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Entries in Texas (77)

Monday
Dec052016

Fisheries Management Is NOT Just About the Fish

Once upon a time, when harvest of bass was commonplace, wildlife agencies managed fisheries for sustainability. No matter where they fished in their state, anglers knew the bag and size limit regulations would be the same, typically 5 or 10 fish, with a minimum size of 12 inches.

But then in the 1970s along came Ray Scott, B.A.S.S., and a practice that bass anglers  embraced with open arms--- catch and release. Bass fishing became more about competitive sport and recreation than catching and keeping a limit.

As a consequence, today's fisheries manager must be two parts fisheries biologist and one part sociologist. Or maybe it's the other way around. In other words, it's not all about the fish anymore. It's also about the fishermen and what they want to catch.

"There are variables related to the biological side of things and then there is the social/people side of things," said Dave Terre, Management and Research Chief for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD). "Both those things have to come together for success."

With Texas among the most innovative states for bass management, TPWD planners consider four regulation strategies to accommodate "diverse opportunities." They include harvest, high catch rate, quality-sized fish, and trophy fish.

Of course, the first  favors those who still want to keep and eat bass. The second is for those who enjoy catching numbers of fish but not keeping them, while the third and fourth are self-explanatory.

To gain reputations as trophy fisheries, some lakes don't require special regulations or other assistance, such as supplemental stockings of Florida-strain bass, if they have enough habitat and forage, as well as periodic high water to accommodate large years classes and survival.  But usually these are cyclical as opposed to long-term.

On the other hand, maintaining a trophy fishery typically involves special regulations, such as a protected slot of 18 to 22 inches or even catch and release only and/or periodic stockings of Florida or Florida-hybrid bass to stimulate faster and larger growth. For example, recent angler success suggests that Tennessee has created a trophy bass fishery at Lake Chickamauga by enhancing the genetics.

A trophy fishery also requires constant monitoring and altering of regulations to meet changing population dynamics. In Arkansas, managers want to encourage harvest of smaller fish by reducing the protected slot from 16-21 inches to 14-17 because of the high density of bass at Mallard Lake, which yielded the state record, 16-8, in 1976.

In Texas, meanwhile, biologists wanted to prevent harvest of too many small bass when O.H. Ivie was opened to fishing about 25 years ago. Thus, the five-fish bag could include no more than two bass under 18 inches. Now, they are considering regulation changes that would encourage harvest of smaller fish and increase abundance of larger ones.  

"The nice thing about these kinds of regulations, five-fish bag limits with no more than XX number of fish above or below a certain length, is that they are conducive to both tournament and non-tournament angling, unlike slot limits that are prohibitive to tournaments," said Brian Van Zee, TPWD Inland Fisheries Regional Director. 

Especially in states where bass are the No. 1 sport fish, managers have learned that "adaptive management"  is the best strategy to deal with ever-changing  environmental conditions in fisheries and to satisfy their constituencies. The latter often are surveyed on the water, online, by mail, and at public meetings as to their preferences regarding bag and size limits, both in general and for specific water bodies.

After listening to its resident fishermen, Florida decided to simplify regulations, with an emphasis on increasing the odds that anglers can catch and release larger bass. While the statewide limit remains at five, with no minimum length for largemouths, only one fish of 16 inches or longer can be kept. Forty-two site-specific regulations have been eliminated.

"While reducing harvest of large bass is beneficial, allowing more bass under 16 inches to be kept may improve some fisheries by reducing competition so other individuals grow faster and larger," said Tom Champeau, Fisheries Chief for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Still, "sometimes regulations have little to do with it (quality of a fishery)," reflected Terre, pointing out that just 57 of Texas' 1,100 reservoirs have special regulations. " Most anglers catch and release all the bass they catch. Now, we have to feel  the public will keep fish before putting on a slot.

"And we're constantly learning, experimenting, and managing according to conditions. We don't do things willy nilly."

Tuesday
Nov292016

Grass Carp: Why You Hate 'Em and Why They Are Needed

Harvest by anglers and bowfishermen has been added as a control measure for grass carp.Anglers have been complaining about grass carp for nearly 40 years. Coincidentally, that's how long fisheries managers have been using the

exotic species as a control for another exotic, hydrilla, along with other invasive aquatic plants.

What's happened recently at Texas' Lake Austin provides a prime example of why they complain. Grass carp released there in 2012 and 2013 have consumed not just the hydrilla, but all of the aquatic plant habitat, which was beneficial for bass and other species. The stocking permit has now been revoked by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD), with anglers and bowfishermen encouraged to catch and kill the carp.

"Anglers get angry at us when we stock grass carp, and we understand that," said Dave Terre, TPWD's Management/Research chief, who emphasized that his agency strives to involve fishermen in plans to control invasive plants.

"Everywhere we've used carp has resulted in a complete vegetation community crash," he added. "But it took 10 years for that to happen at Austin. And maybe someday we'll be able to extend that to 20 years. Just three or four years ago, we were promoting the success of grass carp in Austin."

Ten years is a considerable improvement over what happened in the early 1980s. Over the objections of anglers and TPWD, the Texas Legislature authorized the stocking of 270,000 carp into 21,000-acre Lake Conroe. In just two years, aquatic plants were gone, and the long-lived carp kept it that way until the late 1990s.

About the same time, much the same thing happened up in Kansas' Big Hill Reservoir. A heavy stocking of carp "set the reservoir back eight or nine years," said Doug Nygren, fisheries chief for Kansas Department of Parks, Wildlife, and Tourism.

"We regretted it," he added. "It was a wakeup call to be careful."

Yet, there is a flip side to this grass carp decimation story, starting with the fact that Conroe will be the site of the 2017 Bassmaster Classic March 24-26. The impoundment on the San Jacinto River now has not only grass and grass carp, but a first-class bass fishery.

"It's been producing 30-pound stringers all summer long," said Tim Cook, Conservation Director for the Texas B.A.S.S. Nation. "The lake has a significant number of 8-pound fish and I'm expecting that six to ten over 8 pounds will be caught each day. We've had five Toyota Texas Bass Classics on that lake, so anglers know how good it can be."

In short, fisheries do recover, as these controversial exotics remain the best biological method for controlling hydrilla in public fisheries, as well as filamentous algae in private and hatchery ponds. Sadly, though, their use is not a precise science. Inevitably results are cyclical, as they have been at both Austin and Conroe and other impoundments across the country, and often influenced by variables that resource managers have no control of.

Weather is the most prominent. Lower water levels prompted by drought and warmer water courtesy of hotter temperatures combined to power an unprecedented hydrilla growth spurt at Austin, and suddenly 600 acres spread across the 1,600 acre fishery. "It changed the dynamics and threw everything out of balance," Terre said.

Mechanical harvest wasn't an option, because fragmentation spreads the fast-growing exotic. Neither was herbicide, since Austin serves as a public water supply. Additionally, unchecked hydrilla inevitably would impede hydropower generation.

To knock back the plant, the city of Austin's resource managers stocked 33,000 carp from late 2011 through spring of 2013. Contrast that with only 20,000 that had been stocked incrementally for eight years, starting in 2003.

"We could live with 100 acres," said biologist Marcos De Jesus. "But 600 acres was just too much. It was going to cause problems with the turbines."

Terre added, "Anglers sometimes think that we're attacking the habitat of bass. We're not. We know that vegetation is important. But there are multiple users to consider. And grass carp are a tool."

He added that in lakes like Amistad, Falcon, Rayburn and Toledo Bend, with little development, "hydrilla is not a problem for anyone and we don't touch it."

Efforts already are underway to jumpstart aquatic vegetation again at Austin, by growing it in cages, De Jesus said. "There are going to be lots of efforts to restore habitat and to provide more options, with things like brushpiles."

Because it is smaller than Conroe and because state agencies have begun  to partner with other entities, including bass clubs, in recent years to re-establish aquatic vegetation, Terre is hopeful that Austin's recovery will be rapid.

Activist Angler with 30-pound-plus grass carp that was illegally stocked in community lake.Conroe, meanwhile, serves as a model for restoration not only for Austin, but for the nation, with much of the credit going to Seven Coves Bass Club. The B.A.S.S. affiliate spearheaded growing and planting of native vegetation, even as officials continued to combat hydrilla with more stockings of grass carp.

As part of an overall management plan for the lake, the club was awarded a grant for about $45,000 from B.A.S.S. and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to build a plant nursery on property provided by the San Jacinto River Authority. The latter and TPWD also helped finance the effort.

Additionally, occasional harvest by anglers and bowfishermen has been added to the overall strategy for using and controlling grass carp. In 2011, they removed more than 5,000 pounds of carp from Conroe during a tournament.

The event was intended to reduce carp population "to a number capable of preventing re-sprouting of hydrilla but which will allow us and our partners to better enhance important native aquatic vegetation for fish habitat and water quality improvement," said Craig bonds, TPWD's Director of Inland Fisheries.

While habitat initiatives and angler harvest have been added to help control carp and restore beneficial vegetation more quickly, not much has changed in terms of overall strategies for stocking grass carp to keep problematic vegetation under control, said John Biagi, Chief of Fisheries Management for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Two of the most notable are smaller, incremental stockings as opposed to one massive release, and replacing diploid grass carp, which can reproduce in the wild, with triploid, which are sterile and have shorter live spans.  

"And we are learning," said Texas biologist De Jesus. "We're refining the way we monitor the effects of carp on vegetation."

Terre added, "Instead of stocking carp per surface acre, we're looking into doing it per the biomass of the plants. Our goal always is to maintain good aquatic habitat for fisheries."

Other Considerations

Most anglers think about grass carp only in terms the damage that they do to bass fisheries. But they've been used since the late 1960s by aquaculture facilities to keep filamentous algae blooms under control. They still serve that important purpose today, both in hatchery and private ponds.

A disturbing corollary to that, however, is that they also can cause algal blooms, explained Doug Nygren, Kansas fisheries chief. "When they eat the plants, that releases nutrients that can feed those harmful blooms," he said.

At Clarks Hill, meanwhile, grass carp could help save bald eagles, as well as coots, among their favorite prey on that Georgia-South Carolina border reservoir. Researchers say that a toxic cyanobacteria grows on submerged aquatic plants, especially hydrilla. Coots feed on the plants, contract Avian Vacuolar Myelinopathy, and die, as do the eagles that eat them.

"Native plants are coming on and hydrilla seems to be diminishing," said Georgia fisheries chief John Biagi. "We're in discussions with the Corps (of Engineers) on stocking rates. This is a tough one. We don't want to eliminate good habitat, but the eagles have to be considered."

In the Wild

Diploid grass carp are reproducing in Missouri's Truman Lake, and that's just one of many waters where this plant-eating exotic now has sustainable populations, according to Duane Chapman, Asian carp expert for the U.S. Geological Survey.

While Texas reports they are spawning in the Trinity River and Kansas indicates the same for the Missouri, Chapman said, "The Illinois River has a large wild grass carp population."

In fact, he added, they are reproducing in free-flowing waters from Louisiana up into Illinois and Iowa, including in the Mississippi River. And some have turned up on "the wrong side of the (electric) barrier" designed to keep Asian carp out of Lake Michigan. They're also in the Sandusky, a tributary of Lake Erie.

Although some might believe that dams will stop them, Chapman said, "I suspect that when we start looking, we're going to find diploids fairly common above dams."

He added that some believe that silver and bighead carp pose more of a threat to our waterways than grass carp, both because they are more prolific and because data already has revealed how they are outcompeting and replacing native species.

"But grass carp don't require huge populations to have detrimental effects," he said, adding that they could destroy Great Lakes wetlands, re-established through time-consuming and costly mitigation projects.

"Grass carp remove vegetation and they dig, causing destabilization and turbidity," the carp expert continued.

Additionally, diploid grass carp can live nearly 30 years, surviving on very little when plants are scarce. "They just shut down when the food is not there and don't expend energy," Chapman said. "They're just waiting for things to change, and then they gorge."

How did this happen?

"When grass carp were brought into this country by aquaculture facilities in the late 1960s, they weren't worried about security," he said. "The belief was that they wouldn't reproduce."

Sadly, that has proven to be wrong in waters all over the country.

Additionally, while some states now prohibit diploid grass carp, others do not. And anyone can buy them.

"It might be difficult to take them into some states, but it's tough to police that," Chapman said. "States might agree to make diploids less available. But in states like Iowa and Missouri, where grass carp already are all around you, it's not a big issue. There's no downside."

(A variation of this article appeared originally in B.A.S.S. Times.)

Friday
Oct142016

Don't Overlook Small Baits for Catching Big Bass

The Texas state record largemouth bass was caught by accident.

Chances are that you don't know the amazing story of that fish, which weighed 18.18 pounds and was caught in 1992.

I do. I talked to the angler who caught it and included his tale in my book, Better Bass Fishing, in a chapter about catching big bass with small baits.

St. Clair had been bass fishing on Lake Fork with two friends. They decided to stop and catch a few crappie for the table. St. Clair didn’t have light tackle with him, so he simply put 12-inches of 8-pound leader and a 1/0 gold Aberdeen hook onto his bass rod and reel, which was loaded with 14-pound line.

The strength of that line and the backbone of the rod played no small part in the battle that was about to occur.

“At first, I didn’t know what I had,” St. Clair told me. “But I never panicked. That’s what helped me get the fish in.

“I put pressure on it, and it started to move. Right away, I thought it might be a big catfish. But it didn’t act like a catfish.”

The fish ran three times, but stayed deep. “I took the time to wear her out,” St. Clair said. “Then I eased her toward the surface.

“When she came up, it was like an exploding buoy coming out of the water. We all were stunned. Then I screamed ‘Get the net!’ at my buddies.”

Once he had her in, St. Clair noted that the big bass “filled the bottom of the boat,” and he saw that the delicate wire hook was bent nearly into a circle. “Once more run and she would have been gone,” he said.

Since that memorable day, St. Clair has learned that his experience was not unique.

Secret: In other words, big bass will eat little baits, just as elephants will munch peanuts.

“I’ve run across numerous examples of others who were doing the same thing (crappie fishing) when they hooked something big,” he said. “A few got them in, and the fish were in the 13-pound range. Others couldn’t do it. I was lucky that I had tackle stout enough to handle the fish.”

Here’s another example of a big bass dining at the hors d’oeuvre tray instead of the buffet table: In April 2006, Randy Beaty Jr. used a 1/8-ounce Blakemore Roadrunner to catch a 15.68-pound bass at Florida’s Bienville Plantation.

And my personal favorite: I caught a 12-pound, 4-ounce largemouth bass on a 3/8-ounce Cordell Spot, while fishing in Mexico’s Lake Guerrero. In case you’re not familiar with it, that lipless crankbait is a mere 3 inches long, seemingly hardly an appetizer for a big bass.

Why do big bass sometimes eat little baits?

Find the answer in Better Bass Fishing. The book has been out for a few years, but most of the information  does not go out of date because it's about bass behavior and intelligence, seasonal patterns, weather, etc. In other words, it's about the "big picture" of bass fishing.

Sunday
Oct022016

Does Catch-and-Release Help Sustain Bass Fisheries?

Releasing a bass makes us feel good. But does catch-and-release really help sustain fisheries?

Based on results from a tagging study a few years ago at Texas’ Amon Carter, a 1,539 acre fishery north of the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, the answer is a resounding “Yes!”

Sixty-three percent of 786 tagged bass were taken. In other words, fishermen caught nearly 500 of those fish.

 Forty-three percent were weighed in by tournament anglers. Another 16.3 percent was caught and released by recreational fishermen, with just 3.7 percent harvested.

There’s plenty more evidence too.

Nearly 75 percent of tagged fish were caught at Florida’s Lake Santa Fe.

“Another study we did on Rodman years ago was 40 percent caught by anglers,” said Mike Allen, professor of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences at the University of Florida.

On Tennessee’s Norris Reservoir, meanwhile, the “adjusted annual angler catch rate” for tagged largemouth bass was 47 percent in 1996 and 34 percent in 1997.

And Jacob Westhoff encountered some powerful anecdotal evidence while doing a smallmouth telemetry study on the Jacks Fork River for the Missouri Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Unit. Eighteen of the 33 bronzebacks with transmitters were caught by anglers.

“Also of note, is that eight of our fish were caught by a single angler in one day during the winter at the confluence of Alley Spring and the Jacks Fork River,” he said.

Clearly, the evidence is there to support the wisdom of catch-and-release--- and more.

“Those findings highlight the importance of proper fish care,” said Randy Myers, a fisheries biologist for Texas Parks and Wildlife.

But he is quick to add that not all bass fisheries reveal such dramatic findings. For example, just 38 percent of more than 6,000 tagged fish were caught on Sam Rayburn, a lake more than 70 times the size of Carter.

Allen added that the statewide estimate for Florida lakes is about 20 percent.

“It obviously varies widely among water bodies and probably among regions,” he added. “In Florida, we have so many lakes. It’s probably higher in states without as many fishing sites.”

Allen’s point is important. The percentage of a bass population caught ties directly to angling pressure. At Amon Carter, tournament and recreational effort was a combined 14 hours per acre, while it was 5.2 at Rayburn. And in Florida, drought had reduced accessible areas at other fisheries, likely forcing more anglers than normal to fish Santa Fe.

Other factors can influence how great a percentage is caught as well.

“Rayburn has better habitat than Carter,” Myers said. “Overall, it’s a better lake for bass production.”

Still, angling pressure is a top consideration for resource managers in maintaining healthy bass fisheries. That’s why Myers is hopeful that removal of a protective slot at Ray Roberts will attract tournaments away from Carter.

“At Carter, more than half of the effort was from tournament anglers,” he said. “Because they are so popular, we have to think long and hard about restrictions that would limit tournaments. But if 50 percent of tournament-retained fish die (at Carter) it would have some impact on the fishery.”

Consequently, how fish are cared for before they are released also is a concern for Myers and other fisheries managers.

“If a fish is gilling, lots of experienced anglers still assume that it will live,” Myers said. “But that’s not always true. Some of those fish do die.”

The Texas biologist pointed to statistics gathered as part of a fizzing study during five tournaments at Lake Amistad in 2009.

On days when the water temperature was in the 50s and 60s, mortality, both immediate and delayed, was less than 10 percent. On a day when the temperature was 79 to 80, total mortality was 23 percent and delayed 18.3. And, most sobering, when the temperature was 83, total mortality was 50.8 percent and delayed 42.1.

“What we saw at Amistad is that 75 degrees is the critical temperature for bass health in a livewell,” he said. “That high mortality was strictly related to water temperature.”

Thursday
Sep082016

TTBC Helps Texas Introduce More People to Fishing

Following this year's Toyota Texas Bass Classic (TTBC) on Lake Ray Roberts, organizers once again donated $250,000 to help Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPW) introduce more people to fishing, specifically through its Neighborhood Fishin' program.

To characterize the10-year partnership as a success might be a bit of an understatement, according to Dave Terre, TPW's chief of fisheries management and research.

"It's been huge," he said of the $2.5 million overall contribution that TTBC has made. "We've been highly successful at attracting youth and families into fishing. And now we have people calling us all the time saying 'Do my lake. Do my lake.'"

What the callers want is for TPW to stock their nearby urban lakes with 12- to 16-inch catfish biweekly during spring, summer, and fall, and 9- to 12-inch rainbow trout during winter.

TTBC funds have enabled the agency to expand the program from 9 to 18 lakes in the city and county parks of major metropolitan areas. Possibly others will be added in the future, but potential lakes must be studied carefully before a commitment is made. Terre estimated that  stocking a 3-acre lake with catchable size fish costs about $30,000 annually.

"All of the lakes are strategically picked," he said, pointing out that good facilities and shoreline access are important considerations. "By now, we have a pretty good idea of which ones work and which ones don't."

The ones that do are doing so in a big way, with an estimated 100,000 anglers participating annually. "About 50,000 of those are new to fishing and 25,000 of them are youths," Terre added. "The others are lapsed angers (who returned to fishing because of the program).

"Most people tell us that these lakes are the only places that they fish."

The annual Classic donation also helps with marketing of the program as well as supports the agency's Take Me Fishing trailer, which provides instruction in fishing basics at events all over the state, and an annual fish art competition for students. The latter now is averaging more than 1,000 entries annually.

At the lakes, meanwhile, residents have the opportunity to fish when they want to, with few, if any, derbies or events scheduled. Also, they can borrow tackle through some local parks and TPW offices.

"Stocking usually is done on a Thursday or Friday, with the best fishing a day or two after that," said Terre, adding that about 200 fish per acre are stocked in fisheries that average 1 to 6 acres.

The fisheries chief added that a special effort is being made to attract the state's growing Hispanic population to fishing."We're trying to put fish in lakes in neighborhoods that will engage nontraditional anglers," he said. "Largely, Hispanics are under-represented in license sales. But this program is working. (In areas with stocked lakes) we're seeing higher license buying than in traditional neighborhoods."

In addition to TTBC, Terre emphasized that cities, counties, local businesses, and the federal Sport Fish Restoration program also have contributed to the success of Neighborhood Fishin'. At the newest lake, Kingfisher in Austin, sponsors include Travis County, Bass Pro Shops, and Gulf States Toyota.