Hoping to land “the big one?” Newly installed habitat is boosting fish populations

The chances of landing “the big one” are improving for fishermen within the Brazos River basin as a multi-year program to improve fish habitat is underway.

The program, jointly sponsored by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the Brazos River Authority and the US Army Corps of Engineers, installs both artificial fish habitats at specific locations within reservoirs to bolster fish populations and helps sustain them during dry periods.

As part of a program between the TPWD, the BRA will provide funding to enable the fish habitat project to move forward.

“The goal of the artificial habitats is to enhance fishery resilience during times of disturbance, like drought,” said Tiffany Morgan, environmental and compliance manager for the BRA. The enhanced habitats provide fish areas to spawn, feed, breed and grow to maturity when water levels are low. Initial priority is given to reservoirs where water levels are more susceptible to dry conditions, but it is hoped that the program will reach all BRA System reservoirs, Morgan said.

The artificial habitats are made of recycled plastic. “They are environmentally friendly products that have been tested to make sure they don’t contain anything that would be harmful,” said John Tibbs, a TPWD district supervisor.

TPWD coordinates placement of the habitat structures with BRA Lake Rangers or Corps of Engineers staff as appropriate, to negate concerns boaters might have about whether the habitats might be navigational hazards if reservoir levels drop. “We are very careful about where we place the safe havens,” Tibbs said. “They are made of flexible plastic, so they would not damage a boat.”

The pilot program, completed in 2016, included habitat enhancement at Lakes Granbury, Possum Kingdom and Proctor. Based on the success of this effort, additional funding was provided by the BRA Board of Directors to allow the project to expand through fiscal year 2020. Habitat enhancement activities were recently installed at Aquilla Lake and projects are scheduled at Lakes Granger and Georgetown. Lake selection for fiscal year 2018 enhancements, will be determined in January 2018 based on input from both BRA and TPWD staff.

At Aquilla Lake, efforts were made to offset sedimentation. Tibbs noted a report by the Texas Water Development Board which said annual losses in water volume due to sedimentation ranged from 84 to 218 acre-feet for this reservoir. “This directly impacts habitat availability as littoral (lake) habitat is covered with sediment and buried,” Tibbs said. “The most recent TPWD management plan called for planting emergent vegetation and installing fish habitat to help combat this loss.”

A lack of fish habitat at Aquilla Lake meant diminished cover for those fish, which also had a negative impact on fishing. Adding 40 Fishing Stakeout habitats was “primarily directed at crappie anglers, but bass anglers targeting these structures should also see improved catches,” Tibbs said.

The habitat improvements at Possum Kingdom Lake are also expected to help offset the negative impact of golden algae blooms and the natural degradation of fish habitat due to the reservoir’s aging process. The work at PK has been ongoing since 2013 and has also included assistance from the Hells Gate Bass Club and Mineral Wells Bass Club. Among the enhancements are artificial reefs, brush piles, and additional vegetation.

Different types of habitat suitable for a variety of fish were placed at PK, each taking into account the area’s depth and the contours of the reservoir bottom. Safe Havens and Trophy Trees were among the specific types of habitat placed at PK. Safe Havens provide tightly confined spaces that appeal to sunfish, shad, and crappie. Trophy Trees offer larger spaces for predator fish to ambush their prey. Both of these structures stand 4 feet tall and cover a 20 square-foot surface of the reservoir. Locations for the habitat are Rocky Hollow, Bee Creek, and Peanut Patch.

Lake Granbury’s fish habitat improvements included the installation of several Crappie Condos. These feature short plastic buckets of concrete with bamboo placed in them, which offers excellent fish habitat. Rough Creek Fishing Pier, bridges on the lake and Granbury City Beach Park are among the habitat locations.

Improvements at Lake Proctor included artificial habitat structures and 25 brush piles located throughout the reservoir. In addition to the artificial habitat structures added, recycled Christmas trees and brush piles were also used to enhance fish habitat.

The four-year project is expected to continue through the 2020 fiscal year, based on the current funding structure.

The TPWD provides maps of the different habitats, as well as Global Position System (GPS) coordinates here.