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Lunkers on Loan 
TPWD's ShareLunker program, despite controversy and setbacks over the years, is back on track in -literally- a big, big way.
By Paul A. Cañada

My first memories of the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department's ShareLunker program center around Barry St. Clair's state record fish. I took my oldest boy to see her at Irving Marine where she was on display in a simple tank. I remember looking at that 18.18-pound leviathan and thinking "There's something mysterious and unsettling about her."

I developed a healthy respect for the bass and visited her many times before they moved her to the Dallas Aquarium, where she eventually died. In sharing his record-breaking fish, St. Clair gave all anglers an opportunity to experience some of the wonder and excitement felt when he first caught a glimpse of her.

St. Clair's donation was a wonderful gift to the people of Texas.

The Klondike, Texas, angler's contribution continued to fuel the excitement surrounding the ShareLunker program and the growing catch and release ethic. Many anglers-after seeing the ShareLunker display at boat and tackle shows across the state-would make it their angling goal to be a contributor to the program. Others would see the replicas of other famous contributions and decide that indeed, fiberglass replicas-rather than skin mounts-were the way to go.

Mortal Combat

According to Lake Fork guide Dennis States, one of the reasons for the ShareLunker program was to encourage anglers to release big fish, ensuring the future of Texas' big-bass lakes.
According to Lake Fork guide Dennis States, one of the reasons for the ShareLunker program was to encourage anglers to release big fish, ensuring the future of Texas' big-bass lakes. Spawning is a secondary benefit, but shouldn't be a primary purpose. He argues that many of the big fish are very old and susceptible to stress.

Still, many conservationists wonder: As much as the ShareLunker program has meant to Texas bass fishing, why has it been the center of so much controversy over the last 3 or 4 years? We need only look to the mortality rate of fish that were entered into the program to find the fuel that stoked the fires of controversy. Between November 1986 and April 1998, 99 of the program's 281 entries died while in the ShareLunker program's care.

Respected Lake Fork guide Larry Barnes was the ramrod behind the protest.

"Most of the full-time guides on Fork were aware of the high mortality rate," he explains. "Finally, a number of us decided to stop turning fish over to the program and encouraged others to stop sharing fish."

Many of the guides-including Barnes-wrote articles in regional publications, informing the public about the high mortality rate and encouraging them to stop contributing to the ShareLunker program.

According to Neil Ward, the ShareLunker program coordinator, the protest succeeded in cutting the total number of entries in half. Between 1989 and 1995, the program averaged approximately 30 entries. However, the numbers for the last two seasons, 1996-97 and 1997-98, dropped to 16 and 15 respectively.

"Some of the guides put a lot of pressure on their clients and peers, encouraging them not to contribute," explains Ward. "They didn't feel Fork could afford to lose any more fish to our program. I think part of the problem was that the public didn't know how many fish were dying in the program."

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