Houston Chronicle Shannon Tompkins column

2017-05-18 | Houston Chronicle

May 18--With one hand on the wheel of his 22-foot center-console boat, the other holding an orange marker buoy and eyes squarely on the screens of the two electronic chart plotter/fish finder/GPS units mounted on the boat's console, Simon Cosper knew he was close to the spot.

"It should be right about ... here!" Cosper said as one of the digital screens lit up with a swarm of orange/yellow/red squiggles and V's.

"They're on top of an old pond dam," he said, pointing to the digital image reflecting the topography of the bottom of Lake Livingston and everything between the surface and that bottom.

"It comes up to about 15 feet on the top. Slopes off to 25 feet or so -- see? -- then drops into the old Trinity River channel right over there," Cosper said, nodding his head toward the west as he swung the boat's wheel, turning the bow into the chop churned by a stiff southeast wind and dropping the buoy overboard.

We were in the middle of the southern half of Lake Livingston, an expanse of more than 50 square miles of almost wholly open water stretching from the 90,000-acre reservoir's dam and spillway to the U.S. Highway 190 bridge. The orange buoy was the only thing indicating this spot was any different from the thousands of acres of featureless, green/gray, white-capped water around it.

But it wasn't what was on the surface that mattered. It was what was below it -- what was creating those squiggles and V's on the digital screen -- that mattered.

Cosper maneuvered the boat downwind, slipped the anchor from the bow, and the vessel came to heel directly over the top of the pond dam drowned when Lake Livingston was created in 1969.

He'd rigged a pair of rod-and-reels with one-ounce RSR spoons armed with a single treble hook on the end of the lines and fit a secondary lure -- an Arkie Minnow Teaser with a 1/0 "sickle" hook -- about 18 inches up the line.

"Just drop it straight down to the bottom," the 30-year-old fishing guide said as he did just that. "Then lift it up and let it fall on slack line.

"They'll usually hit it on the fall ... just like that," he said, grinning as he snapped the rod upward where it took the classic bend that says "fish on!"

This lake a hot spot

But it wasn't a fish. It was two fish. Cosper and his quarry tussled for several seconds, the line cutting zigzags and the reel's drag yielding against strong runs before the water boiled and he lifted a pair of fat, flapping white bass over the gunwale.

It was the first of dozens of these strong, aggressive sport fish he and I would hook, fight, land and release over the next couple of hours.

Lake Livingston is, simply, one of the best white bass lakes in Texas. And that covers some country; Texas holds a dozen or more reservoirs where the quantity, and often the quality, of the white bass fishery matches or exceeds any in the nation.

Livingston is perfect habitat for white bass, a fish that ranks as the fourth- or fifth-most popular freshwater sport fish in the state. And that comes from a bit of serendipity.

White bass are not native to Lake Livingston or the Trinity River or most of Texas. These deep-bodied "true" bass (largemouth bass are really a big sunfish) are native only to Great Lakes and the Mississippi and Ohio river drainages. In Texas, they are native only to Caddo Lake and its Cypress Bayou drainage that feeds, eventually, into the Mississippi.

Whites, like their striped bass cousins, are fish of big, open water. They are a schooling fish, invariably found in congregations that roam open waters, hunting and ambushing smaller fish. Shad, mostly. Threadfin shad, in particular.

Texas originally held little habitat of this kind. That changed with the creation of reservoirs.

In the 1930s, Texas fisheries managers stocked a handful of adult white bass from Caddo into Lake Dallas (now Lake Lewisville), and the fish thrived. Reservoirs create perfect habitat for adult white bass: plenty of open water and plenty to eat in the clouds of threadfin shad that also thrived in the plankton-rich open waters.

The rivers and creeks feeding these reservoirs provided the crucial spawning habitat the fish require -- long stretches of running water into which the whites crowd each late winter, females releasing eggs, males fertilizing them, the resulting larvae carried downstream to the reservoirs where, within a year, they grow to 8-10 inches and join their kind in the wolf packs that hunt the open water.

White bass can be stunningly prodigious parents. A 2-pound female white bass can produce as many as 900,000 eggs. If only half of 1 percent of those eggs produces a fish that reaches adulthood, that's 4,500 white bass.

Lake Livingston and the Trinity River feeding it are a white bass factory, with the river offering outstanding spawning habitat, and the reservoir, with its abundance of open water and richness of its threadfin shad population, providing an endless buffet for adult white bass.

"I've fished a lot of places, but I've never seen a lake where the white bass numbers are this good," Cosper said.

Find the structures

The trick, though, is locating these fish. And that can be challenging for anglers new to the game and facing an expanse of open water that all looks the same on the surface.

Schools of white bass tend to follow channels, congregating around adjacent topographic anomalies that provide fish with ambush opportunities and also attract clouds of threadfin shad.

"The river is the highway," Cosper said. "The structure -- humps, or ledges, or roadbeds or old bridges -- are the McDonald's where they pull in for an easy meal -- the fish version of fast food."

And it's where anglers pull in for fast fishing.

But they have to know the address. And they have to learn when the fish are there and feeding.

Early electronic fish finders -- simple sonar units -- were a boon to white bass anglers, allowing them to find open-water anomalies that likely held white bass. But the new devices, which incorporate increasingly refined navigation (including ability to store thousands of exact location via "waypoints" saved in a GPS/chart plotter's memory) and imaging abilities, have become a lethal weapon in the hands of those who learn to use the technology.

"Used to be, people used a map and a compass and a depth-finders (to hunt white bass)," Cosper said. "They trolled a lot, hoping to hit a bunch of fish."

Sometimes, they did. Or they fished well-known "community holes" whose location was well-known or easily discovered.

"The old (submerged) Highway 190 roadbed is one of those places everybody knows," Cosper said. "Some days, there are so many people on it you can tell exactly where it is because there's a line of boats along it from one side of the lake to the other."

But to consistently find white bass, it takes knowing dozens of potential fish-holding locations and how to "read" those fish.

"A lot of times, fish will be concentrated in one small spot. If you're just a boat length off, you won't catch them. To catch white bass in the lake, you live and die with electronics," Cosper said. "Without them, it's impossible to be consistent."

With them, odds are much improved.

"Just finding a bunch of fish over a piece of structure doesn't mean you'll catch them. They may not be in the mood to bite," he said. "You have to learn what feeding fish look like on the screen. They'll usually be right over structure and pretty close to the bottom. If they're suspended, they're a lot tougher to catch."

Cosper, who has scores of white bass structures logged into his electronics, often will visit a dozen or more to locate one that he feels holds a heavy concentration of catchable fish.

"Sometimes, I'll drive around for an hour, looking at spots seeing what the fish look like on the screen," he said. "My clients will wonder what I'm doing and why we're not stopping to fish. I'm looking for specific clues. When I find them, we catch fish."

And he has been catching fish this spring.

"It's as good as I've seen it," Cosper, whose Get The Net Guide Service is based on Lake Livingston, said Tuesday morning, noting the pond dam we fished had produced limits of white bass -- 25 fish per angler -- every day for the past 13 days.

"There have been days when we have 100 fish by 8:30," he said.

Memorable experience

We easily could have done just that earlier this week. Dropping the slab/teaser combination to the bottom and simply jigging it and letting it fall generated almost nonstop strikes, often with a white bass grabbing each of the two baits. Many of the fish were modest size, but several were solid white bass measuring 12-15 inches and weighing 1-2 pounds. The fish are tremendous fighters on light tackle, and the kind of fishing that forever hooks young or novice anglers and makes experienced anglers remember why they so enjoy the recreation.

And, Cosper said, the open-water white bass fishing will continue through summer. It'll even get better in about a month when, early and late in the day, schools of whites begin pushing shad to the surface and boiling the water as they chase and devour the hapless shad.

But for consistent action fishing in open water, nothing beats knowing how to locate schools of white bass holding around the submerged structure -- those "McDonald's" serving threadfin shad -- hidden below the surface.