On a scale of one to ten, I’d have to rate Texas bass fishing a rock-solid eleven.
I say that because a passel of top-notch lakes across the state have abundant bass populations, the fish are fat and sassy, and the fishing quality is way better—year-in and year-out—than what is found many other parts of the country.
Good as Texas bassin’ is, in the big scheme of things, the really sweet spots have a tendency to ebb and flow over time. It’s nothing out of the ordinary for a lake to be red hot and produce outstanding fishing for a few years, then cool off for a while. The cycle can be caused by several factors, the most common being drastic changes in water level that come as the result extreme drought or excessive rainfall.
We’ve talked about that here before. For those who may have missed it, here’s what happens:
During extended periods of low water, large portions of the lake bed normally covered by water are exposed to direct sunlight.
Sunlight spurs the gradual growth of grasses, weeds, bushes, trees and other forms of terrestrial vegetation native to the landscape. The longer the lake remains low, the thicker and more widespread the new-growth vegetation becomes.
Fishing quality can be good for a while during drought conditions because it reduces the size of the playing field and makes fish easier to find. However, things can go downhill during multi-year droughts because low water can wipe out submerged aquatic vegetation as much as grass carp and herbicides can, thus robbing sport and forage fish of the critical habitat they need to reproduce, recruit and ultimately flourish.
Big rains can reverse the process, pronto. When water levels rise, all the new-growth terrestrial vegetation that sprouted during the low water period, is flooded. This pumps in rich nutrients that act as liquid fertilizer to promote a boom in plankton and aquatic vegetation growth. This benefits everything from forage fish populations to top end predators such as bass, catfish and crappie.
The jungle of flooded cover also provides young-of-the-year game fish and forage such as sunfish and shad good places to hide from predators. This usually results in extremely high recruitment among one or more year classes of fish and ultimately leads to banner fishing several years down the road as those fish mature.
Fisheries biologists sometimes refer to the phenomenon as “trophic upsurge” or the “new lake effect.”
It has been documented on a number of Texas reservoirs over the years, and several more are in line to bust loose with good fishing in the near future. Some are already there.
To learn more about those reservoirs and what’s in store for Texas anglers, we reached out to Spencer Dumont and Brian Van Zee, regional fisheries directors with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The fisheries biologists provided a laundry list of the lakes where you can expect to find quality bass fishing in coming years:
Dumont says the variation in water level has been drastic in recent years—extremely low in 2011 and through mid-2012 followed by very high water in 2015 and 2016. This resulted in limited access for anglers and reduced fishing pressure over the last six years. The biologist says there has been a drastic increase in spawning and juvenile fish over the last five years due to rising water that flooded new growth terrestrial vegetation between 2014 to 2016. Over the next few years, these factors together should lead to some strong year classes of largemouth bass and crappie that haven’t seen many fishing lures.
Choke Canyon Res.
Dumont says the water level on Choke remains very low, but it has seen some moderate water level increases up to 10 feet over the last two years and spurred the re-emergence of hydrilla and other vegetation along with excellent year classes of bass.
“What many anglers don’t realize is when lakes get low, the bigger fish are still there, they move offshore, suspend, and generally become harder to find and catch,” Dumont said. “As water levels rise and habitat shows up, so do these bigger fish. Anglers aren’t too far behind. This scenario is in play all over west Texas right now. Choke is ripe to be the best lake in Texas if it can fill up in the next year or two. Just add water.”
Sam Rayburn and Toledo Bend
Dumont says both East Texas giants have seen a bump in fishing success recently. In 2015 and 2016, Toledo Bend was hot. This year Rayburn is fishing off the charts. The biologist says both lakes saw bumps in year class strength in 2015 and 2016. “As the hydrilla comes back, you’ll continue to see superior fishing at both of these lakes as these 2015 and 2016 recruits grow to larger sizes,” he said.
Dumont says good year classes in 2015, 2016, and likely 2017 will hopefully result in much better fishing down the road for Lake Fork faithfuls. He pointed out that the extreme drought plaguing much of Texas several years ago had a huge impact on the aquatic vegetation at Fork, and it still hasn’t recovered. “The resurgence of aquatic vegetation may very well be the key to Fork’s future to put it back in the ‘superior’ category,” Dumont said.
Van Zee says Buchanan is best known for its five-star striper fishery, but the largemouth is making some serious waves as reflected by the results of local tournaments.
“The lake recently filled up after a prolonged drought, boosting the fish habitat and prey base,” Van Zee said. “TPWD stocked numerous Florida bass fingerlings the past two years to help improve the genetic pool and growth potential in years to come. The new-lake effect is expected to allow the black bass fishery to thrive in coming years.”
Van Zee says Travis recently filled up after a prolonged drought, boosting the fish habitat and prey base. That factor, combined with significant Florida bass stockings the past two years, should help improve the genetic pool and growth potential in years to come.
“The new-lake effect is expected to allow the black bass fishery to thrive in coming years,” Van Zee said. “The FLW tour anglers confirmed the upcoming boost this spring when they caught hundreds of plump fish. With high catch rates and excellent fish condition, this lake is expected to be a gem in the short future.”
After several years in a drought-related down cycle, PK is poised to make a strong comeback.
“PK refilled in 2015 inundating a great deal of vegetation that grew on the shoreline during the drought,” Van Zee said. “TPWD, two Friends of Reservoirs Chapters, and the Brazos River Authority partnered to conduct a great deal of fish habitat enhancement, including adding artificial reef structures, brush piles, and vegetation plantings. TPWD also stocked great numbers of fish annually to give that extra boost to natural reproduction.”
The biologist says largemouth bass numbers are up and many are nudging the restrictive 16-inch minimum length limit. There is also plenty of opportunity for trophy-class fish, as bass in the 9 to 10 pound range are not uncommon.
E. V. Spence
Van Zee said the water level jumped six feet in 2016, and the largemouth population has responded to the much improved habitat with some quick growth rates. Anglers have reported many catches in the five- to eight-pound range, and it has been only four years since the reservoir was effectively dry. “If the reservoir can hold steady or even increase in water level, we could see additional growth in an already flourishing population,” he said.
Twin Buttes saw a 10-foot rise in 2016, flooding an abundance of terrestrial vegetation and setting the stage for bass revival. Van Zee said an angler reportedly caught a 13-pounder here last spring, but opted to release it instead of donating it to the Toyota Sharelunker program.
“Twin Buttes’ bass population is not growing at the same rate as those in E. V. Spence, but there’s potential,” Van Zee said. “All the ingredients are there, we just need to get another wet year with an increase in water levels, and this reservoir would take off.”
Van Zee said Lavon is feeling the love of the new lake effect after refilling in 2015 following a multi-year drought the caused it to drop as low as 12 feet below conservation pool.
“The lake has produced some bumper crops of young bass in the last two years,” Van Zee said. “The low lake levels resulted in abundant terrestrial vegetation such as buckbrush and willows, which are now inundated and providing good cover and forage for young bass. We will be taking advantage of this new habitat this spring with a stocking of Florida bass fingerlings to help promote the trophy potential of the reservoir.In spite of the low lake levels, we are still getting reports of bass as big as eight to ten pounds being caught.”
Same story, different lake. Van Zee said Ray Roberts had an increase in flooded terrestrial vegetation and trees since spring 2015, and the bass have responded with a vengeance.
“We recently conducted a spring electrofishing survey at Ray Roberts and weighed several five- to eight-pound fish,” he said. “We also saw above average recruitment and growth of smaller bass. The bigger fish appear to be scattered, yet relating to the new habitat available to them in four to six feet of water.”
The biologist said the lake is on schedule for a Florida bass stocking to take advantage of the available habitat.
Van Zee said Texoma year classes from 2015 and 2016 have seen some outstanding growth rates with good numbers reaching legal size (14 inches) in only one year.
“The fish are obviously eating well,” he said. It normally takes two years to reach legal length. Because smallmouth bass are normally slower growing than largemouth bass, it may take more time to realize the full impact the higher lake levels have had on the smallmouth population. That said, the smallmouth population continues to get better and better, and lake records are being challenged. Smallmouth from five to seven pounds are being weighed-in at tournaments, and five fish limits of smallmouths are winning a lot of tournaments.”
“Belton produced a 13.97-pound ShareLunker last spring, and the new lake conditions that produced
this fish are still present,” Van Zee said. “This reservoir is resistant to drought effects because fish habitat is available even when water levels drop 10 or more feet. The lake is currently full with abundant shoreline habitat. When you consider that the reservoir also has one of the best smallmouth bass populations in the state, it is an obvious choice for any bass angler. Just remember to clean, drain, and dry your boat though, as the reservoir contains zebra mussels.”
Van Zee said Waco is a sleeper for big fish with several unconfirmed reports of Sharelunker-sized fish being caught and released in recent times.
“Waco has always been known for numbers, but quality has markedly improved and the reservoir has remained right at full pool for the past year. While numerous flood events in 2015 and 2016 limited angler access to the reservoir, all of the inundated habitat improved fish numbers and growth.”
Van Zee says White River Reservoir is recovering well and is another West Texas sleeper lake worth a look. The 2,000-acre lake is currently about 50 percent full with lots of flooded terrestrial vegetation.
“Anglers have reported quite a bit of success for largemouth bass including fish up to eight pounds,” he said. “Historically, the reservoir produced a lot of quality bass, but the drought put it off for a while. Most fish are caught in the ‘stick-ups’ along the river arms. The reservoir also produces quality crappies, catfish and walleyes if anglers want some variety.”
Alan Henry didn’t catch much water in 2015-16, but saw significant rise four to five years ago that gave it a badly needed shot in the arm. “Alan Henry continues to be a really good bass fishery in west Texas, and it produced another Sharelunker in March that weighed 13.34,” Van Zee said.
After years of prolonged drought, Hubbard Creek is now full, and bass that live there are faring well amid the jungles of rich habitat.
“Hubbard Creek was stocked with Florida bass in 2016, plus there was a good year class of largemouth bass produced in 2015,” Van Zee said. “Abundant forage means that growth rates should continue to be good, and the fishery is expected to continue improving in the next year or two.”
Van Zee said the lake dropped to 18 percent capacity in the early 2000s and also suffered from repeated golden algae fish kills. However, Stamford is now full and there hasn’t been any golden algae-related fish kills in the past couple of years.
“We stocked Stamford with Florida bass in 2015 and 2016, and there is lots of available habitat and forage,” he said. “Anglers will definitely want to keep their eyes on this fishery in the next couple of years.”
Van Zee said a significant rise in water level a few years ago resulted in bumper spawns in 2015 and 2016. Not surprisingly, the youngsters are faring well.
“In Fall 2015 we had an all-time record catch rate of 217.1 largemouth bass per hour in our electrofishing surveys,” he said. “The majority of these bass were eight inches or less in 2015, but given the average growth of fish at Lewisville these fish will be reaching keeper size and leading to some fast action in the coming years. Catches of bass eight pounds and larger were good last spring.”
Like most lakes in DFW, Grapevine was very low until spring of 2015. That’s when big rains came, refilled the lake and changed things seemingly overnight.
“Water levels remained high for nearly two full years which has also produced strong year classes of largemouth bass,” Van Zee said. “Grapevine is a unique fishery because it also contains spotted bass and smallmouth bass. Catches of good size smallmouth bass have been becoming more common.”
Fisheries biologist Randy Myers of San Antonio says Amistad saw record high and record low water levels a few years ago that essentially wiped out every stitch of vegetation in the lake. The lake has since come up some, but still remains about 35 feet below full pool.
“The good thing is it has remained fairly stable around that elevation,” Myers said.
“That has allowed the grass to come back strong and the bass have responded extremely well. It took 18 pounds to get a check-in at the Bass Champs tournament there in April, and we’re seeing a lot of 20-pound sacks. It’s not where it was in its hey day in the early 2000s, but it could get there if we could get some more water in it. It’s in great shape and just getting better.”
After years of prolonged drought that sucked the lake to roughly 4.3 percent capacity, Medina saw a huge rise in late spring and summer 2015 that raised it to 75 percent full within a period of three months. The lake was at 91 percent full in May 2017, and Florida bass stocked in the lake two years ago have flourished. If you like to catch numbers, you need to put this 5,000-acre lake on your hit list.
“Medina is a really productive lake as far as quality goes,” Myers said. “You can go there today and catch 50 bass, but they’ll be 10-13 inches with a few 15-16 inches mixed in. It’s got a whole lot of bass, but we don’t know how big they’ll get. It’s definitely not going to have the size structure of Amistad or Falcon, though. It’s a great lake for fun fishing. It’s as good as it has ever been for numbers.”
Myers says Falcon saw some good pulses of water in 2014 and 2015 that resulted in much improved fishing in 2016 after water levels began to fall somewhat, thus concentrating the fish to available terrestrial vegetation and structure. The biologist says the bass population is still looking good, but the lake is in need of some water to flood the jungles of mesquite and huisache that have grown thick on flats and along the shorelines.
“We need some water to flood that new terrestrial growth,” Myers said. “Otherwise, I don’t expect it to get much better than it is right now. Falcon isn’t really on the upswing, but that could change if we happen to get one of those Pacific monsoon events this summer. That would be golden.”
—story by Matt Willams