“We have a good time. It’s a good lake. It’s a good fishing lake,” Ron Cody said. “I keep a few fish sometimes.”
He’s a regular out at Lake Bridgeport, cranking his Honda and motoring around to his favorite spots. While his wife plays bridge at the country club, he’s on the lookout for hybrid bass.
Cody is retired, so he enjoys plenty of time with a few other fisherman on the lake during the week. Wednesday afternoon, he pulled up stakes as dark clouds rolled over the horizon. He anticipated the rain would keep him off the lake for a couple days, but he’ll soon be back at it.
Cody fishes with artificial bait and is what they call a downrig fisherman. Like many others, he loves the thrill of the catch and waves off concerns about the low water levels at his regular fishing hole.
The 11,954-acre reservoir was originally built in 1932 on the West Fork Trinity River. It is operated by the Tarrant Regional Water District for the primary purpose of providing a municipal and industrial water supply – but it’s also a hot spot for recreation.
The habitat consists of mostly rocky areas and small patches of native submerged vegetation.
As of Wednesday, the lake was about 22 feet below conservation level, a downward trend that began in 2010, exacerbated by an extended drought. Thursday rains brought the water level up a little, but it will take a lot more to fill it.
“It’s a deep lake. It’s 30-40 feet deep now,” Cody said. “I was out today in 30 to 40 foot of water. It’s down considerably but there is still a lot of water left for fishing.”
The fish are plentiful, too, says Bruce Hysmith, Inland Fisheries district supervisor with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
LOTS OF FISH, FEWER ANGLERS
TPWD recently finished and released the performance report for Lake Bridgeport, based on surveys conducted every four years. The report reveals population numbers for several species of fish – both predator and prey – extrapolated from catch studies and surveys conducted by Hysmith and others.
TPWD’s report states anglers are most often vying for largemouth bass followed by palmetto bass, catfish, and crappie. Overall, fisherman aren’t spending as much time on the lake as in prior years.
With few exceptions, the amount of time people fished Lake Bridgeport in fall 2003 and spring 2004 was much higher than in fall 2013 and spring 2014. Fewer fish were harvested as a result of fewer fisherman, and more who practice catch-and-release.
Hysmith said for many modern anglers, the thrill is in the fight and not the harvest.
“In the old days you ate them,” Hysmith said. “The constituency has changed and there’s more of a put-something-back kind of philosophy.”
Cody said he keeps some fish for himself, but gives away or throws back most of them.
“Hybrids are fun. I’ve been in it for years,” Cody said.
Fewer anglers isn’t hurting the fish populations. TPWD found most species doing well. Some populations like catfish, crappie and spotted bass were abundant and stable. Largemouth bass populations are down, but fish growth is good.
Numbers for hybrids, or palmetto striped bass are good, as the state continues to stock the species. The only species showing a hefty decline is white bass, which has recorded a nine-fold drop in population.
A TPWD report in 2013 pinpointed dropping water levels and limited access to streams and rivers as factors which are crucial for sustaining white bass numbers.
The numbers of prey fish like gizzard and bluegill shad were also down. Many fisherman attribute unusually cold winter temperatures for the decline.
“Fish populations don’t stay the same – ever,” Hysmith said.
Lake Bridgeport fishing guide Keith Bunch said fewer people on the lake is a direct result of the drought.
“Only one ramp is open,” Bunch said. “Add in all of the people who cannot get their boats out of their docks and the Runaway Bay Marina shut down, and the boat traffic drops off dramatically.”
Of the lake’s five boat ramps, only one – off U.S. 380 in Runaway Bay – is open. Low water levels have forced the other to close for safety reasons. Ramp extension is feasible at a few sites, but that would be up to the TRWD.
Hysmith said there is good fishing from the bank, too, if getting in a boat isn’t an option.
“They can fish around the dam despite the locked gate,” Hysmith said. “They have access to the entire lake and can walk down there. There is a lot of room.”
The dam is located near the city of Lake Bridgeport on Farm Road 1658.
Bunch said another factor behind fewer anglers is the constant bombardment of social media and news outlets about low water levels.
“No one seems to realize we can still get on it,” Bunch said.
OBSESSION KEEPS THEM COMING BACK
If the word is out that fisherman can’t get onto the lake, Wes Ramsey has turned a deaf ear to it.
Ramsey fishes Lake Bridgeport frequently and has been doing so for nearly 40 years.
His passion is chasing down hybrid bass, starting before daylight. Don’t even mention the word “crappie” – they aren’t allowed on his boat.
Ramsey said that if there’s one constant about Lake Bridgeport, it’s change – changes in water levels, changes in fish migration and spawn, and changes in population.
None of those are necessarily bad.
“We have seen that lake where you couldn’t drive the boat under the bridge,” Ramsey said. “Now you can drive a ferry under it. The contours of the lake are in the middle – there are humps out there, and rifts that are now six inches under. They were 22 feet underwater when the lake was full.
“Those fish use those contours to herd shad. They have that map in their brains. They have that instinct to herd bait, so where the forage goes, they go.”
Ramsey said there is a dangerous element to lower water levels. Hidden obstructions like logs, rocks and debris which were far below a boat’s hull before, are now just below the surface of the water.
“It is extremely important, for safety, to know the lake right now,” Ramsey said. “I was out there three weeks ago and pulled a boat off the sand bar. It’s very concerning and at night can be dangerous.”
Ramsey said no matter how deep the water is, a working knowledge of the lake is essential.
He said there are several techniques anglers use and the time of year, coupled with feeding activity, can make or break an outing.
“The shad are coming back, so I’m switching back to live bait. We also fish with various lures,” Ramsey said. “The pattern we are seeing is running about a month behind because of the longer and colder temperatures coming out of the winter months.
“They have seasonal patterns just like we do. When it interrupts the food supply, their movements and foraging is interrupted too.”
Despite Ramsey’s aversion to catching crappie and others’ drought concerns, Chris Tackel can’t think of a better way to spend his weekends.
“I grew up on the lake and I only fish for crappie,” he said. “I drive through everything else to get the crappie. We’ve put in a lot of work to build up the crappie population.”
Tackel and some of his friends have worked to improve crappie habitat by creating cover. He said they also work to clean up the lake by picking up trash whenever possible. If he finds a spot holding a few fish naturally, he will find a log and haul it over there to provide the fish some cover. Now a spot that held four fish will hold a lot more.
He does this all for the joy of catching fish and feeding his family.
“It’s such a joy. We put up quite a few and we fry crappie for family events and parties. We love preparing them for the dinner table. And we catch a lot,” Tackel said. “We’ll start catching them the first week of march in the shallow. As the water temperature warms, we’ll catch them by the dam.”
He said during certain times of the year, he’ll catch them in a foot of water near Wise County Park, or off rocky breaks and brush piles.
He says he doesn’t just go to places he knows will produce a limit of fish. Instead he likes to search and hunt. He loves the challenge of finding the fish.
You have to adjust to he water levels, he noted. Outside of the water levels – which is the major change – you just have to adapt to the lower level. From March 22, limits are common if you know where to go.
“The challenge makes it fun,” Tackel said.
Last summer and fall, it was really tough to catch on, because the fish had abundant forage. This winter the lake lost some shad.
“Now when you put a jig in front of one he’ll eat it,” he said. “It’s because they’re hungry.”
INVASIVE SPECIES, NEW LAWS
Cody said he rarely goes to other lakes to fish, but he still drains all the water from his boat between lakes. It’s the law, after all, and maybe it’ll keep another lake from being infected by zebra mussels.
TPWD recently found adult zebra mussels in the lake, a year after researchers discovered the invasive species’ DNA in the water.
According to www.texasinvasives.org, zebra mussels are present in Lake Texoma, Ray Roberts, Lewisville, Bridgeport, Lavon and Belton. Evidence of the mussels has also been found in Lake Ray Hubbard, Grapevine, Lake Fork, Takwoni, the Red River below Lake Texoma, the Elm Fork of the Trinity River, and Sister Grove Creek.
In an effort to prevent the spread of the mussels, the state requires anglers and boaters to drain all water from their vessels – including live wells, bilges, motors and other receptacles – on approaching or leaving a body of water.
That law went into effect July 1, and Texas has made possession or transportation of zebra mussels a Class C misdemeanor for the first offense, punishable by a fine of up to $500. Repeat offenses can be a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $2,000, and jail time up to 180 days.
One zebra mussel can produce up to 1 million larvae, invisible to the naked eye.
Hysmith said zebra mussels are voracious filter feeders that can outperform other native mussel species and affect prey. The lake is considered a very clean body of water already and the introduction of this new animal could affect fish populations.
He also said it’s too early to draw any conclusion though, and Lake Bridgeport’s high summer temperatures could hamper zebra mussel propagation.
Zebra mussels aren’t the only invasive species in Lake Bridgeport. Hydrilla and yellow floating heart, both invasive aquatic plant species, are also present. Hysmith said both of those have remained contained and are not likely to spread to other areas.