The cold front that blew into Central Texas two weeks ago left cool, clear, post-frontal conditions in its wake and triggered the first fish movements of the fall season this week.
In addition to contending with turnover, local anglers can expect to face steadily cooling water from now until the temperature bottoms out at the winter low sometime in late January or early February.
I had an opportunity to fish with clients on both Belton Lake and Stillhouse Hollow this week and observed some commonalities.
First, the abundance of topwater feeding activity has sharply declined. As the water nearest the surface and in the shallows, both of which are most quickly impacted by low, overnight ambient air temperatures, cool quickly, the baitfish stay several feet down from the surface and several yards back from the shallowest waters. Both the bait and the gamefish that eat them are present, but they no longer make obvious commotion at the surface as they did just 10 days ago before this drastic change in conditions.
Next, I also observed a reduction of the amount of fish and bait in both reservoirs’ main basins and a corresponding increase in the amount of fish and bait moving slowly upstream into the Leon River and Cowhouse Creek arms of Belton Lake and upstream toward the Lampasas River on Stillhouse Hollow.
On both lakes I found small groups of fish just about everywhere I checked from 14 to 46 feet. These scattered “wolfpacks” of fish will begin to consolidate into schools of ever-increasing size right into February.
Finally, I observed that fish were much less likely to suspend, and were instead more bottom-oriented, with some groups of white bass I observed easily numbering several hundred individuals with at least a few largemouth bass and hybrid striped bass hanging close by these large schools.
I have come to rely on two methods to find bottom-hugging fish. The first is to simply search with sonar, paying close attention to what is shown within 3 feet of the bottom. Bait will appear as a cloud with a very fine, grainy appearance to the signature, whereas tightly schooled gamefish will be revealed with a larger, more distinct grain size on traditional colored sonar, and as distinct, light, opaque orbs on LowranceStructureScan or HumminbirdDown Imaging.
The second method is to run a downrigger ball (only) with no baits attached, about 3-4 feet off of bottom over an area suspected of holding fish. If the fish are present and aggressive enough to strike the bait you plan to present, they will be aggressive enough to rise up off bottom and approach your downrigger ball. You can see this take place on sonar quite clearly. When it happens, simply place a waypoint or throw a buoy and then go back and fish this area thoroughly.
My main two presentations for this time of year are 3/8-ounce and 3/4-ounce lead slabs with a silver or white, or silver and white finish, a No. 6 or No. 4 treble hook, and a Gamakatsu stinger hook tied to the line tie. The Redneck Fish’n’ Jigs Model 180 is typically my go-to bait.
How aggressively the slab is worked will vary from day to day, depending primarily on weather. During windy and cloudy days with southerly winds, default to a more aggressive presentation. During bright, calm, clear days, a more subtle presentation with occasional full pauses tends to produce better.
On Monday, I was joined on Belton Lake by Derek Matthews, of Belton, and his 8-year-old daughter, Isabel, as well as Isabel’s cousin, Bella Jaimes, 9, and the girls’ grandfather, John Matthews.
The two girls worked the slabs I have referred to in the lower end of Belton’s tributaries to amass a catch of 50 fish. The following day, under slightly warmer and slightly cloudier conditions, Chad Messersmith, of Georgetown, and his 10-year-old son, Coitt, boated 75 fish.
Slabs accounted for a significant percentage of each catch, and will become just about the only tactic I rely on as the water cools through the 70s, 60s, and into the 50s.