For most North Texas anglers, Lake Conroe is a distant place on the edge of the East Texas woods where the tentacles of Houston traffic reach out and slow automobile movement to bumper-to-bumper speeds.
Some older fishermen might remember the lake as one of the state’s top spots — back in the day — before urban sprawl and dense population; most know the lake as a place where large cruisers, water skiers and personal watercraft create a constant chop and an undesirable environment for fishing.
But Lake Conroe is back, at least for now. Ricky Bearden of Conroe entered the record books for largemouth bass in January when he brought in a 15.93-pound fish. The month before, a 13-year-old landed a 13.07-pounder for a junior angler largemouth record.
There’s no arguing there are some big fish in the lake. The question is, where are they and how long are they going to be around?
Lake Conroe is a body of water with multiple personalities. It is truly an urban playground with big homes, sprawling marinas and crisscrossing pleasure boats. But it also abuts a national forest where there is no development except for what nature put there. It is a busy, noisy place with coves of solitude.
And there is the grass. Hydrilla. That invasive grass probably does more to change the face of Lake Conroe than any other force. At times, it has choked the lake to desperation. Land owners couldn’t launch their boats in the thickly matted carpets of grass. If they did run their motors, the grass strangled them silent and burned them to charred submission. The water became a stagnant and rich habitat for mosquitoes.
Homeowners, water districts and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department answered with herbicides and grass-gorging carp. Then more carp were brought. Then more carp. In time, all the grass in the lake was gone. Not just the hydrilla, but all the native grasses as well. Oops.
Then the hydrilla returned. It has been that kind of balancing act ever since. Too much grass; too little.
"It’s doing good right now," veteran guide Carl Bostick said of the bass fishing last week. "With those record bass taken here, Conroe is the hot lake to be on right now. We just had a tournament down here, and if you didn’t come in each day with a five-bass, 20-pound stringer, you weren’t in the running."
But Bostick, who has guided on Conroe for more than a dozen years, added: "It’s probably not going to last, though. We’ve had two years with some good cover for the spawn, but now, there isn’t a piece of grass in the lake."
To him, that means there is no protection for the fry — the fingerlings — and future bass won’t have a chance to grow. Without the cover, the hybrids and the yellow cats will consume them.
It has happened before, he said. That’s one reason many of the guides on Conroe don’t run the big bass boats. They have pontoon boats.
"A few years ago, if a guide had shown up with a pontoon boat, people would have laughed him off the lake," Bostick said. "But now, we use them for going after catfish, white bass and crappie. Those are the kinds of fish people want guides for on this lake."
Bostick’s opinions are not singular, but nor do they represent the universal attitude. Lake Conroe is clearly conflicted.
In the early 1980s the hydrilla was bad and the grass carp were introduced. The lake was cleared but the bass became extremely hard to find. Then, in the 1990s it all happened again. Early last year, lake biologists believed they finally had the balance they were looking for after dumping tens of thousands of the carp in the lake.
But in November, there was more hydrilla than expected and no one understood why.
There is a sense of mistrust between the homeowners, biologists and fishermen, though many of them continue to work together toward a solution.
The recent bass fishing success has brought the spotlight back on the lake and now everyone seems to be wondering what they can do to maintain that success. Several groups have banded together to come up with a way to keep native grasses alive in the lake, to create a nursery for them and to eliminate the invasive hydrilla yet still offer sufficient cover for the smaller fish.
Texas Parks and Wildlife is continuing to stock Lake Conroe with Florida largemouth bass. Since 2000, more than 1.7 million fingerlings have been introduced to the lake.
There is no absolute answer to Lake Conroe’s problems just yet. There continues to be an ebb and flow to its success as a bass lake.
But it is undeniably hot right now.