The distant sounds of clanking steel and the crunching of gravel below truck tires alerted us that somebody was coming down the forest highway. We glanced up from the duty of packing our tenting gear and fly rods into our canoe and kayak as a logging truck barreled out of the tree line, coming to a screeching halt in the course of the bridge that spanned the small river. A cloud of mud billowed out from behind the truck, washing over the cab and softly settling round us. The door opened with a loud and piercing squeak as a forester climbed out of the cab. He glanced down from the bridge to the river under. There was a glance of shock on his face as he seen us for the primary time.

“Sorry for the mud y’all,” he mentioned, in his Oklahoma accent. “I didn’t see you down there.” He bent over to look at the tires on his truck. “Rattling.” he mentioned, “the highway is actual unhealthy again there.” He nodded his head within the path he had come, after which started strolling across the automobile, inspecting every tire.

“We got here within the different means,” Nick known as again from the riverbank, pointing in the other way.

“Okay,” the forester mentioned, “y’all ought to return the way in which you got here in. The highway is simply too tough the place I simply come from. I don’t assume your automobile will make it.”

We thanked him and he waved goodbye as he climbed into his truck and took off down the highway. As soon as once more, a cloud of mud picked up behind the automobile and instantly gave chase. Though the truck was misplaced from view, the winding course of the forest highway might nonetheless be traced by the billowing dust rising above the treeline. The lengthy steady column rose by way of the air, marking the truck’s progress because it climbed out of the river valley.

When all was quiet once more, the three of us checked out one another and smiled. If the washed-out forest roads resulting in this river had been any indication of what to anticipate, then we might assume two days of secluded journey awaited us. We regarded ahead to exploring this stunning and pristine waterway in southeastern Oklahoma, and to focus on the area’s native, stream-dwelling bass.

Visions of spirited smallmouth bass making acrobatic leaps and heart-pounding runs performed in our minds whereas we stuffed our sleeping baggage into waterproof baggage after which lashed them down within the hulls of our paddlecraft. This rock-filled river regarded like prime smallie habitat. Faculties of baitfish basked within the shallows and dragonflies zipped by way of the air. Longear and inexperienced sunfish watched us with warranted suspicion from their refuge of aquatic grasses.

The thick leaves overhead forged dappled shadows that pranced throughout the hulls of our canoe and kayak. Gusts of summer season air got here blowing by way of the river valley making the leaves quake upon the bushes, mimicking our excited anticipation for that remaining shove from the riverbank and the primary pull of the paddle by way of the clear water.

Round this similar time, many miles away from that Oklahoma river, three analysis biologists specializing in fish genetics awaited the publication of their newest scientific paper. The paper was titled, “Phylogenomics and species delimitation of the economically vital Black Basses (Micropterus).” The paper made a number of groundbreaking claims concerning the genetic make-up of black bass species throughout the US, together with the populations of smallmouth bass in jap Oklahoma. And the authors, Daemin Kim, Andrew T. Taylor, and Thomas J. Close to, had simply completed learning the exact same fish we had been after.

The article, initially showing in Scientific Stories, claims there are nineteen totally different species of black bass. Fourteen of those species are at present described and effectively documented, however there are nonetheless 5 species which stay undescribed by biologists.

In line with the authors, three of the 5 undescribed species exist within the rivers close to the Oklahoma and Arkansas border. Initially, these fish had been regarded as the identical smallmouth bass which are discovered all through the northern Mississippi River basin and throughout the northeast. The Linnean identify for this northern number of smallmouth bass being Micropterus dolomieu. Nonetheless, in accordance with Kim, Taylor, and Close to, the three undescribed bass species native to the rivers of jap Oklahoma and western Arkansas have a singular genetic make-up that units them other than the northern number of smallmouth. What’s extra, the genetic make-up of those three sorts of black bass are totally different from each other, making every one distinctive.

The authors declare that the three distinctive lineages of bass present in jap Oklahoma and western Arkansas must be separated into their very own distinct species. They check with them because the Neosho Bass, the Ouachita Bass, and the Little River Bass. Every lineage of fish bears the identify of the watersheds the place they stay. Because it seems, the Little River Bass is the type we had been pursuing.

After we lastly kicked off the financial institution and began downstream, it was round midday. We had hardly made it past the primary bend after we discovered ourselves tied up with a bass, the primary one of many journey. It was a median specimen, an excellent fish to start the journey with. When it took the fly, it did so in a vicious and sudden method. Precisely what we had hoped for.

Picture: Rob McConnell

After touchdown the fish, we held it within the water, analyzing the colours of its mottled flanks, wealthy colours of tan and darkish olive. Thick black traces radiated again from the perimeters of the attention, extending over the gill plate, like fearsome warpaint. That camouflaged face paint can be the stuff of nightmares should you had been unfortunate sufficient to be a longear sunfish on this river.

When the fish was launched, it swam for the rocks and the underwater crannies of the acquainted pool. The fish’s blotchy coloring blended amazingly effectively with the encircling setting. This river was its dwelling, for years, almost certainly. Earlier than that, it was the house of its ancestors.

For the reason that early twentieth century, biologists have been attempting to find out if the southern kinds of smallmouth bass in Oklahoma and Arkansas had been totally different from their northern cousins, Micropterus dolomieu. Ichthyologists Carl Hubbs and Reeve Bailey revealed a examine in 1940 evaluating the smallmouth bass from tributaries of the Neosho River and Illinois River, in jap Oklahoma, to the northern number of smallmouth. The authors lacked the fashionable instruments of genetic evaluation that biologists have in the present day, however nonetheless, they concluded there have been morphological variations between the northern and southern strains of smallies. Hubbs and Bailey known as the southern pressure the Neosho Smallmouth Bass (M. dolomieu velox) and claimed it was a subspecies of the northern selection.

Hubbs and Bailey’s authentic speculation wasn’t with out controversy. Many biologists had been at odds whether or not the Neosho Smallmouth must be break up from, or lumped in, with the northern smallmouth. Curiously, in 1956, Bailey truly rescinded his authentic declare, and steered the Neosho Smallmouth Bass not be acknowledged as a definite subspecies. Bailey cited the gradation of bodily traits between the Neosho Smallmouth and the northern smallmouth as the rationale for backtracking. The implications being, if each populations of fish readily interbred, this causes the Neosho Smallmouth to not present distinctive bodily traits. Maybe Bailey noticed the genetic mixing between the 2 lineages as inevitable and thought he might simplify issues by claiming they had been one species, however that’s simply hypothesis.

Quick ahead a number of a long time. In 1998, two zoologists from Oklahoma State College, William Stark and Anthony Echelle, revealed a examine on the genetic variations between two distinct lineages of southern smallmouth. The authors claimed the Neosho Smallmouth Bass was certainly a definite selection, however in addition they found one other distinctive pressure from the Ouachita Mountains. The researchers claimed the genetic variance between these two teams was sufficient to show these fish had been distinctive native species, totally different from the northern smallmouth.

oklahoma turtle

Picture: Rob McConnell

Extra just lately, biologists have continued digging into the genetics of the southern smallmouth bass. Many have concluded that not solely is the Neosho Smallmouth a definite selection, identical to Hubbs and Bailey initially thought, however two extra distinct lineages exist within the space. This has led many biologists to conclude that the waterways alongside the Oklahoma-Arkansas border provide a better variety of smallmouth bass than beforehand thought.

This brings us to the current, and the latest paper, the one by Kim, Taylor, and Close to. Very similar to the research that preceded it, this paper suggests there are variations between the southern smallmouth bass and the northern sort. The authors advocate that further research must be performed, like analyzing the variations in bodily traits, conduct, and ecology, however primarily based on genetics alone, these southern smallies are a special breed.

Within the conclusion of their paper, Kim, Taylor and Close to increase issues relating to the introduction of non-native black bass species, through stocking applications, into waterways that comprise populations of native bass. The authors state this is without doubt one of the best threats to sustaining variety amongst black bass species.

This concern is one thing the fisheries biologists at Oklahoma Division of Wildlife and Conservation (ODWC) are effectively conscious of. The ODWC acknowledges there are distinctive lineages of native smallmouth inside the state. The kicker is, ODWC was traditionally liable for stocking the non-native northern smallmouth, Micropterus dolomieu, in lots of the state’s reservoirs. In watersheds the place the habitat of the native smallmouth overlap with the launched northern selection, genetic mixing is happening. It is a conundrum for state biologists who need to preserve the genetic purity of the native strains of southern smallmouth.

oklahoma rocky smallmouth bass river

Picture: Rob McConnell

Previous to 1966, there have been no recorded stockings of smallmouth bass in Oklahoma. Nonetheless, that doesn’t imply that stockings weren’t occurring, they had been. Document preserving throughout this time was just about nonexistent. “The early twentieth century was form of [like] the wild west when it got here to stocking and relocating species,” says Anthony Rodger, an Oklahoma biologist working with the state’s Stream Program. “They infrequently recorded these introductions.”

Many of the recorded stockings of northern smallmouth occurred within the 1990’s, with the final one occurring in 2009. To the credit score of Oklahoma’s fishery division, as soon as it was clear the state contained distinctive smallmouth lineages, the company started transitioning away from stocking non-natives.

Many of the genetic mixing between native species and non-natives seems to be taking place with the Neosho Smallmouth. The ODWC is directing a lot of its assets to understanding the extent of genetic mixing with this native species. In watersheds that comprise the genetically distinctive Little River Bass, just like the Higher Mountain Fork River and different tributaries of Damaged Bow Lake, there may be probably genetic mixing occurring as effectively. Extra research will should be performed on this inhabitants of smallies earlier than the diploma of genetic introgression is known.

I heard a loud whoop of pleasure. I rapidly turned away from the productive pool I used to be fishing and regarded upstream to see the tip of Nick’s 5-weight thrashing facet to facet. A hooked bass darted backwards and forwards by way of the river attempting desperately to duck below logs and boulders. Nick reached for his internet simply because the fish got here rocketing out of the water, thrashing its head and sending water droplets spraying into the air. Nick glanced over his shoulder and shot me a giant toothy grin.

He practically had the fish in his internet, however the bass wasn’t prepared to surrender. In a last-ditch effort, it charged upstream with all its power. The drag on the 5-weight whined for a second or two, then stopped. With some side-pressure, Nick introduced the fish in, lastly scooping it into the web.

I walked upstream and stood beside Nick. He saved the web within the water and examined the magnificent fish whereas it recovered. After he eliminated the hook, he picked the bass up below its stomach, lifting it out of the web, and inserting it again within the water. The bass righted itself and momentarily gathered its bearings. Nick dropped his hand away and we watched the fish dart off. Glancing upstream, Nick mentioned, “Look! Travis has one!”

Certain sufficient, we might see the third member of our get together, standing on a big boulder subsequent to the water whereas his rod was doubled over. We watched from afar whereas Travis landed the fish and rapidly launched it. He regarded again in direction of us, and raised his palms triumphantly to the sky, his fly rod gripped tightly in a single hand. Seeing this, we threw our palms up too, giving him a thumbs up.

oklahoma unique smallmouth bass river

Picture: Rob McConnell

As a lot as we wished to remain and fish this stretch of river, we knew that we couldn’t. We had a number of extra miles to go earlier than making camp, and thus far, our progress downstream had been sluggish.

As a consequence of low water situations and the technical nature of this river, we had encountered quite a few riffles, impassible boulder-filled flats, and uncovered rock ledges that spanned throughout the width of the river. We anticipated many extra obstacles, together with a few cascades, earlier than the day was accomplished. Nonetheless, all of the arduous portages and finagling of watercraft had been rapidly forgotten every time our fly rods lurched savagely in our palms as a local smallmouth bass inhaled certainly one of our flies and hammered down for a speedy getaway. Though the journey was difficult, the utter seclusion we felt, to not point out the native Micropterus, was definitely worth the effort.

From an outsider’s perspective, it could look like the fisheries division at ODWC is caught between a rock and a tough place. The division desires improved fishing for Oklahoma residents, and typically that comes within the type of the non-native northern smallmouth bass. The northern selection do effectively within the chilly and deep reservoirs all through the state. However typically these fish migrate into adjoining streams, the place they may probably breed with native strains of smallmouth. The ODWC additionally has obligations to preserve and shield the native species, and that would come with sustaining genetic purity among the many distinctive kinds of smallmouth within the state. So, whereas the historic stockings of the northern smallies have allowed for extra angling alternative, ODWC is effectively conscious they should be aware of the place these fish had been dumped, to allow them to keep away from, or monitor, the genetic mixing.

The excellent news is just not each reservoir in Oklahoma is related to streams that comprise native smallies. Actually, a lot of Oklahoma’s reservoirs the place stocking has occurred, by no means contained populations of native smallmouth bass. However in areas the place native lineages exist, ODWC is taking an excellent have a look at the ramifications of the launched northern smallmouth.

Genetic mixing between the native strains and launched strains can pose a number of issues. For one, when non-native genes are launched right into a native inhabitants, the native genetics are modified without end. You possibly can’t put the genetic genie again within the bottle.

What’s extra, the native genetics are sometimes significantly better tailored to the setting through which they thrive. This might imply the genetics of native smallmouth are higher suited to the warmer local weather in Oklahoma and Arkansas, in addition to proof against environmental impacts like droughts. Introducing outdoors genetics right into a native inhabitants might additionally make the fish extra vulnerable to illnesses.

oklahoma genetically unique smallmouth bass

Picture: Rob McConnell

One other vital cause for sustaining the genetic purity of native bass is because of the desire the native strains have for lotic environments, that’s, streams and rivers. The non-native smallmouth are generalists and might stay in each lakes and rivers, however that isn’t the case with the native strains. These fish vastly want flowing water. If non-native genetics invade the native strains, it’s doable the native smallmouth might change into much less tailored to stream environments, subsequently lessening the angling alternatives in native rivers.

ODWC acknowledges these issues and is already within the technique of monitoring the populations of smallmouth which have seen genetic mixing. Biologist Anthony Roger says, “We’re at present engaged on a analysis challenge within the higher Illinois [River] watershed to replace our understanding of the spatial distribution of introgression of nonnative alleles from the Tenkiller [Lake] inhabitants into the native Neosho Smallmouth Bass… As well as, that challenge will pair particular person genetic identities with age and progress information so we are able to decide variations in progress, mortality, most dimension, and so forth. between the genetic strains.”

As time goes on and extra information is collected, the Oklahoma fisheries division will be capable of doc the impression the non-native smallmouth have on the native sort. Hopefully the state will proceed to regulate its administration practices to preserve the native kinds of smallmouth.

Some Okie anglers want fishing the reservoirs for the bigger launched northern smallmouth, and with the present state document sitting at 8 lbs. 7 ounces, it’s simple to see why. However for different anglers, particularly the self-described “creek freaks,” catching native fish of their native waters is simply as thrilling. Many anglers really feel a deep connection to the setting, and their native waterways, once they know the fish are native to the world.

On the finish of our second day on the river, we rounded the ultimate bend and noticed the bridge that marked the tip of our journey. The rugged river left us feeling sore and drained, however as our exhausted our bodies paddled for the financial institution, our minds excitedly relived the recollections from the journey. We recalled the thrilling battles with the hardy native bass and chatted concerning the pristine waters we had simply paddled. We questioned aloud about what the remainder of the river regarded like. Had been the bass as plentiful and aggressive farther downstream? Was the river as rugged? Regardless of our worn-out our bodies, we discovered ourselves brainstorming future journeys on the numerous rivers and streams of jap Oklahoma. We wished to discover extra of the waterways the place these native bass dwell.

As time goes on, and extra research are performed on the native black bass of the South, it’s going to change into clear as as to whether these fish are really a separate species. If it seems the bass we had been catching bear the identify Little River Bass, I shall be glad to know these fish are acknowledged and guarded as a singular number of Micropterus. If, nevertheless, these native bass aren’t acknowledged as a special species, I’ll nonetheless see them as a singular fish, if solely given that they may at all times remind me of an unforgettable journey down a wild and fantastic river in southeastern Oklahoma.

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