Another Near Miss

New Year’s Day had been cold but still above freezing until 6:00 PM when freezing rain began to accumulate in a glassy layer. Pam and I struggled in 30-mph north wind to cover plants and palm trees. We live only three miles from the shores of San Antonio Bay. So much for New Year’s celebrations.

The mercury in the thermometer on my back porch was disappearing as though the glass had a hole in it. It read 27⁰ when I checked before turning in at midnight. At 6:00 AM of January 2 it read 19⁰ and bottomed out at 17⁰ as the sun was rising. It remained below freezing throughout the day.

Another cold one, January 3 dawned a crispy 24⁰. Tracking the water temperature in San Antonio Bay on the Conrad Blucher Institute website, I feared we might lose some fish.

Around mid-morning that day, duck hunters who braved the weather began sending photos that verified my concern. Thankfully, though the images revealed quite a few dead or cold-stunned turtles and speckled trout, the damage was not widespread, limited mostly to back lakes on Matagorda Island.

Fish-killing freezes are nothing new on the middle coast, we had the really bad ones in ’83 and ’89, and somewhat limited events in 2010 and again in 2011. You’d think the fishing community would understand them a little better, by now.

First off – it is unlawful to take cold-stunned or dead fish by any means during a freeze. Why some folks cannot resist doing this remains a mystery. Yes, the dead ones are dead. But who’s to say the cold-stunned fish will not survive if left alone?

I received a very disappointing comment via email, “So much for reducing the trout limit to five. All the fish we saved just died in the freeze.”

But did they? Simple math says the more fish we have within a given ecosystem going into a freeze, the more that are likely to survive and contribute to re-populating the bays.

Speckled trout begin showing signs of cold-stress when water temperatures decline below 44⁰, losing equilibrium and sinking to the bottom. Colder, at 42⁰ for prolonged periods, some individuals will die. Dangerously cold, below 40⁰, many will die as their metabolism continues to shut down.

The thermocline that occurs within the water column is what saves fish during a cold spell. Even though they might sink to the bottom, it’s warmer there. Their best chance for recovery is to be left undisturbed. That’s why TPWD calls upon the Gulf Intracoastal Canal Association, asking for voluntary suspension of barge traffic in the ICW, where fish are known to seek refuge from the cold in deep water. The absence of tugboat wheel-wash mixing cold surface water with warmer water near bottom gives cold-stunned fish a better chance. Avoiding the churning propellers in their disabled state also boosts survival.

Conservation is a powerful tool. God gave man dominion over the animals of the land and the fish of the sea. Let’s use it wisely.