Steve Niemeier, a Temple-based certified public accountant, has been one of my most regular customers for many years now. Niemeier, who rarely fishes without being accompanied by at least one of his grandchildren, appears routinely in my annual tally of trips resulting in over 100 fish landed.
Part of Niemeier’s success comes because he books his trips at particularly productive times of year, and does so well in advance. Late February into early March is such a peak time for large, pre-spawn white bass on Stillhouse Hollow Lake. Late October through mid-December is such a peak time for smaller, but more numerous white bass on Belton Lake. Mid-April into early June is peak season for Belton’s hybrid stripers.
In late 2019, Niemeier booked a trip on March 10 for himself, his grandson, Caleb Fowler (age 14), and his nephew, Tevan Gilmore (age 17), during the boys’ spring break from the Belton Independent School District.
As the date approached, we all anticipated great fishing as Stillhouse had been producing strong catches of large white bass, and the water conditions were stable, which aids in consistency.
Only days before the trip, Niemeier learned of a death in the family which pulled him and his wife away.
It appeared the boys would be attending the upcoming fishing trip unchaperoned.
Around 7:30 a.m. on March 10 , Neimeier drove the boys to meet me at one of the five boat ramps on Stillhouse and informed me that Caleb’s mother, Sarah, would return to pick them up while on her lunch break at around 11:30 a.m.
Since both Caleb and Tevan had both fished with me numerous times before, and had both used the tactics we would be employing on this trip previously, there was essentially no learning curve to get through. So we got right down to catching fish.
Our first stop came under circling gulls which were excitedly awaiting an opportunity to pluck dead or crippled baitfish off the surface. Voracious white bass and loons were feeding in the area and occasionally wounded these baitfish, some of which would escape toward the water’s surface where the gulls fed on them from above.
We did well in this area casting bladebaits out horizontally in about 30 feet of water and working them at a moderate tempo back to the boat, landing a mix of largemouth bass and white bass. We landed exactly 32 fish here before moving on.
One of the trends I picked up on as I fished Stillhouse consistently through February was the habit the white bass made of coming up onto mid-depth flats to feed under low-light conditions right around sunrise and for about 90 minutes thereafter. The fish would then move out deeper to congregate along the deep edges of these flats, adjacent to the inundated Lampasas River channel.
Once the gulls stopped feeding and the catching slowed down, I moved to the channel’s edge to continue searching for fish.
The first school of fish we contacted, using sonar, was in approximately 42 feet of water, which called for a vertical tactic using my Hazy Eye Slabs. Whenever we fish vertically, I like to incorporate Garmin LiveScope technology, as it allows my clients to see both their baits and the fish response to those baits in real time.
As soon as I got the boat hovering atop the fish using the Spot-Lock feature on my Minn Kota trolling motor, we got our slabs headed to bottom and I instantly knew the fishing was about to get really good.
Fish respond in a variety of ways depending on their mood, light level, water temperature and weather.
In this case, as the slabs dropped toward the bottom, the fish rose up off the bottom to meet them.
This is the most aggressive response fish demonstrate, and one that ensures strong action for at least a span of 20-plus minutes, sometimes much longer.
I was surprised, therefore, when, after just eight or nine minutes’ worth of catching, things went quiet.
The fish just vanished from the LiveScope screen — it was like someone turned off a switch.
In the next few moments, it became clear exactly what happened.
Caleb, who was fishing in the stern on the starboard side of the boat, said, “I got one.”
I was just to Caleb’s left, at midship. As I looked at his rod, I knew whatever he had hooked was not a white bass as the rod was bent all the way into the butt section near the handle. From time to time, the fish pulled the tip of Caleb’s rod well down into the water.
I initially suggested to Caleb that he had hooked into a large freshwater drum, which routinely show up as bycatch on both Belton and Stillhouse while jigging for white bass.
Caleb recounted that he “…thought it was something different when it took out more line.”
Although large drum fight well, they do not often make runs; rather, they tend to battle vertically.
When the fish finally neared the surface after making numerous runs, we could make out a ghosty whitish-blue color still 8 to 10 feet down in Stillhouse’s clear, green water.
It was a blue catfish; and it was a big one.
Caleb said, “I was excited and I could not believe how large it was. As I was trying to get the fish to the boat I knew it was large and I kept thinking to myself to take my time and not force it.”
I coached Caleb on leaving about a rod’s length worth of line out between the rod’s tip and the fish so as to give me enough room to net the fish while still allowing the rod to work as a shock absorber.
Caleb handled the rod expertly and, on the first attempt, we worked together to get the fish, head first, into the rubberized landing net.
Back in February 2019, I assisted young Jarrett Rowell in landing his Stillhouse record blue catfish, which measured 23.38 inches long, and weighed 5.25 pounds, so I was already familiar with the kind of weight and length required to eclipse that record.
We put Caleb’s fish into my 30-gallon livewell to allow it to recover while I did a quick, online records search with my cell phone and verified the fish was a record for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Junior Angler category for those anglers under the age of 17.
As we weighed the fish on a certified scale and measured it, it turned out to be a 17.50-pound, 32-inch fish, more than tripling the weight of the existing record blue catfish.
We took the required photos to submit to TPWD’s Angler Recognition Program. We then released the fish in excellent condition after a minimum of handling.
TPWD typically delivers anglers’ lake record certificates within 30 days by mail, and then updates their website monthly. As of this writing, Caleb is anxiously awaiting the arrival of his certificate.
After all was said and done, those white bass beneath us which had fled from this large predator never did return. We moved on to fish other areas, and the boys went on to catch a total of 95 fish that morning before we headed back to the dock to link up with Caleb’s mother.
Caleb joked about his grandfather’s inability to join him on the boat that day, saying, “If you had been there, you would have taken that fish for yourself!”
When asked why he enjoys fishing so much, Caleb, who plays sports in school, said, “Because it’s exciting once you get a fish on the line, and it takes up more time than other sports,” meaning it is not over after just a few quarters, innings or periods, like many team sports are.
CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: All non-essential Bell County businesses, including my own fishing guide service, have been ordered to close until at least Friday because of the coronavirus pandemic. I will begin offering trips as soon as possible thereafter.