SEMINOLE - The roughly 20,000 fingerling bass put into Lake Seminole today got the shock of their young lives.
The largemouth bass raised for two months at a state hatchery went from pampered to prey in the harsh real world of predators and finding their own food.
The state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission stocked the 700-acre lake with about 7,000 fingerling bass in October. Surveys 90 days later showed perhaps 12 percent survived.
"We'd hoped for better," said Bill Pouder, a fisheries biologist with the commission.
The other 88 percent either starved or went into the bellies of fish or birds.
"They were born and raised in a hatchery. They're stupid. If they survive 90 days, they have probably acclimated to the system," he said.
The 2-inch fish have a lot to learn quickly after being raised in concrete runs 80 feet long with perfect conditions.
Top of the list would be that bigger fish eat little fish, so run away. They also must learn that a shadow moving over them means, "yikes."
If they avoid becoming sushi for predators, they need to find food that doesn't come in convenient, nonswimming pellets four times a day and does its best to escape and hide in vegetation.
There is little that can be done in the hatchery to prepare the coddled bass for release. About two weeks ago, workers at the hatchery switched from pellets to live mosquito fish to give the bass some clue that they have to chase dinner.
"It's a tough transition. It's one of the issues with hatchery fish," said Nick Trippel, another commission fishery biologist.
The transition is one reason stocking with hatchery fish relies on sheer numbers and fish slightly larger for their age than their natural cousins. Fish in the wild are about an inch or so long at two months.
Pouder said releasing the bass, about the size of canned sardines, in the spring should give them a slightly better chance to become lunkers.
Nearly every other species of fish in the lake is spawning. That means shoals of fish even smaller than the bass so food should be abundant.
In 90 days, commission biologists will return and see how many of today's stock survived.
Each has a tag 1-millimeter long in its cheek that can be found with a magnetic wand. Under a microscope, scientists can read a number on the tag identifying which hatchery batch the fish came from, said Gina Russo, outreach coordinator for the game commission.
The hatchery program workers are hoping for better than 12 percent survival.
"If we get 20 percent, it's, 'Woo hoo,' " Pouder said.
Though Lake Seminole is smack in the middle of Pinellas, the state's most densely populated county, it has plenty of fish. Not all may be desirable, with exotic species such as tilapia and sail-fin catfish a plenty.
Pouder said the lake has about four to six bass per acre. A healthy lake supports 10 to 20 per acre. But the bass in Lake Seminole aren't puny.
"Their density is low, but the growth rate is good. They're footballs," he said.
This is the fourth time the state has stocked Lake Seminole. Fish in the first batch in 1996 were almost a complete loss. In those days, fish were dumped right at the boat ramp and pretty much stayed there, making them easy pickings.
Dispersing the bass at points along the shoreline gives them a better chance.
Bass put in during the fall of 2006 didn't have tags, so it's difficult to tell hatchery fish from wild bass.
Those that do learn the hard lessons of life in the wild should grow to about 10 inches in a year. The goal is for them to reach 14 inches, the smallest bass you can keep.
The fish came from a new hatchery in Sumter County south of Webster that covers 39,000 square feet and produced 1.9 million hatchlings last year.
The state's restocking efforts frequently target urban lakes such as Lake Seminole, where bass populations are smaller and reproduction rates are lower, Pouder said.
Fees from freshwater fishing licenses pay for most of the stocking and hatchery program. Federal money from sales of fishing and boating equipment also funnels into the program.