Thursday, May 28, 2015

Responsible fishing during and after a drought

Many of us anglers in Central Texas are bemoaning the fact that all of our rivers and lakes are flooded and muddy right now.  While you may be tempted to complain, remember that without rain we wouldn't have fish to catch.

Not long ago, well... maybe 3 years ago, my wife and I hiked up the North Fork of the San Gabriel from county road 202.  Yes, I said "up".  Try that now... and have fun with that.  At the time, it was at the peak of the drought and all I managed to catch was a small, very hungry catfish.  The pools were so low that I presume most of the adult bass were dead from starvation or had been eaten by coons. It was a sad state of affairs.

This spring we went up the North Fork again.  This time the river was barely running but this meant all the pools were fairly full. We actually needed and used the kayak for this trek. We caught many sunfish and saw a few 8in bass around.  Still didn't catch any bass.  It was encouraging that the bass were there. But the biggest fish we saw were longnose gar.  We basically learned that it was still too soon for big bass.

Thankfully, the South Fork of the San Gabriel maintained a fair water level through the drought and many water holes didn't dry up.  We went fishing there in the middle of the drought and caught many fish.  We went again a few weeks ago after some rain had fallen and caught almost as many. Some holes/pools were so huge compared to before that you had to work at figuring out where the fish were. This was such a nice change.

Now for the main point of this - we now have full or over-full rivers. After the mud clears out, the rivers will be running again at levels pre-2008.  This means the North Fork of the San Gabriel will be running 4-6in deep at 30ft wide again.  While this doesn't sound spectacular, remember that all the pools will not only have a steady influx of oxygenated water, the current provides places for bass fingerlings to grow up where adult sunfish won't go.  I expect as we go 6 to 12 months into a wetter or even normal period of rainfall we will see the bass come back in those pools where they had disappeared.

The thing is, it could take 3 years for the larger bass grow to a size worth catching. Now you see what I'm talking about. Many of the pools in the smaller rivers and creeks that had any water left in them "turned over" and the fish died.  The fingerlings that did survive are few and far between - relatively speaking.  The pools that did keep fish are now 10-20 times larger than they were. Not to mention that sunfish grow faster than bass and begin to eat the fingerlings before the bass are big enough to be predators.

It is an unfortunate circumstance of drought. Our natural fisheries are going to take years to recover on their own.  Certainly the TPWD will be stocking lakes to replenish those fisheries, but some rivers are going to be languishing for many years to come.

The fact is, we are in a new era for Texas fishing.  We are in drought recovery mode now.  River fishing and some lake fishing will be poor for a while, especially for those rivers and lakes that were particularly low.  When you catch legal fish in those waters, remember that you may be looking at a fish that is to that section of water as a queen bee is to a hive.  Kill that fish and you could annihilate the bass in a huge area. This is a good time to remind us again that sunfish can destroy a bass population. If you catch a large sunfish in a bass river or lake, keep them if at all possible! You will help the bass population significantly for each one caught.

Again, help the bass population return in our rivers: Return them to the water in a safe manner to grow and spread their young. It takes years for this to happen and a moment to destroy it. Be kind to the bass you catch and you will continue to have them to catch later.

Please note, I'm not saying to never keep bass.  There is a time and a place for that. There are certain lakes and large pools on certain rivers where the fishery was not hurt by drought. But for most minor rivers and some lakes, a drought and post-drought era is just not the time for keeping bass.

And to interject an important note: Support Texas Parks and Wildlife. They do a good work for our fisheries here In Texas. It's likely the best use of our tax dollars you'll ever see. Without their work, some lakes and rivers would take years to recover. I personally buy a yearly state parks pass every year even though I may only use it a handful of times. It's not much, but it's what I do. Everyone can help. Even if you only pay for your license and pay your property taxes, you can simply maintain a catch and release management plan as you fish.

Oh, and once the fishery returns?  Be sure to eat a black bass every now and then. My favorite is a late winter smallmouth from the Llano river or upper highland lakes like Inks Lake. They taste so good you'd never know they are black bass.  :-)

Tight lines!

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