TPWD’s Top 10 News Stories of 2006

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EDITORS NOTE: In this issue of TPWD News, we forsake our usual format for the most part and provide a summary of the top news stories of 2006. Details about these topics can be found in the department’s online news archive. Please note that TPWD will not be distributing weekly news during the coming holidays. News distribution will resume on Jan. 16, 2007. Happy Holidays!

Funding needs dominate Texas state parks news

AUSTIN, Texas —Texas State Parks Advisory Committee Chairman and former state senator John Montford in April told the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission his committee recommends allocating the entire amount of state sporting goods sales tax to parks, a move which would effectively increase funding by about $85 million per year if appropriated by the Texas Legislature.

“It will not be enough to simply repair or restore the park resources and historic sites that have fallen into disrepair due to budget cuts,” said Joseph Fitzsimons, TPW Commission chairman. “In the long run, it is equally important to build a funding structure that allows us to meet the challenges of a growing state.”

Committee recommendations include an additional $15 million per year for state park land acquisition and park development and $20 million more per year for local park grants. The committee's recommendations were mirrored in TPWD's Legislative Appropriations Request for 2008-2009.

Also, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission in August approved the transfer of Lake Houston State Park out of the state park system to be operated as a Houston city park.

And, late in the year, as a result of unexpected oil and gas revenues, TPWD announced its intention to keep the Texas State Railroad running through August 2007, providing time to explore long-term options for the costly historic train, including a proposal to transfer it to local or private control.

ShareLunker #400 high point of outstanding season

ATHENS, Texas—The 2005–2006 Budweiser ShareLunker season ended April 30 with 32 entries, the most 13-pound-plus fish since 33 were entered in 1991-92 and the third-highest total ever. Lake Alan Henry led the state with nine fish weighing a total of 124.23 pounds. Lake Fork’s six fish averaged 14.173 pounds.

Lake Amistad produced four ShareLunkers averaging 13.885, and a new lake record that came in at 15.68 pounds.

Milestone ShareLunker #400, one of the Amistad quartet, was caught Feb. 28 by a Kansas angler. In addition to the usual prizes of a Budweiser ShareLunker jacket and fiberglass replica of the fish, the angler received a cash prize of $400 per pound and a G. Loomis rod with a Shimano reel valued at a total of $600.

The spawning season at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens went very well, with 11 ShareLunker spawns producing more than 159,800 fry so far. Budweiser ShareLunker No. 400 produced a record 46,678 eggs.

Most of the fry will be raised to fingerling size (about 1.5-inches) and then stocked into public waters. As part of Operation World Record, 26,000 fish will be raised to 6-inch size, tagged and stocked into research lakes so their growth rates can be monitored.

The Budweiser ShareLunker program is made possible through support from Anheuser-Busch, Inc. Since 1991, Anheuser-Busch, in partnership with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation, has contributed millions of dollars in funding to support conservation causes and fishing, hunting and outdoor recreation programs in Texas.

State’s first inland paddling trail opens in Luling

LULING, Texas—The state’s first-ever inland paddling trail opened here March 29. The six-mile route, on the San Marcos River from its intersection with U.S. Hwy 90 to the historic Zedler Mill, offers canoeists and kayakers a safe, well-mapped route with convenient access and parking.

The Luling Zedler Mill Paddling Trail joined seven coastal paddling trails.

The first inland paddling trail sparked interest statewide, and currently seven additional inland trails are in the planning stages with several planned to open in 2007.

The Luling Zedler Mill Paddling Trail was created in cooperation with the City of Luling, the Zedler Mill Steering Committee, the Luling Economic Development Board, TPWD and the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority.

Texas Paddling Trails are an exciting way for landowners and communities to partner with Texas Parks and Wildlife to conserve habitats while providing recreational opportunities for the traveling public. The paddling trails of Texas promote sustainable economic development and build public support for conservation of waterways and wildlife.

TPWD is seeking community partners who are interested in establishing new inland and coastal paddling trails. For more information, see the Texas Paddling Trails Web site.

Operation Pescador nets poachers

ZAPATA, Texas—TPWD game wardens in February launched Operation Pescador in an effort to stop illegal commercial fishing on the Texas side of Falcon Reservoir. Game wardens seized 20 boats and 98,000 feet of gill nets in U.S. waters and arrested 28 Mexican commercial fishermen.

“We had some great results from Operation Pescador, but it’s evident that we can only take care of our half of the lake,” said TPWD game warden Captain Chris Huff, who headed the program. “We will probably continue to do this on occasion to keep the illegal commercial fishermen guessing.”

Illegal commercial netting can severely deplete aquatic resources on reservoirs such as Falcon Lake, where low water levels during dry periods can concentrate fish, making them susceptible to fishing pressure and poor reproduction. Until recently, Falcon Lake had been suffering through a decade long drought that saw lake levels plummet 50-feet; lowest on record.

Commercial fishing on Falcon Lake is nothing new, according to Huff. The lake was impounded in 1954 and by 1958, an influx of commercial fishermen from East Texas used high powered boats to illegally fish with gill nets and wooden fish boxes. Mexican commercial fishermen soon entered the scene and by the 1970s when commercial fishing became illegal in Texas, had the run of Falcon Lake to themselves.

Insignificant fines and penalties did nothing to deter the activity. By 1980, Mexican commercial fishing operations were at an all-time high with more than 300 registered fishermen. In 1990, TPWD game wardens filed 175 cases and confiscated more than 50 miles of illegal nets.

Regional management an option for Lower Laguna Madre specks

AUSTIN, Texas — Anglers in the Lower Laguna Madre could see spotted seatrout bag and size limits that are different from those in effect in other bay systems as early as September 2007.

A regional management plan for the Lower Laguna Madre is one solution being considered by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department coastal fisheries biologists to address a downward trend in both the number and size of the popular game fish being landed in Texas’ southernmost bay system.

In a briefing to TPW commissioners Aug. 23, Randy Blankinship, then the TPWD ecosystem leader for the Lower Laguna Madre, said that the department’s data shows that good numbers of spotted seatrout are being recruited to the fishery. Still, Blankinship said, fewer fish over 20 inches are being landed, even though fishing pressure has remained constant or even slightly increased in recent years.

“Because coast-wide trends are positive and the Lower Laguna Madre is the only bay system exhibiting negative trends in spotted seatrout, a regional management approach appears to be one option to accomplish the goal of maintaining a world-class fishery,” Blankinship told commissioners.

Scoping meetings to discuss the proposed changes are slated for January 2007.

Boaters Urged To ‘Lift, Drift, Pole or Troll’ as New Seagrass Reg Takes Effect

ROCKPORT, Texas — The popular Redfish Bay area received an extra measure of protection beginning May 1. On that date, a new regulation took effect, prohibiting the uprooting of seagrass within the Redfish Bay State Scientific Area (RBSSA).

The regulation marked the first time TPW commissioners have used the proclamation process to protect habitat.

Redfish bay, a shallow, highly productive body of water straddling the Aransas Bay and Corpus Christi Bay systems in the Coastal Bend, boasts the state’s northernmost extensive stands of sea grasses. Anglers’ success here has led to a surge in the area’s popularity, and the fragile seagrass meadows — they cover about a third of the 32,000-acre portion of the bay that has been designated a state scientific area — are showing the effects.

“This area is number one for guided fishing trips, and receives the second highest pressure along the Texas coast for private boat anglers,” said TPWD Coastal Fisheries Biologist Faye Grubbs. “Visitors outnumber locals two to one.”

In a recent study, more than half of randomly selected areas in the bay showed evidence of propeller scarring. The trenches destroy the grass, fragment habitat, channel tidal movement and sometimes take years to recover.

“A seagrass meadow supplies everything that many marine organisms need. It provides food for grazing animals at the base of the food chain, surfaces to cling on for small crawling critters, shelter and hiding places for small invertebrates and fish, and ambush points for the larger predators and game fish,” said Dennis Pridgen, another Coastal Fisheries biologist. “For them it’s the nursery, the roof over their heads and the grocery store all rolled into one.”

When the TPW Commission voted on the new rule in November 2005, commissioners chose the least restrictive option — one that focused on changing boater behavior and creating a new appreciation for the value of seagrass habitat.

“What we’re trying to do is really get boaters to think about what they’re doing out in the water,” Grubbs said. “The responsibility is on the boater to know the area he’s fishing in, and also protect and preserve some of the habitat that supports the fish that he’s fishing for.”

New Buck Antler Restrictions Take Effect in 61 Counties

A set of unique buck deer harvest regulations that began as an experiment in a handful of counties a few years ago was expanded to cover 61 counties in the Fall of 2006. Under the new regulation, a lawful buck in the designated counties is defined as any buck having at least one unbranched antler OR an inside antler spread of at least 13 inches. The bag limit in the affected counties is two lawful bucks, no more than one of which may have an inside spread of greater than 13 inches.

These antler restrictions have been in place in 21 counties in the Oak Prairie ecoregion for several years. Harvest data collected by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department wildlife biologists indicate the regulations have been effective in improving the age structure of the buck herd, increasing hunter opportunity, and encouraging landowners and hunters to become more actively involved in better habitat management.

Hunting pressure on buck deer in these counties has been excessive for many years, say wildlife officials. In 1991, the bag limit in most counties in the eastern third of the state was reduced from two bucks to one in an effort to mitigate excessive hunting pressure. Despite the reduction, the data continues to indicate excessive harvest of bucks, which results in very poor age structure, according to Mitch Lockwood, TPWD’s deer program leader. Research results indicate that poor age structure within a buck herd creates a longer breeding season, which in turn leads to a longer fawning season and a reduction in fawn production. Poor age structure also contributes to adverse hunter satisfaction.

Hunter’s Choice Approved for Waterfowl Season

AUSTIN, Texas—The Hunter’s Choice experiment option for the Central Flyway gained approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2006 and gives Texas waterfowlers more latitude during the entire season in exchange for a reduction to the daily bag limit from six to five birds.

Believing a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, along with four other states in the Central Flyway, implemented an experimental Hunter’s Choice bag limit starting with the 2006–07 season. The Hunters Choice experiment option will be in effect for the next few years.

With many duck species having maintained or increased their numbers during the last decade, the Service has granted states in the Central Flyway a liberal package framework for determining hunting regulations. But, there have been caveats. Concerns for select species of ducks have led the Service to take steps to restrict harvest. Those precautionary measures have resulted in complex and confusing regulations, such as “seasons within the season” on some species important to Texas, like pintails.

The Hunter’s Choice allows hunters to shoot five ducks daily, but only one in the aggregate of certain species. In the aggregate category of less abundant ducks, that one bird could be either a pintail, or a canvasback, or a “dusky duck” (mottled, black duck or Mexican-like duck) or a hen mallard.

Deer Park Man Breaks 33-year-old Texas Tarpon Record

AUSTIN, Texas — A 25-year-old Deer Park man set a new Texas state record for tarpon when he landed a 210-pound, 11-ounce fish off the Galveston Fishing Pier Oct. 4.

Jeremy Ebert was fishing for “bull reds” when something different — and obviously bigger — picked up his bait.

“We hooked the fish at about 8:30,” Ebert said. “It made one big jump and then smoked off about 300 yards of line real quick. I got a good look about 30 minutes later, and I knew he was big.”

Ebert fought the fish for about 45 minutes, and lifted it from the water with the help of a massive net and more than half-a-dozen other anglers.

“I grew up on that pier. I’ve fished it a lot,” he said. “I saw my dad catch a tarpon off that pier when I was about 11 years old and it hooked me for the rest of my life.”

A change in the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s fishing regulations last year dispensed with the $120 trophy tarpon tag and made it legal for an angler to keep one tarpon over 80 inches. The 80-inch minimum length was settled-on as the threshold for a fish that might beat the longstanding state record of 210 pounds. That fish, an 86.25-inch tarpon, was caught in November of 1973 by Tom Gibson.

Ebert donated the fish to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. TPWD biologists took DNA samples and the fish was displayed at the Coastal Fisheries “ice table” at the annual TPWD Expo in Austin Oct. 7-8.

As a result of Ebert’s catch, TPWD has proposed increasing the minimum length limit for retention of a tarpon to 90 inches.

Mitigation Agreement to Benefit Wildlife, Highways

AUSTIN, Texas—Transportation and wildlife officials in April announced an agreement to increase large-scale wildlife habitat protection while also facilitating new highway projects.

The written agreement between the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) and the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) formalizes and expands the environmental strategy known as mitigation banking.

“Increasingly, wildlife biologists and other environmental scientists realize that to effectively conserve those woods and waters that are the key for wildlife survival and our human quality of life, you really have to work on a landscape scale,” said Joseph B.C. Fitzsimons, TPW Commission chairman. “With a big mitigation bank, we’re talking about the ability to protect major components of the ecosystem, such as river watersheds or coastal marshes.”

Federal laws such as the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act allow compensation for losses of wetlands and endangered species’ habitat that result from public works projects. This is known as mitigation, meaning natural resource restoration, creation, enhancement or preservation to compensate for unavoidable resource losses caused by development projects.

Historically, this could mean many small mitigation sites patch-worked along a new highway. The new interagency agreement focuses mitigation on large acreage sites picked in advance for their ecological value.