Spring is supposed to be big bass season in Texas. Apparently not all of the bass got the memo this year.
From February through April fishermen are on the hunt for their career biggest, maybe a lake record, if really lucky a Toyota ShareLunker or maybe even a state record.
While the ShareLunker program is not a perfect barometer of how good the super big fish fishing is going and where they are being caught, it does serve as something of an indicator. There is one. A Sam Rayburn 13.2-pounder caught in November.
“Part of it is our lake conditions. We have had such bad conditions. A lot of extremely off-colored water. There is a lot of particulates in it. It has been that way for four months. The fish don’t bite as much in that water,” said Texas Freshwater Fishing hall of famer and long-time Lake Fork guide Mark Stevenson.
In the coves where he is finding spawning activity Stevenson said it is from midway out instead of midway to the back of the cove like normally expected.
The big bass slow down is not unique to Lake Fork. It is something that is being experienced around the state this year, and it comes as something of a surprise because most fishermen were expecting a good year now that drought conditions are in the rearview mirror. In some cases it has to do with high water and the impact it has had on the fish, or the fishermen. That has been the case at Sam Rayburn Reservoir where fishermen have struggled so far this spring.
“At Rayburn it seems like the water has been so high, the bass have to go past the bushes and way up into the trees to spawn and the fishermen can’t get to them,” said Stephen Johnston, who guides on Rayburn and Toledo Bend.
The guide said that with the lake still six feet high that some of the normal areas where bass would spawn are currently in nine feet of water. He guesstimates that the majority of the bass on Rayburn have already spawned.
“There is another wave still to come on the lower end of Rayburn,” Johnston said of where fishermen are most likely to find spawning bass in the coming weeks.
He added it is a completely different story 30 miles down the road at Toledo Bend where fishermen have weighed more than 70 bass 10-pounds or larger since the beginning of February through the Toledo Bend Lake Association’s Lunker Bass Program. That includes nine over 12, two over 13 and a 14.16.
Johnston said the good bass fishing at Toledo Bend really began about eight years ago when high water allowed the bass to spawn unmolested. Then there were a couple of years of drought that kept fishermen off the lake. Since then the marinas and guides have really pushed catch-and-release on a lake where harvest is still a tradition.
The lake, he noted, is also feeling the effects of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Florida bass stocking program on the lake.
“As far as pure Florida bass, Toledo Bend is 10 to 12 years behind Rayburn. Texas Parks and Wildlife didn’t stock them as soon on Toledo Bend because they wanted Louisiana to work with them on limits,” Johnston said.
The final component to the good year on the 181,000-acre reservoir is an increased number of fishermen on the lake this year. B.A.S.S. ranked Toledo Bend the top bass fishing lake in the country in 2015, and it has made a difference.
“I have been fishing it since 1989 and you wouldn’t believe the people out there. You can’t tell the difference between a Saturday and a Wednesday,” Johnston said.
Like at Rayburn, the guide believes the majority of the female bass on Toledo have spawned. With a lack of grass on both lakes, he suspects the big fish will immediately return to deeper water.
In comparison, Stevenson said at Fork there is plenty of vegetation, but for some reason it has been slow to filter out the sediment that washed in with earlier rains.
A full lake has also created problems for some fishermen.
“We have high water and that has spread those fish out. I can see lots of wads of fish suspended in 18-20 feet of water, suspended 5 feet off the bottom,” the guide said.
The problem is that most fishermen are fishing shallow, not targeting those deep fish. Even if they did, getting a suspended fish to bite is not an easy thing.
In the shallow water the guide said he is seeing three or four spawning beds where in the past he would have seen 10 or 12.
“I think there are a lot that haven’t spawned. Water temp-wise it has jumped up into mid 60s to high 60s several times, but overall that water temp has been hanging 60 to 63 to 64 degrees. I think the fish are behind. We have a lot on the bed, but not what you expect to see,” Stephenson said.
The former state record holder said he has seen water temps warming in recent days and expects a flurry of big bass to show up in the coming weeks.
Stevenson also believes that with the amount of grass already on the lake summer fishing should be better than it has been in recent years.
Johnston is predicting the same thing at Rayburn.
“I believe that those fish really had a chance to go in and take care of business and not get bothered. If we have a good warm summer and it gets hot I think the fishing will be good deep. That is what the forecast is calling for. Last year it stayed cool and they stayed shallow,” he said.
Not everyone is blaming the high water. At Lake Austin, guide Mike Hastings said the disappearance of aquatic vegetation is the issue.
“For as long as most people can remember, Lake Austin had an abundance of Eurasian Watermilfoil. Over the previous 15 years there was also a substantial amount of Hydrilla. Somewhere between 35,000 - 50,000 grass carp were stocked over the past several years. This severe overstocking of grass carp is directly responsible for the decline in fishing and big bass production,” Hastings noted.