Wednesday

Did Texas Fish Weather the Snowmageddon?


February’s massive winter storm impacted not only the millions of Texans who lost power and water — long periods of frigid temperatures caused problems for the state’s fish population as well.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologists are assessing fish kills, a process that can take some time in a huge state with a lot of coastline, but they’ve released some preliminary observations of the trends they’re seeing. As they amass more information, they’ll know more about the extent of the mortality. It’s a bit like putting together the crime scene to solve the mystery.

You can help them! TPWD is asking for the public’s help in reporting any animal mortality events they observe on their property, ranches or in their neighborhoods through a special project on the iNaturalist website or app. It’s easy to download your photo or enter a quick bit of information on what you saw and where. That’s all you have to do!

Fortunately, the winter storm’s impacts to inland freshwater fisheries have likely been minimal, especially when compared to observations along the coast. There have been a few reports of threadfin shad kills in North Texas as well as non-native tilapia kills in the far southern region of the state, but no impacts to freshwater sport fishes have been documented. Rainbow trout stockings planned for that week of arctic weather were postponed to wait for improved travel conditions for delivery.

Freezing events along the Texas Coast are rare, but extreme cold temperatures can be a natural cause of fish kills. If fish do not make it to refuge in deeper, more temperature stable water in cold weather, they may die when water temperatures reach a certain threshold. For example, spotted seatrout experience more mortalities associated with freezing weather than other common game species.

Currently, TPWD is seeing localized fish kills in affected bay systems and receiving reports of areas with dead fish from guides, anglers, and other boaters along the coast. Initial reporting of fish mortality occurred February 14; the work is ongoing. Rapid assessments indicate the majority of fish (by number) impacted were non-recreational species including pinfish, spot, silver perch, gulf menhaden, mullet and other foraging fish. Recreational species impacted include spotted seatrout, red drum, sheepshead, grey snapper, snook, black drum and tarpon.

The geographic extent of fish kills includes the entire Texas coast, but bay systems south of Galveston Bay have seen the biggest impacts. The majority of the kills were located along the southern shores and undeveloped areas, such as the back sides of the barrier islands. Affected recreational fish include spotted seatrout, red drum, black drum, sheepshead, grey snapper, snook and tarpon. 

 

Sabine Lake 

  • Reports of a fish kill in Keith Lake system of Sabine Lake. Game wardens reported seeing red and black drum, in addition to some sheepshead. 

Galveston Bay Area

  • Fish kills reported over a 3-5 mile stretch in the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW) near Christmas Bay, a 9 mile stretch of the GIWW from Swan Lake to Bastrop Bay. Minimal impact with species observed included mullet, sheepshead, small spotted seatrout and red drum.  
  • Fish kill observed in a dead-end canal system in Village of Tiki Island and Jamaica Beach. TPWD observed numerous dead mullet floating and a number of other unidentified fish on the bottom of the canal. TPWD retrieved several fish off the bottom from Jamaica Beach with nets. All fish recovered were mullet.  
  • TPWD surveyed areas of Christmas Bay and Cold Pass approximately 2.5 miles and observed no dead fish.

Matagorda Bay

  • Fish kills in Carancahua Bay, East Matagorda Bay, Magnolia Beach, Matagorda Peninsula, southern shoreline of the GIWW to West Matagorda Bay, Turtle Bay, Port O’Connor public beach and pier, canals at Sargent, Keller Bay, Lavaca Bay. Multiple species observed.  

San Antonio Bay

  • Fish kills observed at the Matagorda Island shoreline, Pringle Lake, southern shoreline of San Antonio Bay. Pringle Lake was hit especially hard with a larger proportion of game fish observed. 

Aransas Bay

  • Fish kills observed throughout Aransas Bay system including Lighthouse Lakes kayak launch, Hwy 361, Airport Park Point south to Copano Village, Copano Causeway, Bahia Bay canals, Camp Aranzazu, Ransom Channel boat ramp, GIWW adjacent to Redfish Bay, Mud Island, Cedar Bayou, and southern shores of Mesquite Bay. Multiple species observed. 

Corpus Christi Bay

  • Fish kills observed in the Nueces River tidal near Labonte Park. Species included several snook and tarpon. 
  • Fish kills observed Corpus Christi bay, community parks along Ocean Dr., and sunset lake. Multiple species observed. 

Upper Laguna Madre

  • Fish kills observed in Padres Island canals, shoreline near Clem’s and Billings boat ramps, shorelines in Lake Padre, Upper Laguna Madre near JFK causeway, canals of North Padre and Tropic Isles, Land Cut, and Baffin Bay. Multiple species observed with areas particularly hit hard being the Land Cut area. 

Lower Laguna Madre 

  • Fish kills observed in Port Mansfield area, Arroyo Colorado, Brownsville ship channel, Long Island commonly known as the “Y”. Multiple species observed.  

 

Coastal Fisheries biologists will continue to make on water assessments into the week of Feb. 22-26.  While ongoing assessments can provide some estimates of the magnitude of this event, biologists will be able to present a more accurate assessment of the impacts on particular species as routine monitoring (gill nets, bay trawls, and bag seines) continues and they are able to benchmark numbers against sampling efforts from previous years.  

For many of the key game species, informative data will start coming in with spring gill net sampling which runs from mid-April thru June. Additionally, as a part of year-round survey efforts, biologist will soon begin collecting information from recreational anglers at boat ramps.  

This data will provide additional information regarding the impacts of this cold-weather event and will help inform what management actions, if any, are needed to help accelerate recovery of fish stocks.

 

How Do Fish and Wildlife Survive Severe Cold Weather?

Cold-stunned sea turtles at the Brownsville Ship Channel

This week many Texans are seeing snow for the first time as a record cold front plunged our state into single-digit temperatures.

While humans struggle with power and water outages, how are our native fish and wildlife faring? For many animals, it depends on how well prepared they are, including having healthy fat reserves. 

That’s reassuring for those of us who have been building up our own fat deposits.
Texas has few true hibernating animals. But many animals do slow way, way down.

Many native wildlife species will be able to survive short durations of historic low temperatures and snow events. However, long-term impacts on a variety of wildlife and their habitats, especially on vegetation, may not be known for weeks.

Here’s a rundown of how different animals handle the cold.

 

Mockingbird, the Texas state bird, fluffed up in the cold.

BIRDS  

Though they appear to be small and delicate, birds actually have several strategies for toughing out cold temps.

 

They prepare for winter by adding more feathers, in American Robins up to 50% more.
They create their own puffer coats by fluffing their feathers to trap warm air. That’s why some birds look extra fluffy in cold weather.
 
How do they keep their feet from freezing? Birds have an adaption called countercurrent heat exchange.  As explained by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology: “Cool blood com­ing back from the foot travels through veins grouped around arteries that are sending warm blood from the body to the foot. Heat is transferred from the warm arteries to the cool veins.”
 
Birds flock to food sources to build up their energy reserves. Many Texans have noticed large flocks of robins and cedar waxwings in their neighborhoods feasting on fruit.
 
Birds that have done a good job building up fat and are generally healthy will make it through the winter.  Those that have little fat will have a hard time.

 

Surprisingly, urban communal roosts may harbor some of the most vulnerable birds. With past arctic blasts, bird deaths have been most notable among the large populations of great-tailed grackles in Texas cities.
 
 “I've seen autopsy reports of some of these dead grackles from Austin and they usually found the dead ones had heavy internal parasite loads, like liver flukes,” says Cliff Shackleford, TPWD ornithologist. “Those individuals were already weakened.”
 
TPWD staff and the public have made these observations regarding bird health and mortality due to the winter weather.


White-tailed deer in the snow.


MAMMALS 

You may have noticed your neighborhood squirrels out busily digging. They’re likely checking their stashes of food they stored to survive cold weather. The two most common squirrels in Texas, the gray squirrel and the fox squirrel, rely on these caches, along with their fast reserves and cozy nests to make it through the winter.

Deer and coyotes grow heavier winter coats to help them survive the colder weather. These winter coats are generally thicker and have a well-developed underlayer. As with birds, the healthy animals with ample fat will make it through the winter, while those in poor health may succumb to the cold, wintery conditions. 

Tri-color bats in Buffalo, Texas

Texas bats have different approaches to winter, depending on the species. Since bats rely on insects for food, and insects are scarce in the winter, they must either migrate to where the insects are or hibernate to wait out the winter. 

The bats that choose to hibernate will find a suitable cave or culvert and settle in. But that doesn’t mean they’re completely dormant.

“Bats will be down in hibernation for two weeks or so at a time,” says Nathan Fuller, TPWD bat specialist. “Some kind of trigger causes them to arouse from their hibernation and do some stuff — they go to the bathroom, fly around a little bit. This cycle can go on for months.”

Unfortunately, Texas bats are facing the deadly threat of white-nose syndrome. The syndrome has caused millions of deaths in bats across North America. The fungus that causes white-nose grows on hibernating bats, acting as a chronic disturbance and possibly causing dehydration. 

To help monitor the disease’s progression, TPWD wildlife specialists are asking the public to report dead or sick bats to wns@tpwd.texas.gov. Be sure to include a general location and, if possible, a photograph.


FISH 

During cold weather, many fish slow down and head for deeper waters where it’s somewhat warmer. Unfortunately, fish in shallow water, especially in our coastal areas, may not survive a hard freeze, resulting in large ‘fish kills’ during cold snaps. Our Kills and Spills team collects data on these events to assess the overall impact on Texas fish populations.

When temperatures on the coast fall below freezing, TPWD may close certain areas to saltwater fishing as we had to do for two days this year.

"The high mortality that a freeze can cause may deplete fish stocks for years," said Robin Riechers, director of TPWD’s Coastal Fisheries Division. "Protection of the surviving fish during the few days when they are especially vulnerable to capture would likely shorten the time period for overall recovery of coastal species, especially spotted sea trout."

 

American alligator in winter at Powderhorn WMA

SEA TURTLES, SNAKES AND OTHER REPTILES 

Reptiles such as snakes, alligators and freshwater turtles go into a state of dormancy, called brumation. They’ll find a crevice or burrow to crawl into and wait out the winter.

“They’re cold-blooded. Their metabolisms just slow down with the environment,” says TPWD wildlife biologist Nathan Rains.

One reptile that has a harder time with cold snaps is the sea turtle. When water temperatures plunge, sea turtles become “cold-stunned” and unable to swim. They float up to the surface and become vulnerable to boat strikes or wash ashore and become stranded. 

The National Park Service, working with TPWD and other partner organizations, leads the effort to rescue cold-stunned sea turtles. The turtles are taken to rehabilitation facilities to recover and then released back into the wild when temperatures warm up.

Why not let nature take its course? 

As the NPS website explains: “The green sea turtle is protected as a threatened species by both the state of Texas and the federal government. Even though their population is growing, their numbers are still too low to afford losses. Also, the Intracoastal Waterway and other deep channels, created by humans for boating and shipping, may entice sea turtles to venture deeper into the Laguna Madre and further away from the safety of the Gulf of Mexico.”

Severe cold weather definitely takes a toll on our fish and wildlife. But the majority of animals will survive to warmer days.

If you want more content like this, subscribe to Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine. Whether in print or through our mobile app, choose the version that works best for you.

Friday

Toyota ShareLunker Program Caps off the 2020 Season

Some folks have all the luck, like the ones who caught the state's biggest bass last year. The rest of us will wait another year to achieve our ShareLunker dreams.  

Anglers across the state entered 340 lunker bass greater than 8 pounds in the Toyota ShareLunker program from 86 lakes during the 2020 season, which wrapped up Dec. 31. In addition to helping produce bigger, better bass for Texas lakes, anglers who enter their big bass catches in the program receive special recognition and prizes, including an entry into a year-end drawing to win a $5,000 Bass Pro Shops shopping spree and an annual fishing license. 

“We are excited to announce that after wrapping up another great year of data collection in the Toyota ShareLunker program, angler Roy Saunders of Abilene was randomly selected from the 2020 entries to win the coveted year-end $5,000 shopping spree to Bass Pro Shops,” said Kyle Brookshear, Toyota ShareLunker program coordinator. “We want to remind anglers that every certified ShareLunker entry will earn you a chance of winning this drawing along with many other great prizes in 2021, so be sure to download the Toyota ShareLunker mobile app and get fishing.”

Angler Roy Saunders of Abilene was randomly selected from 2020 entries
to win a $5,000 shopping spree to Bass Pro Shops.

Saunders reeled in an Elite Class Lunker on Feb. 16, 2020 on Kirby Lake, making him eligible for entry into the drawing. The fish checked in at a weight of 10.22 pounds with a length of 23.25 inches. It’s the largest bass Saunders has ever caught and it’s also his first entry into the ShareLunker program.

“We went out tube fishing on Kirby Lake and I was catching some small bass to start off the day,” said Saunders. “Out of the corner of my eye, I saw some bullrush movement and knew there had to be something out there. I headed that direction and dropped in a green/orange crawdad bait and the fish bought it. I scooped the fish up in my net and it turned out to be the largest bass I’ve ever reeled in. When we go fishing, we catch anything and everything we can. We don’t usually go out targeting one specific fish, we just want to catch fish.”

“It was exciting to get the call that I had won the drawing from Kyle [Brookshear] and have the chance to participate in this great program,” added Saunders. “To the young anglers, my advice is to get out there on the water and do your best, because it will pay off.”

“All anglers participating in the ShareLunker program, like Roy, play a vital citizen scientist role in helping manage Texas’ world class fisheries for current and future anglers,” added Brookshear. “When these anglers provide the catch and genetic data from their Lunkers throughout the year, it supplements the intensive sampling data collected by our fisheries biologists. Ultimately the additional data better enables our biologists to make even better management decisions for Texas’ fisheries, and that is a win for everyone.”

Once a lunker is reeled in, anglers need to enter the catch data and appropriate photos on the Toyota ShareLunker mobile app – available for free from the Apple App Store and Google Play – or on the Toyota ShareLunker online app at TexasSharelunker.com. In addition to providing basic catch information, anglers can also provide a DNA scale sample from their lunker bass to TPWD researchers for genetic analysis.

The Toyota ShareLunker program is year-round and offers four levels of participation for bass over 8 pounds caught in Texas. In 2020, anglers entered 4 Legacy Class bass over 13 pounds and loaned them to TPWD for the selective breeding and stocking program during the spawning window Jan. 1 through Mar. 31. Anglers tallied 3 additional Legend Class bass over 13 pounds that were caught outside the spawning window. 84 Elite Class bass weighing 10 to 12.99 pounds and 249 Lunker Class bass weighing between 8 and 9.99 pounds or at least 24 inches.

The top five ShareLunker producing lakes in 2020 included: Lake Fork with 60 entries, Lake Conroe with 20 entries, the Brazos River with 16 entries, Sam Rayburn Reservoir with 15 entries, and Falcon Lake and Lake Athens tied with 10 entries each. To see how your favorite fishing location fared in 2020 or how the fishing is so far in 2021, visit the archives at TexasShareLunker.com.

The 2021 season is off to a hot start with four Legacy Class Lunkers being reeled in during the month of January. Anglers who catch a 13+ pound bass can loan it to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department for the ShareLunker selective breeding and stocking program through the end of March. These anglers can call the ShareLunker hotline at (903) 681-0550 to report their catch 24/7 until April 1, 2021.

Anglers who catch and donate one of these 13+ lunkers earn Legacy Class status, receive a catch kit filled with merchandise, a 13lb+ Legacy decal for their vehicle or boat, VIP access to the Toyota ShareLunker Annual Awards event and a high-quality replica of their lunker fish. These anglers will also receive entries into two separate drawings; a Legacy Class Drawing and the year-end Grand Prize Drawing. Both drawings will award the winner a $5,000 Bass Pro Shops shopping spree and an annual fishing license.

Anglers who enter data for any lunker they catch greater than 8 lbs. or 24 inches during the calendar year 2021 also receive a catch kit, a decal for their vehicle or boat and an entry into the year-end Grand Prize Drawing to win a $5,000 Bass Pro Shops shopping spree and annual fishing license. ShareLunker entry classes include the Lunker Class (8lb+), Elite Class (10lb+), and Legend Class (13lb+).

The Toyota ShareLunker Program is made possible in part by the generous sponsorship of Toyota. Toyota is a longtime supporter of Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, providing major funding for a wide variety of fisheries, state parks and wildlife projects.

Prize donors Bass Pro Shops, Lake Fork Taxidermy, American Fishing Tackle Co. and Stanley Jigs also provide additional support for this program. For updates on the Toyota ShareLunker Program, visit facebook.com/sharelunkerprogram/ or TexasSharelunker.com.

If you want more content like this, subscribe to Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine. Whether in print or through our mobile app, choose the version that works best for you.

Monday

Black History Month

Texas Parks and Wildlife Honors Black Conservation Heroes, Past and Present

Though often unheralded in their own times, Black contributions to conservation, parks, outdoor recreation and more are significant and will be celebrated throughout February’s Black History Month programs from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Park rangers from all over Texas, including the Buffalo Soldier Heritage Outreach Program and the Texas Outdoor Family staff, will debut a new series of 15 virtual programs to spotlight historical figures, and we'll introduce a few of our Black colleagues across the agency and offer up links to great resources. 



“Black history is really everyone’s history, and our rangers want to support Black History Month by bringing more diverse stories to the forefront of Texas State Parks for our visitors,” says Texas State Parks’ Jessica Lagalo. “The awareness that African Americans were some of the first Park Rangers, the first Forest Firefighters, the first Mountain Bikers is so incredibly relevant to the history and stewardship of Texas State Parks. Without the efforts of Black Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Companies, much of the infrastructure of Texas State Parks would not be here today.” 

 

Find a full calendar of the series on the Buffalo Soldier Heritage Outreach Program Facebook page, including information on a live trivia challenge on  Feb. 27. 




 

Did you know?

  • In 1896, the Iron Rider Mountain Bikers led the first national outing of the US Army Bicycle Corps, an effort to consider replacing horses with bicycles for mounted troops.
  • In 1910, seven companies of Buffalo Soldiers became some of the first wildland firefighters while battling a 3-million-acre Western blaze called the Big Burn.
  • John Francis, the Planet Walker, was so upset about the San Francisco Bay oil spill that he walked (only) for 22 years (48 states and through Central America) and was voluntarily silent for 17 years.
  • Barbara Hillary is the first Black woman and oldest person on record to reach both the North and South Poles at 79. She uses her fame to lecture on climate change.
  • Hiking pioneer Robert Taylor was the first Black person to through-hike the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Coast Trail. He’s a vocal proponent of diversifying trails.
  • MaVynee Betsch, the Beach Lady, gave away her fortune and spent her life speaking about Black history and the environmental importance of the beach.
  • The son of a slave, Lancelot Jones was the first private landowner to sell his land to the government for the Biscayne National Monument, asking only to live there till he died. He taught visiting schoolchildren about sponges and fish in the soon-to-be national park, asking for key lime pie in return.
  • Holt Collier National Wildlife Refuge in Mississippi is named for a famous Black hunter and scout who guided for Theodore Roosevelt on the hunt that earned him the nickname, Teddy Bear.
  • Born a slave, Captain Charles Young, West Point graduate and first Black national park superintendent, built the first road into Sequoia National Park and protected (with the Buffalo Soldiers) the park's resources.



Carrying the torch

Today’s Black conservation heroes are forging their own history as they work with passion and heart in every corner of TPWD and throughout the state. When park visitors and magazine readers see Black game wardens and state park superintendents, biologists and educators, they know that all are welcome here. Meet a few of our future heroes.



Michael Homer, Natural Resources

Michael found his love for the outdoors as a kid tromping along the banks of the Chattahoochee National Recreation Area in metro-Atlanta. Following his dreams to graduate studies, he noticed that many catfish research papers came from TPWD, so he knew where he wanted to work. 

Even if someone doesn’t like fishing, the outdoors offers exercise, reading, barbecues, even sleeping in a hammock. As we say at TPWD, Life IS better outside.




Candyce Johnson, Assistant Superintendent

Candyce said she had no idea she could actually get paid to do what she loves until she found Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences (MANRRS) in college. At Abilene State Park, she can not only do those things she loved as a kid — walking through the woods, observing wildlife and playing with bugs — she can share them with the 3,000 school kids who visit each year.

My hope is that through these interactions I will break the stigmas around the outdoors in the Black community and among women.



Kendrick Gray, Community Archery 

Kendrick got involved in leading community outdoor recreation in Louisiana, then moved to Texas, where he discovered archery at a TPWD Basic Outdoor Skills Workshop for recreation professionals in Killeen. Inspired, he helped start the Pearland Archery Club, introducing archery to thousands of youth and their families in the greater Houston area during the last decade.

If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s to slow down, reflect and spend quality time with family and friends. The outdoors provides the perfect venue for doing that.




Danielle Rucks, Administration

Danielle was looking for a career where she could use her skills to assist in conservation and give back to the community and now works on the North East Texas Ecosystem Project. She wasn’t really into the outdoors when she started at TPWD; now she can’t say enough about sharing her passion and new skills: shooting, archery, fishing, wildfire pack testing, youth hunt leading and more.

It was a blast teaching my two sisters from Chicago, who both have learning disabilities, to fish from our boat dock on Lake Tyler; one of them caught an alligator gar.

 


Kevin Steele, Finance

Kevin credits “luck” for his current position with the Infrastructure team, but his hard work at other state agencies prepared him for a move to leadership at TPWD five years ago. His favorite days are the ones where he gets to visit agency projects across the state.

Our teams work hard to deliver projects to our stakeholders. Having the ability to see their efforts firsthand is a positive incentive.




Coley Leonard, Game Warden

Coley was looking for a career in law enforcement where she could make a difference and interact with the public and found that and more as a game warden at TPWD.  

There is a great sense of pride and accomplishment that comes with assisting in conserving our resources and in the public safety of the residents of our communities.



Rachelle McCutcheon, Human Resources

Rachelle likes being a part of people’s professional journey, touching every aspect of their career from hiring to retirement. She says human resources is the ultimate customer service job. When people find out where she works, Rachelle says she uses the opportunity to encourage them to explore the outdoors.

The conversation can range from visiting our state parks and natural areas to fishing and all the things to do outdoors with friends and family, especially during this pandemic.

 


Dedrick Miller, State Park Police

Dedrick was inspired to pursue law enforcement by friends and family in the field. He was intrigued by their desire to resolve problems, make communities safer and have an impact on people’s lives.

Speaking with people who are not very familiar with being outside and helping them to experience nature is rewarding for me. 


How to connect

New, diverse, outdoor groups are springing up everywhere. If you don’t have a lot of experience hiking or camping at a park or fishing or hunting, no worries. Join up with a group and they’ll help you every step of the way. Best of all, you’ll make new friends who share your interests. 

Texas Outdoor Family https://tpwd.texas.gov/texasoutdoorfamily

Willard Franklin 4W Fishing https://www.fourwsfishingteam.com/

Outdoor Afro https://outdoorafro.com/

Black Outside https://www.blackoutside.org/

So Fly, Fishanistas https://www.facebook.com/groups/fishanistas

NEO Outdoors www.neoproject.org

Families in Nature www.familiesinnature.org

Black Birders Week https://www.instagram.com/blackafinstem/

 

If you want more content like this, subscribe to Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine. Whether in print or through our mobile app, choose the version that works best for you.