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Hot Bass & Cool Cats

Dress for the weather and discover a “winter wonderland” of freshwater action at Martin Creek Lake.

By Paul A. Cañada

My friend Daniel suggests I start with a soft-plastic twitch bait while he throws a Suspending Rogue. I feel silly throwing the weightless bait up in the shallows on a cold January morning. Conventional wisdom says that bass move to deep water when it’s cold. Still, Daniel is an accomplished tournament angler and very familiar with Martin Creek Lake, so I comply.

Slowed by my bulky jumpsuit, I struggle to work the rod tip and maintain a convincing cadence. The slack in my line slaps at the water’s surface. My numb fingers fail to detect the first nudge at the lure. However, the subtle bite quickly turns into a tug-of-war, and my finned opponent shakes off the hook. While I fumble with my lure, Daniel sweeps his rod back and the normally unyielding, medium-heavy outfit bows up. Moments later, a chunky four-pound bass swims alongside the boat, relentlessly trying to throw the lure back at my partner.

While the fishing is hot, the weather is not. I estimate the air temperature to be in the mid-30s. Yet we are fishing in shallow water — and the fish are biting. For many East Texas bass anglers, Martin Creek Lake — located just southeast of Longview — is the equivalent of a “winter wonderland.” The 5,000-acre impoundment’s water is warmed by the discharge released from TXU Energy’s lignite-fired electric power generating plant. This influx of hot water creates a warm-water fishery in the middle of winter and provides anglers with an excellent opportunity to pursue their favorite sportfish in relatively shallow water.

Winter Bass Fishing Opportunities

Like bass populations on many of Texas’ power-plant impoundments, Martin Creek Lake’s bass begin moving to spawning grounds in December. Because of this, the East Texas impoundment is popular in January and February. While other bass anglers are probing Lake Fork’s deeper water, hoping for a few bites a day, the shallow water bite is on at Martin Creek Lake. Still, Martin Creek Lake is different from most power-plant reservoirs. Unlike most warm-water reservoirs, Martin Creek’s dam is on the northern end of the lake, and the hot-water discharge is located at mid-lake. However, a retaining wall or diversion dam — designed to allow for the greatest circulation and cooling before the hot water enters the main lake body — channels the discharge up Dry Creek.

According to Jimmy Bartley, a former guide on Martin Creek Lake, the diversion of the hot water causes water temperatures to vary throughout the lake.

“In January,” he says, “the water temperatures in Panther and Rocky Ford creeks typically will be in the mid-50s. But the water temperature in those areas close to the hot-water discharge may be in the high 80s. Water temperatures at mid-lake, in the Martin Creek arm, will vary between the high 60s on the leeward, west bank and in the low 60s on the less-protected east bank. This disparity in water temperature literally creates three different fisheries out of the one.

“When the bass around the hot-water discharge have spawned out, the fish around the dam and Panther Creek are just beginning to stage on the points adjacent to the creek channels,” Bartley continues. “The bass at mid-lake will be somewhere in between the two extremes. Beginning in January and continuing through mid-February, you can choose which group of fish — pre-spawn, spawn or post-spawn — you want to target.”

Understandably, anglers will find the earliest spawners in Dry Creek and around the hot-water discharge. Most of the spawning bass can be caught from surprisingly shallow water near stumps, laydowns and flooded brush. Locals use a number of shallow presentations — spinnerbaits, soft-plastic trick worms and twitch baits, tube baits and suspending jerk baits — when targeting these fish.

The most probable locations for finding pre-spawn fish in January will be in the northernmost and southernmost ends of the lake. The hungry predators will congregate along the edges of creek channels in about eight feet of water. On unusually warm days, prespawn bass will move up onto the shallower flats to feed. Bartley recommends anglers use diving crankbaits and spinnerbaits to locate fish and switch to a jig or worm once contact is made.

An Emerging Fishery

A decade ago, Martin Creek Lake was considered strictly a trophy bass fishery. The reservoir had an abundance of shallow cover (hydrilla, lily pads and timber), clear water, an excellent forage base and a healthy bass population. However, a combination of low water conditions in 1996 and the stocking of more than 12,500 grass carp resulted in the complete eradication of hydrilla. Today, the bass population at Martin Creek Lake is significantly less than it was in the early 1990s.

“The bass population has been on a steady decline ever since the aquatic vegetation disappeared from the reservoir,” says Victor Perez, manager of Martin Creek Lake State Park. “I have been told the bass population is about a quarter of what it was before the complete loss of hydrilla.”

Although the bass fishing continues to be good between December and March, when the bass have moved relatively shallow to spawn, it has become increasingly difficult to locate and catch largemouths between April and November. The decline of one species has led to the growth of another.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department fishery biologist Todd Driscoll explains. “The channel catfish population at Martin Creek Lake is unbelievable,” he says. “We’re really uncertain of the actual mechanisms that stimulated this growth in the catfish population. Some of the growth might be due to the reduction of bass numbers and a corresponding reduction in direct predation by bass. However, it’s more likely the disappearance of shallow vegetation made more nutrients available to those food items the catfish prefer.”

The growth of Martin Creek’s catfish population has changed fishing patterns on the lake. “Following the disappearance of the aquatic vegetation,” says Driscoll, “we have conducted creel surveys every spring. The last creel survey showed catfish was the most popular species targeted. Believe it or not, more than half of the angling pressure we observed during that survey was being done from the bank. We have a unique fishery in Martin Creek Lake.”

Bank fishing within the park could hardly be easier. The many secondary points located just east of the state park’s boat ramp often give up nice numbers of bass and panfish. Catfish anglers may want to test the flats east of the park headquarters, and between the launch facilities and spillway. Nighttime anglers will find the lighted pier and seasonal fish feeder ideal for primetime catfish angling.

Martin Creek Lake State Park – Serving Anglers and Families

Martin Creek Lake State Park is located on the northeast end of the reservoir. Its four-lane concrete boat ramp is the only one on this East Texas impoundment. The park’s many facilities easily accommodate a variety of outdoor activities including hiking, camping, birding, nature study, swimming and biking.

Park visitors interested in activities other than fishing can test the recently improved, 8.5 miles of hiking/mountain biking trails. Park manager Victor Perez explains: “We had a timber harvest and so have rerouted our trails. Logs and trees that were blocking portions of the trail were removed, and areas that looked potentially bad for beetle infestation were thinned out. Fortunately, we didn’t experience any loss of trail mileage.”

Facilities include screened shelters, a group picnic pavilion, a playground and an unsupervised swimming area. Overnight accommodations include hike-in primitive campsites (no drinking water available) and campsites with water, electricity, fire rings and picnic tables. The park also has two cottages (capacity of five) with air conditioning and heat, water, electricity and bunk beds. Visitors seeking more luxurious accommodations might try one of the two cabins (capacity of four) with central air and heat, kitchen with stove and oven, refrigerator, coffee maker, screened back porch and outdoor smoker/cooker.

Like Martin Creek Lake’s fishery itself, Martin Creek Lake State Park is evolving to meet the changing interests and various activities of outdoor enthusiasts. “This park is under a major transition right now,” says Perez. “There are a lot of repairs going on, and many improvements are being made. In the end, the park will better serve the entire outdoor community — anglers and all others as well.”

For information about the park call (903) 836-4336 or visit <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/martincr/>. For reservations call (512) 389-8900 or go to <www.tpwd.state.tx.us> and click on Make a Reservation.

Staying Safe on Martin Creek Lake in Winter

Safety cannot be overlooked when fishing in air temperatures near freezing. Prior to arriving at the reservoir, anglers should secure and study an accurate map of Martin Creek Lake. The impoundment is full of pole timber, stump fields and high spots. Fog, which forms whenever air temperatures drop low enough to promote condensation, combines with the water hazards to make an early morning departure risky. Anglers must exercise extreme caution and use common sense when navigating the lake under foggy conditions.

Hypothermia is a real danger when fishing Martin Creek Lake in winter. Always keep towels, blankets and a spare set of clothes on board. Layer clothing, beginning with extreme-weather underwear and finishing with an insulated bib and jacket suit. Use neoprene gloves to keep fingers warm and safe from frostbite.

Even the best swimmers find it difficult to keep their heads above water when heavy winter clothing gets soaked. Keep life jackets on, especially when fishing alone. Flotation cushions should be kept out and within reach.

In freezing conditions, boat ramps ice up quickly. It’s important to use caution when launching and trailering. Move slowly down and back up the ramp to avoid spinning tires. Once traction is lost, it’s difficult to regain control of a trailer and tow vehicle.

Finally, heavy early morning fog, common on Martin Creek Lake in winter, impedes a boater’s vision of the shoreline and oncoming watercraft. Anglers should keep navigation lights on and an air horn near the driver’s seat. When fog is extremely thick, anglers should stay close to shore and avoid running at high speeds. Also, a compass and detailed map of the lake should be kept on board at all times.

Making a Case for Aquatic Vegetation

In the early 1990s, the vegetative coverage — specifically hydrilla — on Martin Creek Lake was deemed excessive. The controlling authority on Martin Creek Lake (TXU Energy) feared the excessive hydrilla would block the power generating plant’s water intake structures and believed the coverage was inhibiting recreational use of the lake. Equally important, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologists believed the approximately 40 percent coverage was too high to provide good biological benefits to the fishery.

In order to remedy the troubling situation, TXU Energy and TPWD planned to stock just enough grass carp into the system to reduce and control the growth of aquatic vegetation. The carp were introduced in 1993 and stocked annually between 1996 and 1999. It was planned the 12,566 carp stocked in the lake would reduce the vegetation level and maintain it at approximately 15 percent coverage.

Historically low water levels in 1996 killed much of the shallowest hydrilla, and the grass carp were able to overtake the remaining grass and quickly eliminate any new growth. The sudden reduction of shallow vegetation resulted in poor spawns and low recruitment numbers of bass and the eventual reduction of Martin Creek Lake’s bass population. Also, without the good shoreline habitat to hold and concentrate the bass, not only have the numbers of fish been reduced but so has the catchability of the remaining bass.

“When dealing with a biological control like grass carp,” explains TPWD biologist Todd Driscoll, “you’re assuming the current level of vegetation coverage is going to remain the same. That was obviously an invalid assumption at Martin Creek Lake. The number of carp introduced into the lake wasn’t enough to eliminate the grass totally. The main compounding factor in what happened at Martin Creek Lake was the low water levels of 1996.”

The terrestrial vegetation that grew on the dry lake bottom during low-water years has been inundated by recent rises in water levels. The flooded brush and small trees are excellent nursery habitat for young bass, and the bass are coming back, Driscoll says. “Our survey caught a lot of young bass in fall 2001, which means the survival of bass spawned in spring of 2001 was fairly promising. Once the bass reach 10 inches or larger, predation isn’t as big a player as it is when the bass are only three to four inches long. As the loss of hydrilla and the flooding of brush on Martin Creek Lake have shown, shallow cover plays a significant role in the numbers of bass.”

Paul Cañada is a freelance writer and photographer from Laredo.

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