For 37 years Texas Parks and Wildlife Department fisheries biologist Rick Ott worked out of a cluttered office on Bascom Road just outside Tyler. His office was piled with everything from fisheries’ research papers to motorcycle helmets to the occasional lizard, but in a building originally built as a quail hatchery it did not seem odd.
OK, maybe the tree growing inside the office from the floor as a result of some very suspect windows was, and so was the fact you had to wear a coat inside all winter because either the windows were porous, the heater did not work or both.
Ott, who retired at the end of August, was brought to Tyler by Charles Inman, one of the state’s great biologists and a key proponents behind the state’s five-fish, 14-inch bass limit that changed the game for quality bass fishing in Texas. After Inman retired in 1988, Ott became the district biologist.
“One aspect that made Rick so special as a TPWD biologist was not only his grasp of fisheries management principles, but his encyclopedic knowledge of the broader scientific and ecological disciplines,” said Craig Bonds, TPWD Director of Inland Fisheries. “Another of his many strengths is his ability to relate and communicate to multiple audiences. Rick is equally at ease communicating with anglers of all types, external partner organizations or academicians.”
Bonds went to work for TPWD in 1999 when Ott hired him out of graduate school to work in the Tyler office. Eventually Bonds became his boss as the regional biologist out of Tyler before eventually moving to Austin to lead the entire division.
Ott’s district most recently included lakes like Palestine, Tyler, Athens, Cedar Creek, Jacksonville, Fairfield, Richard Chambers and Purtis Creek. Biologically, Fairfield may have been the most challenging because of summer oxygen depletion problem that caused massive dieoffs periodically starting in 2003.
Socially, his most difficult lakes were probably those in his backyard, Tyler and Palestine, because of habitat, most notably hydrilla. He was caught between a rock and a hard spot at Lake Tyler because of the demands of two diverse groups, fishermen and recreational boaters/homeowners. Making matters worse was the decision-making on habitat issues was completely out of his hands. That all belonged to the City of Tyler. All Ott could do, and did, was speak up on behalf of fishermen to retain all the habitat possible.
“Rick sometimes didn’t get enough credit for trying to balance competing resource management interests,” Bonds said. “He served anglers of all kinds, as well as the ecosystem functions that underpin good fishing, for over 37 years. I’ve seen him, largely unbeknownst to many anglers, advocate strongly for preserving as much fish habitat as possible, while working toward solutions for other lake user groups. That balance can be very difficult to achieve and maintain in the face of changing environmental variables and competing interests. Rick persevered and remained dedicated to our mission through the successes and trials of resource management throughout a long and distinguished career.”
The bottom line is there is not a fisherman alive in the late 1970s and 1980s who would not like to have had the quality of fishing then the lakes enjoys today. In fact as Ott was about to walk out the office door for the last time in August Jace Swonke boated a 12.82-pound bass on Tyler to set a new lake record.
Like most department biologists Ott was active behind the scene with various research and projects that improved fishing, but were often unseen by fishermen.
“Over the past 20-plus years, Rick has been on the vanguard of experimentation and implementation of native aquatic plant establishment and enhancement with the aim of improving fish habitat, especially in reservoirs. Rick was a leader and early adopter of these experimental techniques,” Bonds said.
He added that Ott co-authored a how-to manual on the subject that has been adopted nationally and has become a go-to expert on the subject.
Ott also did research on catfish harvest regulations, hand-fishing for catfish, alligator gar studies, ShareLunker offspring performance and more.
The retirement of Ott, Mark Webb in College Station and Kevin Storey a year ago is sort of the beginning of the end for a generation of biologists hired in the 1980s when federal money from the motorboat fuel tax became available to state fisheries agencies.
“This passing of the baton, so to speak, poses both a challenge and presents opportunities. The institutional knowledge and experience from valued professionals is difficult to replace. However, the encouraging news is these vacancies create opportunities for a new cohort of biologists to get their feet wet and promote into leadership positions,” Bonds said.
Bonds said the next generation of biologists is facing a new set of challenges Ott and his peers just encountered.
“As the face of Texas continues to change, our human population becomes more urbanized, competition for leisure-time activities increases, demand on existing water supplies intensifies, climatic-related flood and droughts become more extreme, aquatic invasive species continue to expand, and angler motivations and practices diversify, our TPWD Inland Fisheries team’s mindset, perspectives, and strategies will continue to evolve to deliver on our timeless mission to provide the very best public fishing opportunities while protecting and enhancing our state’s freshwater aquatic resources,” he said.