When Sam Callaway of Corpus Christi boated this 13.34-lb. largemouth April 9 during a charity bass tournament at O.H. Ivie Lake in Texas, he felt certain he'd clinched the tourney's big-bass check. What Calloway didn't know was that he'd won a much bigger prize by catching the 500th fish in the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's Sharelunker program, an innovative project that promotes catch-and-release fishing and attempts to boost the size of the state's trophy bass by entering the largest angler-caught fish into a selective breeding program.
Callaway was unaware of “The Race to 500,” as the TPWD has billed the countdown to the program’s 500th fish. “I knew about Sharelunker, but honestly I’d never paid much attention to it because I never thought I’d catch one,” he says. “I was just there for the tournament.” Callaway (shown here with Sharelunker program manager David Campbell) is a regular in the Permian Basin Oilman’s Bass Invitational, which in 16 years has raised more than $1.5 million for the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
He quickly learned he was in line for something bigger than a tournament check when he cruised into the weigh-station just before 10 a.m. Friday. “Everybody started saying, ‘That’s No. 500, that’s 500,” Callaway recalls. “I’m like, ‘500 what?'”
What onlookers knew (and Callaway didn’t) is that Toyota, the Sharelunker program sponsor for the past year, had promised $500 a pound to the angler who caught the 500th fish. Since bass must weigh at least 13 lbs. to qualify as a Sharelunker, the payout was guaranteed to be at least $6,500. At 13.34-lbs., Callaway’s bass netted him $6,670.
Sharelunkers are turned over to the TPWD, which transports the bass to the “Lunker Bunker” at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens. Biologists implant a PIT (Passive Integrated Transponder) tag with a unique ID number that lets them identify the fish while in captivity. At least once the PIT has also alerted biologists to a bass making an encore appearance as a Sharelunker.
Next the fish undergoes a physical exam to check for injuries that might need treatment.
Biologists then clip a fin to get genetic material for testing.
TPWD scientists use the fin clipping …
… to run DNA tests that determine if the fish is a descendant of the pure Florida-strain bass that were introduced into Texas waters in years past to improve the genetics of the state’s largemouth population.
Fish found to be 100 percent Florida strain are held through the spawning season so their fry can be collected for stocking. The fry in this photo represent the complete hatch of a single bass.
Once the fry reach fingerling stage, they are divided up …
… and released by TPWD personnel at lakes all around the Lone Star State.
All Sharelunker bass, whether used for spawning or not, are eventually returned to their home lake and released. The angler gets a replica of the fish to keep and other sportsmen get a second crack at a trophy bass.
The program started with a bang in 1986, when Sharelunker No. 1, a 17.67-lb beauty caught by Mark Stevenson of Dallas on Nov. 26 at Lake Fork, set a new state record. Since then, 20 fish a year on average have qualified for the program.
No. 105, an 18.18-lb. hoss caught by Barry St. Clair of Klondike on Jan. 24, 1992 at Lake Fork, topped Stevenson’s fish as Texas’ best and still stands as the state record. With a length of 25.5 inches and a girth of 24.25, the fish was almost as round as it was long. It was one of 30 Sharelunkers caught that year.
Bobbie Gayle of Plains caught No. 299–a 13.05-lb. bass that measured 26 inches long and 20.25 inches in girth–on Feb. 23, 2000 at O.H. Ivie Lake.
Not to be outdone, Bobbie’s husband, C.R. “Butch” Gayle, caught No. 300 six days later on the same lake. His Sharelunker weighed 14.58-lbs. and measured 26 inches long and 21 inches around. Both used a waterdog lure.
No. 400 was caught by Jason Baird of Gypsum, Kan., on Feb. 28, 2006 at Lake Amistad. The 13-lb. fish earned Baird $5,200.
As the race to 500 tightened, O. H. Ivie produced four of the five Sharelunkers that preceded Callaway’s prizewinner, including No. 499, caught April 6 by Bill Hunter III of Sweetwater. If that weren’t testament enough to the lake’s trophy bass population, consider this: The check for biggest bass Callaway thought he’d secured Friday with his 13.34-pounder was taken instead by a 13.8-lb. fish caught Saturday. That bass died before it could be entered in the Sharelunker program.
Callaway still did all right, finishing eighth in the tournament and making the memory of a lifetime. “It has finally sunk in that this is the 500th Sharelunker,” he says. “That’s once in a lifetime. That’s the biggest thing I’ll ever do in fishing. Having that fish up there throwing off spawn eggs and knowing that I caught it, that’s a good feeling. I’m just tickled to death.”