Barry St. Clair has another anniversary coming up this month. On January 24, he’ll celebrate 11 years as the owner of Texas’ coveted state-record largemouth bass title.
That sounds like eons ago, but the story behind the behemoth bass remains as fresh in my mind today as it was after I hung up the phone with St. Clair on that warm winter afternoon way back in back in 1992.
St. Clair, who was a cattle rancher at the time, had taken the day off from his northeast Texas farm to do some early crappie fishing at Lake Fork with a couple of buddies.
The three men anchored their boat in open water near the dam and were soaking live shiners about 40 feet down when St. Clair noticed his line felt a little mushy.
St. Clair’s first inclination was to believe he’d snagged an underwater brushpile. But he didn’t think that way for long. The brushpile started fighting back – hard!
With his rod arched double and reel singing, all St. Clair could do was hang on and hope his 14-pound mono wouldn’t snap or the 2/0 gold Aberdeen crappie hook wouldn’t give way under the intense pressure.
St. Clair was lucky on both counts. After a touch-and-go battle, he worked what turned out to be a fat largemouth bass to the surface of the lake and into the landing net.
A short time later, Mark Stevenson’s 17.67 Texas state-record from Lake Fork that had stood for slightly more than six years officially became history. Now at the forefront of the Lone Star record book was St. Clair’s 18.18-pound beauty – the only 18-pounder ever reported in this state.
There are several morals behind St. Clair’s big-fish feat, and the fish itself is one that close to a million Texas bass anglers have been trying to top for more than decade.
(1.) You don’t necessarily have to be a flashy bass pro behind the wheel of a racy-looking bass boat to catch a big Texas bass. For that matter, you don’t even necessarily have to be casting for bass to catch one!
(2.) If you’re out to catch a big bass, Lake Fork is a good place to look for it.
And (3.), January just might be a pretty good time to begin the search for a Texas trophy largemouth.
Big female bass are at peak weight during the winter months. That’s because their bellies are packed with eggs.
I’ve been told by fisheries scientists that a female bass will add 10 percent to its body weight when it’s heavy with roe. That means a healthy bass that weighed 10 pounds last June may weigh as much as 11 pounds during the spring, possibly more if it happens to get caught in the wake of a heavy feeding spree.
Lakes all around East Texas are harboring big bass these days, but some have developed distinctive reputations for producing the big bite more often than have others.
Here’s the run-down on some of the best of those impoundments, along with some proven advice for fishing them over the next 30 days. Follow it and you just might be the one to spoil Barry St. Clair’s 11-year anniversary.
Fork has produced 34 of the Top 50 biggest bass ever reported in Texas and 201 of the 342 bass placed in the 16-year-old ShareLunker program, a spawning and genetics research program aimed at producing bigger and better bass for Texas anglers to catch in the future.
Brooks Rogers has never caught a Top 50 bass. Nor has he been lucky enough to break the 13-pound barrier required to donate a fish to the ShareLunker program.
But the young fishing guide and aspiring bass pro has caught his share of Lake Fork lunkers. His personal best weighed slightly more than 12 pounds and he’s also caught numerous fish in the 7- to 10-pound range – not exactly lightweights!
According to Rogers, Fork established itself years ago as a big-bass lake for all seasons. It typically shines brightest during March and April when warming water temperatures beckon wave after wave of lunker largemouths toward the shallows to spawn.
But late winter can be pretty good as well, provided you know where to look and what to throw once you get there. “The January fishing used to be really good back in the early to mid-1990s, when there was a lot of grass in the lake to congregate the fish,” explained Rogers. “But when the grass disappeared, the fishing got tougher because it scattered the fish more. We’re beginning to see a little grass getting back in the lake. But as a rule, you’ve got to fish this lake differently today than you did 10 years ago.”
January rolls around smack in the middle of winter in eastern Texas. So water temperatures are still going to be chilly – 45 to 48 degrees.
That might signal deepwater fishing to many bass busters. But not to Rogers. He’ll rarely toss his bass lures into water deeper than 12 feet at that time of year.
“That’s not to say you can’t use a Tailkicker or a spoon and pick up a few fish off deep main-lake structure,” said Rogers. “You can. But it’s usually not near as consistent as it is during the fall. The deep fish have a tendency to scatter.”
Rogers will spend the majority of his time searching for clear water and fishing around pre-spawn “staging” areas situated in relation to main-lake points, pockets, flats and creek channels. He likes to target spots in relatively shallow water, too. Water depths of 2 to 8 feet are ideal.
“I like to cover a lot of water, and the Rat-L-Trap is one of the most effective baits around for doing that. I’ll have three Traps tied on – a 1/4-ounce for real shallow water, a 1/2-ounce for medium-depth ranges and a 3/4-ouncer for deeper water. I’ll alternate between the three baits depending on the depth of
water I’m fishing.”
Rogers isn’t that particular when it comes to lure color, as long as the bait resembles a crawfish. Variations of red and brown colors generally work best. If the water is off-color, it’s a good idea to choose a lure with some chartreuse mixed in.
In addition to the Trap, Rogers like to pitch a black/brown/amber jig around stumps that are bordering the breaks of major creek channels. He’ll tip the jig with a No. 11 pork chunk, which gives the lure some bulk and causes a slower fall.
“The jig is probably the No. 1 pattern for trophy fish this time of year,” said Rogers. “A lot of those big fish will be laid up along the edges of the channels, right up against the wood. I try to hit every big stump I can find, especially those in the bends of the channels.”
Fork is fed by a passel of creeks, but channels that are protected from chilly north winds will be more prone to hold fish right now than others will. Among some of the best creeks to look at are Glade, Long Branch, Running, Coffee, Birch and Elm.
Two other patterns worth trying are twitching a suspending jerkbait or slow-rolling a spinnerbait, particularly in clear water that’s been heated up a few degrees after absorbing several days of warm sunshine.
To book a guide trip on Fork, contact Rogers at (903) 763-0595, Hollice Joiner at (903) 342-5359 or Richard McCarty at (903) 383-2864.
But don’t let the paper trail fool you. Big Sam is still regarded as a very special place. In fact, if you were to ask 10 established tournament pros to reveal their Top 10 prospects for producing a five-fish sack busting the 20-pound mark, I’ll guarantee you Sam Rayburn would score a high grade with most of them.
Just last spring the 114,000-acre reservoir set an all-time record for Sealy Outdoors events when it cranked out 15 bags weighing 20- pounds-plus – in a single day!
That’s a lot of bass. But it should really come as no surprise.
Sam Rayburn has got all the assets of a model bass fishery: great habitat, Florida bass, erratic contours, restrictive regulations. Lump all those together in a 114,000-acre expanse of water that’s fed by two major rivers and countless creek channels and phenomenal bass fishing can’t help but follow.
According to Jasper bass pro Carl Svebek, January is prime time to catch numbers of lunker-sized bass on Sam Rayburn. But you’ll need the right tools on board to do it.
One of the most handy to have around is the Rat-L-Trap. “We normally start getting some heavy rain in East Texas during January, and that’s going to cause the lake to rise,” he explained. “When the water rises, it’ll put a window of water between the top of the grass (hydrilla) and the surface. That’s where the bass are going be, and the Rat-L-Trap is the ideal bait for that type of situation.”
Bass will be feeding heavily on crawfish now. So Svebek suggests using a color pattern to match the forage. Red, brown and orange are tough colors to beat. Another good one is black back, chartreuse sides and orange belly. That’s the color pattern Texas bass pro Bud Pruitt has used to walk away with a couple of Sam Rayburn B.A.S.S. championships in recent years.
Svebek says it’s a good idea to have couple of Traps tied on. He uses a 1/2-ounce bait for working around shallow grass, and a 3/4-ounce lure for when the fish are holding deeper, say 8 to 10 feet.
“The idea is to keep the bait ticking the top of the moss,” he said. “Most of the strikes will come just as the lure tears free.”
A Carolina-rigged watermelon or pumpkin/chartreuse lizard also would be a good choice. Svebek suggests dragging it alongside grasslines and on brushy points.
If you’d rather go for numbers of bass, try fishing deep. For best results, use your electronics to mark roving schools of shad around main-lake structure in 18 to 25 feet of water. A 1/2-ounce jigging spoon can be killer when dropped in among the succulent forage
For guide trips, call Svebek at (409) 698-2619 or Shane Allman at (409) 698-2227.
According to Martin, there are three things an angler needs to do to catch bass on Toledo Bend during January. Fish clear water, fish shallow, and throw a Rat-L-Trap, preferably a red one.
“A lot of people are going to read this and think it’s crazy,” said Martin. “They think that because the water is cold that fish are going to be pulled out in deep water where it’s warmer. But that’s not true. A high percentage of the bass are going to be up shallow right now. It’s rare that I’ll ever fish any deeper than 7 feet in January. Most of the time, I’ll be concentrating on water 2 to 5 feet deep.”
Such was the case on that chilly morning in January 2001. Martin, practicing for the B.A.S.S. Top 150 event on Sam Rayburn, had taken me into a wind-protected pocket at the rear of Hausen Bay in which there was a scad of submerged hydrilla. There, fishing in 6 feet of water for a little more than an hour, Martin culled numerous 4-pounders along the way to sacking up a five-bass limit that easily would have busted 25 pounds. The heaviest fish in the bunch weighed 9.4 pounds.
His secret lure? It’s not a secret at all. Everybody throws Rat-L-Traps on Toledo Bend at this time of year.
“It’s all about finding clear water, covering lots of water and fishing shallow,” said Martin. “If an angler will do that and stick with it, he’ll find bass on just about all of our East Texas lakes that have an abundance of grass.”
As a rule, the better fishing will occur amid major bay systems located from the midlake area south to the dam. This is generally where the clearest water will be found during January. Among some of Martin’s favorite areas are Hausen Bay, Six Mile, Pirates Cove, McGee Flats, Arnold Bay, Yoakum Bay, Tennessee Bay, Lowes and Indian Mound.
Martin says he’ll normally begin by probing from the bank out to the inside grassline. If he can’t find any takers there, he’ll move
out deeper and probe around the outer edges of the grass.
To book a guide trip, call Martin at (409) 625-4792.
The water in these little lakes is used to cool the lakeside turbines that generate electricity for nearby cities. When the water is discharged back into the lake via the outfall canal, it’s much warmer than when it went in.
Hence, water temperatures on “hot water” lakes may be 20 to 25 degrees warmer right now than on neighboring “cold water” lakes. This factor, called “thermal enrichment,” actually fools the bass into thinking it’s spring when in reality it’s still the dead of winter outside.
And we all know what that means!
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