February 2008

Hampton Lake: Home to Fearsome Fish

Author: Larry Hughes

John Reed’s development team at Hampton Lake is fond of saying “It’s all about the water.” After all, when your vision calls for about 900 homes centered around a 165-acre lake with seven miles of navigable waterways and 15 miles of shoreline, the water is a pretty big deal.

Reed has developed such high-end private communities as Berkeley Hall, Belfair, and Colleton River. These are places renowned for a superior golf experience.

Part of his contrarian strategy in master-planning Hampton Lake around water instead of the ubiquitous golf course is to provide a quality outdoor experience and one of the premier fishing environments in the Lowcountry or even the Southeast.

Many of the homeowners who choose to live at Hampton Lake will be drawn by the tranquil setting, the 500 acres of open space and nature preserve, and backyard access to the shimmering lake. But beneath that placid surface lurks a fearsome fish that will get the heart of any hardcore fisherman pounding. And that brings us to the amazing tale that is the Tiger Bass.

“Our Tiger Bass are bred to be more aggressive,” said Barry Smith, co-principal of American Sport Fish Hatchery, which is located outside Montgomery, Alabama.

“Just how aggressive is that?” I ask.

“They’re just plain mean. They’ll knock the stew out of lures and bait whether you’re fishing on top or on the bottom,” he said. (A small adrenaline surge begins.)

Smith is not your average hatchery guy. He and his partner, Don Keller, both hold masters degrees in fisheries from Auburn University. Together they have over 60 years experience working with largemouth bass and other sport fish species.

So how do you breed a fish that acts like a junkyard dog? “We crossed two pure subspecies to get what we call a true F-1,” said Smith. “We developed our own strain of nasty northern bass called a Gorilla Bass and bred them to Florida bass that came from proven trophies. We’re talking females that range from 13 to 16 pounds.” (My brain says: “Must release more adrenalin.”)

“The result is a very fast growing and aggressive fish that we’ve named the Tiger Bass,” said Smith, adding that they not only named it, but registered the name. The scientist/biologist/entrepreneur/ fisherman continued, “We’re the only hatchery licensed to produce and sell these bass. Our objective is to raise trophy fish that give lifetime memories to anglers. The world record bass is 22 pounds four ounces. It came out of South Georgia and is thought to be of that special strain.”

“Our Tigers have documented weight gains of 15 pounds in 8 years,” he continued. “Fish we stocked in Hampton Lake should gain about two pounds per year. They were at two inches in June, and our latest visit turned up some one-pounders already.” (Wow. My brain is now kicking into overdrive, adrenaline is coursing through my veins, heart rate is noticeably up, and my arm is making involuntary casting motions.)

These Sport Fish Hatchery guys clearly know what they’re doing. They designed lakes for Presidents George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter and put the oomph in fishing at Disney World waterways, and fish and game organizations from Virginia to Texas. Their involvement with John Reed’s team began three years ago. “When you can get in on the ground floor,” said Smith, “you get to design the fishery laboratory before any dirt is moved.” The result is a lake with an average depth of 8-10 feet and about 150 structure sites scattered over the 165 acres.

“We used all kinds of stuff,” said the bass professor. “We took huge hardwood stump balls with big ol’ roots hanging out; we used culverts and other building materials that were going to be discarded, and we’ve got large banded bundles of old Christmas trees down there, too.”

Then they designed the food chain for the Tiger Bass. There are coppernose bluegills, threadfin shad, red ear shell crackers, golden shiners, and fathead minnows. Each species feeds at a different depth. Some, like the shad, travel around the lake in schools. Others are more solitary and spread out. Some are filter feeders (shad) and others eat insects on the top or bottom.

A normal pond or lake might have a ratio of 10:1 for forage fish to largemouth bass. Hampton Lake is 25 to 30:1. The more food available, the faster the bass grow.

So now you have a lake with structure and plenty of forage food. There is one more key. That’s water quality.

“We monitor the water quality on a regular basis,” said Smith. “We’ve got strategies for aeration and stratification and fertilization. The trick is to get your algae bloom just right without starving the water and the fish of oxygen. It can be a real fine line. We constantly use water disks to measure the viscosity of the water.”

“What about drought conditions,” I ask.

“We’re giving Mother Nature a little help with some supplemental shallow wells that keep the lake level where it needs to be. The idea is to keep the water moving from bottom to top and everything in it healthy,” Smith explained. “What this all means is you end up with a fishery that is good from the shallows to the deepest holes and you can catch ‘em on the top, in the middle stratum, or on the bottom. And you can bait fish, fly fish, or spin cast. (I start rummaging through drawers, looking for my favorite T-shirt that says “Women Love Me, Bass Fear Me.”)

So do these ultra-tough Tiger Bass fear anything? “The only predator that can really get after them are the ol’ snakebird or cormorant,” Smith said, “them and maybe a pesky river otter. A cormorant can eat up to a pound-and-a-half of fish a day, and otters can just flat tear up a lake.”

“But what about an experienced bass fisherman,” I ask. “Aren’t they the real predator?”

Buddy, when that Tiger slams your lure, you better hang on with both hands, ‘cause I guarantee you those fish aren’t afraid of YOU!” Smith retorted. (My eyes start to glaze over. Nothing like a good challenge.) I dial the phone number for Wade Bales, general manager of the Hampton Lake Club. “Hey Wade,” I say, “I’m writing a story on Tiger Bass.”

“Well, come on out,” he said.

We met at Doc’s Boathouse and sat down to talk fishing. I couldn’t help but be distracted by the constant swirling and splashes in the water by the dock where we were sitting. “Don’t mind them,” Wade said with a smile. “Those are our bluegills waiting for our automatic feeder to give them their next meal.”

This is where Bales and his team bring the small fry to throw out a baited cane pole and catch their first-ever fish. Let a little kid catch a half-pound sunfish first time out and he is hooked for life. The parents might even buy a lakeside homesite.

Turns out Bales is no slouch in the learning department, either. He also earned a masters in fisheries management from Auburn (maybe they have a secret handshake?) and has been friends with Barry and Don for years. “I’ve been doing this for about 13 years,” he said, “and those guys have over a half-century of experience between them. We’ve developed a good level of trust and respect, and we’re all on the same page about creating one of the premier fisheries in the Southeast here at the lake.”

“We’re right on schedule with stocking and fertilization,” he continued. “You can already catch some nice one-half to one-pound Tigers right off the dock here. But we’re taking it slow. We’ve set a catch-and-release policy for the next year to give the fish a chance to really grow,” he explained.

Bales has some pretty good DNA going himself. He’s the son of Charlie Wade of Palmetto Bluff forestry fame. He and his siblings grew up hunting and fishing at the Bluff. Bales parlayed that love into a job as Chief of Freshwater Fisheries for the SC Department of Natural Resources. He still does some lake consulting for Spring Island and Palmetto Bluff.

I lean in and ask in a conspiratorial tone, “Just how tough are these Tiger Bass?” Bales gives me a tight little smile. “Everyone wants to talk about the Tigers. Let me tell you about our hybrids. We’ve stocked a cross between a white bass and a striped bass at about a five-per-acre level. When those babies grow up, they’re going to be the real bullies on the block.” (That’s it. I’m officially on overload. I gotta get in a boat with my ultralight rod and catch my White Whale.)

One last question. “Does John Reed like to fish?” I ask. “He does,” said Bales. “Most everybody on our team does, but we’re just so doggone busy trying to make this place great there’s not enough time.”

Hampton Lake. It really is all about the water. And, of course, what lurks beneath!

Best guarantee for catching a fish: Right off the dock at Doc’s Boathouse. The bluegills there are fed daily and take any worm or cricket offerings from the young ‘uns that drop a line at Tadpoles, a special fishing hole.

Fly fishing: Use a little nymph for the plate-size bluegills; mosquito and cricket and ant imitations will work, too. Sinking flies are a good bet for shell crackers.

Spincasters: Small spoons, lizard and worm artificials; Hot Tip: The bass have already eaten most of the fathead minnows, so try a small Rapala or similar lure with that pattern. Shell crackers like larger insects and worms and crickets on the bottom.

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