Meet Your Biologist: How ODWC's Brad Johnston is Working to Make Grand Lake Even More Grand - Major League Fishing
Meet Your Biologist: How ODWC’s Brad Johnston is Working to Make Grand Lake Even More Grand
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Meet Your Biologist: How ODWC’s Brad Johnston is Working to Make Grand Lake Even More Grand

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Brad Johnston of Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation electrofishing on one of the lakes he manages in the northeastern part of Oklahoma.
March 22, 2022 • Steven Bardin • Fisheries Management Division

Welcome to Meet Your Biologist No. 2. During the lead up to REDCREST Presented by Costa this week, we wanted to give our fans an all-access pass to the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. You can visit with them at the REDCREST Expo located at booth No. 1652. Before the Expo, I got to sit down and talk to Brad Johnston, the biologist who works specifically on Grand Lake. He and I had a great conversation about Grand Lake and the work that’s been done over the years to turn it into an impressive fishery.

Steven Bardin: Brad, you have a story that most of our young fans should hear about growing up in Northern Oklahoma and working your way into your dream job. Can you tell us how you got to where you are with ODWC?

Brad Johnston: I was born and raised in Northeast Oklahoma, and I received a Bachelor of Science in Biology with an emphasis in Fisheries and Wildlife Management from Northeastern State University. I gained additional fisheries experience working with the Oklahoma Conservation Commission throughout my college years sampling fish from all over the state. I was hired right out of college by the Oklahoma Conservation Commission as a Water Quality Specialist in 2008. However, shortly after being hired, I was presented with an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up, working for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation as a Northeast Region Fisheries Technician on the reservoirs I grew up fishing. I worked as the technician for five years, before I was promoted to my dream job in 2014 as the biologist over these same reservoirs.

SB: Now that you are in this position, how many fisheries do you and your team manage currently?

BJ: The Northeast Region consists of two biologist/technician crews and a Regional Supervisor. My crew manages the reservoirs on the eastern side of the Northeast Region, which includes the major reservoirs of Grand, Hudson, Eucha, and Spavinaw Lakes. I also manage parts of the Verdigris River navigation system and some smaller city lakes.

SB: Let’s talk about Grand Lake. At 45,000-plus surface acres, it’s one of the largest reservoirs in the state. How does your team approach sampling black bass here?

BJ: We have sampled the black bass populations on a yearly basis, since 2018, using electrofishing during the spring. Before 2018, we sampled the black bass on an every-other-year schedule. With the vast amount of pressure that the bass on Grand Lake receive — coupled with some future projects — we felt that Grand Lake was worthy of an every-year-sampling protocol. We also have plans within the next few years to tackle a lake-wide creel survey as well.

SB: ODWC announced a rule change for 2022 to try to improve angler harvest of smaller bass. How do you see the new regulation improving Grand Lake?

BJ: I foresee the new black bass regulations of six fish with only one over 16 inches taking a while before any changes are seen. Catch and release of bass has been ingrained in bass fishing for so long that it will most likely take a few years before anglers come around to keeping any of these fish. Catch and release isn’t always a bad thing, but some reservoirs need to have some harvest in order to maintain a healthy population. Grand Lake has high catch rates of bass, and there are quality bass present currently. This new regulation will allow anglers to keep bass from the most abundant length groups, while at the same time reducing competition for resources. That will allow even more fish to make it to the desired quality size. The most instant improvements to come from this regulation will be all the tournament data that we will receive. There is a lot of valuable data from tournaments that we’ve been missing out on in the past. It’s going to be a win-win for us fisheries managers and the anglers. I sure hope that the tournament anglers can take some pride in knowing that the data they are helping in obtaining will be used in management decisions down the road. I believe we all want the same thing, and that is a healthy fishery with quality fish.

SB: At MLF Fisheries Management Division, we are researching largemouth bass genetics with our Lunker DNA Initiative. What should we expect to find as the genetic diversity of largemouth bass within Grand Lake, and do you plan to stock additional genetics in the future?

BJ: Grand Lake’s largemouth bass population is currently dominated by the northern strain. There were attempts from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s at stocking fingerling and fry Florida strain largemouths. These attempts didn’t amount to much success. During that timeframe, there was only one year — 1994 — that genetic testing showed any Florida strain alleles, and that sample showed only one percent of the sampled fish had Florida strain genes. The mid-1990s is also when research showed that Florida strain stockings in northern clines didn’t have near the success as their neighboring lakes to the south.

However, in 2016 we started looking at how stocking grow out Florida strain — aged one year, and approximately 10 inches long — would influence genetic diversity at Lake Eucha. Eucha is much smaller in size but is just nine miles south of Grand Lake, so the water temperatures and growing seasons should be similar. The early results of these Florida strain stockings have shown some promise in affecting the genetics of largemouth bass in Lake Eucha, as 15% of the sample showed Florida strain alleles. I’m anxiously awaiting the results from last spring’s genetic sample from Lake Eucha.

Once we saw that there was a much better chance of Florida strain alleles being passed on by stocking these one-year-old Florida strain largemouths, we got the ball rolling for a similar project on Grand Lake. Grand Lake has received one-year-old and retired brood stock Florida strain largemouths for the past two years, with the hopes of these stockings continuing in the future. My fingers are crossed that these Florida strain do well and that the resulting F1 hybrids that are produced with the northern strain will exhibit the fast and ferocious growth that they are known for.

SB: Has your research on Grand Lake landed you any interesting facts that MLF fans would like to know?

BJ: The most interesting research from Grand Lake is still currently in the works, with that being the Florida strain stocking project. We are only two years into this project and haven’t done any genetics work yet. The genetics will come a year or two down the road after we’ve given these fish some time to spawn, and those F1 largemouths have time to recruit into the population.

Grand Lake yields high catch rates of 140 fish per hour on average. This means we encounter (weigh and measure) 140 fish per hour of electrofishing.  The growth rates of these fish are above average in the state of Oklahoma, and the abundant populations of both gizzard and threadfin shad help to keep these bass thriving. These two pieces of information make it no surprise that it’s one of the most pressured fisheries in the nation.

SB: One of our core pillars for the MLF-FMD is Fisheries Enhancement. This focuses primarily on habitat restoration. How does habitat fit into the management of Grand Lake?

BJ: Habitat restoration is a high priority for us on Grand Lake. As most bass anglers already know, Grand Lake doesn’t have hardly any woody habitat or aquatic vegetation due to its tendency for being a high flow-through lake. The water level is held at different elevations throughout the year based on the license with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and high flows through the lake are a common occurrence. This license also hinders us from utilizing any trees on the shoreline of Grand Lake for habitat in their efforts to stabilize the shoreline. We have hauled in hardwood and cedar trees from private properties in the past, we just don’t have the heavy equipment needed for this to happen regularly. We did a large MossBack habitat project, and we are working to get more of those done around the lake.

SB: We also work closely with MossBack. Where did you guys use their artificial structures?

BJ: Our first large MossBack habitat project was done mid-lake in the Honey Creek arm. We chose that arm of the lake because the city of Grove was a partner in helping us obtain those structures, so we wanted to keep those close to Grove. If we can keep obtaining avenues to purchase these MossBack structures, we would place them throughout the lake.

SB: Grand Lake is also known for giant paddlefish. What can you tell us about their populations?

BJ: Grand Lake is home to one of the most robust, self-sustaining populations of paddlefish. The angling for this prehistoric species is so renowned that a small town near the upper end of Grand Lake, Miami, claims to be the Paddlefish Capital of the world. The population is thriving, and it isn’t rare to see fish in the 80 to 100-pound range. I weighed a 119-pound fish just last week. The largest fish we’ve encountered while sampling this species was a 133-pound behemoth.

SB: If I am an angler visiting the area for the first time, what hidden gem are we missing out on that they need to know about?

BJ: If I were to speak of hidden gems in the waters that I manage, I would probably have to start with Grand Lake’s crappie population. It’s well known that there are lots of crappie to be caught in Grand Lake, but its limit of 15 fish daily with a 10-inch minimum isn’t as appealing as the statewide limit of 37 fish with no size restrictions. Over the past five to six years, 12- to 14-inch crappie seem to be very common. I would follow that up with bass fishing on Lake Hudson, which is just below Grand Lake’s Pensacola Dam. It might be Grand Lake’s younger sibling — size and age wise — but the bass down in Hudson would argue otherwise. When I go bass fishing, Lake Hudson is generally my first choice. We can’t forget to mention Lake Eucha and its bass fishing as well. If the Florida strain stocking goes to plan, this pretty little lake will skyrocket to the top of my hidden gem list.