Can you remember when you were a kid and had something so exciting taking place the next day that you had trouble sleeping the night before? Well, at age 47 I had one of those nights earlier this month, all thanks to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Around 8 a.m. on Oct. 4, I arrived at the TPWD’s offices off of Hewitt Drive in Waco. As I entered the small waiting area flanked by a few administrative cubicles and a break room, the location just breathed fish and fishing. From the photos on the wall, to the posters in the cubicles, to the pieces of new and vintage gear placed here and there, it was abundantly clear that this was a working office.
This first impression was reinforced when my hosts, John Tibbs and Michael Baird, greeted me and walked me back to the cavernous attached garage. Inside were housed three boats, a tow vehicle, all manner of nets, boat and trailer parts, fishing gear, safety gear and a state-of-the-art heated, high-pressure washer allowing this team to practice what they preach in preventing the spread of zebra mussels.
I had arrived to participate in a sampling of largemouth bass and scaled preyfish on Tradinghouse Creek Reservoir located about 10 miles east of Waco. The samples we would collect would all be taken via the very efficient means of electro-fishing.
The platform for this work was a wide, stable SeaArk flat-bottomed johnboat propelled by a 115 horsepower Mercury outboard. A gas-powered Honda generator fed power into a control box which transformed the electricity into an electrical current sufficient to temporarily stun fish long enough to allow them to be scooped out of the water with long-handled nets.
Off the bow of the boat there extended a pair of moveable aluminum arms, each equipped at the far end with an apparatus not unlike an umbrella frame in appearance. Down from each of the short arms on these umbrella frames hung a braided wire intended to remain in contact with the water. It was these wires that conducted the electricity into the water in a small radius and shocked the fish.
When I mentioned that I had arrived to participate in this sampling, I meant exactly that. There was to be no spectators on this boat. I took my positions right next to Baird up on the starboard side bow rail with net in hand and, in a sink-or-swim manner, learned quickly to dip fish out of the slightly turbid waters of Tradinghouse Creek Reservoir.
Our first of 12 sampling areas, each of which would be shocked for exactly five minutes, was in a shallow cove with about 30 percent aquatic vegetation coverage. Tibbs steered the boat and Baird and I dipped fish until our nets were too heavy to maneuver, after which we would quickly dump them into a large, water-filled, galvanized tub positioned between the steering console and the front deck we were netting from.
Always safety conscious, Tibbs and Baird had their boat newly fitted with pressure-sensitive mat switches. When the mat sensed the weight of the netter standing upon it, it closed the electrical circuit and allowed current to flow into the water. When the pressure was relieved, the mat switched the current off so no one would be shocked if he fell into the water during sampling.
Once the five-minute shocking session concluded, we beached nearby and quickly processed the fish and returned them to the water. We identified every largemouth bass and scaled preyfish we captured by species. All non-bass species were measured to the nearest inch. All bass exceeding approximately 8 inches were also weighed. Additionally, a small segment of tail was snipped from the lower lobe of 30 of the largemouth bass captured for the sake of genetics testing.
As Baird explained, “Basically, we have a set of regulations out here for our sportfish. Every three, four years we go out and collect general trend monitoring data on those sportfish and make sure the regulations help maintain the population.”
Tibbs said, “If our bass are fat ... and we see a good distribution of prey out there of all sizes, we know that our regulations are appropriate, and that an angler coming out here is getting the best possible population to fish.”
We Central Texas anglers have a real advocate in the person of Tibbs, the District 2B Supervisor for Inland Fisheries. Not only is Tibbs passionate about his work, which he has engaged in for over 19 years now, but he also enjoys fishing for recreation with his son, and so brings the perspective of a recreational angler to the table. Tibbs and Baird have plans to conduct similar electro-fishing surveys on Belton and Stillhouse in keeping with their goals of offering optimum fishing experiences for Central Texas anglers.