Mississippi may soon join the ranks of states like California, Florida, South Carolina and Texas as a good place to catch trophy largemouth bass.

This long-awaited goal of the Fisheries Bureau of Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks may become a reality if a new largemouth bass production procedure at the recently opened North Mississippi Fish Hatchery is successful.

It's a well-established fact that the Florida subspecies of largemouth bass grows larger than the northern subspecies in waters south of the Mason-Dixon line. Witness the 18.15-pound state record from Natchez State Park Lake - a Florida largemouth bass.

So why not stock more Florida largemouth bass in Mississippi? In simple terms, it's a waste of a resource. Fingerling largemouth bass, regardless of subspecies, stocked into an existing largemouth bass population have little chance of surviving.

For example, 10,000 fingerling Florida largemouth bass stocked into each of several 1.2-mile-long shoreline segments in Toledo Bend Reservoir dwindled to 5 percent of the young bass collected in fall samples. It cost Texas anglers about $3,200 to stock each 1.2-mile shoreline segment.

The management dilemma: How do we produce trophy bass fishing in Mississippi where, with the rare exception of new or recently renovated sites, our waters are already teeming with bass?

Another simple answer: Stock large fish that have a greater chance or surviving. The problem is it takes a lot of hatchery space and a lot of minnows to grow a bass to 8-10 inches. And when you need to produce thousands of these fish, you quickly run out of ponds and money.

The solution: Raise the Florida largemouth on prepared foods. This is how millions of pounds of catfish are raised every year in Mississippi.

But unlike domesticated channel cats, largemouth bass like their food live and swimming. The trick is training the young bass to eat prepared food - hatchery pellets.

Justin Wilkens, manager of the North Mississippi Fish Hatchery, explained how this will be done this year.

The process begins by producing 1- to 2-inch fingerlings in the usual way. Mature male and female bass are stocked into raceways in February. They spawn on fiber mats. The egg-bearing mats are removed to another raceway, where hatching occurs. Two to three weeks have elapsed. The fry are collected and transferred to fertilized, zooplankton-rich hatchery ponds. Zooplankton are microscopic or barely visible crustaceans and other animals that are essential food for the young bass.

In three to five weeks, the bass have grown to 1½ to 2 inches long, and are harvested from the ponds. These are the fish that are traditionally stocked into new or renovated waters. This year, some will have a different destiny, one with a much greater chance of survival.

The fingerlings will be transferred to indoor, 900-gallon fiberglass raceways - long troughs with a slow flow of fresh, oxygenated water. It is here that the fish will "learn" to eat hatchery food.

The bass will be densely crowded and fed a specially formulated, palatable, high-protein starter diet. Automatic feeders will dispense the tiny food granules every 2-3 minutes. The bass will be swimming in food.

This year, in the pilot phase, Wilkens will serve different feed formulations to different groups of bass to see which works best. After four to 10 days, the fingerlings will be weaned from the gourmet starter diet by progressively feeding more production pellets and less starter pellets.

At the end of the three-week feed training period, the fish will be transferred to 80-foot-long raceways, where they will be fed hatchery pellets daily for grow out. By October, the fish should be 7-10 inches long and ready for stocking.

Wilkens realizes this will not be as simple as it sounds. Disease will be a continual threat to the densely crowded bass. And the feed-trained bass are quick to return to their fish-eating ways. The bass must be frequently size-graded to remove faster growing fish that will cannibalize their siblings.

This first crop of intensively reared, advanced fingerling Florida largemouth bass will be stocked into the Pascagoula River to help speed recovery of the Katrina-ravaged system.

Angler license dollars matched by Sport Fish Restoration funds built and operate Mississippi's new hatchery. Much of the funding for this experimental production effort has been provided by Mississippi Power.

The knowledge and experience gained in this first year will form a foundation for improved bass fishing in Mississippi's future.