I get calls regularly from somewhat frustrated anglers lamenting the lack of quality and/or quantity of their catch from Lake Belton and/or Stillhouse Hollow Reservoir. After listening to their comparison of what they caught at Lake XYZ and what they caught upon their return home to Central Texas, I try to reassure them.
First, comparing our Texas Hill Country lakes with lakes outside this Hill Country region is essentially an apples-to-oranges comparison. Our Hill Country lakes, which include Belton, Stillhouse, Georgetown and Canyon (near Gruene) all have similar characteristics: They are fed by small tributaries, they have a primarily hard, exposed limestone bottom, they have minimal aquatic vegetation, and they have relatively clear water.
When it comes to providing outstanding habitat for largemouth bass, these reservoirs come up short. Prior to their creation, most of the timber and brush in the area to be flooded by these reservoirs was bulldozed clean, leaving standing timber generally only in heavily sloped areas where the dozers could not work. So, without much timber and without much vegetation, a reservoir’s capacity to sustain an excellent population of largemouth bass is automatically limited.
Next comes the matter of fertility. Fertility is essentially the relative amount of nutrients in a given quantity of water. Reservoirs with high fertility will have relatively more nutrients in a given quantity of water and will therefore be able to produce more pounds of fish in that given quantity of water.
The opposite is true for reservoirs with low fertility. Unfortunately, our Hill Country reservoirs are not very fertile. The watersheds (that land area which, when rained upon, drains into a given reservoir) for our Hill Country reservoirs contain little in the way of topsoil and decomposed vegetation. So, when it rains, the runoff which eventually ends up in the reservoir does not pick up many nutrients to fertilize the reservoir. Man’s activities that often contribute to reservoir fertility, like farming, which adds fertilizer to the soil, and ranching, which results in manure being deposited on the ground, are also fairly limited in our Hill Country watersheds, so we miss out on these forms of fertilizer, as well.
So what does all of this mean to the fisherman? It means, all else being equal, our Hill Country reservoirs simply will not produce as many fish nor the size of fish that reservoirs in more fertile regions will.
I have been fishing Belton and Stillhouse several days each week, every week, for over 23 years. During this time, I’ve landed fewer than 10 white bass that have exceeded 17 inches. Several of these qualified as the past and current lake records on Stillhouse (current weight record is 3.07 pounds, 17.63 inches). In the late spring of 2013, I took a week’s vacation and did several self-guided trips on Lake Tawakoni in East Texas. This region is very fertile. It receives more abundant rainfall, has rich topsoil, has much farming and cattle-raising operations, etc.
During my first two morning trips on Lake Tawakoni, I landed three white bass that measured at or slightly greater than 18 inches. The contrast with our Hill Country reservoirs was stark.
NOT ALL BAD NEWS
This is not all bad news. We certainly don’t have flocks of tourist anglers covering the surface of our local reservoirs and creating waiting lines at the boat ramps. No, this simply means you need to have realistic expectations. To compare your results with a fishing buddy’s results who fishes outside this region is simply not a legitimate comparison. To compare your own results with your past efforts on fertile lakes like Lake Fork, Fayette County, Lake Bastrop, Sam Rayburn, or Toledo Bend, again, is simply not a legitimate comparison.
That said, comparing your results with those of others in your bass club, with those of other recreational anglers, or with those of professional fishing guides on the same body of water can give you a good basis of comparison as to how well you are doing, or point out to you that there is still room for improvement.
Finally, although our reservoirs are not prime largemouth bass habitat, they are more well-suited for white bass and (where stocked) hybrid striped bass. These fish do not rely on cover to hide and ambush from. Instead they constantly patrol in open water for threadfin shad and gizzard shad. On Belton and Stillhouse, the ratio of white bass to black bass is high. So, if you are not dead-set on angling for a specific species, focus on a gamefish species which is in greater abundance, thus making the most of what we do have here in Central Texas. Fertile or not, it is a wonderful part of Central Texas living to have multiple local reservoirs nearby for the angler to choose from.