DAN KIBLER COLUMN: Growing bass by the numbers: Louisiana’s prolific petri dish

Bass fishermen love to talk about the lakes they fish: their particular traits, positive and negative and what ought to be done to them to make them better. There’s always a finger to be pointed at some state agency somewhere who hasn’t fixed Problem A figured out Problem B before it happened.

Dan Kibler

A few lucky fishermen have the opportunity to build their own bass heavens in the form of private ponds. Given the input from state fisheries biologists and the availability of fingerlings from private hatcheries – and a good heavy equipment operator – building your own lunker haven is within reach, but not a certainty. Too much can go wrong.

But on a larger scale, rare are the opportunities to do the same thing. Frankly, there aren’t many big reservoirs being built these days. North Carolina’s most-recent additions were Falls of the Neuse, Jordan and Shearon Harris reservoirs, all completed in the 1980s. Georgia got Lake Oconee in 1979 and Georgia and South Carolina got Lake Russell on the Savannah River in 1984.

Louisiana fishermen are now reaping the profits from a unique project that came about through happenstance and great planning. Bussey Brake, a 2,200-acre reservoir in the northeastern corner of the state, was for decades an emergency water-supply lake for an International Paper Co. mill in nearby Bastrop. The mill was closed in 2010, and IP donated the reservoir and 400 surrounding acres to the state of Louisiana in 2013. The state turned it over to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, which set out to totally reconstitute the shallow reservoir.

The lake, once a great fishery, had fallen on hard times as the turn of the century approached, its shallow waters filled with all measures of trash fish and not much in the way of gamefish. LDWF drained it and removed every vestige of fish flesh it could. It built new boating channels, put up a new pier and boat dock and a wave break around the launching area. The agency began stocking Florida-strain largemouth bass, crappie, bluegill and shellcrackers in 2017 – plus assorted baitfish – and the lake began to fill back up, naturally, finally reaching full pond in 2019.

In the four or five years between its draining and refilling, all manner of new, fish-friendly vegetation grew off the bottom – much like it did at Winston-Salem’s Salem Lake when the lake level was dropped 12 feet when the new dam was built in 2012.

Literally, a forest grew up in Louisiana.

The lake was reopened for fishing in July 2020, with some special creel limits. The 5-fish daily limit on bass included a nice, trophy restriction – only one fish 16 inches or longer allowed to be kept per day. Crappie are managed with a 25-fish daily creel limit and a 10-inch size minimum.

To say that the petri dish of Bussey Brake grew some great fish cultures is an understatement. Soon after it reopened, it started to spit out big fish, especially bass and crappie. Less than two years after it opened, bass pro Randy Howell of Alabama (who grew up on North Carolina’s Lake Gaston), set a Major League Fishing circuit record by landing a 12-pound, 14-ounce bass. That record lasted a little over a year, broken several times.

The 15-pound mark was crushed in February 2023 when an Arkansas angler, Robert Rush, caught a 15.36-pound lunker. That record lasted a year and a week before Louisiana angler Sid Wilde boated a 15.78-pound bass that was 27 inches long with a 23½-inch girth.

On April 13, a young Louisiana fisherman, Jarrett Gomez, caught a 10-pound bass in the morning, then topped it with a 12.12-pound bass in the afternoon. This past weekend, another Louisiana angler, Jarred Friday, boated a 13.10-pound bass. That broke his personal record, a 12.48-pounder, caught March 31.
Friday, a contract worker who was living in a nearby campground while he worked for several weeks in the area, said that between March 25 and May 11, when he caught his 13.10-pound fish, he put 16 double-digit fish in his boat, fishing weekdays after work and weekends. He said he caught three double-digit fish in a single day, winding up with almost 31 pounds for those triplets.

I doubt there were 16 double-digit fish caught in North Carolina in 2023, from any kind of water. And this one guy caught three in one day and 16 in seven weeks from one reservoir?

I know there are few places on any river system in North Carolina where there’s a need for a nice, new, hydroelectric dam and 5,000 or so acres of water. But if one appeared, with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission giving a thumbs-up to stocking the F1 Florida-northern largemouth hybrid in the future, it would be neat to see what kind of fish could be grown in a perfect environment.

Dan Kibler has covered the outdoors since 1985 as outdoors editor of the Winston-Salem Journal and later as managing editor of Carolina Sportsman until his retirement in 2021.