Although skill and luck are a factor in hunting and fishing, it’s the wildlife management of the area they’re caught in that helps make it possible as well.
Wildlife Biologist and James E. Daughtrey Wildlife Management Area Manager Chris Mostyn of Texas Parks and Wildlife said the reasons he could think of as to why record-breaking alligators and catfish were caught in Choke Canyon this summer are anecdotal and based on his knowledge of the area. But, it’s largely based in sound habitat management practices.
Mostyn said having a healthy ecosystem in Choke Canyon and the Daughtrey Wildlife Management Area plays a critical role in fostering large game.
“When all of that is working you have records,” he said.
Mostyn said TWPD manages for native habitat in an effort to understand every aspect of the soil, plants and plant communities so they can apply habitat enhancement activities such as prescribed burning. Another route for habitat management involves cattle grazing, which isn’t implemented in the Daughtrey WMA.
“The land needs to be used at a level it is capable of being used without being degraded,” Mostyn said. “If you burn or graze, it enriches the area and provides a cycle where nutrients are replaced back and the plants that grow from that enrichment are much more palatable and healthy.”
By clearing out the less palatable plants, such as large clusters of mesquite trees, and just leaving a few trees, it gives an opportunity for more nutrient rich native plants such as buffelgrass and plains-bristle grass, both of which are eaten by a variety of wildlife.
Mostyn said there is a strong tie between land and water; if it’s healthy outside the lake then it promotes diversity.
“One thing that I always say, diversity is the key,” Mostyn said. “You have to work with wildlife habitat. It all starts with the soils, then the vegetative communities; and the more you know about that the more you can manage the societies that rely on those.”
For record-breaking alligators and catfish, it was all a matter of giving them the time and space to grow.
Alligator hunts have been hosted in Choke Canyon for five years as a way to learn more about the alligator population and promote hunting as a form of conservation. Mostyn estimated there are 200-250 alligators in the lake, but like deer it is difficult to get an exact number. He said there are probably 15 deer per acre.
Mostyn said there were 200-250 participants with permits and 600-700 participants in the special permit hunts each year. He also said it is illegal to hunt alligators without a special permit.
Mostyn said alligators are native to riparian environments such as the ones found from the coast up to Live Oak and McMullen counties and that installing the lake roughly 40 years ago gave them a lot more room to grow and populate.
The same applies for the herbaceous plants on which they, or their prey, feed.
A two-year, 800-acre prescribed burning project was completed in January, which turned land that was once covered in about 90 percent mesquite trees into having 60 percent open area. Since then, various types of grass have grown in its place along with granjeno (or spiny hackberry), persimmon and others.
“Most of the problems we see on the Daughtrey are old cultivated fields, left not managed for 40 years,” Mostyn said.
Mostyn said the two-year project was not a one-time only ordeal. He said he hopes to begin more prescribed burning within the next 3-5 months because reclamation of land can take up to 10 years.
Prescribed burning doesn’t kill anything with just one burn, but over time and with repeated treatments the roots of less desirable plants won’t be able to keep up.
“With one growing season you can see a huge response,” Mostyn said. “Though you spend a lot of time and money and effort doing a lot of great work establishing these areas, it requires a detailed management program to keep it in the state you’re trying to achieve.”
Mostyn said there used to be between 150-3,000 acres of prescribed burning done in the Daughtrey per year, but none was done in 2010-11, so he hopes to do 1,000 acres this year. Each burn is done in small segments at a time, so it is easily controlled.
The Daughtrey WMA occupies five non-contiguous parcels of land adjacent to the lake and has been managed by Texas Parks and Wildlife since 1981. The land is operated by two divisions, the wildlife division and the state parks which includes Choke Canyon State Park. The two entities work together to promote outdoor recreation and conservation, while Daughtrey focuses on land management, hunting and outdoor recreation and research aspects.
This includes a little over 6,000 acres of land and 20,000 acres of water.
“Whether it’s a fish or gator or white-tailed deer or olive sparrow, game or non-game, terrestrial or aquatic; the work we do to maintain or restore habitat goes a long way to allow them to get as big as they can,” Mostyn said.