By David A. Brown
Special to BassFan

Passion for the sport, an inherently inquisitive nature and a deeply-rooted desire to help others enjoy that which has fascinated him for a lifetime. That describes Gene Gilliland’s formula for success.

After a long run in state fisheries management, Gilliland brought his deep well of environmental and species biology expertise to B.A.S.S. in January 2014 as National Conservation Director. His entrance into the company was a natural extension of the relationship he had built over the previous two decades.

Fall 2013 saw Gilliland retire as Assistant Chief of Fisheries for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. A personal interest in tournament fishing, along with a well-founded belief in partnering with recreational fishing forces fostered productive interaction with previous conservation directors, including the late Noreen Clough, who recommended Gilliland as her successor.

Gilliland says the past 3 years have been rewarding, but let’s not gloss over his three-plus decades with the ODWC because it’s therein that we find the foundational elements of the committed professional now guiding and shaping the B.A.S.S. conservation principles.

Early Influences

Raised in Gainesville, Texas, Gilliland makes his home in Norman, Okla. with his wife Pat. The fishing bug bit around age 10 and the ensuing affliction would evolve into a love and appreciation for nature that would extend through his Boy Scout years and well into his primary education.

“By the time I was a sophomore in high school I knew what I wanted to do the rest of my life,” Gilliland said. “I guess what motivates me is my being able to marry my hobby and my passion for the science side of it.

“From a selfish standpoint, doing what I do to protect the resource; I want fishing to be good for everyone, but I want it to be good for me, too.”

Fishing with an uncle near his north Texas home lit Gilliland’s angling fire, but it was a high school biology teacher who recognized that rare combination of interest and aptitude. Illuminating lessons, seasoned with lots of field trips and hands-on stuff stoked the flames.

Interest in Action

After earning his bachelor's degree at Texas A&M (and later a masters from Oklahoma State), Gilliland was hired as an ODWC fisheries research biologist – a title he’d hold for 25 years before moving into management for his final 7. The job centered on applied research into specific challenges and questions regarding making sport fishing better in Oklahoma. Heavy on the field work, his was a very hands-on pursuit of “getting more fish (mainly black bass, but also flathead catfish, walleye, etc.) in the boat for anglers.”

Career highlights include:

> Instrumental in successfully stocking Tennessee-strain smallmouth in some of Oklahoma’s large reservoirs.

> Led the studies that determined when and where to stock Florida-strain largemouth in Oklahoma waters.

> In 2002, Gilliland co-authored (along with Hal Schramm) Keeping Bass Alive, widely considered the bible of catch-and-release fishing.

Contracted and published by ESPN/B.A.S.S., the book’s content came from many years of Gilliland’s personal tournament experience (local clubs to B.A.S.S. Nation), along with his tireless efforts to connect with tournament anglers for a mutually-beneficial relationship.

Close Connections

Authority plus association yielded big results for Gilliland.

“I’ve been a tournament angler since I was in junior high, so I relate to the tournament anglers,” he said. “What I’ve always tried to do is translate the science into something they can understand and use.

“When I was at the agency, I was able to communicate and build really good relationships with the bass tournament organizations and the clubs by not just being one of them, but talking with them and relating to their experiences.”

That close interaction helped the anglers understand the fisheries management process – length limits, bag limits, stocking priorities – and made them feel like they had a role in the management of their targeted resources.

On the agency side, Gilliland sought to build good rapport with the folks whose license purchases kept the lights on.

“I always had the philosophy that it wasn’t enough for the state to just make sure there were enough fish in the lake; but people had to catch them,” he said. “If you don’t have the catching part, I haven’t done my job.

“As a biologist, I could think of it from the science point, but fisheries management, by definition, includes the people, the anglers. Trying to communicate with the anglers to understand what they want and what they need and then, from the agency standpoint, using that information to tailor the management on a particular lake or reservoir can benefit both sides.”

Serving the Industry

Fueled by a career’s worth of scientific knowledge, practical experience and straight-up street cred, Gilliland’s role as B.A.S.S. Conservation Director entails three main areas of responsibility:

> Working with state Bass Nation conservation directors to address state-specific issues and to develop good relationships with state agencies;

> Representing B.A.S.S. on several national advisory councils, which provide insight and suggestions to federal agencies;

> Working with B.A.S.S. and its tournament staff to help guide the conservation aspects for the company’s various tournaments. This effort includes close attention to maintaining the company’s good reputation and record; often by interacting with local communities to sell the sport and demonstrate how B.A.S.S. is doing everything it can to help perpetuate it.

Looking back, Gilliland chuckles that, prior to coming onboard, he actually served B.A.S.S. as an unpaid consultant by attending the Bassmaster Classic and overseeing the fish-handling. The relationship, he recalls, began with an invitation to present findings from his fish-care studies to Bass Federation (now, Bass Nation) in the early '90s.

For two decades, Gilliland’s relationship with B.A.S.S. included a B.A.S.S. Times Conservation column, which addressed various issues relevant to the company’s priorities: fish care, invasive species, boating and fishing access, supporting scientific research and good management and habitat enhancement.

Admittedly, fishing dominates Gilliland’s life and outside of work, he spends his free time on local church activities, antique lure collection and youth volunteering. For the past 10 years, he’s served as president of his local Junior Bassmaster club.

He says it’s all about building passion for the sport. So what words of advice does Gilliland have for the young up-and-comers?

“You need to protect what you love.”

Suffice it to say, today’s bass anglers owe a debt of gratitude to Gene Gilliland for practicing what he preaches.