BOB MAINDELLE: Spring is coming, albeit slowly | outdoor sports

Nature, it seems, has taken a three-step-forward, two-step-back approach to our Texas spring this year.

As I guide clients on Stillhouse Hollow or Belton lakes most days except Sundays, I have a unique perspective in that I am able to observe daily what is happening on land and water so that winter has given way to spring, at least as shown on the calendar.

I keep detailed notes on every fishing trip I take, and have done for 30 years of fishing our local reservoirs. If I look back in 2020, that’s when, two years ago, our economy came to a standstill due to the arrival of COVID-19. Just before that fateful first week of confinement, the water temperature was already 63F.

In 2021, a major prolonged winter storm and its aftermath, dubbed “SNO-VID” by some, significantly cooled our water just after mid-February. Yet at this time last year our water temperature was 58.

Now in 2022, thanks to a series of unusually cold cold fronts that continue to hit us in rapid succession, our water temperature has only risen this week to 55.6 degrees at the surface, cooling with depth. at 52.9 degrees still cold at 65 feet deep.

Although other factors influence fish behavior, water temperature is a major factor since fish are cold blooded and therefore their metabolism rises and falls with water temperature.

In the field, only a few blades of zoysia grass are starting to emerge from last year’s otherwise dead thatch in my lawn, the red bud trees have just started flowering this week, as have blueberries (a native form of small blackberry), and a few mosquito hawks fly around the shaded foundations of my houses.

Blooming blue bonnets are conspicuously absent so far. Also, live oaks have not yet sprouted their pale green new growth and have not yet begun to drop their catkins (the brown caterpillar-like pollinating structures on these trees).

Reports of large catches of white bass in traditionally productive spawning rivers and streams are rare, both due to cold weather and, more importantly, due to lack of flow as discussions of drought begin to resurface here in central Texas. Indeed, Belton and Stillhouse are now more than 3.25 feet down.

I had to approach fishing a little differently each day this week, choosing to postpone Monday due to the threat of severe weather materializing, bringing severe thunderstorms and hail, as well as several tornadoes.

The weather permitted a series of four trips on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday morning, culminating in a final trip of the week on Thursday afternoon. Then when the northerly winds, which started blowing early Tuesday morning, finally died down Friday morning, they left behind classic post-frontal conditions with cold, clear and calm conditions.

I once again postponed my fishing that day in order to avoid these extremely difficult conditions, opting instead to conduct sonar training for a client who had patiently waited for such an opportunity.

All of the fishing trips I have taken this week have been on Belton Lake. The fish were generally still in cold water mode, huddled against the bottom, hanging out in deep water, and showing no willingness to chase the lures very far or very fast.

Tuesday morning, the best day to fish this week, thanks to the incoming cold front and changing barometer, I fished with Kenny and Tarrah McLaughlin of Gatesville. The pair pulled off a nice catch of 111 fish in four hours using 5/8 ounce Hazy Eye White Slices caught with a “slow smoking” technique.

As is often the case with the approach of a cold front, fish were active as the wind speed increased towards its peak.

On Wednesday morning, the north wind was still blowing, but the speed had stabilized around 16 mph and was more consistent. This morning I fished with a gentleman and three boys aged 11 to 13. We often moved to be successful as the fish only remained interested in our presentations for short periods of time and then stopped.

These four anglers landed 102 fish, again using 5/8 ounce Hazy Eye blade white slabs fished with a “slow smoke” technique.

Thursday morning, the north winds were still blowing, albeit barely, for the first 2¾ hours of our 4+ hour trip. Meanwhile, the National Weather Service had forecast winds of 10 to 13 mph, but only the lightest breeze, barely enough to ripple the surface, materialized.

Finally, around 10:15 a.m., bursts of higher wind speeds, up to about 11 miles per hour, began to blow intermittently. It wasn’t much, but it was better than the near-calm conditions we had endured so far, and it was enough to put the fish in a nourishing mood.

We finished this trip just before noon with these four experienced anglers catching 96 fish.

Finally, on Thursday afternoon, I fished with Belton Police Chief and Deputy City Manager Gene Ellis and his 13-year-old grandson, Bryson Ellis. Although I always prefer to lead groups in the morning rather than the afternoon, the Ellis’ schedule dictated otherwise.

Analyzing the trends in the data I have collected over these 30 years of fishing at Belton and Stillhouse, the numbers indicate that an afternoon trip will only bring in about 70% of the morning total when the conditions are stable during the day.

The Ellises beat the odds, if only by a bit. They landed 72 fish, or 75% of the morning’s catch of 96 fish.

To do this, we fished 5/8 ounce Hazy Eye white slabs with a “slow smoke” technique in conjunction with Garmin LiveScope for the first three hours.

For our last hour, since the sun had been shining all day and the air temperature was around 69, I took us shallow looking for white bass in less than 20 feet of water. Using well-tuned sideways imaging, I found several schools of white bass, each with maybe 20-30 fish per school in this shallower water.

These fish weren’t moving much, based on how long they remained visible on the side imagery while the boat was stationary.

We cast heavy MAL lures with silver blades and chartreuse tails on these shoals, allowed the lures to reach the bottom, and retrieved the lures through these shoals. The action wasn’t searing, but we hauled in our last dozen fish this way and in doing so were able to introduce Bryson to a form of fishing he had never experienced before.

So for the week, the four trips brought in a total of 381 fish, an average of just over 95 fish per trip.

I no longer offer weekend trips (Spring Break to Labor Day) in order to provide my clients with the more productive and less crowded conditions now only known during the work week, so we will continue to monitor spring progress on Monday.