David Ball – For The Record

Some BASS-related news was also made at the announcement at the Yellowfin Redfish Elite Tournament on September 22 coming to Orange.

John Gothia, organizer for this tournament and also the BASSmaster Elite Tournament held in Orange in 2013 and 2015, said they were working on lowering from the state required 14-inch limit for bass to a 12-inch limit to increase competition. The brackish water in Southeast Texas can be a factor in catching largemouth bass.

Todd Driscoll, Jasper-based district fisheries biologist for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s inland fisheries division recently did an interview with the Houston Chronicle on the same subject, in particular Southeast Texas fisheries.

“Those coastal bass fisheries – those in the lower parts of rivers where they’re subject to influences of salinity and other factors – are characterized by slow growth and high annual mortality,” said Todd Driscoll, Jasper-based district fisheries biologist for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department‘s inland fisheries division. “It’s a harsh environment for bass. The fishery can be healthy – you can see good abundance of fish. But that environment means they grow a lot slower than bass in other environments, and survival is a lot lower. It’s relatively rare for a bass to grow to 14 inches in those fisheries.”

Likewise, this past legislative session State Rep. Dade Phelan filed HB 1979, which would have reduced the minimum length for largemouth bass from 14 inches to 12 inches for high school and college fishing tournaments.

Through negotiations with Texas Parks and Wildlife, Phelan agreed to allow the state to thoroughly research the waters of the lower Sabine and Neches rivers and the Taylor/Big Hill/Hillebrrandt Bayou system.

“The department did a tremendous job gathering data this summer and the numbers reflect what many in Southeast Texas already knew- the brackish coastal waters of Southeast Texas provide a harsh environment for largemouth bass,” Phelan wrote in a press release.

TPWD is now conducting an online survey to gather angler input regarding lowering the 14-inch slot limit to 12 inches or possibly eliminating it altogether. The new rule will apply to all anglers not just high school or college fishing tournaments participants.

Phelan urges bass fishermen in Southeast Texas to complete this survey. It will only take a minute but would help the state understand the opinion of local anglers, he stated.

The address is http://tinyurl.com/bayousurvey.

The project focused on the bass fisheries in the lower Sabine and Neches rivers and the Taylor/Big Hill/Hillebrandt Bayou system and was triggered in large part by increasing focus on these waters by bass fishing tournaments. Those tournaments, including two BASSmaster Elite Series professional tournaments based on the Sabine River in Orange and several tournaments by high school and college bass tournament groups, found the bass fishing to be good but frustrating. Anglers catch good numbers of largemouths, but few meet the 14-inch minimum required to retain the fish for weighing and live release.

That lack of keeper bass makes it tough to attract bass tournaments and the economic boost they bring with them.

Phelan’s legislation exemption would have applied only to tournaments in Chambers, Jefferson, Galveston, Liberty, Hardin, Newton and Orange counties.

The bill did not pass, but it helped push TPWD to look at the bass fisheries in the southeast corner of the state with an eye toward, perhaps, considering altering the minimum length requirement if the biology justified it.

What TPWD found has the agency considering just that.

The research, Driscoll said, involved using electrofishing boats to collect about 600 largemouth bass from the lower Sabine and Neches rivers and the Taylor/Big Hill/Hillebrandt Bayou complex.

The findings confirmed anglers’ anecdotal observations. The bass fishery in the rivers and bayous was good, and the fish were healthy.

“Abundance was moderate to high, and the bass were in great shape – very plump,” Driscoll said.

But they were young and short.

Of the 600-plus bass collected, only 7 percent were 14 inches or longer. In Sam Rayburn and Toledo Bend reservoirs, an average of 35-40 percent of the bass collected during TPWD’s regular electrofishing sampling of those lakes measure more than 14 inches, Driscoll said.

Growth rates of the river/bayou bass were much slower than largemouths in other fisheries. Largemouths in Rayburn and Toledo Bend grow to 14 inches in about 21/2 years. On average, it took a bayou bass almost four years (3.9 years) to reach 14 inches, Driscoll said.

The oldest and largest bass they captured was 6 years old and measured 20 inches.

The research indicated annual mortality of bass in the river/bayou systems was a stunning 70-75 percent, twice as high as the annual mortality in East Texas reservoirs. And that mortality was almost wholly from natural causes.

“Anglers aren’t driving mortality in these fisheries,” Driscoll said. The stress caused by droughts, salinity surges (as from hurricanes) and limited high-quality forage is behind that high natural mortality, he said.