Texas’ ShareLunker Program encourages anglers to donate live and healthy largemouth bass heavier than 13 pounds caught in the state between the fall and spring to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department for selective breeding.
In exchange, anglers are provided a fiberglass replicas of their trophy catches.
This program has maintained catch records since 1986, and mining those data might help Mississippi anglers zero in on trophy bass.
Mississippi isn’t Texas, but when it comes to bass fishing, both states share similar climates. And fluctuations in water temperature track closely in the two states, especially when you compare South Mississippi to South Texas, and northern Mississippi to North-central Texas.
I analyzed catch records for 548 ShareLunker trophies caught between 1986 when the program started and 2013.
The ShareLunker program only accepts entries during October through April. The reason for limiting the time frame is to keep the fish for as short a time as possible, spawn them and return them to their home lake.
Fall through spring is also a time of cooler air and water temperatures, when bass can be handled and transported with much higher survival than during warmer seasons.
Statewide, the most trophy bass were caught in March. February was a distant second.
Note something very important: While 548 ShareLunker trophy bass is a very robust data set, it has no information about fishing effort — how many anglers were fishing. Thus, the records only tell when the fish were caught, not when the catch rate — often measured as fish per angler day — was best.
I have little doubt that far more anglers were fishing in February and March than in December and January.
Almost instinctively, one would think that the greatest catch of lunker bass would coincide with the spawn. Probably many did, but here are three reasons to conclude that many, and probably most, trophies were caught before spawning.
First, of the 548 records, water temperature was available for only 27. Of the 27 bass with temperature records, only 10 were caught at water temperatures of 60 degrees or warmer, a temperature biologists consider the minimum for largemouth bass spawning.
Fourteen were caught at water temperatures below 55 degrees, including four caught at 43 to 44 degrees and four caught at 48 to 49 degrees.
Assuming the fish for which anglers reported water temperature represented all fish, most of the 13-plus bass were caught well before the spawn.
Secondly, depth of catch was reported for 210 of the ShareLunker records. Of these 210 fish, 92 (44 percent) were caught in water 6 feet deep or shallower, a depth where they are likely to spawn.
Another 41 were caught from 7 to 10 feet deep, 44 were caught from 11 to 15 feet deep and 13 from water 16 to 20 feet deep. Twenty of the 210 fish were caught deeper than 20 feet.
Again, while some catches were possibly fish about to spawn, most fish were caught deeper than largemouth usually spawn.
Thirdly, shallow catch depth does not mean the fish were spawning. Half of the anglers who caught lunker in water less than 6 feet deep and reported temperature caught their fish in water colder than 55 degrees. Clearly, catch depth is not a reliable indicator of spawning activity.
If there is more to when trophy bass are caught than just spawning, can these data be used to forecast best times to catch a lunker? Maybe.
I looked at catch records from individual lakes to try and identify some environmental cue that up chances of getting the big bite.
Lake Fork had the most ShareLunkers — a whopping 278 records, or slightly more than half of all ShareLunker bass caught statewide. For Lake Fork, the average last-freeze day (a date in the spring when the last freeze occurred) was in mid-March, the same month that trophy bass catch peaked.
In all other lakes with 12 or more ShareLunker records, the peak month for lunker catches was the month of or the month after the average last freeze date.
For example, in Falcon Lake in South Texas, the last freeze day was Feb. 16, and peak catch was in March. Similarly, in Lake Austin, the last freeze day was Feb. 26, and peak lunker catch was in March. Farther to the north in Lake Alan Henry 50 miles south of Lubbock, the last freeze day was April 5, and peak lunker catch was in April.
Translating this to Mississippi, last freeze dates are April 1-10 in the north (Tupelo), March 21-31 in Central Mississippi (Jackson) and Feb. 21-29 in the south (Biloxi).
If the results from 500-plus trophy bass apply to Mississippi, bass anglers should get serious about lunker hunting in late January in South Mississippi, in late February in Central Mississippi and in March in North Mississippi.
But these are averages. Use the averages and your favorite weather forecast to better determine when the last frost will be this year. And, by the way, it’s better to be early than late.
Coming next month: What ShareLunker records tell about moon phases and lures.