If not for impoundments built and managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, waters for bass fishing would be but a fraction of what they are today. By extension, tournament fishing, tackle innovation, and all the rest associated with the sport would not have evolved as they have.
As bass anglers, we owe much to the Corps, and therein lies a seeming contradiction that drives many of us to distraction:
These reservoirs were not created for bass fishing, nor are they managed for bass fishing. But because they are so critically important for the existence of the sport, many of us simply cannot accept that reality. We can’t rid ourselves of the mistaken idea that, when the Corps acts, it is doing so solely to impact the fishing in one way or another.
For example, when the Corps lowers the water during or just after the spawn, many of us are certain that the move was done either to intentionally damage the fishery and/or to remind anglers who is in charge.
The truth is that recreation might be an authorized use on a Corps impoundment, but water storage typically is not allocated for recreation. And that’s a crucial difference.
Additionally, a single Corps impoundment is not an independent entity unto itself, especially when it comes to flood control. Reservoirs on a river system all are interrelated in their management.
Consider Table Rock Lake on the White River chain, where more than 13 inches of rain fell within 72 hours in late April of 2011, contributing to an historic 21-foot rise.
Beaver Lake is upstream, while Bull Shoals, Norfork and Greers Ferry are downstream. Between Bull Shoals and Table Rock, is Lake Taneycomo, a riverine impoundment not managed by the Corps, but which must be considered in management decisions.
“It’s a complicated system,” said Greg Oller, Corps manager for Table Rock, who added that a White River water control plan helps determine when to release and how much, based on storage capacity of the impoundments.
Adding to that complication is the fact that the White is a tributary of the Mississippi, as is the Arkansas. When heavy rains and floods occur, flow down those two waterways must be considered as well in determining releases. Gauging stations help track what’s going on.
“From Beaver to Newport (on lower White River) is a lot of uncontrolled area, including the Buffalo River and Crooked Creek,” Oller said. “Those elevations can bounce up based on water inflow from rain.”
And then there’s the heavy rain that poured into Beaver, just as it did to Table Rock. That came barreling down the White River and into Table Rock at 300,000 cubic feet per second. High, muddy water also pushed in from the Kings and James rivers, as the lake rose perilously close to the top of the dam.
By contrast, construction of these impoundments on the White were based on flooding in 1927 and 1945, when peak discharge was 200,000 cubic feet per second.
“A lot of people were upset with the flooding downstream,” said the Corps manager who didn’t sleep much during this critical period. “But Table Rock prevented a tremendous amount of damage.”
Oller is a fisherman himself and recognizes that these high waters often are good for fisheries, even as they are devastating for homes, towns, and farms in the floodplain. Flooded shorelines provide abundant habitat for fry to feed and avoid predation. “The flood events that we had in 2008 and again in 2011 should make these fisheries hot spots for years to years to come,” he said.
He added that the Corps “tries to be sensitive” to fisheries-related issues, but has limited options.
“We can’t manipulate the water level based on the spawn,” he said. “When water is drawn down during that time, it is based on an authorized allocation of water.”
As an example, water pulled for hydropower during a dry spring could cause a low-water situation that damages the spawn.
For fisheries particularly, low water can be more devastating than floods, Oller added. “You get locked into a drought and that can last for months and even years,” he said.
Bottom line, though, is that water is cyclic. There will be droughts. There will be floods. And in managing our impoundments during these times, Corps employees must utilize a complicated system based on authorized uses and allocations --- not what bass fishermen want to create optimal fishing conditions.