September 28, 2010
The halcyon days of 100 bass per outing may be over, but even during the dog days of summer, the fishing here is still pretty doggone good.
Guide Joe Joslin with a Toledo Bend bigmouth. It was a spinnerbait that fooled it. Photo by John N. Felsher
By John N. Felsher
Since the dam on the Sabine River began operating in 1969, Toledo Bend has always ranked as a hot lake for taking bass in big numbers. In the early years, anglers working amid the flooded timber could catch 100 bass a day with little trouble.
"Toledo Bend always has been a great lake, but in the early days, fishing was fabulous," said Larry Nixon, a bass tournament legend who guided on the lake for nearly 18 years. "Back then, the lake was full of timber. Some of the flooded timber areas were so thick we couldn't penetrate them to fish. The lake was so fertile that bass gorged themselves on shad, minnows, bream and crawfish. The bass were not giants, but they were pot-bellied footballs."
Nixon and others fished the timber edges and creek channels wherever they could find open water, catching boatloads of fish in the 2- to 4- pound range but few lunkers; Nixon only put two 8-pound bass in his boat during all his years as a guide. For years, the lake record stood at 12 pounds.
Then, in the 1980s, both Texas and Louisiana began stocking Florida-strain largemouth bass into the reservoir split between the two states, and today, according to Todd Driscoll, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department district biologist in Jasper, annual stockings in Texas average about 500,000 to 1.2 million bass fry a year.
"Our department stocks about 450,000 Florida largemouth bass fingerlings into Toledo Bend annually," said Ricky Yeldell, a Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries biologist. "In addition, 50,000 Florida largemouth bass fry are stocked each spring into a nursery pond operated by the Sabine River Authority of Louisiana. The result of those stockings is that during 2003, 39 percent of all largemouth bass we sampled showed some degree of Florida largemouth bass influence. This bodes well for the angler hoping to catch a larger sized bass."
"Bodes well" indeed! With more than 1,264 miles of shoreline, the largest reservoir in the South offers fry ample habitat in which to grow. The old Sabine River channel drops to more than 110 feet deep in places and stretches up to 15 miles wide. The 186,000-acre reservoir offers bass just about any type of habitat you might expect in any Southern impoundment.
Toledo Bend still ranks high for numbers, especially in the summer and fall, although anglers seldom catch 100 bass a day anymore. However, the cumulative effect of the two decades' worth of growth associated with those Florida bass has raised quality levels substantially in recent years. Anglers fishing shallow flooded brush just before the spawn in February or March catch most of the lunkers, but it was July that saw the taking of the lake record - and it was caught in deep water.
TALE OF A RECORD BASS
On July 3, 2000, a week before a major bass tournament, Eric and Tony Weems were scouting their favorite honeyholes. Little action was stirring in the sweltering heat; the air seemed to sizzle. Conditions like these send bass burrowing into thick, cool cover in deep water or near currents to wait for something tempting to swim near them. At this time they typically won't chase baits far or fast, so anglers need to put lures almost directly in front of a fish's nose.
The brothers headed to Six-Mile Creek, a major tributary flowing out of Texas just a few miles north of the dam at the southwestern edge of the lake. Texas biologists heavily stock this creek and Housen Bay, another tributary on the Texas side, with Florida bass, and in recent years, most of the larger bass have come from the southern third of the lake.
"In the summer, the Six-Mile area holds deep grass growing in 15 to 30 feet of water," said Greg Crafts of Toledo Bend Guide Service. "The grass is capped over with a canopy on top and clear water around it. Use a 3/4- to 1-ounce jig to punch through the grass. Shake the jig until it busts through the grass cap."
Where the Weemses fished, a deep channel cuts through several grassy flats, deep ledges and submerged humps. Water slopes from about 12 feet to 18 feet; thick grass carpets the bottom. Currents rounding a bend in the creek channel scour a hole in the oxygen-producing aquatic grass. Beneath the grass canopy, lunker bass ambush baitfish swimming through tunnels similar to rabbit trails crisscrossing a field.
Eric probed the grass with a 1-ounce green-and-black jig sweetened with a watermelon-colored craw worm. With a vertical motion he punched through the canopy and popped the jig up and down a few times; he then tried another spot. Bass think the flailing claws on the jig resemble a distressed crawfish.
In hot weather, deep bass may not hit with much gusto; only slight tension on a line might indicate a strike. But at about 9 a.m., a 15.32-pound mossback (which during the spring could well have been an egg-laden behemoth weighing as much as 18 pounds) positively sucked up the jig. The 28.5-inch fish with a 24.5-inch girth established a new lake record, eclipsing the 14.68-pounder that Kraig Welborn of DeRidder caught in March 1998. (Unfortunately for Louisiana anglers, Weems weighed the fish in Texas. In Louisiana, the fish would have assumed seventh place in the state record book.)
"I wasn't surprised by that fish," Crafts said. "There are some bigger ones in that area, but they haven't been on anyone's line. The Florida bass introduced years ago are getting to the size where trophy bass are starting to show up. It's a good fish, but it wouldn't surprise me if that record doesn't hold for very long."
ZEROING IN ON ACTION
While the lake averages about 60 feet deep - thanks to holes in the old river channel - most people fish in 25 feet of water or less. However, in summer heat, deeper water that's adequately oxygenated generally offers bass more stable and comfortable temperatures. Summer lakes can stratify into layers of warmer, oxygen-rich water near the surface and cold water nearly devoid of oxygen near the bottom. The two layers of water meet at the thermocline, and that's where the fish will be.
As long as bass can breathe and feed, they usually won't move far in deep water, as they don't feel the effects of changes in temperature or barometric pressure as much as do bass in shallow waters. In addition, they don't sense boat noises and feel fishing pressure as much as shallow bass do. If anglers can find one deep bass, they can usually land a pile from that one spot. The challenge lies in finding the spot.
To find bass, first look for bait, particularly threadfin shad. Use electronics to find shad schools, or to identify the sorts of places in which shad or other baitfish might congregate like the thermocline, which a sufficiently sensitive depthfinder can detect. Once anglers determine the whereabouts of baitfish concentrations, they usually find bass, too. Comfortable temperatures, abundant food and little pressure can induce hundreds of bass to stack up in one deep spot for weeks.
"I look for points with access to shallow and deep water," said Joe Joslin, a lake guide. "I also look for deep creek channels and humps. I also like some logs, stumps or other cover on the bottom. Once I figure out the pattern and depth where fish are, I can usually go to any part of the lake that duplicates that pattern and depth and find fish."
During the summer, many anglers run deep-diving shad-colored crankbaits around the edges of ledges, humps or creek channels. They also drop soft-plastic jigs, worms or creature baits. However, one of the most effective baits for finding and targeting deep bass remains a vertically-jigged slab spoon, which, fluttering into the depths, closely mimics the action of a dying baitfish.
SPOON-FEEDING BASS AT THE BEND
"On Toledo Bend, I would never leave the launch without some slab spoons," Joslin remarked. "Not many people fish with them, because they don't have confidence in that style of fishing. Once someone realizes its capabilities, a vertical spoon opens up a totally new part of the lake."
Joslin prefers a 1/2-ounce chrome jigging spoon; others prefer 1/4- or 3/4-ounce models. Some spoons are wrought with intricate facets that reflect light; some look like simple flat lead weights. Drop these straight down in 20 to 45 feet of water, let them hit bottom, and then jig them up a few times.
"I like to be in control of my lure, so I use a fairly flat spoon," Joslin offered. "I tend to get hung up more with spoons with a lot of wobble. A flat spoon tends to drop straight down. Once we find the fish, it's usually very productive. It's possible to catch 20 to 80 fish in a couple hours from one spot."
During one trip, Joslin and I landed about 40 bass in three hours from one hole. Although we caught some smaller fish, most ranged from about 1 pound to 3 pounds. On this outing, we didn't find any monsters, but anglers can catch double-digit bass on jigging spoons, and might also tangle with giant stripers, yellow bass, white bass, crappie and other fish.
We fished a creek channel about 37 feet deep in which bottom contours and several stumps and fallen trees served as highly appropriate fish cover; a point thrust out near the channel. We dropped our spoons straight down until we hit bottom and then cranked our reel handles a couple of turns. Most of the bass hovered just off the bottom or along the edge of the dropoff, although some hit our spoons less than halfway down.
"I experiment with retrieves," Joslin stated. "About 90 percent of the time, bass hit spoons on the fall. I catch most of my fish right off the bottom. Often, I let it hit bottom and make a couple clicks. Sometimes, I just move it a few inches; sometimes, I might jig it up 3 or 4 feet and let if fall back down. I probably average about a 12-inch lift."
Anglers jigging in deep water need equipment with enough backbone to set a hook on big fish at the bottom of the water column. Joslin uses a 7-foot medium-action rod with a fast tip and spools his reel with 15-pound monofilament line. Some like braided line, but those lines are hard to break when spoons snag bottom debris.
GETTING THE DROP ON TOLEDO BEND BASS
Often lethargic, summer bass may prefer smaller baits. Drop-shotters can easily tempt finicky bass in extremely deep water with small soft-plastic grubs. Japanese and West Coast bass pros developed this strategy for use in deep, clear reservoirs, but several professionals successfully employed the technique during recent tournaments at "the Bend."
A drop-shot rig simply incorporates a plastic bait in place of a live bait on a hook above a sinker. Tie a small hook directly to the line about 12 to 36 inches above a round sinker; make sure that the hook sticks out straight from the line and points up, so it can hold a small grub horizontally. Some companies now make sinkers designed specifically for drop-shotting, but any weight that holds bait on the bottom can get the job done.
"The drop-shot technique is just an old catfish rig," explained Rich Tauber, a California bass pro. "It's a mirror image of a Carolina rig. The worm is between the rod and the sinker instead of vice versa."
On the hook, rig a small soft-plastic grub, worm or lizard, or a similar bait. Some anglers tie multiple baits to one line at 12-inch intervals to test what fish want and at what depth. With the sinker below, a bait hangs seductively just above the grass or bottom clutter. Bounce the sinker off the bottom, or shake the line, so that the worm vibrates at eye level with hungry bass.
"Shake or vibrate the bait any way possible," Tauber offered. "If a fish strikes and misses it, rattle that line so the worm shakes in its face. The beauty of it is to be able to leave the bait in the strike zone and shake it without moving it."
In clear reservoirs with little bottom cover, anglers often use light spinning rods holding 4-pound fluorocarbon line to catch bass exceeding 10 pounds. Freed from dealing with entangling stumps, trees, weeds and other debris, a skilled angler can play a large fish on light line in open water. At Toledo Bend, though, several million board-feet of timber - not to mention bulldozers, trucks, cars and other junk left behind when the waters rose quickly - litter the bottom. Most Toledo Bend anglers use 14- to 20-pound-test line to yank fish from this gnarly cover.
"The great thing about a drop shot is there is no right or wrong way to use it," said Mark Menendez, a professional bass angler from Paducah, Ky. "I've used it near gravel bars, points and other places. I drag the bait after the initial shake when it hits bottom. Round sinkers work better around rocks. Cylindrical sinkers cut through grass better."
Menendez normally goes with 8- to 10-pound line on his drop-shot rigs, but in Toledo Bend, he uses 12- to 15-pound test line. In open water, he often picks a No. 4 hook with the point exposed; in thick cover or grass, he uses a No. 1 or 2 or 1/0 hook and Texas-rigs the plastic bait. For weight, he usually uses a 1/4- or 1/8-ounce sinker.
"A drop shot is a way to cover a lot of water quickly and efficiently," Menendez said. "It's a rig that an inexperienced fisherman can catch fish on because it's so easy. With a bait 12 to 15 inches off the bottom, it's right in a fish's face. Because it's unnatural, it arouses curiosity."
Not everyone likes to fish in deep, open water: Some prefer to beat the banks, grass flats or points in 4 to 15 feet of water. Anglers fish in Six-Mile Creek and Housen Ba
y and near the Texas Indian Mounds, the grass in Pirate's Cove and the brush in the "1215" area along the eastern shoreline north of Pendleton Bridge.
Wood and grass offer the dominant visible cover throughout most of Toledo Bend. Much grass died off in recent years, but began to return in 2003. Around grass flats and wooded shorelines, anglers throw shad- or crawfish-colored crankbaits, white and chartreuse or solid white spinnerbaits. A willow-leaf blade will cuts through grass more easily than a Colorado blade does.
Over matted grass, anglers often throw Texas-rigged soft-plastic jerkbaits, working them almost like topwater baits. In summer heat, bass often stay under thick grass, where they find cooling shade and revivifying oxygen in abundance. As these light baits flit over the grass mats, lunker largemouths often explode through salads to gulp them.
Some of these baits sink slowly. When crossing pockets between grass clumps, allow baits to sink a foot or two before pulling them to the surface again. Pause briefly as they pass over lily pads or matted clumps.
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Massive Toledo Bend offers conditions that any basser would love. This expansive array of habitats affords anglers enabling them to land the lunker of a lifetime or drop a pile of 2- to 6-pound fish into a livewell.
For guided trips, call Greg Crafts at (409) 368-7151 or Joe Joslin at (409) 565-1288.
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