Everything's bigger in Texas, including the bass
- By: Phil Shook
Jump in my johnboat, I stow my gear, I fire her up when I am in the clear, I sail across the water, it's smooth as glass, Ready, here I come, you five-pound bass From The Five Pound Bass by Robert Earl Keen There was a time in Texas not many years ago when an angler might get a mention on the outdoor page of the local newspaper for catching a five-pound bass. But today, at places like Lake Fork, Choke Canyon Reservoir, Sam Rayburn and Toledo Bend, it takes an 8-pounder or bigger just to qualify for a snapshot on the wall at a lakeside café.Today, an angler must catch a bass weighing 15 pounds or more to make the list of the Texas Top 50. On giant reservoirs, state park waters and private lakes, fly fishers have joined in the hunt for monster largemouth and have a realistic chance of hooking a fish that registers in double digits on the scale. On an October day in 2000, John Lindsay Jr., a visitor from Fremont, California, earned a place in fly-fishing history when he cast a small bug with rubber legs into the stilling basin below Lake Meredith in the Texas Panhandle. The 14-pound fish he hooked and landed on six-pound tippet made the IGFA record book and is the largest documented catch of a largemouth on fly tackle. Texas offers fly fishers bass lakes big enough to span two states-Toledo Bend (185,000 acres) and Lake Texoma (89,000 acres)-or two countries -Lake Amistad (65,000 acres) and Lake Falcon (78,000 acres). The state also has many small, secluded state park waters like Purtis Creek (355 acres) and Bonham (65 acres) and a host of private, fee-based waters on farms and ranches offering fly fishers a shot at hefty Florida-strain, native Northerns and even Cuban largemouths. Any discussion of prime water for landing a largemouth of a lifetime usually starts with Lake Fork in East Texas. An intimidating 28,000-acre impoundment located 90 miles east of Dallas, Fork has produced more big bass than any Texas lake, and has sustained that record for 15 years. Full of secluded coves and flooded timber, fly-casters prospect its shorelines with giant streamers alongside anglers in metal flaked bass boats tossing plastic lizards and spinner baits. At Lake Fork tackle shops and restaurants there are hints that this is not your ordinary bass lake. Walls are papered with snapshots of people holding wide-bodied largemouths, and counters are arrayed with big-bladed spinner baits and huge plugs that look like billfish teasers. Clients of veteran East Texas fly-fishing guide Rob Woodruff have landed fish at Lake Fork in recent years in the 8- to 11-pound range. Woodruff vividly recalls the windy March day in 1996 when he was out by himself scouting a Lake Fork grass line in about 10 feet of water. At that time of year, he was strictly big-game hunting, casting a 10-weight with a tarpon-taper line. "I was out on my own for a big fish or nothing," he says. It was about 10 AM when he got a strike and knew right away that it was a giant largemouth. "Once they get over six pounds, they don't get out of the water real often. This fish was like that-a head shake and then a run back under the boat-that kind of thing." After the fish walked him around the boat several times, Woodruff landed it and let it go after it registered 11.75 pounds on his digital scale, his biggest bass to date. So what does it feel like to land a largemouth that size on a fly rod? Call me paranoid, but the few times I have hooked exceptional largemouths and had that first look at their broad backs looming up out of the depths, I immediately start worrying about a good hook set…and that little nick I saw on my leader that I hadn't bothered to address. The odds of landing a monster largemouth on a fly are greatly improved by having an experienced guide along to show the way. During the prime February and March period, when the largest bass are usually caught, those in the know use big, bulky flies like a Lake Fork Leech and Whatinhell Bugger patterns. Large flies are the right choice because there are no small forage fish in the lake during this time of year. At that time all the forage fish have had a year to grow so the gizzard shad are big and the bream are big, too. Big largemouth key onto large forage fish because that is the only entree on the menu, it's also the time when the big girls are on the move. A lot of patience and stamina are also required in the hunt for these alpha females. Woodruff advises his anglers to probe deep with big flies for big largemouth. "Most of the time top water is not going to put the big fish on," he says. But a big bass safari is not as easy as a cooler full of beer and a bag of chips. It takes some work to throw a 10-weight rod with a huge fly all day. "They don't realize that they needed to chop wood to get ready instead of going out and practicing with a fly rod," Woodruff says. "They start giving out and I can tell they are not having fun anymore." Woodruff says clients who only want to target 10-pound fish are often the ones who are disappointed if they don't catch high numbers of fish, too. And competing with the considerable demand for trophy bass at Lake Fork are the opportunities to have 25 fish days with fish in the 1.5- to 4-pound class. It is a lot easier to throw a 6- or 7-weight rod around the points where the angler can fight and play a fish without having to force its head up and keep it out of the heavy timber where the giant females typically lurk. Last spring Woodruff says one his clients used this approach to land nine fish that were 4.5 pounds and above, including two over six pounds. Bass in the 4.5- to 8-pound class are catchable at Fork in relatively shallow water up on "the steps" around creek channels, but the 9- and 10-pound fish normally require moving out into deeper water. On a day with good conditions, you can probably catch a six-pound fish at Fork, no problem. The real excitement though, comes from knowing that every time you launch your boat, there's a chance that this could be the day for that 10-pounder, or quite possibly, a 14-pounder. One effective big fish strategy during the spawn is to look for bedded males, or "buck bass," and then fish the creek channel in front of them. "I don't care about the buck bass. I will leave them alone, but they are up there on that area because there are females coming in," Woodruff says. There can be some knee-shaking opportunities at Lake Fork to get shots at giant female bass around beds during the spawn. When done in a fair and ethical manner, it is one of the most exciting forms of sight-casting and not nearly as easy as it sounds. Houston fly fisher Mark Kalish and his partner, Dan Edwards, were fishing with guide Dan Lynch one spring morning on Lake Fork when they had one of those experiences. They had eased their bass boat into one of the many small coves filled with fallen timber and stickups when they spotted a huge female lurking around a bed with a smaller male bass. After landing the male-a respectable 5-pounder-Kalish began casting at "a big dark shadow" that moved up on the bed. "I knew it was big," Kalish recalls. "I just didn't know how big." After several casts, Kalish hooked the big female. The trio then watched open-mouthed as the wide-bodied bass boiled up and then jumped right in front of the boat. With Edwards yelling for him to set the hook harder, Kalish held on as the fish twice wrapped line around a stump, somehow came free each time and then ran under the boat. At that point, with the butt of Kalish's rod jammed against the side of the boat, their guide, Dan Lynch, stepped in. "I knew we were in trouble and we had to do something quick," Lynch says. "So when the fish came by, I made a grab at her, the line wrapped around my thumb and the hook pulled out." After the bass got off, Lynch says Kalish "just sat there looking at me. You could tell it was a mega-disappointment." Estimates on the size of that fish vary from 12 to 15 pounds, depending on which of the eyewitnesses you talk to. Everyone agreed, though, that it was the bass of a lifetime. "You could have put your hand around a baseball, stuck it in her mouth and you wouldn't have touched the sides," Lynch says. A few days after Kalish tangled with the big largemouth, I was fishing the same cove with Lynch in the wild hope of having a similar experience. Lynch made sure we positioned the boat the same way and threw flies at the same bed surrounded by the same stickups. When a husky bass came charging out of the bed with my crawfish pattern firmly attached to its jaw, I thought it was Lake Fork's version of déja vu. The fact that it was a male fish weighing in on the hand held scale at five-and-a-half pounds didn't diminish my excitement at all. Landing a fish of this size on a fly rod at most lakes calls for an après-fish beer or three (on your buddies, of course). At Lake Fork, though, a fish this size and a dollar will get you a cookie. Despite a five-fish a day bag limit, a strong catch-and-release ethic has been cultivated among guides and anglers at Lake Fork. Creel surveys show a near-universal practice of releasing fish on the lake. "You don't dare try to clean a bass near Lake Fork," says a Texas Parks&Wildlife official. "You'll get looks and you will hear some dirty words." For those fly fishers who would like to catch large bass but prefer the solitude of smaller lakes and a little less traffic at the launch ramp, there are a variety of other waters accessible throughout the Lone Star State. One of those is Purtis Creek State Park located 70 miles southeast of Dallas. Although the tiny (355-acre) lake offers a totally different environment than Fork, the bass fishing can be just as explosive. Instead of the thunderous sound of bass boats taking off at dawn and the silhouettes of water-skiers bouncing across wakes, there's a sense of tranquility at Purtis Creek. At Purtis Creek, where a no-wake rule is enforced, the more typical sounds are the whirring of trolling motors and the "plop-plop" of Dahlberg Divers chugging through lily pads. Filled with flooded timber and ringed by red oaks, dogwoods and black walnuts, Purtis Creek is an angler's lake by design. Relatively manageable in size even for a float-tube bound fly fisher, its heavy cover, flooded levees, numerous flats and coves make it particularly attractive to fly fishers. A Woolly Bugger teased along the bank in the spring can produce a six-inch sunfish on one cast and a six-pound largemouth on the next. Johnboats and kayaks are ideal for prospecting its shorelines and coves and fly fishers casting from float tubes can find themselves staring eye-to-eye with largemouth going airborne after taking popping bugs in dense lily pad fields. One early summer morning just before dawn, I walked out on one of the piers to see largemouth in the two-pound class flashing on baitfish under an overhead light. Casting a dark brown Clouser along the edge of the pier, I soon felt a solid strike. The fish moved away so slowly and methodically that I thought at first I had hooked a big catfish. When it boiled near the surface, I was stunned to see the broad, dark back of a monster largemouth. Walking it along the pier, I beached it on the shore and released it after noting that it edged past eight pounds on my hand-held scale. I was so excited about catching the fish that I left the Chatillon scale in the grass near the pier and haven't seen it since. Catch-and-release is a requirement at Purtis Creek in a carefully monitored, long-running experiment conducted by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Largemouth in excess of 13 pounds have been caught there. Exceptionally large bass caught in the lake can be transported in live wells for weighing on certified scales that are provided at the park and then they are released back into the lake. There are also a growing number of private waters in Texas where anglers can sample uncommonly good, high-fish-density, big-bass angling in relative solitude. These fee-fishing operations charge from $100 to $275 per day with options for annual memberships. One of the oldest and largest privately managed bass fisheries is The Lakes of Danbury, a one-time rice-farming and cattle-ranching operation 40 miles south of Houston. On Danbury's nine fishing lakes, anglers have a choice of Florida-strain, Florida/Northern native hybrid black bass and Cuban largemouths, as well as hybrid stripers and coppernose bluegills. "The reason that Danbury can grow 12-pound bass is that they can manage the numbers of those bass," says fisheries biologist Bob Lusk, an independent fisheries consultant. "They make sure they don't have too many of them trying to feed on a given amount of food." One of the most exciting things for fly fishers to do at Danbury is to walk the roads along the edges of the lakes and ponds and sight-cast to cruising largemouth. Some of these small, walk-up ponds even have fish up to 10 pounds in them. Fly fishers can also find a day of catch and release fishing on a small (73-acre) private east Texas lake that has a healthy and voracious population of largemouths. Glass Lake, located near Kilgore, is within sight of the Daisy Bradford No. 3, the discovery well for the great East Texas oil field. Fly fishers have a chance to discover their own version of black gold around the coontail moss and lilly pads on this lake with clear, spring-fed water. "You are going to see that bass coming up on a topwater bug a good 10 seconds before it takes hold," angler Chris White says. Bass up to 13 pounds have been landed there and five-pounders are fairly common catches in a day of fishing. Guide Woodruff notes that one of his fly-fishing clients had a fish on there recently that would have topped the 10-pound mark. "He pointed the rod straight at her, which allowed her to break the line." The big ones still get away on occasion. But the new battle cry heard just before dawn on many Texas waters has been upgraded in recent years. Now it's "ready, here I come, you TEN pound bass." TEN TEXAS 10-POUND BASS HAUNTS The Big Reservoirs Lake Fork -- Premier big bass lake 90 miles east of Dallas. Clients of fly-fishing guide Rob Woodruff have landed a number of fish in the 8-10 pound class. Catch and release only, measurements provided for replica mounts. Contact Woodruff at 903-967-2665 or visit his Web site at www.flyfishingfork.com. Toledo Bend Reservoir -- Massive reservoir on Texas-Louisiana border holds giant Florida-strain largemouth. Fly fishers target coves near launch ramps off Texas 255 on southern end of lake. Lake Meredith -- Lightning struck here in 2000 at the stilling basin of this Panhandle lake 40 miles north of Amarillo in the form of a 14-pound largemouth on a popping bug. Can it happen again? Baylor Lake -- This relatively small municipal water supply lake near Childress in the Texas Panhandle has a reputation for exceptional catches to 15 pounds in recent years. State Park Waters Purtis Creek State Park -- Located 70 miles south of Dallas via US 175 near the town of Eustice. Purtis Creek offers exceptional catch and release fishing for Florida-strain largemouth to 13 pounds. Contact the park headquarters 903-425-2332. Choke Canyon State Park -- Located 60 miles south of San Antonio near the town of Three Rivers, the park offers camping facilities and access to remarkable wildlife viewing and excellent bass fishing especially in the winter and spring. Contact park headquarters at (361) 786-3538. Private, Fee-based Waters Glass Lake -- Old family estate in East Texas near Kilgore offers exceptional catch-and-release bass fishing for fly fishers only. Look for 20 to 40 fish days here. Contact guide Robert Woodruff at 903-967--2665, Web site www.flyfishingfork.com. The Lakes of Danbury -- Series of lakes at former rice-farm 40 miles south of Houston offers day and season packages for catch-and-release fishing for Florida-strain, Florida/native northern hybrid and Cuban largemouths to 15 pounds. Call Jim Thompson at 979-922-8610 for information. 777 Ranch -- Located 32 miles west of San Antonio outside Hondo, 777 offers more than 30 ponds and lakes that hold largemouth to 14 pounds. For information call 830-426-3476 or visit their Web site at www.777ranch.com. Bieri Lakes -- Family owned lodge located 40 miles south of Houston offers day and weekend packages for fishing three lakes that hold Florida-strain largemouths scaling 14 pounds plus. For information contact Regina Bieri at 979-848-8181 or visit their Web site at www.bierilakes.com.