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July 23, 2012

Conservation Group Sparks Lake Buchanan Renaissance

ATHENS—Lake Buchanan has suffered multiple setbacks from drought in recent years—boat ramps out of water, declining striped bass fishery and decreased tourism—but a local conservation group has engineered ways to combat all those problems.

Working in partnership with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD), the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) and Burnet and Llano counties, the Lake Buchanan Conservation Corporation (LBCC) has built boat ramps, improved fish habitat in the lake, stocked fish and improved recreational facilities at public parks.

“Our overall goal is to increase tourism to Lake Buchanan,” said Todd Boyd, president of LBCC, which has about 140 members. “We want to bring people to the lake to enjoy what it has to offer.”

One of the things Boyd enjoys is fishing, and Lake Buchanan has long been known as one of the premiere striped bass fisheries in Texas. “Lake Buchanan is the uppermost lake in the Lower Colorado chain of lakes above Austin, making it relatively more productive than the lakes downstream,” said Marcos De Jesus, the TPWD fisheries biologist who manages the lake’s fishery. “The productivity translates to good production of shad, which is the main forage species for fish like stripers. Striped bass have been stocked into the lake since 1977. Hybrid striped bass, a cross between white bass and striped bass, require the same habitat and forage, and they have been stocked into the lake since 2006.”

This year the LBCC will stock 75,000 two- to three-inch hybrid striped bass fingerlings into Lake Buchanan. The stocking will take place Thursday, July 26, at 9:00 a.m. at the boat ramp off CR 225 in Llano County. The public is invited to attend. From Burnet, take Texas 29 west about 13 miles to Texas 261 on the west side of Lake Buchanan. Turn right onto Texas 261 and follow it to Llano CR 225. Turn right onto CR 225 and follow it 3.2 miles to the ramp entrance on the left.

Stocked reservoir populations of striped bass are most often incapable of reproducing due to environmental constraints, while hybrid stripers are naturally infertile. Maintaining the fishery depends on consequent annual stockings. TPWD has stocked more than 10 million striped bass into the lake since 1977, but recently, drought and outbreaks of golden alga have limited the ability of TPWD fish hatcheries to meet the statewide requests for both stripers and hybrids.

The LBCC stepped in, holding fundraisers to earn the money to buy hybrid striped bass from an Arkansas fish farm and, with TPWD’s blessing, stock them into the lake. Since beginning the stockings in 2006, the LBCC has stocked more than 5 million hybrids. “TPWD’s fish surveys and gillnet studies determined how many fish needed to be put into the lake,” Boyd said. “Hybrids are an open water species, and you don’t need an expensive boat or gear to catch them. They are very family friendly. Stocking them has increased tourism to the lake.”

Having both stripers and hybrids in the lake has helped the fishery, said Ken Milam, a fishing guide on the lake. “The hybrids seem to be doing better than the stripers,” he said. “Sometimes you will catch both together, but often you will catch just one or the other. One day you’ll catch all stripers, the next day all hybrids. It seems like something is always biting.”

The LBCC also put fish-attracting structure into the lake to help anglers home in on the fish. “One of our members owns property with cedar trees on it, and we go out every year and cut hundreds of trees, and TPWD helps put them into the lake.” Commonly called brush piles, the submerged trees began attracting fish almost immediately. “They really draw the fish and the people,” Abshier said. “Nobody thought Buchanan was a crappie lake, but within weeks after we put the first brush piles in, reports started coming in of people catching all kinds of fish off them.”

A map and GPS coordinates of the brush pile locations are available on both LBCC and TPWD’s web sites. Brush piles ring the entire lower lake from the dam to the mouth of Silver Creek.

The drought of 2011 also dropped the water level in Buchanan to the point that all the boat ramps on the lake were out of water, putting a damper on both fishing and tourism. But that wasn’t what inspired the LBCC to take action. “We needed a way to get emergency equipment on the lake in low water conditions,” said Ron Abshier, LBCC vice president.

LBCC funded the extension of an existing boat ramp and the construction of another that will be exposed only when the lake is low.

“LBCC supplied the materials. Llano and Burnet counties provided the equipment and the labor, and LCRA provided the locations,” Ashier said. “The ramps are available for public use as well as for emergencies. They got people on the water immediately.”

“I can’t say enough about the value that LBCC has gotten from its partnership with TPWD,” Abshier said. “In one way or another the partnership makes it more affordable for both the state and the LBCC to do things. We [the LBCC] are right there with our finger on the pulse, and TPWD has such good intentions as far as the welfare of the lake and the people are concerned. It makes for a great relationship.”

“Lake Buchanan and its fishery have a significant economic impact in the local area,” De Jesus noted. “Through the past few years, when TPWD has not been able to meet stocking requests, the LBCC has worked by our side to ensure this fishery continues to provide the angling opportunities that drive the local economy. It’s a great example of how community groups can partner with state and local governments to accomplish tasks that might not otherwise be possible.”

Both Boyd and Abshier’s motivation for volunteering their time to improve the lake is rooted in legacy. “My dad was a charter member and director of LBCC,” Boyd said. “After he became ill and no longer able to serve, I took his place on the board. We’ve had a place on the lake my whole life. I grew up here, and I want my children and grandchildren to be able to enjoy what I’ve enjoyed.”

Abshier lives on the lake and was recruited to LBCC by Boyd’s father. “My degrees are in biology and ichthyology, so it was of interest to me,” Abshier said. “Beyond that, it’s a matter of contributing time for a good cause. What we do betters the area. That’s what has developed the cohesiveness within our group.”

People who enjoy Lake Buchanan’s fishing and boating are the beneficiaries of LBCC’s projects even though they are probably completely unaware of them. Abshier says that is especially true of the low water ramp that makes access to the lake possible at current water levels but that will be submerged when the lake rises. “It’s kind of odd that you get something like this done knowing that it will be of no value when the lake comes up,” he said. “But I hope it disappears fast.”

LBCC’s contributions may be largely invisible, but they remain very real. And much remains to be done, Boyd and Abshier say. “We have members all over Texas, and we need more to help us do what we do,” Boyd said. “Anyone who wants to help can reach us through our web site.”

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