Two Texans work to regain the state's fishy pre-eminence
In a town not far from here, on acreage sponsored by Budweiser, there swims a 13-pound largemouth bass that may be The One--the one that reclaims glory for Texas, that smites those smug Californians, that proves there is nothing science and hubris can't accomplish. On the surface, what they're doing in Athens, an hour and a half southeast of Dallas, is attempting to grow the world's largest bass. But that's nowhere near the whole story.
The whole story is recounted in Monte Burke's new book, Sowbelly: The Obsessive Quest for the World Record Largemouth Bass. Burke is a senior reporter at Forbes and a lifelong fisherman who spent a year following the people who chase after the world record--and the two men from Texas trying to breed it.
"I mean, it's just...it's just insane," Burke says of the two and their passion.
Their names are Allen Forshage and David Campbell. Both work for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's "Lunker Bunker," or, as it's officially called, the Budweiser ShareLunker program, since Anheuser-Busch recently endowed the program with $500,000 more. The bunker's located in the basement of the $18 million Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens, built by grant money, the city of Athens and Anheuser-Busch for the exclusive purpose of engineering a world-record bass. (There's even a sign at the Lunker Bunker that reads "Operation World Record.") What Forshage, 55, and Campbell, 60, do is take calls from anglers across Texas who've just caught a 13-pound monster--anything less doesn't qualify for the Lunker Bunker program.
Wherever the fish is, Campbell drives to it, often without resting. Burke writes that Campbell once drove to a dam in the Texas Panhandle and back, some 1,000 miles round-trip, in a little less than 18 hours, stopping only for a 40-minute nap. Once back in Athens, the fish spawns with another big bass. And it must be big. "If the males aren't big enough, the females will eat them when we put them together to spawn," Forshage says in Sowbelly. "I've seen it happen."
But if all goes to plan, the female produces up to 50,000 eggs, which will hatch and, the breeders hope, grow to be bigger than their parents once they're released back into the wild. That's basically it. Mate big fish with big fish and hope the offspring will be bigger.
Yet it never works that way, and that's why Burke finds Forshage and Campbell's life pursuit to be, as he puts it, "insane."
Insane because the spawning success rate in Athens is only 20 percent. Insane because the largest catch in Texas was an 18-pounder in 1992, six years before the Lunker Bunker hatchery opened and four pounds lighter than the world record. Insane because the increase of the bass' weight in the last 30 years is mostly the result of the state of Texas bringing Florida bass to its waters. Insane because California, that bastard state, is home to 23 of the 25 largest recorded catches, mostly without trying. Its climate is more conducive to growing large bass. It has more hatcheries than Texas. The smaller fish--mainly the rainbow trout--eaten by the California bass have a higher protein count than the prey here.
Burke says the biologists there "are just very lazy. The Californians' philosophy is 'Just keep feeding these bass.'" And yet Forshage once drove to the Lunker Bunker every two hours for three days, worrying over a 17-pound girl in poor shape named Ethel.
Forshage laughs. "Texas needs the biggest and best of everything, doesn't it?" he tells the Dallas Observer.
This is the larger truth of Sowbelly. The swagger remains long after it's justified. "Texas is notorious for this kind of crap," says Jim Brown, the director of San Diego's city lakes, in Sowbelly. "Trying to grow this fish in a hatchery demonstrates a tremendous amount of self-absorption on the part of the people doing it."
Burke says quite a few people in the bass world have criticized the Lunker Bunker. What Forshage and Campbell are doing, many think, isn't pure.
Forshage responds: "All we're doing is breeding large fish with large fish" in the hopes of regaining what is lost. Fact is, Texas was once the self-described "bass capital of the world." Then California brought a Florida strain of bass to its own waters.
But some people think Texas could be king again. (Read: some people in Texas.) The Lunker Bunker season ends Saturday, and so far, 24 13-pounders have been caught, the highest count since 1996. What's more, nine of the fish come from Lake Alan Henry, southeast of Lubbock, a lake with the potential to match the output of the mightiest Texas lake of all, Lake Fork, near Alba, the home lake of 11 pro fishermen, including Takahiro Omori, the 2004 Bassmaster Classic champion. (See "Bass Fishing in America," Dallas Observer, September 16, 2004.)
"We've been tremendously successful this year," Forshage says. Lake Fork in years past was home to 60 percent of the Lunker Bunker's catches. With Alan Henry and a few other promising reservoirs, things are changing.
In Sowbelly, Burke compares the Lunker Bunker to the Alamo. It's fitting. Forshage and Campbell are outnumbered by the total of California's biologists, and the state's climate is better, as is its lakes, its hatcheries and the food its bass eat. Victory may not come in either of Forshage's or Campbell's lifetimes, much as it didn't in William B. Travis' or Jim Bowie's or Davy Crockett's, but victory may yet come to Texas.
Burke concludes the chapter on the Lunker Bunker by quoting the letter Travis wrote during the battle for the Alamo: "I shall never surrender or retreat...I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible & die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor & that of his country."
Burke does well to note that the country to which Travis was referring is Texas. --Paul Kix
Move Over, Kids
The Dallas Burn needed a change. A couple of substandard seasons and an ill-advised move to Southlake had alienated the soccer club's once-decent fan base, so last year, team owner Lamar Hunt decided that a new name was in order. The choice: FC Dallas, a name that just oozes old-world football (FC stands for football club). The name was so good, in fact, that it had also occurred to local soccer coach Tony Bily--in 1996. He used it that year for the youth select soccer league that he co-founded in Richardson. Now Bily's FC Dallas is in negotiations with the MLS franchise for the rights to the name, and Bily isn't happy about it.
"What we're trying to figure out is the coexistence of two same-name clubs," Bily says. "The way everything happened, we don't have much choice."
Jeff Busch, a vice president at the MLS club, estimates the choice of FC Dallas was "80 percent decided" before the team became aware of Bily's league. "We just happen to have the same name," Busch says. "There's really no connection other than that."
Well, maybe one connection: Bily's league owns the Internet domain www.fcdallas.com, an asset MLS would like to get its hands on. Most of the professional teams own their "dot-com" names. For example, the LA Galaxy can be found at www.lagalaxy.com, while DC United has www.dcunited.com. Dallas' franchise still has www.dallasburn.com, but surfers typing in its new name will go to Bily's site, and once there, they won't find a link to MLS.
"Traffic has obviously climbed on our Web site," says Kent Cox, the volunteer Web master for the youth league. "But I think we'd rather exist than get swallowed up. It's just a big mess, in my humble opinion."
From the perspective of an MLS team trying to rebuild its fan base, a ready-made eponymous youth league could be just the ticket.
"It would be easier for both sides if we were all one organization," Busch says.
But Bily, a former pro player in Austria and Slovakia, isn't exactly hearing wedding bells, even though his league likely will ring up some cash compensation when the dust settles.
"I think there are different philosophies," he says. "They'll probably do their thing and we'll do ours."
And though he's resigned to sharing a moniker, he sees it as an unattractive compromise at best.
"The best solution would obviously be to change our name or for them to change their name," Bily says, and then adds, "They should change their name. We've been FC Dallas since 1996."
It would seem appropriate that the FC Dallas logo, a shield with a longhorn steer and a lone star, also features the number 96 to commemorate the year. But the shield is actually the MLS logo; the professional club was also founded that year--as the Dallas Burn. --Rick Kennedy