Summer’s hold on the weather has finally been broken. A definite downward trend in water temperature is now underway, and more changes will soon follow.
Aside from seasonal change which normally occurs around this time of year, varying by just two to three weeks from year to year, there are also the changes brought on by our recent, regular, replenishing rains.
Belton Lake was most heavily impacted by the recent rains. It had reached a summer low (and its lowest elevation of the entire year) of 5.53 feet below its full pool level of 594 feet above sea level back in early September.
This week, it rose rapidly nearly seven-tenths of a foot, making the water in the upper reaches of the Cowhouse Creek and Leon River tributaries off-color and littering the water with floating debris lifted from the shoreline all around the lake. Belton now sits just 4.29 feet low, and it is still rising.
Stillhouse also received some much-needed runoff, but not as much as Belton. Stillhouse fell to as much as 8.18 feet below full pool on Sept. 19, but has now bounced back to just 7.74 feet low.
I had an opportunity to fish both Belton and Stillhouse this week; and fished Belton both before and after the passage of Tuesday’s rain and Wednesday’s cold front.
There was an immediate shift of the food chain upward toward the surface on Belton Lake in conjunction with the rise in the lake level.
On Monday, before the rain and cold front, as I fished with Steve Niemeier and his granddaughter, 10-year-old Macy Fowler, of Temple, fish were primarily schooled heavily on or near bottom, feeding on bait in the lower third of the water column.
We landed 101 fish in about four hours’ time, including white bass, hybrid striped bass, largemouth bass,and a single blue catfish. We used downriggers to find and catch fish, then stopped the boat to work vertically anytime we encountered a large concentration of bottom-hugging fish.
After avoiding Wednesday and Thursday’s high-pressure conditions with characteristic blue skies, bright sun and calm winds, I returned to Belton Lake on Friday with Harker Heights residents Jerry Worley and Jerry Blalack.
As on Monday, the bite did not begin until sunrise, but once it began, it quickly ramped up and lasted through 11:45 a.m, whereas the action only lasted until 9:50 on Monday.
Of notable difference was the positioning of the fish and bait on Friday, after the fresh water had entered the lake. We found abundant fish life (both baitfish and game fish) at 10-20 feet beneath the surface, and then very consistently at 40 feet deep.
The shallower fish were much more aggressively feeding and could be seen chasing bait approximately 3.375 inches in length (threadfin shad) across the surface in all directions. This action was well-spread over a 2-plus mile stretch of the lake’s surface.
On this day, we would put 78 fish in the boat, but the ratio of hybrid stripers, largemouth bass and smallmouth bass to white bass was much greater, making up nearly half of our catch.
We found that downrigging in the vicinity of topwater commotion would provide steady action. This also allowed us to cover water while catching fish until we either witnessed topwater schooling action or witnessed tightly grouped fish at depth on sonar.
When we encountered fish on the surface, we sight-cast to them. When we encountered fish at depth, we hovered atop them using the Spot Lock feature on my Minn Kota Ulterra trolling motor and then fished vertically for them using slabs.
After observing the size of the bait the fish were herding to the surface, I changed my downrigger presentations over to size #13 Pet Spoons, and we used my own Hazy Eye Shad slabs with stinger hooks in the three-quarter-ounce size to imitate the shad.
I also noted that when we were on fish which had been schooling on the surface and those fish then sounded, we continued catching them well by counting our slabs down to a 15-count and then retrieving them rapidly (at the same speed we had used when fishing near the surface).
Our forecast for early this coming week calls for a severe, wet, cold front to push through on Monday and Tuesday, dropping more rain and chilling the water even more.
The disappearance of the thermocline is therefore close at hand. In a process called turnover, the light, oxygen-rich upper layer of water will cool and become heavier than the currently more dense, oxygen-poor lower layer of water.
When the upper layer cools and sinks into the lower layer, the temperature of the lake will become nearly uniform from top to bottom.
As I measured temperature at 5-foot increments Friday, I found the water still stratified, with a temperature of 78.1 degrees from the surface down to 40 feet. At 45 feet the temperature fell to 74.4, at 50 feet the temperature was 67.4F, at 55 feet the temperature was 64.3, and at 60 feet the temperature was 62.9.
As turnover occurs, fish tend to vacate the main basin areas of both reservoirs and head to mid-lake and upper-lake areas, following the bait as it does likewise.
Keeping up with these changes by staying after the fish this time of year will be handsomely rewarded.
My catch rates from the second week of November though to the third week of December typically rival or exceed the catch rates experienced in mid-March through April. These are always the best windows of the entire season, barring flooding.