A Day in the Life of a...

Fisheries Management Biologist

By Larry D. Hodge

TPWD district fisheries biologist Stephan Magnelia and I are on Granger Lake, a 4,400-acre impoundment on the Blackland Prairie northeast of Austin. Magnelia is doing a creel survey, motoring around the lake talking to anglers about what they’re fishing for, what they’re catching, and how much time and money they’re spending.

Magnelia is not just being nosy. He’s gathering information that will give him a snapshot in time of how the anglers on this lake, this day, are impacting the fishery. But more importantly, he’s getting firsthand accounts of how successful TPWD’s management of the fishery is in providing the kind of fishing anglers want. This where the rubber meets the road in fisheries management, and Magnelia feels it’s vital for him to see and talk to anglers, because in effect every one of them is grading his job performance.

“My main job is to collect data to make recommendations for stocking and fishing regulations,” Magnelia says. “I also provide a lot of information to the public concerning fishing, fish populations, and access. The other thing we do is habitat improvement projects and fish attractor projects to try to improve catch rates.”

“You’re just the guy I want to talk to,” exclaims one angler. “I want to know why the regulations on crappie don’t require you to keep the first 25 fish you catch regardless of size. I see a lot of small fish that have been hooked deep die after they’re thrown back.”

Magnelia seizes the opportunity to do a little education mixed with public relations. While sympathetic to the angler’s position, he points out there’s more to the story than meets the eye. “We do have that 'catch and keep' regulation on Lake Fork for a part of the year, where a lot of fish are pulled from deep water and will die if released,” he says. “Granger Lake has a really good crappie fishery, and we want to maintain that. The 10-inch limit keeps more breeding-size crappie in the population. This results in more consistent spawning and production of young crappie from year to year. Additionally, anglers can take home more pounds of fillets even though they are harvesting fewer 10-inch crappie than when they kept 8- or 9-inch fish.”

As we head on up the San Gabriel River arm of the lake in search of more anglers, Magnelia comments, “I pretty much tell people the way it is. I think there are a lot of misconceptions out there about fish and game management. The fishing in Texas is pretty good, even in urban areas where we have a lot of anglers. We try to make sure fishing regulations are appropriate for the particular water body to make the fishing as good as it can be. We have to take into account the type of anglers using a water body. On a lot of our lakes, people release almost everything they catch, but here on Granger Lake, people mostly fish for food. You’ll see lots of people bank fishing, whole families fishing—it’s great to see. There is a biological side and a sociological side to take into consideration, and we try to balance those out. People don’t like regulations that impact their activities—and they are the ones paying the bills.”

The job of management biologist requires a complex set of skills. Part of the job involves collecting data and analyzing what the numbers mean. But that information is only the basis for the nitty-gritty—making sense of the data and using it to make recommendations for stocking, regulation changes, or habitat improvement. And through it all the management biologist has the public looking over his or her shoulder. “I probably have more contact with the public in this end of the business than most of my counterparts in other parts of the fisheries business, such as research and hatcheries,” Magnelia says.

Still, a large part of the job involves hands-on work with fish. Management biologists have to know what’s in a body of water before they can make recommendations for managing it. Gill netting is one way to collect information. “Fish collection lets you look at numbers, sizes, and body condition of fish as well as length at age,” Magnelia explains. “Creel surveys look more at the actual user—fishing pressure, harvest, economic impact.”

Perhaps the most interesting way of collecting information on the fish in a lake is electrofishing. Sometimes called shocking, the procedure involves using a specially equipped boat carrying a generator that sends direct current into the water. Just enough current is used to stun fish without killing them. Biologists wearing insulating gloves and boots use fiberglass-handled nets to scoop the fish from the water. Each fish is measured, weighed, and its overall condition assessed before it is returned to the water.

I accompany Magnelia, fisheries technicians Josh Duty and Greg Cummings, and volunteer Dudley Allen on an electrofishing expedition on Meadow Lake, a 55-acre impoundment in a Round Rock city park. “There has been some water level fluctuation, and that has raised concerns about the status of the fishery,” Magnelia says. “This lake has had excellent largemouth bass production in the past—it used to be locally known as 13-pound lake because of the size of the fish caught here.”

Onlookers gather as the crew prepares to launch the boat. One of the first to arrive is a girl about nine years old whose dad brought her to the park to use the playground equipment. But the boat draws her like a magnet. “I love to fish,” she confides. “Last time my dad took me fishing, I caught two and he only caught one.”

“You go, girl,” I think. “You’re the reason we’re here.”

The electrofishing shows there’s no cause for concern about the largemouth bass population in Meadow Lake. During two 15-minute periods of shocking, Magnelia and crew boat 152 largemouth bass of which 64 exceed 14 inches and eight exceed 21 inches. One after another, big fish float to the surface. It’s an excellent lesson in the importance of habitat for big bass. Time and again the boat noses directly into flooded timber around the perimeter of the lake, often in water less than two feet deep, and each time that’s where the big bass are found. The importance of using heavy line when fishing in heavy cover becomes clear, too. Twice Magnelia plays fish doctor, removing plastic baits from the gullets of fish that had broken anglers’ lines.

Anglers have little idea how much work goes into making a quality fishery. Our electrofishing survey of Meadow Lake begins at 4:30 p.m. and ends well after midnight. The next day Magnelia meets me at 9:00 a.m. for the trip to Granger Lake. “One thing that a lot of anglers don’t see is there are people such as our crew all across the state that are working with fishing and fishing related problems every day,” Magnelia says. “Research biologists, hatchery staff, fisheries management staff, and administrative staff all work together to make possible the good fishing we have here in Texas. It doesn’t come about without a lot of hard work.”

Magnelia ticks off a list of benefits of fisheries management for anglers: “Better catch rates and the opportunity to fish for different species such as blue catfish, striped bass, hybrid striped bass, and rainbow trout. On the largemouth bass side, customized fishing regulations and Florida bass stocking on many reservoirs have dramatically improved catch rates and the size of fish anglers are able to catch.”

More fish and bigger fish. In a nutshell, that’s what Magnelia and other TPWD Inland Fisheries staff work to provide.


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