February 24, 2021
By Lynn Burkhead
At first glance, as temperatures rebound and spring winds blow this week, it would be easy to think that the misery from last week's historic mid-February freeze and parade of winter storms across Texas has come to an end.
After subzero cold and heavy snowfall (all of Texas' 254 counties were under a winter storm warning at the same time), it's suddenly time for shorts, sunglasses and suntan lotion again between the Red River and the Rio Grande. But first appearances can be deceiving. And that’s certainly the case in Texas as the state counts more than 20 who are dead, tallies up billions in damages, and sees how disastrous the arctic blast has been on infrastructure, homes, businesses, and vast outdoors landscape.
The winter siege—which left as much as 75 percent of the contiguous U.S. covered in snow—also took a tremendous toll on the Lone Star State's wildlife and fisheries.
To understand the magnitude of the 2021 Texas Freeze, consider the numbers in terms of cold, snowfall and power loss.
For starters, on Monday, Feb. 15, a reading of minus-20 degrees was set at the Palo Duro Reservoir MESONET weather site in Hansford County in the Texas Panhandle. That was only 3 degrees from tying the state's all-time record low of minus-23 set in Tulia on Feb. 12, 1899, and in Seminole on Feb. 8, 1933.
The following day, subzero cold spread eastward, as numerous Texas cities saw the red liquid completely disappear out of the thermometer bulb.
In East Texas, all-time record lows of minus-6 in Tyler and minus-5 in Longview—which had nearly a foot of snow on the ground—were observed on Feb. 16, while Nacogdoches fell to minus-3 degrees. Elsewhere in North Texas, it was minus-8 in Wichita Falls, minus-6 in Denton, minus-4 in Denison/Sherman and Bonham, minus-2 at DFW International Airport, and minus-1 in Waco.
The cold wave even stretched deep into the heart of central and southern Texas. Down in Austin, it was as cold as 8 degrees at one point. Houston saw its thermometer dip to 12, while it also fell to 19 at Galveston, 17 at Corpus Christi, 25 at Harlingen, and 28 at Brownsville.
Don't Forget the Snow
But cold was only one part of the Texas weather story last week as heavy snowfall fell across the state in unusual fashion. In the northeastern corner near Texarkana, the National Weather Service said 18 to 20 inches fell. In Austin, the state's capitol and home of the Texas Longhorns, 6-8 inches of snow fell. In Del Rio, the shorelines of Lake Amistad, a desert bass fishing oasis, saw its heaviest snowfall in history as 11.2-inches fell.
Elsewhere, snowfall amounts ranging from 2 to 8 inches blanketed the beaches at Galveston, downtown Dallas, the Alamo and downtown San Antonio, and the Red River country near Lake Texoma. In short, virtually no place in the Lone Star State was devoid of significant snowfall after up to three winter storms crossed Texas in a week's time. And where it didn't snow much, heavy freezing rain caused its own problems.
And then there were the historic power outages and rolling blackouts that left more than 4.38 million Texans in the dark and bitter cold for days. Due to exposure, roadway accidents and carbon monoxide poisoning, the death toll of last week's winter storms has resulted in more than 20 deaths at the time of this writing.
Too Cold for Fish?
The numbers mentioned above are severe and already the finger-pointing and blame game is epic as lawsuits and investigations mount into what went wrong from a weather event that saw people freezing to death as far south as Houston. But the human toll and damage costs are only one facet of the Great Cold Wave of 2021.
Like other legendary Siberian Express visits in December 1983, December 1989, January 1949, and February 1899—the latter is widely regarded as the worst winter weather event in Texas and U.S. history—the state's coastal fisheries are paying a severe price. After the frigid blast of cold air, numerous reports of dead redfish, speckled sea trout, snook, baby tarpon and baitfish began to surface on Internet forums and social media.
Many photos showed the thousands of cold stunned sea turtles being rescued by volunteers, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department game wardens and TPWD biologists. Still other photos showed windrows of dead fish washing up along the water's edge in shallower backwaters, estuaries, and bay shorelines.
According to TPWD, the first reports of fish mortality began to pop up on Valentines Day, when the first of up to three snowstorms crossed the state. As the arctic cold deepened and more snow fell, it became increasingly evident that the entire Texas coastline would be impacted in some way.
In a TPWD news release, the Austin-based agency said that the majority of the coastal fish kill seems to have been located along the southern shores and undeveloped areas, such as the back sides of barrier islands. And while there are fish-kill reports up and down the state's 3,359 miles of shoreline, it seems worse the further south you go from Galveston Bay.
On the upper coast, TPWD said that where fish couldn't find deeper water to ride out the cold wave, the toll is significant with fish kills reported in portions of the Sabine Lake and Galveston Bay regions. Further south along the state's middle coastline, the fish-kill damage gets worse in and around Matagorda Bay, San Antonio Bay, and Aransas Bay, where significant numbers of game fish and bait fish died in the freeze.
And even in the state's semi-tropical lower coastal areas, sizable fish kills have been observed around Corpus Christi Bay, the Upper Laguna Madre near Baffin Bay and the Land Cut, and the Lower Laguna Madre near Port Mansfield and the Brownsville Ship Channel.
Speckled Trout Feels Toll
While multiple species have been observed in these fish kills, it appears that the state's speckled trout—one of the most vulnerable species in such freeze events along with snook and tarpon—have borne a tremendous toll thus far.
And in the coming weeks, as more submerged dead fish surface as gases build in their decaying bodies and TPWD crews sample the Gulf Coast's various regions, the toll of the fish-kill disaster will become even more fully known. While it will be some time before coastal fishery experts can quantify the extent of the freeze damage and fish kills, it’s likely that it will approach the severe events of the 1980s that wiped out sizable portions of the state's saltwater game fish stocks, spurred bag limit adjustments, and produced legislation that helped turn Texas' shallow coastal fisheries into some of North America's best.
On inland waters, there will also be an effect on Texas' numerous freshwater fisheries. While most of the state’s game fish—largemouth and smallmouth bass, striped bass, bluegills, catfish, and crappie—will fare ok, the same can't be said for the clouds of shad that serve as the primary forage species on many lakes and reservoirs.
With some lakes freezing completely and others having vast stretches of ice and snow covering their shallower water, the result was water temperatures plummeting into the upper 30s and lower 40s. That includes striped bass-rich Lake Texoma, where the upper ends and the Big Mineral Arm of the 89,000-acre reservoir had ice- and snow-covered regions stretching for many miles, along with stretches of nearby Lake Ray Roberts, site of this summer’s 51st Bassmaster Classic.
Even in the Pineywoods of East Texas, ice-covered swaths of lake arms, coves, backwater regions, and marina basins at legendary largemouth lunker factories like Lake Fork, where two people died when their vehicle plunged off an icy bridge and into the lake.
So severe were the conditions at Lake Palestine—from ice covering portions of the lake to power outages and boil notices in nearby towns like Tyler—that officials with Major League Fishing made an emergency decision to relocate this week's Bass Pro Tour REDCREST Championship event from the East Texas reservoir to Alabama's Lake Eufaula.
While the stripers at Texoma and largemouths at other lakes will come through this winter weather siege with few problems, the same cannot be said for the threadfin shad schools that serve as the primary forage species on many of these water bodies.
According to Dan Bennett, the head man at TPWD's Lake Texoma Fisheries Station, when lake water temps drop below 43 degrees, threadfin shad start dying off if they can't find deeper places of thermal refuge to ride out the cold-water spell. Gizzard shad are a bit hardier, but they too can succumb to the cold water.
On most North and East Texas lakes late last week, water temperatures plummeted into the lower 40s, and even the upper 30s in some cases. On Texoma, which saw vast portions of the lake ice over during the legendary December 1983 freeze that left nearby towns below freezing for more than 12 days, there were some reports of water temps falling into the 35-degree range.
Also complicating things is that Texoma—and other lakes—are weeks away from this year's shad spawn and even then, relief won't come quickly.
"It will take those new shad some time to grow up to size and we could see the effects of this lasting into fall or beyond," said Bennett.
In the meantime, stripers and black bass are opportunistic enough to find other forage, chasing down prey ranging from young stripers and bass hatched out this spring to small white bass, bluegills, minnows and more.
One other bit of good news from all of this, according to the TPWD inland fisheries biologist, is that angler catch rates at Texoma—and potentially elsewhere—should go up in coming months as fish hungrily search for available forage.
"The jury is still out on how severe all of this will ultimately be, but there's just not a whole lot we can do at the moment other than wait and watch," he said.
The impact of the cold and snow on Texas' native and exotic wildlife species appears to be mixed at this point. TPWD indicated in another news release that it does not foresee any significant losses of white-tailed deer or mule deer since those species typically survive such winter weather, even in Texas. They do admit that there could be some mortality in very old whitetails, but the agency says that is to be expected.
But already, the die-off has been significant, and perhaps extreme, on many of the exotic species that populate many of Texas' ranches and commercial hunting operations.
Photos began to surface almost immediately of freeze-killed exotic game animals, including axis deer, black buck antelope, nilgai antelope, and more. Some photos showed dozens of dead exotic animal carcasses—many native to portions of Africa, India, and other warmer climates— in the backs of trucks and trailers.
Losses are also significant on the avian side of the ledger, with reports of dead woodpeckers and songbirds abounding, many of the latter being found huddled near nooks, crannies, and doorsteps of urban and rural homes as they sought out some sort of shelter.
For now, there are few reports of wild turkey or quail mortality events, but there are surprising reports of dead waterfowl from various places. According to TPWD, hundreds of dead coots and numerous blue-winged teal have been found at lakes and wildlife management areas like the Richland Creek WMA, not far from Athens.
And finally, the damage to the wildlife habitat itself is significant, something that could cause a multitude of problems as whitetail fawns and other wild babies are born this spring and various species seek thermal relief and sustenance later this year as hot and dry summer weather arrives in the Lone Star State. Across the state, numerous reports of burned and dying vegetation are being received, helping spur such fears of potential difficulties in the future.
TPWD is hopeful that the moisture from last week's snow and ice, along with approaching springtime rains, will help some plants survive and recover as temperatures warm and spring green-up approaches.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line here is that the Great Texas Freeze of February 2021 is instantly legendary and will survive in the state's weather lore for decades to come . As the most severe winter weather event of the 21st century across Texas, the widespread and costly disaster will be in stories told by almost everyone who shivered in the dark and cold last week.
Truth be told, some of those stories are still developing as residents talk to insurance agents and businesses for repairs to plumbing, floors, walls and electrical supply that could take many weeks and months to make.
Unfortunately, some of those developing stories will also be told in the Lone Star State's vast outdoors landscape, as anglers find fewer fish and hunters look for wildlife and fowl that succumbed to the cold.
In that case, it may be months, and even years, before the full extent of the freeze's historic damage is known to the state's great outdoors. One day, the broken pipes will be repaired, the waters will teem with fish again, and last week's cold will be a faint memory in a place where it almost never snows or gets bitterly cold.
Almost, that is, but not never, even deep in the heart of Texas.