Hamstrung by the lack of bass topping the lake's 18-inch minimum length limit, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department was approached last year by tournament fishermen looking for options.
The problem of catching a legal fish that could be brought to shore to be weighed had become so bad, some tournaments abandoned Jacksonville for Lake Palestine in the past. And the problem persists. In a big bass tournament just two weeks ago it took just 1.53 pounds to win.
The tournament fishermen originally sought relief from the department in the form of a tournament exemption on the 1,300-acre lake, something biologists wouldn't recommend if they had the authority to do so. They don't.
The compromise is a proposal that would retain the 18-inch minimum, but would allow fishermen to keep two fish under 18.
“It is definitely driven by a specific angling interest. They want to be able to fish tournaments more effectively,” said Richard Ott, TPWD district biologist.
Ott said after talking with fishermen and looking at available options, one already in use on Lake O.H. Ivie seemed to fit the situation best.
“What that says is that there is no minimum length limit, but you can keep only two less than 18 inches. They can be sixes because there is no undersize,” the biologist said.
While fishermen point to the lack of vegetation as a cause for the lake's decline in recent years, the lake also has a severe nutrient problem. The result is a slow-growing bass population that takes six to seven years to reach the legal limit. With natural and angling mortality, the number of bass surviving that long is small.
“What we saw under the 5 (bass)-14 (inch) regulation was that we had no problem producing and getting bass to 14 inches, but we had very few that ever got over 14 inches. They were caught and handled or some were harvested at that size,” Ott said.
In 2000 the department switched to the 18-inch minimum length limit, hoping to protect bass between 14 and 18 inches. It hasn't worked as planned.
Ott explained that it is going to be hard to overcome the nutrient issue. An attempt was made in the past to fertilize the lake with some success, but Ott said that doesn't seem likely in the future as the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is basically opposed to upping a lake's natural nutrient load.
Lake Jacksonville has had an ongoing issue with hydrilla along the shore in front of residences and in public use areas. The city initially attempted to treat chemically, but when that became too costly grass carp were brought in to do the job. Unfortunately that plan went wrong when drought pulled down the lake in 2005-06 and then flooding waters in 2007 were enough to naturally kill the plants. Although the vegetation disappeared, many of the more than 3,500 carp remained and devoured what vegetation has attempted to grow in subsequent years.
Even with an expected 32 percent annual mortality, the department estimated that more than 300 of the fish remain in the lake, making it difficult for any vegetation to become re-established. The tide could be swinging beginning this spring.
Lake Jacksonville's heydays came in the 1980s and 90s, driven by the initial stocking of Florida-strain bass beginning in 1975. The lake record is a 15.12-pound fish that was caught just months before the ShareLunker program was started in 1986.
Ott said the early stockings may have done extremely well because the Florida bass filled a niche not utilized by native fish. As crosses of the two became more common, those niches may have disappeared.
To boost the bass population, the department has stocked more than 200,000 Florida bass fingerlings and hundreds of adult bass, some coming from its Operation World Record program.
The proposed regulation change, which if approved won't go into effect until September, does not have universal support. A third of respondents to a department online survey said they prefer to keep the regulations as they are.
A public hearing on the proposed change and others around the state will be held at 7 p.m. March 4 at the Norman Activity Center in Jacksonville.
The public may also comment by email at robert.macdonald@ tpwd.state.tx.us, or by sending letters to Robert Macdonald, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, 4200 Smith School Road, Austin, Texas 78744. Comments may also be submitted through the department's website at www.tpwd. state.tx.us.
Have a comment or opinion on this story? Contact outdoor writer Steve Knight by email at email@example.com. Follow Steve Knight on Facebook at TylerPaper Outdoors and on Twitter @tyleroutdoor.