Hawgs, Toads, and Lunkers

Donkeys. Sows. Whales. Line-stretchers.*

If you’re a largemouth bass fisherman, you know what I’m talking about. The big guys.

A largemouth bass male guarding his young from marauding northern pike. This is a watercolor illustration I did for my Rocky Mountain Arsenal Project for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.


This is what I love about my interpretive sign work. It takes me outside my normal habitat and I get to learn new things. I’m not a fisherman, and I didn’t know very much about bass before I worked on this project for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Colorado. As I was researching the signage project, I not only picked up some cool fisherman lingo, I learned a bit about the lifeways of bass.

I was surprised to learn that it’s the male bass who not only does the housework, he raises the kids, too. When spawning season rolls around, the male searches out a good place for a nest—usually close to shore, and preferably near some sort of cover. Using his tail, he sweeps out a depression in the sand or gravel bottom, then starts looking for a “ripe” female, or one that is ready with eggs.

Once the pair have spawned, the female usually leaves. Sometimes, she’ll find another male and lay a batch of eggs with him. But the male stays with the nest and guards the eggs and the hatchling fry (young fish) until they are ready to leave—usually a few weeks. During this time, the male vigorously defends his young against lurking predators—everything from crayfish and minnows to sunfish and pike.

While he’s working so hard to defend his young, the male himself is especially vulnerable. What fishermen call an “educated” bass—ones who are older, wiser, and bigger—would normally be wary of a fisherman’s lure. But when he’s in defense mode, the male bass will strike at most anything that approaches his nest…including a lure. Unfortunately, a few fishermen see this as an invitation to go after nest-guarders. That is not only unsporting, it ultimately leads to a depleted fishery.

The interpretive signs I did for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were installed at Lake Ladora, in the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Denver, Colorado. The lake is a popular bass fishery, but signage was needed to encourage fishermen to use proper techniques to help protect the spawning beds and the fishery. In particular, the USFWS was trying to convince fishermen to avoid trampling the spawning beds.

The Refuge itself has a fascinating story. It was once part of a sprawling short-grass prairie habitat that supported huge herds of bison (commonly known as buffalo) and multitudes of other prairie species. Fast forward to the twentieth century and World War II, and the site was being used to manufacture chemical weapons, and later to produce agricultural chemicals. In the 1980’s, a series of fortunate events led to the site being designated as a wildlife refuge and targeted for a massive clean-up effort. It is now one of the largest urban refuges in the country, and once again supports a multitude of wildlife species.

Here is how the finished interpretive sign looked:

Research, text, design and illustration by Denise Dahn for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge.

To learn more about the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge: http://www.fws.gov/rockymountainarsenal/overview/overview.htm


*terms used by fisherman for big largemouth bass…especially for the ones they’ve caught.