Kaley Merker of Fort Hood displays a Belton Lake hybrid striper caught on a

shad-imitating bait specifically selected for its close size match to the

forage this and other hybrid striped bass were feeding upon.

Holding the Line Guide Service | Herald

After being denied access to Belton Lake due to flooding earlier in the summer, the benefit of those same floodwaters are now being seen, and will continue to be seen well into next season, thanks to the dose of waterborne fertilizer those floodwaters swept into the reservoir. The flooding brought in some much-needed nutrients, and the food chain is responding from bottom to top. 

One of the most evident signs of such benefits is the baitfish population which seems to have exploded. Running sonar just about anywhere on Belton Lake right now reveals abundant schools of threadfin shad from the surface down to just above the thermocline at around 40 feet deep. Such abundant bait can be found in the Leon River arm, the Cowhouse Creek arm, and in the main basin near the dam.

The abundant bait presents both some pros and cons. On the positive side, having such abundant forage down low in the food chain means there are ample groceries necessary for predator fish to eat and grow. On the downside, such abundant forage creates a situation where gamefish can essentially feed at will and without expending much energy or moving far to do so. Gamefish full of fresh shad are not as inclined to feed on artificial baits.

Perhaps the greatest challenge such abundant bait presents is the necessity to match its size in order for live or artificial baits to be remotely attractive to gamefish.

For this reason, anglers must be prepared with small, medium and large versions of their bait of choice to be able to quickly adapt to whatever forage size the gamefish show a preference for.

As I guided my party last Saturday into a large school of surface-feeding fish, I immediately began observing for baitfish skipping out of the water ahead of the hungry gamefish pursuing them. This allowed me to confirm that the lures I had tied on to match the bait on my previous fishing trip were going to be sufficiently close in size to match the forage on this trip, too.

As the kids in this guided party began to cheer and celebrate their catches as the fish came aboard, this attracted the attention of other nearby anglers, who felt obliged to move closer and join in on the action. Unfortunately, while my inexperienced trio of children continued to score on most every cast, these no-doubt seasoned anglers did not land a single fish in over 20 minutes of effort. One finally broke down and asked in a frustrated voice, “Can you please tell me what you are using?”

He was using a large, cigar-shaped floating lure, roughly 5 inches long. My youth anglers were using hand-tied flies I’d crafted at home specifically to match the small bait size I’d been observing. The difference in results was undeniable.

In the live-bait realm, the size of shad I have observed gamefish feeding on over the past three weeks is too small to be captured in a cast net, and in fact those fellow guides I have spoken to who are using larger shad are having a tough time getting any fish to bite.

The takeaway from all this is: Have multiple sizes of the baits you are confident in, and, on Belton, make sure those baits look and act like shad and tend toward the smaller end of the scale. Lightweight baits as short as 1¼ inches are not too small for our present conditions.

As cool weather returns, new shad are no longer spawned and added to the population. Instead, the existing population grows in length, albeit at a slower rate than during the warm months. I typically wind up using my medium-sized baits through the fall and winter, and my largest baits in March when the bait is large and the water begins to warm, thus increasing predator fish metabolism and making large baits and the calories they carry attractive.

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