that a bass tournament was won at Eufaula in 2006 with four smallmouth that totaled 24 pounds.

"They lost another smallmouth that would have given them a 30-pound limit," he said.

The thought of catching smallmouth bass like that from Grand Lake puts Martin in a euphoric trance. He's not alone.

For the past year, Martin has had a petition posted on a Web site ( that urges the ODWC to stock smallmouth bass in Grand Lake. About 700 people have signed the petition online.

"The smallmouth bass that were stocked in other Oklahoma lakes haven't hurt the largemouth fishing," Martin said.

"The two species seem to get along just fine together."

Gene Gilliland, senior research biologist for the ODWC, agrees with Martin on several counts.

Gilliland, a frequent contributor to BASS Times, said he would love to see a trophy smallmouth fishery developed at Grand Lake. Furthermore, he believes Grand Lake has the fertility, forage base and habitat that would support a healthy population.

The smallmouth bass would likely supplement Grand Lake's first-rate largemouth fishery, which is the best in Oklahoma public waters.

So what's the holdup?

In a word, "genetics."

Native Oklahoma smallmouth bass already exist in the Elk and Spring rivers that feed this 67-year-old reservoir.

In all those years, the native stream smallmouth have failed to colonize the impoundment. Advocates of establishing a new smallmouth population inside Grand Lake want to see the Tennessee strain introduced because these fish grow large and adapt well to reservoirs.

But if Tennessee-strain smallmouth were stocked in Grand Lake, experts insist, they would eventually migrate upstream and interbreed with the native smallmouth. It might take decades, but this mixing of gene pools would eventually eliminate the native Neosho smallmouth strain, named after the Neosho River farther upstream.

"Research done at Oklahoma State University found that the native smallmouth in northeast Oklahoma, in the foothills of the Ozarks, are a little bit different genetically than smallmouth native to southeast Oklahoma, in the Ouachita Mountains," Gilliland said. "And both of those groups are different from smallmouth bass in other parts of Oklahoma and Missouri."

These findings put Gilliland and the ODWC smack in the middle of their two primary duties.

One is to serve the sportsmen of Oklahoma who pay the ODWC's bills through the sale of fishing and hunting licenses. The other is to protect and conserve all wildlife, including native stocks and strains.

Why were smallmouth stocked in other Oklahoma reservoirs and not in Grand Lake? Because smallmouth bass are not native to the tributaries that feed those reservoirs, so there is no chance of genetic mixing.

"Many fishermen want us to stock smallmouth bass in Grand Lake," Gilliland said. "I've also heard from fishermen who worry that stocking smallmouth would hurt the largemouth fishing there. There's no way of knowing exactly what would happen."

Gilliland and his colleagues also must consider those who enjoy the solitude of stream fishing for smallmouth bass, far from droning outboard motors. He once talked with a stream fisherman who opposes the stocking of smallmouth bass into Grand Lake.

Gilliland asked the angler if he had ever caught a 5-pound smallmouth.

"No," he said.

"If you had, you might change your mind," Gilliland said.

The angler mulled that over for a few moments and replied: "You know, if I catch a little 10-inch smallmouth on a float trip,the fact that it's a native fish to Oklahoma means something to me."

One thing is certain: If Tennessee-strain bass are introduced to Grand Lake, the outcome is irreversible.

"You can't make every lake everything to everybody," Gilliland said.

"In this case, our administration decided that the the genetic issues and the protection of the native [smallmouth] stocks are the most important."

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