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Florida Trophy Bass Project

three photos of angler holding large bass

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The FWC celebrates Florida waterbodies listed in Bassmaster's “Top 10 Best Bass Lakes of 2023”

Fellsmere Reservoir/Stick Marsh, Orange Lake and Lake Okeechobee have captured the attention of anglers and fishing enthusiasts across the nation, solidifying Florida's reputation as a premier bass fishing destination. Read more in the July 2023 news release.

Florida Trophy Bass Project article with text and bass photos

Conservation Article Featured in the 2022-2023 Fishing Regulations

Check out this featured article about the Florida Trophy Bass Project.

About the Project

The Florida Trophy Bass Project is the FWC’s new initiative with the goal of Florida being the undisputed Trophy Bass Capital of the World. In the coming years, more effort will be focused on producing, documenting, and promoting trophy bass as well as increasing opportunities to catch Florida’s heaviest trophies. FWC biologists will be utilizing both proven and innovative management techniques to grow even more large bass in certain areas while also conducting research projects to learn more about what it takes to grow giant bass.

Click the topics below for more information about the Florida Trophy Bass Project.

Florida Trophy Bass Project Topics

Fellsmere Water Management Area
Commonly known as Headwaters Lake and Egan Lake, Indian River County

Special Trophy Bass Regulations:

  • Black bass must be released immediately.
  • Circle hooks required when fishing with natural bait greater than 3" in length.

 

Lake Victor
Holmes County

Special Trophy Bass Regulations:

  • Black bass bag limit: 15
  • Black bass 16 inches in total length or longer must be released immediately.
  • Circle hooks required when fishing with natural bait greater than 3" in length.

Other regulations:

  • Channel catfish bag limit: 6
  • Gasoline motors may not be used on boats.
  • No motor vehicles on dams, spillways and fishing fingers.

 

Suwannee Lake
Suwannee County

Special Trophy Bass Regulations:

  • Black bass bag limit: 15
  • Black bass 16 inches in total length or longer must be released immediately.
  • Circle hooks required when fishing with natural bait greater than 3" in length.

Other regulations:

  • No bag limit for channel catfish.
  • No camping.
  • No motor vehicles on dam and fishing fingers.
  • Taking of fish or wildlife with firearms or possession of alcoholic beverages is prohibited.
  • Access to the area from 30 minutes after sunset until 30 minutes before sunrise for any use other than fishing and launching and loading of boats is prohibited.

 

Shop Lake
Within Tenoroc Fish Management Area, Polk County

Special Trophy Bass Regulations:

  • No bag limit for black bass.
  • Black bass 16 inches in total length or longer must be released immediately.
  • Circle hooks required when fishing with natural bait greater than 3" in length.

See Tenoroc Fish Management Area for additional regulations.

Fisheries biologists electrofishing Suwannee Lake

Fisheries biologists electrofishing Suwannee Lake.

Suwannee Lake is a Fish Management Area located near the town of Live Oak in north central Florida. This lake was selected as a Florida Trophy Bass Project lake for several reasons. First, the lake was completely drained and renovated in 2014. After the lake was refilled and stocked, Largemouth Bass grew extremely fast and within four years numerous bass approaching 10 pounds were observed. Second, the small size of the lake (63 acres), increases the effectiveness of fishery management actions. Third, this lake is an artificial impoundment owned by FWC and the capability exists to manually adjust water levels for habitat management.

Several trophy bass management strategies have been implemented in Suwannee Lake. The special trophy bass regulations described above are in effect. In recent years, bass have become overcrowded in Suwannee Lake resulting in more numerous, smaller bass and limited forage. FWC is removing large numbers of small bass each year to increase forage availability and increase bass growth rates. Bass that have been removed (all under 16” in length) have been stocked into nearby lakes to improve bass populations elsewhere. The special trophy bass regulations encourage anglers to harvest smaller bass which serves the same purpose as FWC bass removal efforts.

Threadfin shad

Several forage species including threadfin shad have been stocked to help ensure that bass have an abundant food supply.

FWC has stocked several bass forage species multiple times to help ensure that bass have an abundant food supply and are growing at a maximum rate. Forage species are being stocked each year and include Bluegill, Threadfin Shad, Lake Chubsucker, and Rainbow Trout. In addition, fish feeders have been installed and fish attractors are being maintained to support forage populations. FWC has also developed a drawdown schedule to fluctuate lake water levels for habitat management and to help concentrate bass and forage species to further increase growth rates. Other potential future habitat improvement projects include planting emergent and/or submersed aquatic vegetation.

This intensive approach to trophy bass management applies several methods that will likely increase chances of success over any single method. It will likely take several years before these efforts start producing higher numbers of trophy bass, but biologists are already seeing positive results!

Biologist with Florida largemouth bass

A FWC biologist removes dorsal spines on a largemouth bass during the acute survival study.

Many anglers are drawn to Florida — the “bass fishing capital of the world.” Some anglers target giant bass; whereas, others fish for bass of all sizes. These same anglers may wonder how old the fish they catch are. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) biologists also devote quite a bit of thought to ages of fish. By collecting ageing structures from bass (learn more about ageing fish here), biologists can assess how Florida’s bass populations are growing, dying, and reproducing. Understanding these metrics is pertinent for properly managing a fishery.

Biologists typically use sagitta otoliths to estimate the age of bass in Florida. However, otoliths are located within the fish’s head, so the fish must be killed to remove them. The FWC and University of Florida began exploring a nonlethal way to estimate how old a bass is in 2017. Seven bass fin parts (anal fin rays and spines, dorsal fin rays and spines, pelvic fin rays and spine, and pectoral fin rays) were evaluated and many proved useful for estimating bass age. Of those included, dorsal fin spines were relatively simple to clip off when using a pair of side cutters and scissors and they were the most precise fin ageing structure; thus, the FWC has continued to study their use in ageing bass since 2019.

Biologists implemented a tank experiment in which they removed the third through fifth dorsal spines from Largemouth Bass in Florida and assessed fish survival for 35 days. All the fish survived that had their dorsal spines removed, and experiment-wide survival was 0.94 (0.87–1.00; 95% confidence interval). The removal sites healed with no visible infection or inflammation at the conclusion of the experiment. These results suggest that dorsal spine removal offers fishery managers a nonlethal option for collecting ageing structures of adult Largemouth Bass in Florida, including large individuals, and could likely extend to other black bass species as well.

Florida bass in experimental tank

Largemouth Bass in a 1200-gallon experimental tank with fish attractor and aquatic plants creating a microhabitat. Fish were fed crayfish, tadpoles, and Bluegill.

Freshwater fisheries research biologists then teamed up with the genetics lab to evaluate bass dorsal spine use as a source of DNA for genetics. Because the basal section of the spine is useful for estimating ages and the distal portion is generally snipped off, we sent samples of the distal portion of the spine and respective skin to determine their success in providing microsatellite marker genotypes. Several treatments were explored to mimic a situation in which an angler/scientist may be given the opportunity to collect and store Largemouth Bass dorsal spines for later assessment (long term- spines are air dried indoors and stored in envelopes for two months, during trip- stored in tackle tray to air dry outdoors for eight hours then refrigerated overnight, and after trip- stored in plastic bag outdoors for eight hours then taken out of bag and refrigerated overnight). Fortunately, results suggested that genotypes could be collected from dorsal spines using any of the collection and storage methods.

The results from the acute survival and genetics studies further encouraged FWC researchers to expand on the science behind age estimates with dorsal spines. Because previous work was limited to one population, we designed a new project to assess if cross-sections cut from dorsal spines were useful for ageing bass across additional Florida waterbodies, which included Lake Griffin, Stick Marsh Reservoir, Fellsmere Reservoir, L-67A Canal, Escambia River marsh, and the Apalachicola River. Biologists calculated dorsal spine ageing precision and bias to see if these metrics differed across the waterbodies as well as the biologists who interpreted (aged) the dorsal spine sections. They also used waterbody specific reference sets during ageing sessions. These sets included known-age samples of dorsal spine and otolith sections taken from an array of fish measured at different lengths. Reference sets were employed so biologists could determine if they decreased ageing errors.

Differences in ages derived from an individual bass’ dorsal spines and otoliths varied across the six Florida waterbodies; however, the mean percent of ages that agreed within a year (measured as percent agreement; PA) was consistently high (≥62%). The ages derived from dorsal spines were relatively comparable to otolith ages (mean PA = 42%) and were more comparable within one year (mean PA within one year = 80%). Additionally, biologists discovered that using reference sets improved precision and bias for both readers and some waterbodies. Dorsal spines could be useful for ageing black bass nonlethally if a reference set is used and if estimating fish age within a year is acceptable. This is promising for long or old fish which are rarely seen, and if encountered, infrequently sacrificed to include in age estimation studies. Dorsal spines could provide managers viable and uncommon age information about bass that grow to trophy size without the need to sacrifice this socially and biologically important segment of the population.

Sectioned bass otolith and spine

Sagitta otolith (top) and dorsal spine sections from the same five-year-old Apalachicola River largemouth bass.

Greater use of nonlethal age estimation techniques could also be important to anglers, who have generally adopted a catch-and-release ethic for bass. Not only would nonlethal removal of dorsal spines alleviate concerns over sacrificing large bass, but it could be a stepping-stone for new data collection avenues. For example, FWC partners with bass anglers through tournaments, tagging studies, and a trophy bass conservation program for citizen-scientist anglers called TrophyCatch, all of which largely, if not explicitly, involve catch and release of bass. Incorporating a nonlethal ageing method in these fishery-dependent activities would expand age data sources and possibly foster increased angler interest and participation, generating a valuable new tool for bass research, management, conservation, and stakeholder engagement.

Sectioned bass otolith

Dorsal spine section from a six-year-old Suwannee Lake largemouth bass.

Biologists conducted several workshops in the fall of 2020 and have begun utilizing dorsal spines to better understand the growth of bass in certain water bodies with ongoing tagging studies as well as restoration efforts. We also began studying the effects of small errors associated with dorsal spine age estimates and how those errors affect population-level estimates of mortality relative to using lethally sampled otoliths which are the most accurate structure for estimating age of LMB. We simulated the effects of errors associated with dorsal spine age estimates on population-level estimates of total annual mortality, relative to using otolith age estimates which are currently applied by FWC. The best ageing method included use of otoliths to age LMB <56 cm maximum total length (MTL) and use of dorsal spines to age LMB ≥56 cm MTL. Using this scenario, estimates of annual mortality fell within 1-2% of current FWC estimates of annual mortality. We plan to continue to replicate these methods for population-level estimates of growth.

Our current focus is on collecting more dorsal spines from LMB measuring ≥61 cm MTL to where long-lived or fast-growing trophy bass live in Florida to help with the Florida Trophy Bass project’s research and management of the biggest fish. By utilizing TrophyCatch data, we were able to identify anglers on certain water bodies who were interested and willing to help the FWC collect the third dorsal spine for trophy bass age data.

Stocking trailer

Rainbow trout represent a premier forage for Florida Largemouth Bass for several reasons. They are very nutritious, with high levels of lipids and protein. Additionally, hatchery-raised trout have underdeveloped predator-avoidance skills, so they are quite vulnerable to being eaten when stocked into the wild. Trout also lack any hard and sharp fin spines, making them a benign and easily swallowed meal.

To better understand the role that Rainbow Trout might serve as part of a well-managed forage base for trophy bass in Florida, FWC’s FTBP team has begun several investigations. Using new fish telemetry techniques, the team has documented heavy depredation of trout by bass in Florida waters. Largemouth bass diet trials have begun at the Florida Black Bass Conservation Center hatchery to assess the nutritional advantages of trout compared to other forage species.

Because Rainbow Trout are intolerant of water temperatures above 70° F, their use as forage is limited to seasonal time frames in north Florida. While survival through the Florida summer is a biological impossibility (also confirmed through FWC field studies), analysis of historical water temperature records for some north Florida waterbodies suggests that the survival window for trout could be up to five months (December–April). FWC biologists will continue to evaluate if the use of trout as forage will play a role in trophy bass management in Florida into the future.

Lake Chubsucker

Lake Chubsucker is a native member of Florida’s freshwater fish community and several studies have identified it as an important forage fish for trophy bass in the state. Anatomically, the species is a near-ideal prey for bass because it has an elongated body with a round cross-section and is easy for bass to swallow. Lake Chubsuckers can reach sizes up to about 15 inches long and weigh up to about 2 pounds, but they rarely get too large for trophy Largemouth Bass to consume, unlike other native forage species, like Bluegill or Gizzard Shad, that can eventually become too deep-bodied for even trophy Largemouth Bass to safely swallow. Additionally, Lake Chubsuckers have only soft fin rays and lack any sharp fin spines, like those on Bluegill that can cause them to become lodged in the throat of a Largemouth Bass.

Recent and Current Lake Chubsucker research has been focused on developing culture methods in the hatchery setting and evaluating the feasibility of collecting and transplanting wild Lake Chubsuckers from one waterbody to another. Lake Chubsuckers evade Largemouth Bass by hiding in dense submerged aquatic vegetation. If stocked into a waterbody lacking any significant levels of vegetation, adult Lake Chubsuckers would likely be highly vulnerable to Largemouth Bass predation. Whether through hatchery cultivation or through transplanting wild fish, FWC biologists aim to focus on sizes of Lake Chubsuckers 8 inches or longer to provide additional forage specifically to the largest bass in target populations.

Trophy bass eating a forage fish

A trophy bass prepares to eat a forage fish during a diet study trial.

To help address the Florida Trophy Bass Project’ goal of growing more giant bass in Florida, FWC biologists are investigating the nutritional value of Largemouth Bass forage. FWC biologists have designed this research to help determine which forage species and which feeding rates cause the greatest and most efficient Largemouth Bass growth. Biologists have coined this research the Largemouth Bass “diet trials”, which they’re conducting at FWC’s Black Bass Conservation Center near Richloam. There, biologists are leveraging the state-of-the-art hatchery’s existing Largemouth Bass brood stock as test subjects.

Forage species such as Bluegill, Lake Chubsuckers, and Rainbow Trout are being evaluated by feeding them to replicate groups of bass that are fed a diet of only one species of forage for the duration of the trial. In addition to testing different forage species, biologists also vary the quantity of forage, in terms of weight, that is fed among replicate groups of bass to determine the most efficient and effective forage for growth. The bass are being fed three times per week, with each group of bass being provided one or two pounds of forage per feeding. The diet trial will run for twelve weeks each summer and will compare the weight gained for each group of bass by the species and weight of forage consumed.

Through this research, FWC biologists aim to better understand which forage species and feeding rates generate the most efficient and greatest growth in Florida’s Largemouth Bass. Coupled with other research and fisheries monitoring across Florida, this study will help FWC biologists make more informed decisions regarding optimal forage species and stocking rates for future stocking programs with the intent of growing larger and more abundant trophy-size bass.

Trophy catch

TrophyCatch rewards anglers who provide documentation of their catch-and-release of largemouth bass weighing 8 pounds or heavier in Florida. To be eligible for prizes, anglers are required to submit photos or videos of their catch to TrophyCatch.com, showing the entire fish and its weight on a scale, before releasing it back into the water. FWC biologists use TrophyCatch data for bass research to make informed decisions about the management of Florida bass fisheries and to promote the catch and release of trophy bass.

Follow the TrophyCatchFlorida Facebook page for updates!

Are you new to fishing? Visit our First Time Angler web resources for fishing tips, equipment checklists, and more.

About the Project

Examples of specific strategies to help us reach this goal are:

  • Document a higher percentage of trophy bass catches
  • Increase marketing for trophy bass and the opportunities to catch them
  • Regulation changes
  • Supplemental forage stocking
  • Small bass removal through increased bag limits in specific places
  • Genetics research
  • Water level fluctuation
  • Habitat enhancement
Trophy catch

Register for TrophyCatch, Enter to Win a Free Boat

TrophyCatch is FWC’s data collecting and promotional program for largemouth bass in Florida. Want to participate?

Register at TrophyCatch.com

Bass fishing legends Shaw Grigsby, Jimmy Houston and JT Kenney know Florida is the premiere destination for trophy bass fishing. Check out this video to see what they think! Fisheries biologists will enhance our current trophy largemouth bass research, management, and documentation.