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West Texas Wet

When lake levels rise, the fish don’t know they’re in a desert.

By Larry D. Hodge

Kevin Burleson turns to Mandy Scott and me, holds up a fishing rod dangling a length of broken line and says in stunned disbelief, “I can’t believe how big that fish was.”

The three of us are fishing in O.H. Ivie Lake near San Angelo, and a monster largemouth bass has just taken Burleson’s Texas-rigged paddle-tail worm, hook, line and sinker.

Completely. They’re gone.

Scott is assistant district fisheries biologist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and her territory includes O.H. Ivie. Burleson is a guide on the lake. Both are tournament anglers, and they know what kind of fish Ivie can produce, so they’re not surprised at hooking a big one. But it takes water to grow fish, and that’s a commodity often in short supply.

West Texas lakes are either in a desert or on the edge of one. A popular saying goes, “The next drought starts the day it stops raining.” Drought is an inevitable fact of life out west, and it is just now beginning to recover from the latest.

Drought is a two-edged sword. It can slash lake levels to the point of killing fish, but rains following a drought rejuvenate a lake and improve fishing. Amistad International Reservoir is perhaps the best example in West Texas. Following a 10-year drought, the lake rose and bass fishing exploded (see “Triple Play” in the October 2006 issue). Anglers report that 50- to 100-fish days are not uncommon, and 2005 saw the lake record rise to a whopping 15.68 pounds.

The O.H. Ivie fish Burleson lost may not have been a new lake record — it would have to top 14.59 pounds — but its growth was sparked by the same conditions that fueled Amistad’s resurrection. As a lake falls, brush and weeds grow up in the exposed moist soil. When the water level rises, that increased vegetation provides cover and nutrients for young fish, and they grow rapidly. Bigger fish already in the lake suddenly find baitfish feasts swimming everywhere. “It’s like instant rice — just add water,” says district biologist Craig Bonds.

TPWD typically responds to higher lake levels by stocking fish as soon as possible, but the situation on Ivie called for a more cautious approach, Scott says. Ivie, like a number of West Texas lakes, is still in the early stages of recovery. Rains in 2004 and 2005 were followed by a brutal drought that lasted most of 2006 and dropped water levels again. “We didn’t stock any largemouth bass in the lake, because before the rains, we were seeing slow growth of bass, and reports from anglers and our surveys showed there were too many small bass,” Scott says. “We were concerned that there were too few baitfish. A lot of people thought we should have stocked largemouth bass after the lake rose, but it would have been a waste. The rising water helped the fish that were already in there to reproduce, and stocking fingerlings, if it affected things at all, might have hurt the growth of those fish.

“We decided to wait and let Mother Nature work,” Scott continues. “It’s hard to do that, especially when you are getting pressure from different groups to stock fish. But now we are seeing more abundant bass in larger size classes, and they are growing faster.” District Inland Fisheries staff also worked with the Permian Basin Oilman’s Invitational Tournament to take small bass out of Ivie and stock them into another area lake that had also suffered from dramatically low water levels, Twin Buttes Reservoir. “That helped both lakes,” Scott points out. “Ivie started coming back in the fall of 2005, and this past spring anglers were catching more fish and bigger fish.”

“I’m very pleased with the fishing on Ivie,” Burleson says. “There are fish everywhere in this lake — it’s a bass fisherman’s dream. On a typical day with stable weather conditions, you can expect to catch 20 to 50 fish a day. People who have heard the lake was down think it’s a mudhole in West Texas, but then they get out here and see this beautifully clear water with unlimited structure, and they realize what they’ve been missing.”

“My favorite way to fish Ivie is to use a Senko around the trees,” Scott says. “I love being able to see the bass come from way down deep and strike that soft plastic. It’s pretty exciting. I also love topwater fishing up shallow near the flooded brush early in the morning.”

We’re up in the Colorado River arm, squirming our way through flooded treetops at the base of a low bluff. Burleson and Scott are casting underhanded, pitching paddle-tail worms beside tree trunks, letting them fall, then twitching the lures back to the boat. Burleson compliments Scott on her accurate casting, then offers a tip to make it even more effective. “Have just enough line let out so your hand holding the lure is positioned along the rod just above the reel,” he says. “You have a lot more control that way. If you let out so much line that your hand is below the reel, you will lift the rod tip as you pitch the lure, and have less control.”

Scott immediately starts dropping her bait right at the base of trees, and her pleased smile gets even bigger a couple of casts later as a bass gobbles her lure. That one tip from Burleson made the whole day worthwhile.

The next day finds me on Twin Buttes Reservoir with John Ingle, a fish and wildlife technician with TPWD who has a collection of tournament plaques on his office wall. “I’ve been fishing Twin Buttes mostly for largemouth bass since we stocked it two years ago,” Ingle says. “People have been catching 50 fish a day, most under the 14-inch limit. Also, lately we’ve had some big white bass come out of here.”

When Ingle says big white bass, he’s not exaggerating. A new all-ages rod-and-reel record of 3.3 pounds was set in April 2006, just two weeks after a new junior angler record of 2.9 pounds. Both those fish were more than 18 inches long — huge for white bass. “The lake level got so low, it was easy for the white bass to forage on the shad, and they fattened up,” Ingle says. “They were so big, some people thought they were catching stripers.” And speaking of stripers, just the week before my visit, a new lake record was set — 12.75 pounds.

“Spring is an especially good time for largemouth bass,” Ingle reveals. The lake is thick with flooded salt-cedar, and Senko-type worms fished around it are the ticket. “You can catch fish all day,” Ingle says. “You can also catch them as they mix with acres of schooling white bass on the main lake. Watch for birds working. Use a small roostertail, and you’ll wear your arm out.” Twin Buttes also has a number of humps and old roadbeds that hold largemouths.

Both O.H. Ivie and Twin Buttes offer good fishing for crappie and catfish. The most impressive thing about both lakes is how fishable they are. Both have lots of shoreline and extensive areas of flooded brush and timber. If you like to fish visible cover, you’ll love these lakes.

TPWD biologists are optimistic about the near-term future of West Texas lakes. “We have been trying to rebuild these fisheries following the drought, and we’ve come from below average to good,” says Bonds. “If the predictions of an El Niño event come true, the fishing could go to outstanding.”

Bobby Farquhar, Inland Fisheries regional director for West Texas, shares that opinion. “Fishing will be good at Ivie and Twin Buttes if we just don’t lose water,” he says. “If we can have a wet year and gain some ground, I think it will get even better.”

And maybe — just maybe — West Texas lakes will get some help from an unexpected source. Farquhar calls up a Web site on his computer and shows me a graph of the water level in Twin Buttes Reservoir. The line rises sharply after 2004, as one would expect following heavy, widespread rains. But Farquhar points out something odd. The line remains almost level over the next two years. “It’s amazing to me that last year, even though we did not get rain for a good portion of the year, the lake still continued to rise through the fall and winter,” he says. “Creeks ran year-round for the first time in years, and the only thing I can attribute that to is brush control being done on the watershed upstream.”

Originally conceived to put more water into reservoirs for municipal use, the Texas Brush Control Program also benefits landowners by improving the health and productivity of rangelands. In an ironic twist, removing brush from a watershed may help fishing by flooding brush in lakes downstream and making reservoir levels more stable. That’s good news for anglers. What they sometimes lack in water, West Texas lakes more than make up for in brush. Find the brush, and you’ll find the fish.

O.H. Ivie and Twin Buttes have lots of both.

WonderingWhatWorks

"Finding the fish is the whole key in bass fishing," says guide Kevin Burleson. "I start out throwing a spinnerbait against the bank to try to establish where the fish are. If they are up against the bank, it's easy to find them. If I don't do well there, I go back into pockets. You have to establish a depth line - that's the biggest hurdle initially."

Burleson uses a spinnerbait to cover a lot of water quickly both to establish the depth where fish are holding and to see if they are aggressive. "I'm looking to see where and how they take the bait," he says. "If the shallow-running, flashy bait does not work, I'll go to a soft plastic worm or lizard on the bottom to work the opposite end of the water column. In between, I'll use a crankbait. Every day you have to figure them out. The whole lure of bass fishing for me is they are such a patternable animal. What works one place will work for the whole lake. If you are on a point and the fish bite a green craw worm, you can go 15 miles up the lake, and the same pattern will work."

A good way to learn a lake is to go with a guide. Burleson not only puts you on fish, he teaches you how to catch them. Contact Burleson Guide Service at (325) 365-5333.

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