Record-Busting Largemouth Bass Has Fishermen Buzzing

Friday, February 27, 2015 | 3:27pm

By Larry Woody

Friday the 13th was Gabe Keen's lucky day.

The 28-year-old Campbell County High School history teacher was fishing on Chickamauga Reservoir Feb.13, preparing for an upcoming tournament, when something suddenly hammered his lure. Something big.

Big, as in a Tennessee state record largemouth bass: 15 pounds, three ounces. It was almost a pound heavier than the former record, which had stood for more than 60 years.

"I knew it was a big fish when she hit," says Keen, a veteran bass angler and coach of his high school's fishing team. "It was in 20 feet of water and she surged down. At first I thought it was about a 10-pounder. When I got it up to the surface she rolled and I got a look at her. That's when I realized how big she really was."

Keen wrestled the big bass in, grasped it by the jaw, and hoisted it into the boat.

"When I saw what I had, I freaked out," he says with a laugh. "I weighed it on scales I had in my boat, and it weighed just a hair over 15.3. Even if my scales were off a little, I thought I had a record fish."

Keen roared back to the dock, unloaded, and headed to a grocery store in nearby Soddy Daisy where he weighed the fish on a certified scale before several witnesses. It indeed weighed 15 pounds, three ounces.

Keen contacted a Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency officer and reported his catch. Agency biologists examined the fish and took fin samples for species verification.

The only person more excited about the behemoth bass than Keen might be veteran TWRA Chief of Fisheries Bobby Wilson. He termed the catch "the most significant thing in fisheries in my 35 years with the agency."

Meanwhile news of the record bass quickly spread via social media.

"I started getting calls from fishing buddies, friends, everybody and his brother, asking about it," Keen says. "They wanted to hear all the details."

Here they are:

Keen was alone in his boat, pre-fishing for an upcoming tournament. It was 11:45, he had been on the water for a little over two hours, and had landed one fish, a 3 1/2-pounder.

He was casting an Umbrella Rig -- five attached spinner baits fished as a single lure. In Tennessee only three of the baits can have hooks. Keen had decorated his spinners with Zoom Swimmin’ Super Fluke plastics in baitfish colors.

"I felt a sudden peck, peck, peck, which meant that a fish had darted through the bait," Keen says. "Then it hit. I knew right off it was a good fish."

Keen was using 20-pound-test line, so a break-off in the deep water wasn't a concern. However, when the giant bass surfaced and thrashed, Keen saw that it was impaled in the lip by a single hook.

"I held my breath as I eased it in," he says.

He got the fish in a lip-lock, hoisted it aboard, and the rest is history -- fishing history.

The former state record largemouth weighed 14 pounds, eight ounces. It was caught Oct. 17, 1954, by James "Logue" Barnett in Lawrence County's Sugar Creek.

As a history teacher, Keen appreciates the historical perspective of breaking a six-decades-old record.

When you think about how many people fish for bass in Tennessee, it's amazing that the record stood for that long," says Keen, whose father Michael coaches a fishing team at Bryan College in Dayton.

How big a deal is the big bass?

"The largemouth bass is the most sought-after species in Tennessee," says the TWRA's Wilson. "To break a record for such a popular species -- a record that has stood for almost 61 years -- is pretty incredible."

What is most exciting for Wilson is the significance of the catch for the TWRA's Florida-strain bass program. Even though the genetics of Keen’s record fish will not be known for a couple of weeks, in all likelihood it probably has some Florida largemouth bass genes in it. The TWRA began an annual stocking of Florida largemouth bass in Chickamauga in 2000, and to date it has introduced more than two million fingerlings into the lake and a few other select waters.

The dramatic payoff: a shattered state record.

"It's exciting, and it speaks well for the program," says Wilson, who estimates the Keen bass is in the 8 to 12 year old range.

There are countless genetic degrees of Chickamauga's Florida largemouth bass -- from F1, which is the first-generation, on through 14 years of inbreeding and crossbreeding with native bass (known as backcrosses).

Wilson says Keen's fish will be recognized as an official Tennessee largemouth record, regardless of its degree of Florida-bass strain. “The Florida largemouth bass is a sub-species, just like the Northern largemouth bass.  We differentiate between species but not sub-species.”

The TWRA is expanding its Florida largemouth bass stockings to include Nickajack, Watts Bar, Fort Loudoun and Kentucky lakes. There are several main criteria in selecting lakes for stocking including aquatic habitat, water productivity (fertility), abundant forge fish, and its location within the state (heating degree day zone, Florida/Northern largemouth bass intergrade zone).

To date, Tennessee has obtained most of its Florida largemouth bass fry from state run fish hatcheries in Texas. The tiny fry are about the size of an eyelash when they arrive. They are grown to fingerlings in TWRA hatchery ponds before being released. “We try to get them about two to three weeks before the native spawn in Tennessee to give them a size advantage when stocked,” says Wilson.

Wilson says the Florida largemouth bass hybrids and backcrosses grow faster than native bass -- about a pound heavier after four to six years -- and fight as hard or harder. Drawbacks?

"We haven't found any yet," Wilson says, "aside from the fact that the Florida strain isn't suited for stocking everywhere, due to specific water conditions. But our research is ongoing."

The TWRA recognizes sport-fishing records for about 100 species. Two popular state-record species are also world records: a smallmouth bass caught in Dale Hollow Lake in 1955 and a walleye caught in Old Hickory Lake in 1960.

As for Tennessee's new state-record largemouth, it's well off the mark of the shared world record of 22 pound, four ounces. One was caught in Georgia in 1932 and the other in Japan in 2001. With the right habitat and forage, how big might Tennessee's Florida-strain bass get? Nobody knows for sure, but in 2009 TWRA biologists electro-shocked a nearly 17-pounder in Brown's Creek Lake in West Tennessee. That fish -- not eligible for record consideration because it wasn't caught on fishing tackle -- was weighed, photographed and released.

So as big as Keen’s bass was, there are even bigger whoppers cruising around out there.

"Will my record last for 61 years? I doubt it," says Keen, whose biggest bass prior to his record-breaker was 9.6. (He landed an 8.9 and a 6.8 in the ensuing Chickamauga tournament.)

"There are a lot of big bass out there, and a lot of serious bass fishermen fishing for them. Somebody will get a bigger one eventually. But ‘til then, mine's the biggest, and I'll enjoy it. Right now I'm looking for a good taxidermist."