They’ll pour in by the thousands — tiny largemouth bass, no bigger than a human finger, making their way from plastic sacks to freedom. Altogether, some 100,000 black bass fingerlings will be released into the Arkansas River from anglers competing in the Simmons Bank Big Bass Bonanza, helping the fabled fishery bounce back from what biologists call a dramatic decline in spawning habitat.

“These anglers spread fingerlings out in the backwater areas where they fish,” says Arkansas Game & Fish Commission biologist Colton Dennis. “That makes restocking much more effective than if we back up a truck to a ramp and release thousands of fish into an area with a less complex habitat.”

The Simmons Bank Big Bass Bonanza has partnered with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission for the restocking event for well over a decade; and together, with help from the Army Corps of Engineers, they’re working to provide long-term solutions to black bass population loss along the river. Those efforts include notching dikes, restoring fish habitat and restocking efforts like the one this weekend.

“Young bass face predators such as bluegill, sunfish, herons and kingfishers,” adds U.S. Fish & Wildlife External Affairs Officer Craig Springer. “It would be hard to say how many of those 100,000 fingerlings will make it to adulthood, though a typical female largemouth may produce 4,000-5,000 eggs, of which only a few may grow to mature fish.”

Arkansas Game & Fish biologists say that more than 473,000 largemouth bass fingerlings have been released into the river’s ecosystem in the past five years by Big Bass Bonanza participants alone. Those numbers, they say, have helped contribute to an overall tally of stocked fingerlings that already comprise as much as 15-percent of the wild population of largemouth in the river today.

The program, biologists say, is especially important in years like this one, when spring floods and high flows impact the fish’s usual spawning grounds.

The Simmons Bank Big Bass Bonanza runs from June 29, 30-July 1. Weigh-in locations are located at Fort Smith, Russellville, North Little Rock/Little Rock, Pine Bluff and Dumas. More than $100,000 in cash will be awarded to anglers over three days, with hourly weigh-ins and special prizes from Raymarine, Flambeau, St. Croix Rods, Aqua-Vu, Z-Man, BUFF®, Hardee’s, LIVETARGET Lures, and more. High school anglers are eligible to win additional prizes, with the overall grand prize winner taking home $50,000 for the largest fish weighed.

So how long does it take one of those fingerlings to grow big enough bring home a check from the event? Grand prize winners at the Simmons Big Bass Bonanza — the $50,000 fish — typically tip the scales at around seven pounds, while individual pool winners have taken home $10,000 prizes at around five.

“Largemouth bass grow at roughly a half-pound per year,” notes Springer. “That varies naturally from water to water, but you might expect one over five pounds to be at least eight years old.”

With at least 15 years’ worth of stocking in its history, it’s possible that some of this year’s money fish will have found their way into and back out of the river at the Simmons Bank Big Bass Bonanza.

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