Despite Flooding Rains, Texas Bass Classic Beckons Top Pros to Lake Fork
QUITMAN, Texas – The late great Texas weatherman Harold Taft, an iconic fixture for several decades on a Dallas/Fort Worth television station, once said it best when describing the on-again, off-again nature of wet weather in the Lone Star State.
“In Texas, the next drought begins as soon as the last flood has ended,” Taft quipped to his loyal viewers one spring.
This year, after weeks of flooding rains that have raised lake levels throughout the Lone Star State – not to mention snuffing out last year’s drought conditions – Taft’s statement seems true enough.
Especially in an already soggy week – with plenty more rain in the forecast – as the 35-angler field for the 2015 Toyota Texas Bass Classic (TTBC) gets ready to kick off on Lake Fork, one of the top trophy bass fisheries on the planet.
Billed by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) as the “World Championship of Professional Bass Fishing,” this Memorial Day holiday weekend’s May 23-25 event will bring stiff competition to the water regardless of the stormy skies.
With a powerhouse field that includes defending champ Keith Combs and current Bassmaster Classic champion Casey Ashley, the 2015 TTBC field features the top 15 anglers from last year’s Bassmaster Elite Series and FLW Tour competitions along with several pros getting sponsor exemption invites.
Included in this year’s mix are Major League Fishing pro and 2014 BASS Angler of the Year Greg Hackney; MLF pro and 2013 BASS Angler of the Year Aaron Martens; and 2013 and 2014 FLW Tour Angler of the Year Andy Morgan.
The 2015 TTBC field also includes Texan Kelly Jordon, the MLF champion and 2008 TTBC winning team captain who helped birth the annual event that raises money for TPWD bass fisheries management and research efforts.
Jordon is joined by fellow MLF champion, four-time Bassmaster Classic champion and seven-time BASS Angler of the Year Kevin VanDam along with MLF champion and FLW Tour Forrest Wood Cup champ Brent Ehrler.
Incidentally, Ehrler, who won the first ever MLF competition on Texas’ Amistad Reservoir, is in his inaugural year of competition on the Bassmaster Elite Series circuit.
Other notable pros from MLF, BASS and the FLW Tour who are competing in this year’s TTBC competition include: Jason Christie, Mark Davis, Todd Faircloth, Mike Iaconelli, Brandon Palaniuk, Dean Rojas, Mark Rose, Gerald Swindle and Jacob Wheeler among others.
So strong is this year’s TTBC field that it boasts three Major League Fishing title holders, a combined 190 other tournament wins, 19 BASS and/or FLW Tour Angler of the Year titles, 19 major bass championship titles and more than $56 million in career earnings.
In other words, the 2015 TTBC field is plenty stout. And that’s no Texas tall tale either.
“This is one of the strongest and most talented fields we’ve ever had,” agreed tournament director Lenny Francoeur, in a news release.
“We shattered records during last year’s event and with yet another star studded field; we could be looking at rewriting those records this Memorial Day on Lake Fork.”
One of this year’s story lines is whether or not three-time TTBC champ Keith Combs – who won the event in 2011, 2013 and 2014 – can win it again.
“The TTBC is the tournament I look forward to above all others each year,” said Combs, a Major League Fishing Select competitor in 2014 along with being a rising star on the Bassmaster Elite Series tour.
“As a native Texan, it was a dream come true to win my third TTBC title last year and I cannot wait to return to the incredible Lake Fork, with the best anglers in the world, to defend my title (this weekend).”
If Combs is to do just that, it might require a change in strategy after his successful run of catching Fork’s heavyweight bass on an offshore pattern last May. The Texas angler capped a record setting event in 2014 by smashing the then record for a three-day tour level bass fishing competition by posting a 15 fish weight of 110 pounds even.
So good was the offshore bite – where several double-digit class fish were caught, weighed and released immediately by TTBC anglers – that Combs and fellow BASS pro Stetson Blaylock entered bass fishing’s “Century Club” during the three-day event, something that had never happened before.
“We were proud to see the record-setting fish catches at the 2014 event,” said TPWD spokesman Dave Terre, whose agency has seen some $2 million dollars raised over the course of the event’s eight-year history.
“Those catches were a direct result of our progressive fisheries management practices (in Texas), including special fishing regulations (and) fish stocking and fish habitat improvements with the Sabine River Authority.
“This tournament, including its unique catch-weigh-immediate release format, gives us the opportunity to show the world just how good Lake Fork really is.”
This year, with winter weather occurring deep into March, not to mention cooler than normal and much wetter than normal weather since then, Fork’s vaunted big bass population is a week or two behind its normal springtime schedule.
Combined with stained and rising water on Fork’s 27,264-acre playing field, many bass – including plenty of big ones – are still tight to the shoreline as the lake’s bucketmouths roam the bank looking for food in acre after acre of newly flooded vegetation.
That might mean that this year’s event could be won in shallow water, something that briefly seemed possible a year ago as the 2014 field found the annual spring bass spawn – and the annual shad spawn - winding up as the TTBC event arrived at Fork.
In fact, VanDam indicated that on one of the event’s practice days a year ago, he had an epic outing using his Strike King KVD Splash topwater bait along the shoreline.
So good was that particular day’s skinny water bite that KVD’s best five for the day weighed more than 45-pounds. Unfortunately for VanDam and others – including former Lake Fork guide Jordon, who was also keyed in on the same pattern – the shallow bite played out as the tournament went along.
That set the stage for Combs’ offshore heroics as he deep-cranked a Strike King 6XD and a 10XD – along with a deeply fished Shadalicious swimbait on a one-ounce jighead – to claim his second straight TTBC title.
While many are predicting the deep bite to be the winning ticket again this year, the guess here is that the shallow bite – particularly the one that frog fishers like Major League Fishing and Bassmaster Elite Series pro Dean Rojas will be able to exploit – will be among the keys to winning the TTBC title and its hefty payday (more than $100,000 a year ago).
“Last year, I was one of the few guys who didn’t get the memo that they were biting deep,” said North Carolina FLW tour pro Matt Arey to TTBC media staffers after Wednesday’s first day of practice.
Given his recent FLW win on Beaver Lake, the renowned deep-water bass fishery in northern Arkansas, one might expect that Arey is dialed in to fishing the deep stuff at this year’s TTBC competition on Fork.
Maybe he indicates…or maybe not.
“There’s so much more stuff in the water (this year),” said Arey. “I’m sure that all that shoreline cover is going to come into play.
“I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t be able to catch a six or seven-pounder up shallow and then back off and fish deep to fill out your limit with five and six-pounders.”
All in all, from this vantage point at least, look for a versatile angler who can do well in both shallow water and on the deep structure to claim the 2015 title on a lake that is stained, rising and more than three feet higher than it was a year ago.
And because of that, my pick for this year’s TTBC triumph is none other than East Texas angler Todd Faircloth, a highly consistent Strike King pro that can vacuum up the skinny water fish with his shallow water power fishing prowess while also contributing a few key deep-water heavyweights to boost his five-fish poundage each day.
So I’m predicting a Faircloth win, a triumph which would only add to the native Texan’s building career legacy.
Even if Faircloth has to do so with thunderstorms and their accompanying heavy raindrops falling on his head during the latest edition of a bona fide Lone Star State flood.
Which is apparently nothing more than a precursor to the next lengthy dry spell scheduled to occur somewhere between the Red River and the Rio Grande.