Last May, as if someone flipped a switch, white bass started dying on Lake Palestine. It was not an isolated dieoff that can be common on any lake, but a massive dieoff of thousands of fish from one end of the reservoir to the other.
With male bass having already started to move out of the lake and up the Neches River, Texas Parks and Wildlife Inland Fisheries' biologist Rick Ott said plans are in place to monitor the size of the spawning run.
"I wouldn't call it concerned, but we are interested," Ott said of what impact the dieoff might have had on the reservoir's white bass population.
Ott explained that white bass dieoffs are not unusual on Texas lakes. In this case, the department was not able to retrieve a sick fish to help determine the cause. That lingering question is what has led to the monitoring.
"White bass for some reason periodically have these dieoffs. It very possibly has to do with a threshold effect. They build up a population and build up, and any disease that gets in there kills the population," he said.
The odd part of the Palestine dieoff was its overall size and the fact it impacted no other species other than white bass and hybrids.
One theory is that the dieoff could be tied to the arrival of yellow bass on the lake. They were first discovered on Palestine two years ago.
"If they were brought in carrying some pathogen, they might be the carrier," Ott said.
However, he said it could also be some other disease that had been dormant within the population and erupted during the spawning season when the fish were in close proximity.
"They sometimes carry a virus. It is like people. We are carrying a cold virus all the time, but we are not always sick," Ott noted.
Because white bass are so prolific, there is not a concern about the population bouncing back this spring especially with excellent conditions going into the spawn.
"In terms of flow and everything else, this should be a good year in all likelihood. Environmental conditions define population strength instead of the number of females around," Ott explained.
White bass are the first game fish to spawn each spring, with a peak coming when water temperatures are between 50 and 60 degrees. Other factors, including water flow, impact the spawn. Runs do not al ways have to be on rivers. The fish can also spawn up creeks if conditions are right. Where there is not suitable tributaries flowing into a reservoir, the fish are believed to spawn within the lake on windswept points.
While most reservoirs and river systems in Northeast Texas have white bass, Lake Palestine's spawning run is especially popular because anglers are able to access the headwaters just above the lake by foot. A joint project between Chandler, TPWD and the East Texas Woods and Waters Foundation makes access possible.
Other popular white bass fisheries in East Texas include the Sabine River above Toledo Bend and the Angelina River above Lake Sam Rayburn. Neither has good bank access, but the Angelina can be fished by small boat or kayak by putting in at Marion's Ferry or the U.S. 59 access points. The best fishing is reportedly between those two points.
Through the years white bass have found their way around the state by various means, including stocking by fishermen as they were in Lake Palestine.
"White bass are thought to be native to only the northeastern portion of the state and the Red River drainage, but populations of white bass are now found pretty much across the entire state, from as far north as the Texas Panhandle to as far west as Red Bluff Reservoir north of Pecos, Texas," said Brian VanZee, TPWD Inland Fisheries regional supervisor in Waco.
He added they are not a species reared in state hatcheries for western Texas because populations can be negatively impacted by conditions like long-term drought and golden algae.