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Lynn Burkhead — Outdoor effects of historic Texas freeze likely to be severe

Herald Democrat
While it may be some time before the extent of the outdoors damage is fully known from this week’s historic cold wave across Texas, it could be severe. At the very least, Lone Star State springtime fishing prospects will be challenging.

It’s been a miserable week of winter weather across Texas with big snowfalls, slippery ice storms and pipe-splitting record cold from one end of the Lone Star State to the other.

From a Valentine’s Day snowstorm last weekend to a 12-inch snowfall in Texarkana on Wednesday, the week of meteorological history across Texas has brought subzero readings, damaging ice buildup on trees and power lines, frozen lakes, deadly accidents and powerless homes and businesses left cold and dark for millions.

Here in the Texomaland area, an all-time record low temperature reading was reached at 5:55 a.m. on Tuesday morning when North Texas Regional Airport registered -4 degrees as thousands of local residents shivered in their powerless and frigid homes, the Burkhead family included.

As the NTRA weather station reported a light lake effect snow off of Lake Texoma, that rare below zero thermometer reading became the coldest temperature ever recorded in the long history of Denison and Sherman weather records, breaking the previous mark of -2 degrees set back in the cold waves of January 1949 and December 1989. And it was even colder a few miles away near Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge where the Austin College Weather Station registered -6 degrees.

As cold as that was, it was even colder elsewhere in Texas this week. On Monday, Feb. 15, a reading of -20 degrees was set at the Palo Duro Reservoir MESONET weather site in Hansford County out in the Texas Panhandle. That was only 3 degrees from tying the Lone Star State’s all-time record low temperature mark of -23 set in Tulia on Feb. 12, 1899 and in Seminole on Feb. 8, 1933.

The following day, subzero cold spread eastward on Tuesday, Feb. 16, as numerous Texas cities saw the red liquid completely disappear out of the thermometer bulb.

All-time record lows of -6 in Tyler and -5 in Longview — which had nearly a foot of snow on the ground — were observed on Tuesday while Nacogdoches fell to -3 degrees. It was -8 in Wichita Falls, -6 in Denton, -4 in Bonham, -2 at DFW International Airport, and -1 in Waco.

The cold wave even stretched deep into the heart of Texas during the first couple of days of this frigid February week. Down in Austin — where 6-8 inches of snow fell on Valentine’s night — it was 8 degrees earlier in the week. Houston saw its thermometer dip to 12 degrees while it also fell to 19 at Galveston, 17 at Corpus Christi, 25 at Harlingen, and 28 at Brownsville.

Thankfully, the intense cold is forecast to slowly begin to ease up as Texomaland completes one of the area’s longest stretches of subfreezing weather. When the temperature finally eases above 32 degrees, the final tally of the Great Cold Wave of 2021 will see well more than 200-consecutive hours of subfreezing weather recorded, apparently falling only behind the all-time mark of 295 hours back in December 1983.

Now, as the weather moderates back towards seasonal norms, the attention will begin to shift away from meteorological records and towards the damage wrought to homes, businesses, and infrastructure across the state.

As plumbers get busy, outdoors enthusiasts across Texas will start looking outside to see what kind of damage has been done to wildlife, fish species, and habitat. While it will be some time before the full scope of the freeze damage is known in the outdoors world, it is likely to be severe.

For starters, the fishing itself will be tough for a good while as water temperatures plummet into the lower 40s, and maybe even the upper 30s in some places. That’s particularly discouraging for bass anglers like those about to descend upon Lake Palestine next week for Major League Fishing’s Bass Pro Tour REDCREST Championship derby, a gathering of such fishing superstars as Kevin VanDam, Edwin Evers, Ott DeFoe, Jacob Wheeler, Jordan Lee, and more.

As this is written, good bass fishing prospects are non-existent in many spots since ice covers many lakes, reservoirs and rivers across Texas. Already this week, I’ve seen photos showing massive expanses of ice on Texoma’s Big Mineral Arm (in the Hagerman NWR area) and Lake Fork’s Williams Creek area.

Numerous other fisheries have big frozen areas too including Ray Hubbard, Hubbard Creek, Lake of the Pines, Possum Kingdom, and the Brazos River to name a few. And on smaller water bodies like Denison’s Waterloo Lake, the entire lake surface is frozen and covered with snow.

While most freshwater game fish should make it through the freeze ok, the same can't be said for the shad populations that drive many North and East Texas fisheries. Dan Bennett, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department inland fisheries biologist tasked with overseeing Lake Texoma, admits that a loss of threadfin shad seems almost inevitable as water temperatures plummet.

Further south on the Texas Gulf Coast, the cold is already having a devastating effect with Texas Monthly reporting that as many as 4,000 cold stunned sea turtles have been rescued this week as workers try to save members of a sea species that can’t tolerate such intense cold.

And while fish kills apparently aren’t widespread yet along the upper coast, reports are grim further south where numerous reports of dead speckled trout, tarpon, snook, mullet and baitfish are being noted in such places as Port Aransas, Aransas Pass, and Port Mansfield.

While it remains to be seen if this month’s freeze produces the kind of catastrophic costal fish kills that happened in the 1980s — Texas redfish and trout stocks were devastated in 1983 and again in 1989 — TPWD enacted a temporary emergency closure earlier in the week for several coastal fishing hotspots as the agency tries to protect vulnerable fish seeking warmer water in some of the state’s deeper saltwater holes.

And it’s not just the actual fisheries themselves that will see damage. Pipes have undoubtedly burst at many fish camps and lakeside cabins, not to mention damage done to things like outboard motors, batteries and boat electronics left exposed to the cold. In some cases, some boats are even being lost as a marina slip at Lake of the Pines reportedly sank at midweek due to the weight of ice and snow buildup on the roof.

How about wildlife? In general, white-tailed deer and wild turkeys seem to usually make it through these cold waves fairly well, although some losses might be expected in places where the weather was at its worst. Ducks and geese will do just fine after the cold snap, although the same cannot be said for Texomaland’s waterfowlers who are grumbling about the winter’s best quacker numbers…two weeks after the season closed.

The biggest worry for wildlife will undoubtedly be birds, since dead songbirds have already been reported across the area, including a number of robins. While most mourning doves and white-winged doves are south of the area, they could be negatively affected.

And bobwhite quail, already suffering from a dismal year across portions of western Texas and Oklahoma, could be especially hard hit by snowfall and ice accumulations. Barring a miraculous spring and summer, snowfall depths of a foot or more from near Wichita Falls on northeastward across a wide swath of the Sooner State could spell even more trouble for an iconic upland game bird species struggling mightily in recent months.

Not too many weeks from now, springtime warmth will return as sweaters and fireplaces are exchanged for shorts, suntan lotion and AC units running full blast. But the effects of this historic visit from Old Man Winter won’t be forgotten anytime soon as the damage to property, wildlife, and fish species is tallied after one of wintertime’s worst sieges in more than a century.

Maybe by then, we'll all have warmed up just a little bit.