Can aging Texas lakes continue to produce heavyweight bass?

Lone Star Outdoor News

On the top 50 Largemouth Bass list compiled by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, almost 74 percent were caught pre-2000 (with the first taken in 1981).

Since then, only 14 trophy lunkers have been caught. The top 15 heavyweight bass were all caught before the turn of the century.

That’s not to say largemouth bass fishing in Texas reeks. In 2014, Keith Combs won the Toyota Texas Bass Classic at Lake Fork by toting 110 pounds to the scale — shattering a nationwide record for a 5-bass limit tour event by 26 pounds, 11 ounces.

“I’ll put our fishing against any state’s,” said Dave Terre, TPWD’s chief of management and research for Inland Fisheries. “It’s still outstanding.”

But even Lake Fork, a relative youngster among reservoirs at age 37, doesn’t churn out behemoths like it did. Twenty-eight of its largemouths on the top 50 list were caught before 2000. Since then, only five Lake Fork bass have been added.

“Some of the issues affecting Lake Fork are affecting other reservoirs,” said Kevin Storey, a TPWD biologist whose district includes the celebrated lake. “We’ve had droughts, which reduced the available habitat for a while. All the reservoirs are aging. They’re all losing timber. I think that’s the pattern you’re seeing with our reservoirs.”

Texas’ reservoirs were built in the 1950s and ’60s primarily to furnish water to communities. As writer Larry D. Hodge noted, “Stocking fish into this alien world creates a fishery, but not one likely to be sustainable.”

The problem came in damming dry land lacking in aquatic vegetation. That wasn’t a problem at first. Decaying terrestrial vegetation and timber jump-started Texas’ fisheries for years. It’s begun to give out, though. Fisheries are losing not only food but cover.

“Unfortunately, it’s a natural progression,” Storey said. “One thing that’s helped Fork maintain its edge for so long, at the time Lake Fork was impounded it was a common practice to go in and strip all timber from a reservoir. The manager at the time lobbied to leave all the timber in place. Also, from day one, it’s been under restrictive management (slot limit).”

Jeff Boxrucker, head of the Friends of Reservoirs, said the story is the same everywhere as reservoirs age. “Habitat degrades, the growth rate of fish slows and recruitment is not as good,” he said.

Sedimentation also plagues many reservoirs, Boxrucker said. At Lake Texoma, for example, the mouths of coves are silted in, hindering spawning.

“The crappie can’t get up to spawn unless the lake’s in the flood stage,” Boxrucker said. “The white bass run has just about been eliminated. Fortunately, the bread and butter of that lake is striper, and they still run up the main stem of Texoma to spawn.”

TPWD isn’t standing idly by. The agency garnered a lot of ink over the years by stocking Texas’ lakes and reservoirs with Florida-strain largemouth bass. A few years back, though, officials came to a realization.

“Just stocking fish is not going to make much of an impact if there is nowhere for them to survive,” Storey said. TPWD has joined a nationwide movement to restore fish habitats by planting native aquatic plants along shorelines to provide fish both cover and food. The plants also generate oxygen, slow wave action and filter water.

“And we’re working with partners across the state to put more structural habitat in reservoirs,” Terre said. “We’re trying to fight back against the natural aging process of reservoirs.”

A couple of factors hamper such efforts. For one thing, fishery management is still in its infancy. “We haven’t been doing it long enough to say if you do A, B and C, you’re guaranteed that catches will increase by this percentage,” Storey said.

For another, planting vegetation, building artificial habitats and dredging to remove silt at reservoirs can be cost prohibitive.

“It’s not something that Texas Parks and Wildlife is going to fix by itself,” Terre said. Wichita Falls’ residents are raising funds privately to renew Lake Wichita, the state’s third oldest reservoir (1901). It covers approximately 1,200 acres. The estimated cost is $55 million.

“Dredging alone is going to be about $30 million,” said Boxrucker. “Now, blow that cost up to cover 50,000-acre impoundments. That’s what we’re facing.”