Bass, Bucks and Brahmas

Drought impacts fish as well as livestock and wildlife.

Please note the publication date of this article. Statistics and seasonal information were accurate at the time of publication. Check links provided for the most current information.

By Larry D. Hodge

Published in Texas Wildlife, September 2005

The effects of prolonged drought on rangelands and the animals that live there are obvious. Less grass means stocking rates must be reduced if overgrazing is to be avoided. Decreased cover for newborns results in greater losses to predators—pronghorns in West Texas are the prime example.

Lakes suffer similar effects. “When a lake decreases in size over a period of years, there is little cover. Fish spawn, but the young get eaten, because there is no place to hide,” says Bobby Farquhar, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Inland Fisheries regional director for West Texas. “There may be as many fish per acre, but total numbers go way down. Like a ranch, you can’t have as many fish in 200 acres [of water] as in 5,000.” Angler activity drops, and so do revenues of service industries catering to fishers and recreational users.

Low water levels restrict angler access or, in severe cases, prevent it altogether. In extreme cases, lakes can go completely dry, as did Lake Kirby near Abilene, and kill all the fish. Lake O.C. Fisher dropped so low in the summer of 2004 that it had a devastating fish kill due to low oxygen levels in the water. “We feared the same thing might be about to happen at Twin Buttes, but rains last fall brought it back,” Farquhar says.

Fortunately, the situation appears to have turned around almost everywhere in West and South Texas. “The last nine months have put us in much better shape,” Farquhar says. “Statewide we were in a drought in the late 1990s. That started to break in most areas of the state in 2001, although there were localized areas around San Angelo and Balmorhea that were still bad. But starting in the fall of 2004, we’ve done a lot better. Last year our rainfall [around San Angelo] was 10 inches above average, and this year is running ahead, too.”

Something unexpected happened with Twin Buttes, and Farquhar gives part of the credit to West Texas land managers who have been aggressively eradicating cedar (mountain juniper) and mesquite. “Typically you get a big rain and there’s runoff for about two weeks, but the rains were so general over such a wide area, and so many people have been doing brush control, that many springs and creeks started flowing again, and Twin Buttes continued to rise about a foot a month all winter and spring,” Farquhar explains. “We got an initial big increase that flooded a lot of habitat, and then water levels did not drop during spawning season, so we had excellent production and survival.”

In addition, TPWD has been augmenting stocks of fish that remained in the lakes. “We’ve been restocking like crazy,” says Mandy Scott, TPWD fisheries biologist in San Angelo. “For example, we’ve stocked a lot of forage fish like bluegills and gizzard shad as well as 9-inch channel catfish, adult crappie and retired largemouth bass brooders from our hatcheries.”

The area around Abilene started to rebound sooner due to rains in July 2002, says Spencer Dumont, TPWD Inland Fisheries district biologist. “Lake Kirby completely dried up. As soon as it refilled enough to meet our stocking criteria, we stocked it with catfish, crappie, bass, shad, and silversides. By the fall of 2003 people were catching channel catfish, and this year crappie fishing was fantastic. Fishing is better than it was before due to the new lake effect. When water levels rise, a lot of nutrients are washed into the lake, and you get more from decomposing flooded vegetation. Aquatic plants just take off, and fish reproduce very well and grow very fast under those conditions. Fishing will level off after a while, but right now it’s awesome.”

I saw that for myself while fishing Choke Canyon, Falcon, and Amistad in June. Choke Canyon and Falcon both provided plenty of fishing action, with 20 to 30 largemouth bass per angler per day, but Amistad was simply unbelievable. Fishing with guide Ray Hanselman, Jr. and lure maker Dave Nichols, a friend and I caught bass until our thumbs were raw. One cloudy, windy morning the four of us caught and released 200 fish in about four hours.

Bobby Farquhar expects fishing to continue to improve for a number of years. “Now that the ground is saturated, we will get better runoff when it rains. The fish are naïve and growing fast. I think we will be getting more Budweiser ShareLunkers out of these lakes the next several years.” [Choke Canyon Reservoir and Falcon Reservoir produced one ShareLunker each in 2005, and those lakes as well as Lake Amistad have tremendous numbers of young fish.]

What can land managers to do help alleviate the effects of drought? As mentioned above, many are already practicing brush control. “Killing cedar and removing mesquite can make a big difference by giving water that does hit the ground the chance to get into reservoirs,” says Dumont. “What landowners do to improve the watershed impacts not only public reservoirs but also ponds on their own land. It’s expensive, but that’s where it all starts.”

Farquhar advises private landowners to use the same protocols in managing their waters that TPWD uses. “If you have a lake that’s been low, be ready to restock when it catches water,” he says. “You don’t have to restock—the fish still in the pond will respond on their own—but you can speed things up by taking advantage of new water and new habitat. And while the water level is down, make sure you protect the broodfish in there from anglers.”

Scott adds that managers should monitor dissolved oxygen levels when ponds are low and use aerators when called for. “You can also use chemicals to control green algae, which use a lot of oxygen. Be sure to run the aerators at night, because that’s when algae start taking up oxygen rather than producing it, causing oxygen levels to drop. Aerators can help fish get through the night by giving them a refuge they can go to.” If you missed previous articles in Texas Wildlife on managing your own pond, you can find many resources at http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/landwater/water/habitats/private_water/.

Ranchers and fisheries biologists alike know that, sooner or later, drought will return. The key to survival is having a plan to deal with what West Texas author Elmer Kelton referred to as “the time it never rained.”


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