Cold, shad story left behind following extreme winter weather

Lynn Burkhead
For the Herald Democrat

It’s hard to be optimistic right now if you’re a Texomaland angler dreaming of springtime fishing success.

After all, the frozen tundra here in the Red River Valley is nothing short of an arctic wasteland as this gets written on Thursday morning. Outside, several inches of snow remains on the ground and 224 consecutive hours of sub-freezing weather continues to slowly grind towards the thermometer’s first trip above the 32 degree mark in well over a week.

As the most severe arctic blast in decades begins to slowly fade away over the weekend, local anglers are left wondering what kind of damage has been done to Lake Texoma and other regional fisheries.

According to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department inland fisheries biologist Dan Bennett, there will almost certainly be a shad kill at many lakes across the area, including the 89,000-acre local pond northwest of Denison.

“In the past, we’ve had some pretty good shad kills from cold weather events like this one,” he said at midweek with air temperatures hovering in the lower 20s.

The head man at the Lake Texoma Fisheries Station north of Pottsboro says that once water temps drop below the 43 degree mark, threadfin shad start dying off if they can’t find deeper places of thermal refuge to ride out the cold water spell. Gizzard shad are a bit hardier, but they too can succumb to the cold water.

“We’re seeing it ice over on some areas of the lake, and in some places, the water temps are undoubtedly in the lower 40s or even the upper 30s,” said Bennett. “It was down in the upper 40s last week when we were doing some of our wintertime survey work and it’s only gotten worse since then.”

When I asked Bennett if the shad kill had already happened, he said that since shad sink when they die, a die-off won’t be fully known until guides and anglers start reporting difficulty in catching bait or biologists see grim details in spring electroshocking surveys.

But he admits that he already has a pretty good guess in hand.

“I’d say it (the shad kill) has already occurred because the temperatures and winds have been sufficient enough to distribute cold water temps down deep enough to get them,” said Bennett. “Hopefully, some of them were able to find some warmer water down deep and if so, that will help some shad pull through.”

Bennett noted that numerous other lakes in Texas where shad are an important part of the forage base will also likely be hard hit in the aftermath of this cold snap. That would complicate any potential effort to try and supplement Texoma’s shad numbers with stockings from other water bodies.

Also complicating things is that Texoma is weeks away from this year’s shad spawn and even then, relief won’t come quickly.

“It will take those new shad some time to grow up to size and we could see the effects of this lasting into fall or beyond,” said Bennett.

In the meantime, Bennett says that stripers are opportunistic enough to find other forage, chasing down prey ranging from young stripers to small white bass to bluegills.

If there’s some good news from all of this, the TPWD biologist says that angler catch rates should go up in coming months as hungry stripers roam the big lake and daily search for food.

Unfortunately, as they did a few years ago when shad were also scarce at the big lake, Bennett says that Texoma’s stripers will likely get a little skinnier as summertime approaches.

“The jury is still out on how severe all of this will ultimately be, but there’s just not a whole lot we can do at the moment other than wait and watch,” he said.

In the meantime, when the ice melts and lake conditions allow, Bennett and his crews will go back to work sampling Texoma’s striped bass population. They got about 1/3 of their work done before the arctic blast hit last week, and so far, the biologist likes what he sees.

“On the lower end of Texoma, we had the highest catch rates we’ve ever seen in that part of the lake,” he said, noting that he’s unsure if that’s just a delayed move up the lake for the coming spawn or an actual increase in overall numbers.

Bennett also noted that while work remains to be done this month in order to have a full picture of what Texoma’s striped bass fishery looks like for the rest of this year, he also likes the trends in size that he’s seen so far.

“We had a higher number of fish in the 20- and 21-inch size range last week,” he said. “There also appears to be a good flood of those box-sized fish as well. Hopefully, the weather and the wind will allow us to get back out there next week and get the rest of our sampling work done.”

In the meantime, Bennett is like everyone else in Texomaland, talking about the weather, waiting for it to warm up and comparing this arctic blast against the historic freezes of the 1980s when he was a youngster.

“Weather like this is definitely pretty crazy,” he said. “We’ll have to see what this freeze has done and I’m sure that we’ll see some impacts over the next few weeks that we don’t anticipate showing up right now.”

In the meantime, as Old Man Winter slowly leaves town, Texoma’s anglers will poke the fire, drink coffee and wonder when the power will come back on.

And as they wait, they’ll wonder the full extent of the damage wrought by the Great Arctic Blast of 2021, one that is leaving a cold and shad story in its wake.