June 08, 2021
They say that everything is bigger and better in Texas. And as the week of the 51st Bassmaster Classic begins, it's worth noting that some of that Lone Star State bravado is true.
Texas, after all, is the second largest state in the country, both in terms of size (second only to Alaska) and population (second only to California). There are 254 counties, elevations that range from sea level on the Gulf of Mexico to more than 8,700-plus feet in the Guadalupe Mountains. The state takes forever to traverse, sporting a vast acreage that is 773 miles across and 801 miles from top to bottom.
There’s tons of hunting options in the state, from world-class waterfowling in the Panhandle and the Gulf Coast to the best remaining wild quail hunting in the South Texas Brush Country. The deer are big in Texas—the state boasts the nation's largest whitetail herd at more than five million and the Boone and Crockett Club recently noted that four of the top six B&C producing counties hail from Texas.
But this week, none of that other stuff matters as all eyes in the bass fishing world fall upon the Lone Star State. Because it's now time for the 2021 Bassmaster Classic, contested on Lake Ray Roberts from June 11-13 and headquartered in nearby Fort Worth, as the Super Bowl of bass fishing shows back up in Texas for the third time — joining a 1979 visit to Lake Texoma (won by Hank Parker) and a 2017 visit to Lake Conroe (won by Jordan Lee).
With 54 Classic qualifiers descending upon a relatively unknown fishery—Ray Roberts, though widely known in Texas, isn’t especially well-known elsewhere—Classic Week is filled with lots of intrigue and mystery as the derby prepares for its run on a 29,600-acre lake named after a longtime North Texas congressman.
Bass Fishing and Weather
One of this week’s mysterious storylines is the weather, which has been topsy turvy and then some in Texas this year. January featured a round of snow and cold in parts of the state, followed by a historic blast of snow and sub-zero temperatures around Valentine’s Day. By the time the deadly February cold wave ended, Texas was counting up the damage, figuring out how many saltwater fish had died, and waiting for the ice to melt at spots like Ray Roberts.
In recent weeks, it's been heavy rain, overcast skies, and cooler-than-normal weather conditions that have plagued the state. In fact, as Classic Week begins, Ray Roberts has a lake level that is 3.61 feet higher than normal, water temps are languishing in the mid-70s, and the threat of rain and storms remains in the forecast.
That’s left this week’s Classic field—including Clark Wendlandt, the 2020 B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year and a Cedar Park, Texas, resident—scratching their heads to figure out whether bass will be caught on topwaters in flooded vegetation, flipping and pitching around the voluminous submerged timber, or by throwing crankbaits and swimbaits at the lake’s numerous offshore spots as bass transition from spring to summer.
Truth be known, it’s not even out of the realm of possibility that a good fish or two could still be caught up shallow in a late spawning wave. Ray Roberts lies only two counties south of the Red River and until last week’s Texas Parks and Wildlife Department fishing report, which pegged the lake temp at 76 degrees, the water temp had languished behind in the upper 60s.
Brandon Palaniuk, one of the derby’s favorites and winner of a B.A.S.S. Open event a couple of weeks ago, pointed to the Bassmaster Elite Series recent visit to Lake Fork as proof that the Lone Star State’s annual fishing calendar is behind schedule.
"Fork was way behind when we were there," said Palaniuk, the 2017 AOY winner fishing in his 10th Classic, in a B.A.S.S. news release. "I talked to a buddy of mine after the event, and he said there were more big fish spawning at Fork than he’s ever seen, long after we were gone. That alone tells me things are behind 100%."
First-Time Classic Venue
Another one of the unknowns this week as anglers seek to unlock the Classic puzzle at Ray Bob is the lack of tournament experience that most possess on this lake. Unlike other famed Classic venues that have featured numerous B.A.S.S. events—Guntersville comes to mind—this is the first tournament here that many in the field have ever fished.
B.A.S.S. has never held a regular Elite Series stop on Ray Roberts—sort of, more on that in a moment—even though the lake was impounded in 1987 and has routinely been featured in Bassmaster’s "Top 100" list of bass fisheries across the country.
While there are plenty of local, regional and state derbies held at the lake, some of the sport’s biggest names have only seen Ray Roberts one time previously. That happened when Major League Fishing filmed a Challenge Cup competition in the dark during an October 2012 visit to Lake Ray Roberts, a MLF competition that aired on Outdoor Channel the next year.
Flint, Texas, angler and Bass Pro Tour competitor Kelly Jordan eventually outlasted MLF co-founder and fellow Texas angling pro Gary Klein as they fished in the Buck Creek region of the lake with a Championship Day group that featured previous Classic winners Kevin VanDam and Skeet Reese. But Greg Hackney was the only pro who fished that event and currently competes on the Bassmaster Elite Series circuit (he returned to B.A.S.S. competition this year) and he didn’t qualify for the 51st Classic.
That leaves only the 2016 Texas Fest, a fundraising tournament for TPWD that had previously been known as the Toyota Texas Bass Classic. Since taken over by B.A.S.S. and absorbed into the yearly schedule, the late-May event was won by Matt Herren, one of this week’s Classic competitors. He’s one of the favorites at Ray Roberts this week, along with Fort Worth resident Chris Zaldain, who finished 10th at the 2016 Texas Fest event.
$300K to the Winning Angler
If the weather and the venue are question marks, so too is the size of bass that it will take to win the $300,000 top prize carved out of the $1 million purse available to anglers. While Ray Roberts looks similar to Lake Fork on the map with a NW projecting arm, a NE projecting arm, and a main lake body connecting the two, it doesn’t have the number of bass that its neighbor 121 miles to the southeast does.
"Ray Roberts doesn’t have the population of 3- to 5-pounders that Fork has," said Palaniuk, a five-time Elite Series winner and former Rookie of the Year. "It’s got quite a few 8- to 10-pounders, I think. So, it may be a deal where a guy gets six bites in a day and has 28 pounds.
"I honestly think a guy could win the Classic without having a limit every day if he’s getting the right bites. You could catch four for 20 or 21 pounds. It’s definitely doable there."
BP, as the Idaho pro is popularly known, isn’t off base there. TPWD has kept the genetics supercharged at Ray Roberts with 1.44-million Florida bass fingerlings planted in four stockings since 2011. And some of the bass at Ray Bob get Texas Big since the lake record is 15.18 pounds, a behemoth caught in March 2015 by Shannon Elvington and a fish that became the sixth 13-plus pound ShareLunker pulled from a lake that spills into Denton, Cooke, and Grayson counties.
A final layer of intrigue this week is simply where the Classic victory will go down and how difficult it will be for the triumphant angler to get there. While there’s not a lot of vegetation remaining after drought and work on the dam several years ago, there are countless trees above and below the water’s edge as well as plenty of offshore options.
"On scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the worst, the lower lake is like a 3 to navigate — not that bad at all," said Palaniuk. "But once you go up in the top three-quarters of the lake, it’s like an 8 or 9. If you’re sitting there thinking, ‘I’m just gonna run back to the back of that pocket,’ it’s not happening.
"There are no boat lanes. Nothing’s been cut by TPWD. You just have to create your own trails."
Despite one of the most mysterious and intriguing Classics ever—made even more so by the Classic’s delayed dates from mid-March to mid-June as a part of the COVID-19 response—Palaniuk is right.
By next Sunday evening, one angler will have stood taller than the rest, carved his own trail to Classic victory, and will hoist a familiar trophy high again as the confetti and laser light show envelops the Dickies Arena in downtown Fort Worth.
In that familiar professional bass fishing scene, there is no mystery at all this week. Somebody is going to figure out an unknown body of water, pull five big ones out of it for three consecutive days, and see their angling career forever changed.
And that’s no Texas tall tale, either.