The “godfather of saugeye” in Oklahoma is leaving the science lab for good.
After more than 43 years with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation — 31 as the director for the Oklahoma Fishery Research Laboratory in Norman — Greg Summers is retiring from the only job he ever wanted.
“The job I have today was the job I wanted in 1970,” Summers said.
During his tenure as the Wildlife Department's fish scientist, Summers conducted research on almost every sport fish in the state and was responsible for much of the analysis that led to the current fishing regulations in the state.
The Wildlife Department is losing more than 70 years of experience on Dec. 31 as Gene Gilliland, assistant chief of fisheries, also is leaving to take the position as national conservation director for the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (BASS).
Gilliland worked at ODWC for more than 31 years.
Their departure from the agency leaves a big void to fill, said Barry Bolton, chief of fisheries for the Wildlife Department.
“There are no better fishery biologists in the department than Greg and Gene,” he said.
Summers, 62, introduced saugeye to Oklahoma waters after hearing about the successes of the new hybrid — a cross between sauger and walleye — in Ohio and Tennessee.
Saugeye were first stocked in Lake Thunderbird in Norman in 1986 to control the crappie population.
The lake was abundant with crappie — the most sought-after fish by Oklahoma anglers — but so crowded that the fish were not growing very big.
“We had 4-inch crappie that were 5 years old,” Summers said. “We needed to thin them down so the rest of them would have less competition for food.”
Saugeye proved to be the perfect predator.
“By 1989, crappie were on their way to improving big time,” he said.
As a result, Lake Thunderbird turned into a top-notch crappie lake and saugeye became another sport fish for Oklahoma anglers to pursue.
Saugeye have now been added to at least two dozen lakes in Oklahoma.
Summers was still a student at the University of Oklahoma when he first joined the Wildlife Department.
His first job was drawing maps of the lakes in the state, tracing the boundaries from old U.S. Army Corps of Engineer maps and “anyplace I could get data,” he said. “Back in the '70s, it was hard to get information.”
Two decades later, Summers was responsible for helping usher the fisheries division of the Wildlife Department into the computer age.
His legacy with the agency also includes brokering a deal with the University of Oklahoma for the Wildlife Department's research facility on campus, expanding the wintertime trout fisheries in the state and coordinating state creel surveys.
In recent years, Summers also has acted as the agency's marketing director and has paid attention to the trends, which includes fewer people who are interested in fishing.
“It's the cultural change that goes on everywhere, where you have a larger part of your population centered in urban areas and they don't have that legacy of fishing that we used to have,” he said.
It's a worrisome trend for the Wildlife Department that relies on the major bulk of its revenue from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses.
Over the years, the agency has been able to offset any potential loss of revenue from fewer anglers by increasing the price of fishing licenses, Summers said.
But the agency needs to rethink how it can best meet the needs of its consumers, he said.
Most of the Wildlife Department's fishing programs are designed for the most avid anglers — those wanting to catch big fish and lots of fish — but that group represents a minority of fishing license holders, he said.
More people are interested in going fishing just so they can relax and get away, Summers said.
They want to go fishing at a place where they can take their families, feel safe and enjoy the experience, he said. For them, catching a big fish is not paramount to a successful outing, Summers said.
“Those are the things that half of our anglers want,” he said. “Somehow we are going to have to change train tracks ...
“NASCAR did it. It used to be a Bubba sport, then those guys got wise. They figured out how to get the other people besides the Bubbas interested in the sport, and now it's huge.”