GEORGETOWN, Texas — If you want to catch more bass, sometimes you should put down your rod and pick up a chainsaw.
That's what Bill Mateja and his fellow club members do once a year on their home waters, Lake Georgetown. With assistance from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPW), they cut juniper trees, bundle them and place them as fish attractors.
"We've definitely noted an improvement in the fishing," said Mateja, one of 275 members of the Sun City Fishing and Hunting Club.
"When we first started this, Lake Georgetown was not considered a destination lake for bass," he continued. "We've changed that."
Steve Magnelia, a TPW biologist who helps with this annual attractor project and two others in central Texas, cautioned that his agency "has no data" to back up Mateja's assessment.
But he added, "I monitor the local web fishing pages, and I've seen some good reports for people fishing the attractors, not just for bass, but also for crappie."
Of course, not every lake or reservoir needs attractors to concentrate fish. Some contain plenty of cover, and the addition of more would do little to draw bass away from what they already frequent. But many reservoirs, especially those with large fluctuations and no vegetation, would benefit.
For those fisheries, "I'd absolutely recommend fish attractors," said Mateja. "Just like us, others can do this too."
If you are considering putting down your rod for a day or two and picking up a chainsaw, the following provides a general blueprint for your club to plan a fish attractor project:
First, check with the controlling authority for the fishery. Often, but not always, it is the Corps.
"You might need to get a permit," Magnelia said. "Also, the controlling authority may have requirements, such as how deep the attractors must be set."
And it might want them — or not want them — in certain parts of the lake. "The Corps tells us where to cut the trees," said Mateja, "and Steve tells us where to place them."
Also, you'll want to team up with your state wildlife agency. "Some have habitat improvement crews and some don't," Magnelia said. "Sometimes [the state] can provide the boats for putting stuff out."
At Lake Georgetown, club members cut trees and take them to ramps, where they are bundled and tied to cement blocks. Corps workers then place the attractors.
"We look for places that fish are normally but are not concentrated," said the biologist. "That might be dropoffs, creek channel swings or humps. Of course, some lakes don't have those."
Magnelia added that having plenty of volunteers is a key to getting the job done quickly and efficiently. "That way you can move big numbers [of trees] in a short time," he said.
The biologist estimated that he typically looks to cut 100 to 150 trees that are 6 to 100 feet tall. After bundling, they are placed in 10 to 15 spots.
"Some agencies simply can't do this without clubs or individual volunteers. The labor is what scares a lot of people, so the more you can get, the better."
Mateja estimated that 60 to 65 members of his club typically turn out. "We have six chainsaw crews, with three on a crew," he explained. "And we have crews at the ramps. We have a huge lunch at 11, and we're usually done by 2 or 3."
For some projects, volunteers might assemble attractors from plastic instead of cutting trees. Plastic lasts longer than the trees, which typically are effective for two to three years. But plastic "doesn't seem to attract fish as well," Magnelia said. "It's hard to duplicate the small spaces in the trees, and [plastic] is more expensive."
Some attractor projects in east Texas are using bamboo placed vertically in concrete, he added, "but we haven't tried it yet. It's worth investigating."
As far as scheduling the project, Magnelia recommends winter. "We try for January or February, when you don't have to worry about insects and snakes," he said. "And then the attractors are out when the season starts."
Realizing that not many clubs can generate as much manpower as Sun City, he added that more than a day might be needed. "We have five or six help us at Canyon [Canyon Bass Club of San Marcos], with our crew of four, and it takes two days," he said.
Once the attractors are out, Magnelia doesn't like to put buoys on them, as once was common. "That increases the potential for overharvest," he said. "This way, using GPS coordinates, it takes a bit of expertise to find them."
As a final word of encouragement, the biologist emphasized that attractor projects are fun, especially when you have enough labor to spread the work around. "It's a good time of year to be outside, and you get to know the guys," he said. "I really enjoy it, levees) typically run at only a fraction of their capacities.
For example, Caernarvon can send 8,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) of river water into the Breton Sound estuary, while Davis Pond's capacity of 10,650 cfs would greatly benefit the Barataria Basin. Flow rates vary with river height, but neither diversion runs at even a quarter of its capacity.
Many believe that increasing diversion flow would profoundly benefit coastal wetlands by sending more sediment and nutrients into the marsh. Macaluso said the notion is working its way through the bureaucratic process.
"Right now, the state and the [Army Corps of Engineers] are examining ways in which the diversions can be used to maximize their delivery of freshwater and sediment, rather than just sticking to the salinity targets," Macaluso said. "That comes as a result of the 2007 Water Resources Development Act which instructs the Corps and state to examine the diversions. But, it does not require them to be operated differently."
The recent BP Deepwater Horizon disaster bolstered the case for increased diversion use, as the structures ran at full capacity for several weeks to repel oil headed for delta marshes. Downstream areas saw tremendous increases in bass fishing and while the immediate influence was current and overwash of baitfish, those who monitor the coastal zones believe such robust flows would deliver even more long-term benefit.
For example, Lake Cataouatche, situated below the Davis Pond diversion, has become one of southern Louisiana's hottest bass spots. Since the project opened in 2002, anglers such as Bassmaster Elite Series pro Greg Hackney have found quantity and quality abounding in this wetland fishery, and expanded aquatic plant growth generated by diverted river water deserves the credit. The area is expected to play heavily in the outcome of the 2011 Bassmaster Classic in New Orleans, Feb. 18-20.
Gary Tilyou, administrator for Inland Fisheries with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, said that while Hurricane Katrina scoured the areas downstream of the Davis Pond diversion in 2005, these waters are now thick with hydrilla and other aquatic plants that have ignited phenomenal bass fishing similar to the bonanza seen in the Delacroix marsh shortly after Caernarvon's 1991 opening.
"Diversion flow has really expanded where bass can survive," Tilyou said. "Now, about 80 percent of the Lake Cataouatche area has hydrilla. After Hurricane Katrina washed a lot of saltwater in there, the marsh was on its way back; it was freshening up. Obviously the more water you pump down there, you're going to increase the areas where hydrilla can even grow. This expands the edge effect, where you have more surface between brackish and freshwater. More animals can tolerate that area and usually there's more food there. Shad, bream, shrimp and bass may even grab a menhaden along the brackish edge."
Anecdotal evidence of improved bass fishing and wetland restoration stemming from freshwater diversions is not hard to come by, but neither are the nay votes. Louisiana faces a tough dilemma as the levees, while essential, have disrupted the river's deltaic cycles at the expense of coastal wetlands. Debates over short-term impacts to commercial fisheries versus long-term sustainability are not easily moderated, but one staggering point remains absolute: As talks continue, so will the loss of 25 square miles a year.