Striped Bass in Bull Shoals Lake

By Francis Skalicky | May 1, 2019
From Missouri Conservationist: May 2019

Plymouth Colony is best-known as Thanksgiving’s birthplace, but it was an interest in fishing, not feasting, that caused an early Massachusetts Bay resident to record these thoughts:

“… the fisherman taking a great cod line to which he fasteneth a peece of lobster and threwes it into the sea. The rockfish biting at it, he pulls her to him and knockes her on the head with a sticke …”

This 385-year-old description of striped bass fishing in New England shows both spelling and striper-catching techniques have changed since these words were written in 1634. Today’s anglers “fasteneth” large swim baits, spoons, and live shad to their lines and, when a striper is reeled in, a dip net is reached for instead of a clubbing “sticke.” However, amongst the differences lurk similarities. “Rockfish” is still a nickname used for striped bass in some parts of the country, and any 21st-century angler who’s ever reeled in a striper would agree with another entry from this same text describing striped bass as “one of the best fishes in the Country.”

Creating a Fishery

This fish’s long-standing popularity is at the heart of a six-year research project by MDC and the University of Missouri that will evaluate how to manage striped bass at Bull Shoals Reservoir in southern Missouri. The project, which began in 2018, will provide information to make management decisions on regulations and stocking procedures.

“Creating a striped bass fishery at Bull Shoals will increase the diversity of fishing opportunities for anglers, produce state record and possibly world-record size fish, and produce up to $2.4 million in fishing-related revenue annually for the local economy,” said MDC Sportfish Ecologist Andy Turner, who is the lead biologist on the project. “Stripers are a hard-fighting and great-tasting fish that occupy a currently unexploited ecological niche in the reservoir. These factors make striped bass an excellent sportfish to add to the Bull Shoals fishery and will improve fishing for many anglers for many years to come.”

Nick Avery of Strafford, an angler who enjoys catching striped bass, agreed.

“I enjoy fishing for striped bass because I believe them to be the closest thing to catching a saltwater fish in Missouri,” he said. “They are the most exciting and hard-fighting fish you’ll find in freshwater.”

Meet the Striped Bass

Striped bass (Morone saxatilis) are not native to Missouri or to most of the other states where they are currently found. Their home waters are the Atlantic coast of North America. They are a member of the Moronidae family of fish, a group of species commonly referred to as the “true basses.” (Largemouth, smallmouth, and other popular Missouri sportfish that also carry the “bass” name belong to the Centrarchidae family, a group of species known as the sunfish family.) Striped bass are anadromous, which means their native habitat is comprised of both fresh and saltwater. They are born in freshwater, spend much of their time in saltwater, and return to freshwater to spawn. In their native coastal habitat, they earned the nickname “rockfish” because they like to nestle in the nooks and crannies of reefs and ledges.

One characteristic of striped bass that has appealed to anglers since the days of the Pilgrims is their size. It’s common for mature adults to weigh between 5 and 20 pounds, but they’ve been known to grow much larger. The International Game Fish Association’s all-tackle land-locked world record, caught in Alabama in 2013, weighed 69 pounds, 6 ounces. The Missouri record is 65 pounds, 2 ounces, caught in 2015 in Bull Shoals.

Striped Bass in Missouri: A History

Striped bass have been part of the Show-Me state’s fishing scene since fry were stocked in Taum Sauk Reservoir in Reynolds County in 1966 and were first stocked in the Lake of the Ozarks in 1967. They were put into Bull Shoals — a 48,000-acre reservoir that straddles the Missouri-Arkansas state line — as a result of an accidental stocking by the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission in 1998. As angler interest around this unplanned stocking grew, MDC realized that accident created opportunity.

“We have recognized the potential that has been created at Bull Shoals from that single, unplanned stocking,” said MDC Fisheries Management Biologist Nathan Recktenwald, who is assisting Turner with the project.

MDC stocked striped bass into Bull Shoals in 2013, 2015, and 2017, which further fueled the angling interest in striper fishing at Bull Shoals and led to the current research project that’s underway. “We’re creating a fishery at Bull Shoals,” Turner said. “To do that, we have to have population dynamics information.”

Research Project

To get that data, 300–500 striped bass that have acoustic telemetry tags surgically inserted into them will be released into Bull Shoals in five years of the six-year project. This annual stocking group will be composed of 25–50 adult and 100 age-zero (less than a year old) fish. The tags emit a coded sound, which can be tracked with telemetry equipment. Monitoring the tagged fish will provide information about growth rates, survival rates, and the areas of the lake they prefer at various times of the year.

The tags will also provide information about what the striped bass are eating at Bull Shoals and, in so doing, MDC biologists hope to dispel a largely untrue perception that the hunting habits of striped bass take a substantial bite out of a reservoir’s sportfish population. While it’s true striped bass are opportunistic predators that prey on whatever they can catch, Turner said studies elsewhere have shown the bulk of a striped bass’ diet is shad. That’s due to the simple fact that there are a lot of large shad around for them to prey on. Young shad are a primary food source for sportfish species, such as black bass and crappie, but their value as a “food fish” disappears when shad become adults. They become too large to be eaten by other species and begin to compete with sportfish species for food and space. Shad have prolific reproduction capabilities and are presumed to be one of the most common and widely distributed fish in the state. Thus, it stands to reason when striped bass — which are large enough to prey on adult shad — are introduced into a reservoir, the primary large fish they go after are adult shad because they are common. This predation on shad benefits the overall fishery by helping to keep fish populations balanced.

“When you introduce striped bass into a reservoir, they fill a niche that is unfilled,” Turner said. “They roam in open water and eat shad.”

To ensure that this is the case, this research project will also evaluate diet overlap of Striped Bass and other sportfish in the reservoir. The proof will be in the isotope signature from samples of flesh collected from many fish species that live in the reservoir. These samples will provide information on the ratio of carbon and nitrogen that will be contained in fish the tagged striped bass consume. From this information, biologists can determine both the species and the size of fish that are being eaten.

The study is also expected to provide additional data on something MDC fishery biologists already know — Bull Shoals provides excellent habitat for striped bass. “Striped bass need a thermal refuge during extreme water temperature conditions,” Recktenwald said. “Bull Shoals provides the deep-water habitat needed during these stressful conditions, along with cool and well oxygenated water.”

Missouri: A Great Place to Fish

Biologists hope the end result of the research project is to add another layer of variety to Missouri fishing.

“People like to fish for striped bass because of their large size, fighting quality, and good taste,” Recktenwald said. “These fish can be elusive and provide a challenge for anglers interested in fishing for a different type of sportfish. Striped bass can be caught in open-water areas and there are not many fish that you can target in deep-water habitats (60 feet or more).”

Avery agreed that fishing for stripers offers unique angling experiences.

“Sometimes striped bass relate to schools of baitfish and sometimes they will relate to structures near baitfish,” he said. “Over half the challenge is finding them since they move a lot and can be scattered. But then there are those days you just stumble into them and they are active, and you will load the boat with limits of nice fish.”

MDC Fisheries Division biologists hope the current Bull Shoals study will lead anglers to many good striped bass fishing stories. “The primary reason for this project is to evaluate a newly created fishery so it can be appropriately managed for the angling public,” Turner said. “Establishing a new fishery requires an assessment of what the current stocking plan is producing and if there are any negative impacts on other sportfish populations. Once anglers start catching 30–50 pound fish, it is common for the initial question of ‘why stock striped bass?’ to change to ‘why not stock more striped bass?’ This project will provide information to answer both those questions.”

MDC Fisheries Division Chief Brian Canaday agrees.

“Missourians want to know that we are being good stewards of the resources they have trusted us to manage,” Canaday said. “Conducting this study will allow us to evaluate the stocking of this bonus/trophy fishery in Bull Shoals and will provide information that will shape future fisheries management decisions for this lake. The striped bass fishery is important to Missouri anglers and this region because it provides bonus fishing opportunity for anglers to catch a large and majestic fish like the striped bass here in the Midwest.”

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This Issue's Staff

Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld

Associate Editor - Larry Archer

Staff Writer - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Heather Feeler
Staff Writer - Kristie Hilgedick
Staff Writer - Joe Jerek

Creative Director - Stephanie Thurber

Art Director - Cliff White

Designer - Les Fortenberry
Designer - Marci Porter

Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner

Circulation - Laura Scheuler