RIGHT AT HOME
Biologists Keeping Tabs On Toledo Bend Benefit From Their Own Local Knowledge
story by Trey Iles, LDWF Public Information
Biologists at the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries have a passion for their work. They’ll often get lost in a particular day’s assignment, look down at their watches and wonder where the time went. Many are drawn into their jobs by a love of outdoor pursuits, whether it be hunting, fishing or simply being outside enjoying Louisiana’s Sportsman’s Paradise.
Villis Dowden, a LDWF Inland Fisheries Biologist Manager in west central Louisiana, is a perfect example. Dowden grew up on Toledo Bend Reservoir and has spent many years fishing the lake. So taken with the sport, he fished professionally on the BASS Pro Tour, following in his father Bo’s footsteps. Bo captured the 1980 BASSMASTERS Classic at St. Lawrence River Thousand Islands in New York and fished professionally until 2002.
Villis followed his tournament dreams for about nine years then went to Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, earning his degree in Forest and Wildlife Management. Now he helps to manage the lake where he cut his teeth.
LDWF Inland Fisheries Operations Manager Alex Perret, himself an avid bass tournament participant, said that having people like Dowden, whose knowledge and expertise of Toledo Bend is invaluable, helps the department to better communicate with user groups. And no lake in Louisiana is under the microscope like Toledo Bend when it comes to hauling out largemouth bass.
For two consecutive years, 2016 and 2017, Toledo Bend was honored by Bassmasters Magazine as the Nation’s Best Bass Lake. In 2019, it was named the fourth best by the magazine in the Central U.S. Rankings aside Toledo Bend has long been a mecca for largemouth bass fishing enthusiasts.
LDWF allocates numerous resources in the management of the lake on the Louisiana side (part of Toledo Bend is in Texas). Locally, statewide and nationally many in the fishing community keep a close eye on how the reservoir is administered. Having Dowden as part of the team in that capacity gives those fishermen and interested parties a level of comfort, Perret said.
“Villis is part of a bass fishing family and everyone in that part of the state knows the Dowdens,” Perret said. “So hopefully when they talk to him and when they hear him explain what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, they realize this is an informed decision and one with the best interest of the lake in mind.”
Dowden understands Toledo Bend, a man-made reservoir created in the late 1960s, as well as anyone. The hours he’s logged fishing on the lake, staying in camps and watching the ebbs and flows helps in his job, he said.
“I definitely take a lot of pride in managing the water body that I grew up on,” Dowden said. “Sometimes I take it for granted and I have to sit back and say, ‘Hey, you’re actually working at your own home ground right here.’ I didn’t have to go off anywhere. Just knowing that, especially after 2016 and ’17 when the lake was designated as the No. 1 bass fishing lake, was special. Trying to stay on top of that, knowing exactly what’s going on year to year. It’s kind of hitting home on how much it means to a lot of people. Not only to the people of the state of Louisiana but all over the nation.”
How it’s Managed
LDWF’s District 10 Inland Fisheries Office oversees water bodies in DeSoto, Natchitoches, Red River and Sabine parishes. That’s prime largemouth bass and crappie fishing territory. Toledo Bend gets the lion’s share of the attention but certainly not all. That means Dowden and his staff keep busy all year.
“Basically, their job is to monitor sport fish populations,” Perret said. “Mainly the ones that we keep tabs on the most are largemouth bass and crappie. Those are the two we can affect with management techniques and approaches and the ones that are the most sought after. We can monitor sunfish and catfish but don’t particularly have issues with those.”
The staff focuses on assessment protocols and the factors that affect them. Biologists collect all size classes of fish to gather biological data, including age, sex, growth rates, condition factors and genetics data. It’s labor intensive but is an important tool in managing the fish populations.
As an example, “if we’re doing a population assessment on a lake that’s had a lot of Florida bass stocked over the years, we can check to see if that’s actually having an effect or if we’re not getting enough return on our investment,” Perret said. “And when we do the population assessments, we do condition scores so we get an idea of the health of the fish.”
With the current stocking rate of 20 Florida largemouth bass fingerlings per acre of habitat, LDWF has documented steady Florida influence in the Toledo Bend largemouth bass population for the last 20 years. Total Florida gene influence has remained in the 30-40 percent range with current stocking efforts.
Dowden said small scale largemouth bass assessments used to be done on a yearly basis. However, several years ago LDWF managers determined more accurate results could be gained by conducting intensive assessments for three consecutive years. Toledo Bend, which had its first three-year assessment completed in 2012, is currently in the second year of its latest three-year assessment.
Biologists focus on several things and do so by designating one year for a certain type of survey. They’re looking at habitat, which includes an aquatic vegetation survey and water quality assessment.
There is also an angler creel survey during one of the three years. Biologists will interview anglers returning from fishing trips. There are four weekend angler survey days and two weekday survey days per month for good counts.
Ramps are weighted from a previous trailer count. The obvious question is how many fish did they catch. But they also want to know how many they caught and released and they weigh and measure all bass taken. That allows biologists to get an idea of the effect that lake’s particular fishing community is having on the population given that certain amount of pressure.
“Each of those three years, we’re sampling for a designated species, which just happen to be bass and crappie on Toledo Bend since they’re the most angler-important fish right now,” Dowden said.
Perret said the primary focus of the assessment is to get a handle on fish mortality in a certain body of water.
“It’s hard to manage a fishery if you don’t know how many fish you’re losing every year,” Perret said. “Whether it’s to natural causes, fishing mortality or delayed fishing mortality, all of those factors must be considered. You also need to know what your recruitment looks like. Recruitment is how many new fish are recruited into the population in that first year.”
“So we’re looking to keep close tabs on a water body and answer certain questions.
“Is there a problem now that we didn’t have before? Are things going great? Is there some tweak in regulations that needs to happen? Are people keeping more fish now? Are people keeping less fish? That can have a pretty big effect on the population as well.”
Dowden and Perret said the current Toledo Bend assessment is vitally important. It’s obviously a very heavily fished and popular lake. It’s also had several excellent years of fishing, hence, the ranking from Bassmaster Magazine. Even though the lake remains a great place to land trophy fish it’s not producing trophy bass at the level that it was during the middle of the previous decade.
“Fishing got really, really good there,” Perret said. “We saw a lot of big, double-digit fish (more than 10 pounds). Now we’re on the back side of that peak and we’re starting to see more normal catches. So hopefully we’ll have a better idea of the current population after the ongoing assessment is complete. We have that picture in time (after the first assessment) and now we’ll have it under current conditions.”
Data is passed along to LDWF assessment personnel who run the statistics and analyze the results. When the assessment is complete, LDWF biologists will know what steps are needed, if any, to improve the fishery or regulate the lake. The data from the assessment is a key tool in not only setting regulations but to explaining to user groups why certain actions are taken.
“Bass fishermen are a vocal user group and they’re organized,” Perret said. “They have tournament organizations, bass clubs and federations. So when they have something to say, typically, they get the word out. We hear from them a lot and that’s certainly something we welcome. Their opinion matters to us.
“It is important that we have the biological data to make informed management decisions. When people come forward and say we think this needs to happen or that needs to happen, we can sit down with them and show them what we have. This is what we’ve collected and the data does or does not support that and we’re moving in that direction. It’s a good tool for us to support our management actions.”
Other Actions, Challenges
Keeping tabs on Toledo Bend is certainly important. But there is more, much more, to what District 10 biologists handle.
Stocking the lakes and water bodies is important. Biologist usually begin to assess stocking needs in the fall and then submit a request for fish to the LDWF hatchery manager for the following spring and summer.
In addition to the three-year assessment analysis, there is standardized sampling that must be conducted each year. To do this, LDWF personnel primarily utilize electrofishing methods for largemouth bass and netting for crappie.
“They’ll also sample the part of the Red River located in their district,” Perret said. “That’s a popular fishing area. And that has to be done in the summer because you can’t sample during the spring when the river is high.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the district is nuisance aquatic vegetation. Giant salvinia has become the archenemy of LDWF’s Inland Fisheries districts throughout the state. The invasive species is difficult to control and spreads fast, meaning vast resources have to be used to keep it in check.
“Vegetation management is something we spend a lot of time on,” Dowden said. “Not so much on Toledo Bend simply because it’s such a large, open lake. But salvinia is the biggest problem on some of our smaller lakes, including Saline Lake, Black Lake and Wallace Lake.”
As you can imagine, Dowden still enjoys fishing although what he goes after may surprise you. He’s gained an appreciation for catching bream and crappie though he still chases largemouth bass occasionally.
“I guess I’m getting older,” said Dowden, 46. “Some people still have the bug. I enjoy crappie and bream fishing more than I do bass fishing now. But I understand how much people love to bass fish, especially in this part of the state. What really makes this job so enjoyable is working with other District 10 personnel that take their work seriously, and have all also grown up, hunting and fishing in the Sportsman’s Paradise.
“I also do not take for granted the efforts that the previous District managers, Ricky Yeldell and Sean Kinney, gave during their tenures here and their dedication for the Toledo Bend fishery. I still communicate readily with Ricky and enjoy discussing Toledo Bend’s potential or any possible problems when warranted. That’s why I enjoy my job so much, not just the work but the people involved. I want to make sure we keep Toledo Bend and these other lakes in the best shape possible so people can continue to take part in this great sport.”
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