Posted: Tue, 11 Jul 2017 08:19 PM - 907 Readers
By: David Barer and Josh Hinkle
On a steamy summer morning, professional bass fishing guide Ray Tomasits rigged up 10 fishing rods and carefully placed them across the front of his powerboat before pushing off the bank of Lady Bird Lake.
With a KXAN crew in tow, Tomasits stood at the bow, maneuvered the trolling motor with one foot and spoke, all while deftly zipping sidearm casts beneath low-hanging branches and lobbing lures just inches from the bank.
Tomasits was searching for bass, but there’s another fish in the lake that has him and other Central Texas anglers concerned.
State and local officials released tens of thousands of Asian grass carp into Lake Austin to combat overgrown vegetation
in recent years. They came. They ate. They conquered. Then they kept swimming.
“After seeing what they did to Lake Austin, I’m a little worried,” Tomasits said. “They’ve completely decimated any aquatic vegetation that was in Lake Austin. Anglers now are pretty cynical about the whole deal, and they call [Lake Austin] a mud pit.”
The invasive grass carp, which are imported sterile and grow to over 50 pounds, have now moved downstream in droves into Lady Bird Lake. Marcos De Jesus, a fisheries supervisor with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, called it a “mass migration” through the floodgates of Tom Miller Dam, which links Lake Austin to Lady Bird Lake.
Lake Austin was recognized nationally as a top bass fishing destination as recently as 2014. Since that year, vegetation coverage has dropped to zero, and the lake is no longer ranked, according to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department studies and Bassmaster rankings.
While De Jesus is hopeful Lady Bird Lake will remain an excellent fishing spot, many local fishermen aren’t as optimistic.
The big release
The whole problem started with the onset of exceptional drought from 2009 through 2011. As lakes Travis and Buchanan — Central Texas’ largest reservoirs — began drying up, the Lower Colorado River Authority reduced the flow downstream through a series of Central Texas dams. LCRA controls water flow and hydroelectric power from the lakes and the Colorado River down to the Gulf Coast.
Low water flow, higher-than-normal temperatures and lack of floods led to the aggressive expansion of underwater aquatic vegetation, especially hydrilla in Lake Austin. Hydrilla, a non-native weed, can grow from as deep as 20 or 30 feet to the surface.
The plants created a veritable underwater jungle. It was great for fishing and the food chain, providing habitat and hunting grounds for all manner of fish, from minnows and shad to perch and largemouth bass. But the dense mats of hydrilla also brought a new set of problems. They were dangerous to swimmers and boaters, could increase flooding and foul up power plant machinery.
De Jesus said the release of the carp was necessary to maintain safe and usable lakes. TPWD and state experts were aware the carp could move downstream at some point, he said.
“This is something I’m not trying to downplay,” De Jesus said. “It’s serious. We knew it could happen, so right now it’s more of a control situation to see how we can revert things to where it was.”