February 15, 2023
By Lynn Burkhead
On the night before Valentine's Day, I was going over the mental checklist for Feb. 14, making sure that all of the bases were covered for the lovely Mrs. B.
Red roses? Check. A box of chocolates? Check. A card expressing love and eternal gratitude that my wife of three decades said yes so many years ago when I asked if she'd be mine? Check.
But all thoughts of Cupid and his day of romance were lost when my phone blew up with a text and photo from my longtime fishing pal, Rob Woodruff. "I’m starting to think 18.18 [pounds] is in reach," Woodruff, who for many years was an Orvis-endorsed fly fishing guide on Lake Fork, the famed East Texas lunker factory near Quitman, said, referring to the current state largemouth bass record in Texas.
But with the recent big-bass reports coming out of the Lone Star State, including a whopping 17-pounder caught Feb. 13 at O.H. Ivie, the nearly 31-year-old record looks vulnerable.
You might recall Lake Fork, the famed 27,264-acre gem that helped jumpstart the big-bass parade in Texas a generation ago. It was in 1986 when Lake Fork guide Mark Stevenson set the hook of his Stanley Jig into the maw of "Ethel," the 17.67-pound lunker that became the Texas state record, jumpstarted the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's ShareLunker program as its first entry, and entertained spectators for several years as it swam in the aquarium of the Springfield, Mo., flagship location of Bass Pro Shops.
Since Stevenson’s fish was caught on Nov. 26, 1986, Lake Fork has dominated the big-bass conversation in Texas, producing 263 ShareLunkers that weigh 13 pounds or better, are caught in the first three months of the year, and are loaned to TPWD for spawning purposes.
Those bass—dubbed ShareLunker Legacy Class fish—include Fork's current state record (Barry St. Clair's 18.18-pound lunker caught on a minnow on Jan. 24, 1992), along with seven of the state's Top 10 all-time bass list, 15 of the Top 25, and 27 of the Top 50..
While O.H. Ivie Lake near San Angelo is now where the big-bass spotlight is focussed, Fork, which has slowed some in recent years, is still capable of producing record-sized bass, however. A 15-pounder was caught there in 2021, and the lake is still cranking out lots of eight-, nine-, and 10-pound fish. But still, there's little doubt O.H. Ivie has wrestled the title of "Best Bass Lake in Texas" away from Fork for the time being.
O.H. My Ivie!
As my friend Woodruff's text referred to on Monday night, another big-bass chapter is being written at sizzling O.H. Ivie, which has been producing monsters since 2020. The latest humongous bass from the reservoir came on Feb. 13, 2023, as the eighth-biggest bass in Texas history was reported.
"Jason Conn just caught a top-50 largemouth bass from O.H. Ivie!," was posted on TPWD's Fishing Twitter page. "ShareLunker 642 weighed in at 17.03 pounds and is one of the largest lunkers to hit the scales in Texas history!! His Legacy Class Lunker is the 8th heaviest Texas largemouth bass of all time. Amazing! Congratulations, Jason and thank you for your contribution! #sharelunker #biggerbetterbass”
Conn's bass marks the second 17-pounder officially caught at O.H. Ivie in the past 12 months—a 17.06-pound largemouth was caught last February by angler Brodey Davis. Brodey’s fish caused all kinds of waves last winter since it was the seventh biggest bass in Texas history and the largest lunker landed in some 30 years.
Hot Spot for Lunkers
Conn's bass is the latest specimen in a run of epic Legacy Class ShareLunker catches—24 such bass across the state during the 2021 season, 24 in 2022, and 10 so far in 2023. O.H. Ivie has produced 12 ShareLunkers in ’21, 12 in '22, and eight so far this year.
There have been 56 official Legacy Class ShareLunkers caught at O.H. Ivie since the first one was landed in Feb. 2000. Add in 13 "other" Legend Class bass since 2019 that weighed 13 pounds or more and were caught outside of the Jan. 1-March 31 collection season, and that means a total of 69 ShareLunker-sized bass have been pulled from the lake, more than half of those since 2019.
Add in a report from sonar expert and guide Josh Jones a few weeks ago—Jones has officially landed four ShareLunkers over the past two seasons, along with a 15-plus-pound Legend Class bass in December 2021. A photo of the guide's sonar screen showed a huge blip that Jones said broke him off, and could have been a state record, and many anglers around the state are starting to think the same thing that my friend Woodruff is.
Conn is one of those, noting that he's trying to catch a fish he's seen on his own graph, one that could be north of 18 pounds. And that's what's fueling the idea that it might not be too long now until there's an heir to the throne for St. Clair's 18.18-pound largemouth—caught as he crappie fished in deep-water at Fork on Jan. 24, 1992—as the Texas state record finally gets toppled after three decades.
The Perfect Storm
Consider the progression of the Texas' state-record mark that late Dallas Morning News outdoors writer Ray Sasser wrote of several times through the years. Sasser noted that the long-running record parade began on Jan. 16, 1943, when H.R. McGee caught a 13.50-pound bass at Lake Medina. That fish stood as the Texas record for nearly 40 years.
That all changed on Feb. 2, 1980, when angler Jimmy Kimball landed a then state-record largemouth from Lake Monticello weighing 14.09 pounds.
That wouldn't last very long as the state's Florida-strain largemouth stockings began to pay off with big fish dividends in the 1980s. In quick order, the Texas state record fell twice to the same angler, John Alexander, as he landed a 14.3-pound bass from private Echo Lake on Jan. 19, 1981, and then a 15.5-pound largemouth from the same water body on Feb. 7, 1981.
East Texas' Lake Pinkston served up the next state record, a 16.9-pound largemouth caught by Earl Crawford on Feb. 16, 1986. That was followed by Stevenson's catch of 17.67-pound Ethel on Nov. 26, 1986, and then St. Clair's current record, the 18.18-pound bass from Fork landed on a cool January day in the early 1990s. After the largemouth benchmark had stood for 37 years, it fell an astonishing six times in a 12-year span.
The aggressive stocking of Florida-strain largemouth bass, along with improving skills of anglers, increasing technology, better boats and trolling motors, the state's ideal climate and suitable habitat, lots of shad, and the Florida-strain genetics, and the result was a perfect storm for record-sized bass.
Given the recent trajectory of big-bass catches in Texas, some wonder if a similar storm is about to take place. Maybe, maybe not since a fish of more than 17 pounds is indeed getting near the top-end growth potential for largemouth bass, even those with Florida-strain genetics swimming through their veins.
In fact, the Bass Fishing Facts website shows that when bass get into the upper teens, they are a rare breed indeed. According to that list—updated only a few days ago—only five states (California, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas) have produced state-record bass in excess of 17 pounds. And that includes George Perry's International Game Fish Association world record, a 22-pound, 4-ounce largemouth caught on June 2, 1932 in Georgia.
Can Record Be Broken?
So, does any of this mean that Texas is close to topping out in its big-bass potential? Perhaps, but as someone noted with the Conn catch at O.H. Ivie on Monday, that fish was a good-sized gizzard shad or bluegill away from being the new state record. Perhaps that’s at O.H. Ivie, maybe it’s at Fork, or even at a small lake that is off the radar screen.
My pal Woodruff, who has been watching the Texas big-bass scene since he was in high school in Plano in the 1980s and a college student at Texas A&M University after that, certainly thinks a state record is within reach.
"I think the fish quality and technology are coming together to do it," he said. "I also think if there would have been Live Scope in 1986 to 1995, Fork would have (produced) the world record."
Woodruff has lots of big-bass experience, landing seven double-digit lunkers on a fly rod at Fork. What's more, his clients caught four-such fish up to 11.75 pounds, and both the guide and clients lost several more that would have exceeded the 10-pound threshold. Woodruff also witnessed a client lose a fly-rod bass at the boat that likely topped 14 pounds. And add in his friendship and dockside café conversations with several of the lake’s top guides in the 1990s and early 2000s—and witnessing more than one ShareLunker size bass get weighed aboard a guide's boat and then promptly be released—and he's certainly seen his share of lunkers.
What any of that speculation means, who knows what big bass news could spill from Texas’ best bass waters—include O.H. Ivie, Fork, Sam Rayburn, Toledo Bend, and a whole lot more—in the coming weeks, months, and years.