Texan works on becoming Johnny Appleseed of superior bass geneticsArticle by Pete Robbins
Fishing at Camelot Bell is a team effort - Mike Frazier (right) is every
bit as excited as his guests when someone catches a big fish.
COOLIDGE, Texas -- It takes a lot to get Texans to turn their attention away from trophy whitetail deer. Indeed, you might consider big bucks to be part of the Lone Star State’s holy trinity – deer, barbecue and high school football – about which every resident worth his boots has an opinion that he’ll take with him to the grave. It’s not just passion, it’s religion, too.
So when you learn that Mike Frazier went to a deer show in Mesquite three years ago toting an aquarium, of all things, you might think that the hot sun had addled his brains into a stringy mixture reminiscent of brisket that’s sat on the smoker too long. But then a strange thing happened at the show. Deer-obsessed Texas gravitated toward the big tank, first one or two, then a few more, then so many that they threatened to cave it in.
They’d come to see mammalian genetics but it was fish that held their attention.
That’s because Frazier, who raises trophy deer himself on his Camelot Bell ranch in the small hamlet of Coolidge, had taken the three-legged stool of Texan obsessions and added a fourth leg. No deer, no barbecue, certainly no pigskin prodigies, but he’d brought along four teen-class largemouth bass that made jaws drop. Those four bass, between 13 and 16 pounds apiece, represented a decade’s worth of work toward building the state-record bass. He can’t quite get the words out, but it’s clear that if things go according to plan, his 40-acre pond may end up responsible for the world record too, thereby giving credence to the idea that everything is indeed bigger in Texas.
Meet the Man
The mild-mannered Frazier, a metallurgist by trade, would seem to be an unlikely man to become obsessed with building the biggest bass to swim the earth. Likewise, Coolidge would seem to be an unlikely spot for his experiments. It’s a town of fewer than 900 people. Waco is 40 miles away, Dallas is nearly 90 and the bright lights of Sixth Street in Austin are just under 100. It’s close to nothing but central to many things. The closest town with any amenities to speak of is the booming metropolis of Mexia, best known as the hometown of the late Anna Nicole Smith.
To the extent that there’s any sense to this story whatsoever, it’s the Playmate connection that explains it all. There’s something in the water here in east-central Texas that produces bigger, curvier, sexier females than anywhere else on earth, and Frazier has happened onto that magic recipe, just with largemouth bass instead of blondes. Now he wants to take what he has learned and spread it, to become, in his own words, the “Johnny Appleseed” of superior bass genetics.
“My goal when I started was 12 to 15 pounds, but my goal has changed,” he said. He turned 61 earlier this year and has worked on family ponds for decades, and this 40-acre pond is the culmination of a lifelong effort to raise big bass. “I’m glad I waited as long as I did to build my dream lake. I did a lot of things wrong with my dad’s ponds and I learned a lot.”
He’s distilled the lessons down to three key elements – environment, genetics and forage – but within each of those categories he’s worked diligently to build a plan that generates double-digit bass like clockwork.
It’s All in the Genes
Frazier readily admits that “baby fish is not my expertise.” He was fortunate to get a genetic strain that has the potential to grow this big, because unlike Anna Nicole, whose God-given good looks could be enhanced by silicone, makeup and no doubt a bit of airbrushing, the size of an adult largemouth is strictly limited by genetic constraints.
“Harrell Arms, who managed ponds for Ross Perot and George Bush, he got the fish for me from a man in Florida,” Frazier said. “I got 250 out of a group of 60,000, but I got the first seining, which holds the bigger fish.”
Indeed, the fry that come from what he now calls the “Camelot Bell strain” of bass are not pencil-necked pipsqueaks. They’re super-predators in training. Frazier said his friend Richard Doss, an aquaculturist in Grand Saline, Texas, said “these fry have shoulders on them. Fry are either a razor blade or a stump and these ones are stumps.”
It was a matter of timing, too. Three years after getting Frazier his fry in the late 1990s, Arms made a comment that the genetics of the farm-raised strain were deteriorating. “It was a particular group of fish that went through there at that time,” Frazier said. “They had that deep girth, which enabled them to put on a lot of extra weight.”
He added that they’re ability to grow so big is partially the result of the fact that they don’t have a bookend at either the mouth or the tail.
“Most fish turn up at the butt-hole, but these continue to grow deeper, past the bottom fin,” he said. Additionally, their enormous heads give them an advantage even over other oversized largemouths. They seem to grow at fairly typical rates for Texas until they hit about 10 pounds, at which point these kick it into another gear. The jumps from 10 to 12 and from 12 to 14 move forward more like time-lapse photography than the typical growth pattern for pond-raised largemouths. “As their head gets bigger they can eat bigger forage,” which he has provided to them on a silver platter.
Building Bigger Bass
Genetics alone does not ensure trophy bass, though, at least not in the numbers that Frazier’s lake holds. He’s worked hard to build an ecosystem ripe for a big fish freak show. First, he wanted to ensure that there would be no super-predators other than big bass in his lake. No gar, no big catfish, nothing else that could dip into the bait population or feast upon the smaller bass.
“It’s so easy to mess up on where to build,” he said. “Never build in a place that catches a lot of water or you’ll get invasive species from downstream and upstream. We built our lake on a hill and filled it entirely with runoff. It took five years to fill.”
Invasive species aren’t just water-borne. He’s also made an effort to keep out hydrilla and other hitchhikers like zebra mussels. Accordingly, no outside boats are allowed on the water, because it would take only one inadvertent foul-up to irreversibly alter his carefully manicured ecosystem. Every double-digit bass caught in his lake – he’s caught 200 to 300 of them himself – has come over the side of his own Champion bass boat.
Halfway down the earthen dam, which is reinforced with riprap, there is a T-shaped pipe with screens at both of the otherwise open ends. That pushes the dead water out. The lake has only run over once in its history. “If you have run-over, you’re losing the best water,” Frazier explained. “The top four feet is the most fertile water.”
Just as he invested in the proper fry to build his dream, Frazier has likely spent a fortune in dirt work to create the perfect habitat. He’s built spawning coves and water that extends down to 35 foot depths, and placed some of the gnarliest, lure-catching cover known to man in his pond, to complement the brushpiles, standing timber and shoreline reeds that also provide habitat. Just as important as the cover, though, is the structure he’s built into the lake, long grooved ridges he refers to as “church pews” or the dredged out bay he calls the “clay pit.” There’s also an old tank dam and points and ridges galore. It’s not the size of Lake Fork or Falcon, but it has their characteristics compressed into a smaller arena, a fantasyland of bass fishing, if you will.
Mike Frazier and Elite Series angler Clark Reehm pull up the net to take a look at the fish.
Even with the right genetics and the proper playground, the bass couldn’t grow to gargantuan proportions if they weren’t fed properly. “Your log jams and other cover, none of that makes fish grow bigger,” Frazier opined. “But your cover is your fertile water.” In order to provide the calories that big bass need to grow bigger, he started off with no bass at all. That may seem illogical, but he wanted the prey to get a foothold before the super-predators came along.
At first he put in redear sunfish and coppernose bluegill, which serve to keep the pond in check through their different diets, with the former primarily feeding on snails and other crustaceans and the latter eating the pellet fish food that Frazier dispenses daily from a feeder at lakeside. Indeed, if you’re a panfish fanatic it seems downright shameful to see that these plate-sized one- and two-pounders going crazy by the feeders only to see the big green orca shapes come up behind them and start cutting into their numbers. They’re bass food, pure and simple and they reproduce at a rate that virtually forces the bass to gorge on them.
The panfish were just an appetizer, though. Shortly after the bass took hold, Frazier added both threadfin shad and the larger gizzard shad to diversify the food chain. The shad spawn twice a year and provide tons of protein for the growing bass. While he worries that there is no super-predator besides the largemouths to keep the gizzards in check, so far they have been a boon to his record-building plan.
If the panfish were an appetizer and the shad the main course, Frazier’s final calorie-packing dessert came in the form of tilapia. While his lake is a private, closed environment, the cues for growth came largely from the public waters of the Lone Star state. Longstanding trophy fisheries like Fork have earned their reputations on the fins of shad-fed Florida-strain largemouths. The recent contenders for the throne, south Texas fish factories like Amistad and Falcon, have made their bones on the strength of bass gorging themselves on tilapia. He’s built the best of both worlds.
One final step that Frazier has taken to ensure that trophy bass thrive in his lake is to remove smaller bass. Indeed, the two, three and four pound bass that the average tournament competitor would kill for are just a nuisance to him. The fives and sixes that crown tournament-winning limits are likewise just a distraction. They all get removed upon being caught, taken away to another pond that has no doubt become an angling fantasyland of its own.
“It’s not necessarily important to take out all of the small ones,” he said. “You have to take out weight. The lake can only support so many pounds of fish per acre.”
The Camelot Experience
When you get in the boat with Frazier, before anyone makes a single cast he’ll fix his steely gaze on you and say something along the following lines: “This is a team effort. There are three of us in the boat today. If any one of us catches a state record, or a world record, then we will split the resulting endorsements three ways.”
He’s not kidding. He fully expects it to happen, so he’s just preparing for the inevitable.
While 16-pounders have been taken out of Camelot Bell, the lake’s hook-and-line record is a 15.80 pound behemoth caught in February of 2012. While you may not get many bites, the ones you get will bring you to your knees. Frazier said that the majority of the anglers who’ve fished his lake have caught their personal best on it.
If you make the trip – and it’s not for everyone, especially considering its four-figure price tag for a day on the water – you’d better bring your heart pills.
“We’ve had hooked fish that just pulled the boat around,” Frazier said. “Last summer my friend Chris Mahfouz caught one that only weighed 14.75 that tail walked and then dove under the boat. His partner couldn’t fish the rest of the day.”
Read that last quotation again. It’s hard to decide which is more unbelievable – that an angler couldn’t continue to cast in a lake that may have more double-digit bass per acre than any place on earth or that Frazier used the phrase “only weighed 14.75” without any sense of irony.
Despite the hefty price tag, Frazier’s guided fishing operation is likely a money-loser. All of the dirt work, forage replacement and other ecosystem-enhancements are costly. Even if he sells off his brood stock – and the current price for a fish over 12 pounds is into five digits – he may not be able to recoup his investment. After spending a day with the man, though, it’s evident that he gets paid back in enjoyment.
The record may come out of his lake, or it may come elsewhere from his genetics, but he firmly believes that it will come somehow. Indeed, the pale fish with a bronze back and nearly turquoise sheen are instantly identifiable as his own and it will only take one glance at a photo of the record to know that it’s a Camelot Bell fish. If that day comes, and Frazier surely believes deep in his heart that it will, everything changes. At that point, Coolidge, Texas, near nothing but not far from anything, becomes the center of the bass universe.
At that point Camelot Bell will become a mythical place for generations
to come, just like in the Arthurian legend, a place of idealized beauty
and riches. And just like in ancient times, Mike Frazier will have
proven that chivalry is not dead in the fishing world. He’s
babied the big girls to unbelievable lengths, building a bass fishing
amusement park where you must weigh at least double digits to go on
all of the rides.
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