Biologists Say Watts Bar “Will Never be the Same”

TWRA bass electrofishing research
TWRA biologists conducted many years of stocking and research following the stocking of Florida bass in Chickamauga Lake. Now those Florida bass stockings have been extended to other lakes, including Watts Bar. (Photo: Richard Simms)

(Editor’s Note: This article provided by Mime Barnes, Information & Education Coordinator for the TWRA Region III office in Crossville)

Recently Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) Region III fisheries employees started stocking Florida Largemouth Bass fingerlings at Watts Bar and Nickajack Reservoirs. TWRA staff is also continuing the stocking program at Chickamauga Reservoir, where the recent Largemouth Bass state record was caught.  The goal of the stocking program is to eventually see a certain percentage of Florida strain genes in fish in these areas, resulting in overall larger, more aggressive bass. However this won’t happen and can’t happen overnight. The decision to introduce the Florida Bass strain into these reservoirs was taken seriously by TWRA staff and years of research have taken place and will continue into the future.

Gabe Keen Record Largemouth Bass
Gabe Keen posed proudly Friday the 13th (Feb. 2015) with his then pending state record bass before a throng of well-wishers at the Dayton Boat Dock & Grill. (Photo: Richard Simms)

The introduction of Florida Largemouth Bass benefits humans but the actual introduction affects everything in the reservoir. As Mike Jolley, TWRA Region III Reservoirs Fisheries Manager, watched the small Florida Bass fingerlings being released into one of the reservoirs, an onlooker declared, “It will never be the same again”. Jolley repeated the statement and anyone nearby heard the emotion as he repeated the words. Jolley, a 22 year veteran of TWRA knows the depth and weight of the project of introducing the Florida strain bass.   Jolley recognizes and cares not only because he is a fisherman, but because he loves and has dedicated his entire career to fisheries and working for this resource. He understands ecosystems and recognizes the expectations of the Tennessee anglers.

TWRA is in its 16th year of study of the Florida strain bass introduction at Chickamauga Reservoir. Long term studies are a necessity when dealing with any changes in nature. This wasn’t always the standard. In the history of this country, people have introduced many plants and animals with disregard for native species and detrimental effects. Think for example, about the Burmese pythons set free by those who no longer wanted to care for them as pets. The effect this species is currently having in the Florida Everglades will cost millions of dollars and is having an overwhelmingly negative effect on native species. Luckily, state governments have strong standards regarding any introduction and the Florida strain bass are no exception.

TWRA fisheries biologist Brandon Ragland collects a fin clip from a Chickamauga Lake bass for DNA analysis. Biologists say the overwhelming majority of 8-pound-plus fish caught in Chickamauga Lake now carry at least some Florida bass DNA. (Photo: Richard Simms)
TWRA fisheries biologist Brandon Ragland collects a fin clip from a Chickamauga Lake bass for DNA analysis. Biologists say the overwhelming majority of 8-pound-plus fish caught in Chickamauga Lake now carry at least some Florida bass DNA. (Photo: Richard Simms)

TWRA staff couldn’t be hasty with the fish introduction; there were too many “what ifs”. What if the Florida Strain bred with native Northern Largemouth and produced a sluggish fish? How would the fishing industry be affected?  What were the most favorable environments for this fish? What if Florida Bass spawned differently than the Northern strain of bass? Imagine not asking these and many other questions. Imagine spending vast amounts of money and time to introduce a fish into a reservoir and having negative results. Mark Thurman, Tennessee TWRA, Region III Fisheries Program Manager summed it up, “It’s a one way road”.  Add to this the expectations of the general public and the weightiness of Mike Jolley’s statement can be better understood.

So, WHAT should angler expectations be for this bass introduction? The number one thing to keep in mind and educate your neighbors about is that this is day one of a very long process. Anglers should remember that Gabe Keen’s state record fish was over twelve years old and the first introduction of fingerlings in these reservoirs has just occurred. Furthermore there’s no guarantee that fish in these reservoirs will follow the same patterns as those in Chickamauga. Of course the reservoirs have been studied and seem to have everything needed for the success of Florida Largemouth Bass. Of course TWRA biologists will continue stocking and monitoring routines. Of course TWRA biologists will continue every human effort possible to see this project succeed. In the end, Mother Nature will truly have the final say. Time will tell and as employees at TWRA wait to see the results of their labor, they hope anglers are out enjoying all the other top notch resources the state has to offer.

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Richard Simms is a professional journalist and fishing guide in Chattanooga. (See He is also a former wildlife officer for TWRA, a book author and a self-proclaimed "River Rat" with a sincere desire for spreading the message about our bountiful natural resources and the people charged with using, or protecting them.


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