March 09, 2020
By Lynn Burkhead
It was a cool late fall afternoon many years ago when Lake Fork guide Mark Stevenson tossed a Stanley Jig and Hale Craw combo into a likely looking spot on the fledgling Lake Fork, a 27,264-acre timber choked lake about 90 miles east of Dallas.
After clients had felt a couple of taps from a bass and failed to make the hook-up, Stevenson’s try was golden as he set the hook hard on a behemoth largemouth that would tip the scales to 17.67 pounds.
When Stevenson’s lunker was landed on Nov. 26, 1986, a tidal wave of change was ushered into the once quiet landscape of Texas bass fishing. From Stevenson setting a new state record to naming the future Bass Pro Shops aquarium star as Ethel, to jump-starting the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s ShareLunker program, the world of Lone Star State bassing would never be the same again.
In many ways, the collision of Stevenson, Ethel and the ShareLunker program created a perfect storm, one that still rages to this day.
Now, Stevenson is a Hall-of-Famer in Texas, Ethel is remembered fondly years after her death, and the TPWD ShareLunker program continues to make headlines with 584 Legacy Class bass (more than 13 pounds) being reported.
That includes recent reports of two recent Legacy Class catches by Ranson Canyon resident Blake Cockrell, who caught the 13-plus-pound bass at Alan Henry Reservoir near Lubbock.
And, in catching two ShareLunker bass within a span of 22 days, Cockrell has now joined one of the Lone Star State’s most exclusive clubs, becoming one of only 18 anglers who have landed two or more ShareLunker Legacy Class bass in their careers.
With the height of Texas’ springtime big bass season now at hand, Cockrell is aiming to become the sixth angler to land three ShareLunkers…and the first to ever land four.
Cockrell’s hopes of doing so started on Saturday, Feb. 9 as he fished at Alan Henry, the 2,880-acre reservoir near Lubbock. Only days after a double-digit snowfall blanketed portions of West Texas, the 29-year-old tournament angler was down to his final minutes that day when opportunity struck.
"It was on my last spot (of the day)," said Cockrell. "I was pre-fishing for a tournament and had one more spot to check. I had already been on that spot for about 20 minutes and decided to sit down, tie on a new crankbait, and make a few more casts."
With a water temperature of 50 degrees, Cockrell tied on an old Excalibur medium-diving crankbait in a shad pattern. When the knot was complete on his 12-pound Seaguar fluorocarbon line, he made a few casts towards a roadbed next to a creek channel turn that sat in about 10 feet of water.
On the fifth cast, the crankbait rod suddenly loaded up.
"There was an immediate head shake and a good fight ensued," said Cockrell. "I had to chase the fish, get her out of a bush, and get her into a channel where she could wear herself out. When I ended up getting her to the boat, she ended up having one little treble hook in her."
When Cockrell got the fish on his handheld scale, disbelief set in quickly. A quick Facetime call to his dad, Roger Cockrell, who taught him to fish, caused even more consternation.
"I looked at it (the handheld scale) and said, 'You better call somebody,' " said Cockrell. "He said 'What's it showing?' I said, 'It's showing over 14 (pounds)!'
"We sat there in silence for a minute, then he hung up on me," Cockrell added with a chuckle. "I had to compose myself because I was on the verge of freaking out a little bit. When I knew I could drive the boat safely, I headed for the ramp. By the time I got to the ramp, there were already about 30 people there. My dad's got a place there (at Alan Henry) and he knows everybody."
A short while later, the fish was weighed on a certified scale near the lake and the weight of 14.36 pounds was recorded, securing the fish as ShareLunker Legacy Class bass No. 582. When the fish was put into a holding tank, Cockrell placed a call to TPWD to donate the fish to the ShareLunker program.
"I'm a fan of anything in bass fishing that makes it better," said Cockrell. "I have about eight friends who have turned their fish over to ShareLunker. So, I've seen what Parks and Wildlife has done with those ShareLunkers (and their spawning efforts) and how it has helped out our lakes."
Later that day, Cockrell met up with TPWD Inland Fisheries personnel from Amarillo who took the fish. Later that night, those biologists met up with ShareLunker officials who transported the big sowbelly back to the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens.
"From what I've heard so far, the fish is doing good, but she hasn't spawned yet," said Cockrell. "They're doing some studies on her right now and they hope she might be able to spawn around the middle of March."
Here’s comes No. 2
After his encounter with ShareLunker fame, Cockrell went back to what he does best, fishing tournaments. He won one February derby and came in second in another, both events taking place on Alan Henry. In the event that he won, Cockrell weighed in his best-ever bag of spotted bass, five fish that weighed 18.10-pounds.
No matter where you might happen to fish, that’s not a bad month at all.
But then came March and Cockrell was back at it, fishing a team tournament event on Alan Henry, a narrow and deep lake that the angler ironically admits hasn’t been one of his favorite spots over the years. Nonetheless, as he and tournament partner Cade Copeland pulled up on their first spot, Cockrell said he was brimming with confidence after his recent success.
Fishing a ledge area that dropped off steeply from 15 feet, Cockrell was some 50 yards from where he had caught his big sowbelly only three weeks earlier. This time, with water temperatures now down to 48 degrees, he worked a half-ounce Dirty Jig and a craw trailer, both in green pumpkin, and tied it to 15-pound Seaguar fluorocarbon.
Only about five minutes into the morning, big-bass opportunity No. 2 came calling.
"I was fishing around a bunch of (flooded) trees," he said. "I cast it out there, let it go down, and about the time it hit bottom, I felt the thump and set the hook on it."
With his jig setup, Cockrell was able to reel the fish in quickly. In fact, he said that the fight on his second big bass lasted only about 1 ½ minutes as compared to the 6 ½ minute fight three weeks earlier.
"When I laid my eyes on her, I knew it was another one (ShareLunker)," said Cockrell. "I got her in, put her on the handheld scale and looked at Cade and said, 'I was right, this one is 13-plus!' "
After getting the fish in the livewell, Cockrell called his dad once again. At first, his father wasn’t sure whether or not his son was joking, but he eventually realized he wasn’t having his leg pulled.
"We met my dad and the tournament director at the boat ramp and got her on a certified scale where she weighed 13.28 pounds," said Cockrell. "I called Kyle (Brookshear), the ShareLunker coordinator in Athens, at that point. He really didn't believe me at first either – I think he thought I was calling to check on the first fish. After he understood that I was serious, he told me that I needed to go by a lottery ticket!"
As the rest of spring unfolds, Cockrell is hopeful that he’ll cash in on the angling version of a lottery ticket, landing his third ShareLunker of the season.
"Now I've got to go shoot for No. 3," he said. "It's a rare opportunity that I've got."
Even though the odds are long, Cockrell has already beaten those angling odds not once but twice, so why not three times in 2020?
"What would it mean to get that done?" he said. "It would mean the same thing as the other two, I guess. It kind of gives me hope that I’m doing the right thing in this sport and the right thing in life to be presented with the opportunities to catch a couple of fish like these. It’s a big blessing for sure, a special moment in my life.”
Not to mention a pretty good storm of bass angling success at Alan Henry and elsewhere.
"It's going to be a really good year for Texas bass fishing," said Cockrell.
For him, it already has been.