What'll it be -- big bass, or lots of 'em? Whatever your pleasure might be, these Texas bass lakes can deliver.
By Bob Hood
On a cold and windy March morning, armed with nothing more than a heavy-action rod and a handful of 1/2-ounce jigs, Bill Wilford stared into a heavy fog that had blanketed Toledo Bend Reservoir. He'd told a friend that he was going to catch the biggest bass of his life - "a two-digit fish," to be more exact.
A prediction - or just boastful hope?
For Wilford and many Texas anglers like him, it was more of a promise, because he has learned the secret to forecasting what the fishing is going to be like not only for the day at hand, but also for this time of the season, when the stage is being set for some of Texas' hottest bass action of the entire year.
Later in the day, and long after the sun had burned the fog away, Wilford idled through a patch of heavy stumps, turned his boat into a boat lane and headed back to Paradise Bay Marina with a huge bass in his livewell. When placed on the scales, the lunker drove the digital readout up to 10.04 pounds, putting Wilford's catch at a half-pound larger than any he had caught previously.
"Sure, it always takes luck to go out with the intent of catching a big bass and then actually doing it," Wilford said, "but if you will pay attention to just a few things that have been going on, you can just about count on having a good day, or season for that matter. I'm talking about such things as whether the lake level has been fluctuating a lot during before the spawning season gets here, how severe the winter cold fronts were, what the barometric pressure is doing, and when the spawning season usually peaks on a given lake.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
"In Texas, the spawning season is like the rutting season for white-tailed deer. The peak of the rutting season varies from one region to another; some deer begin rutting as much as a month earlier in North Texas than they do in South Texas. The same holds true for the peak of the spawning season for bass; some bass, like those at Toledo Bend, traditionally begin spawning a month ahead of the bass at, say, Texoma.
"A lot of bass fishermen, like deer hunters, have the misconception that the weather has more to do with when the bass spawn or when the deer start rutting," Wilford observed. "That's nonsense. If you're waiting for the weather to get cold for the rutting season to start, you've probably already missed it, and the same holds true for bass.
"Year in and year out, the big female bass begin moving in to search for spawning beds at the same time on a given lake. Early March has always been a good time to catch big fish on Toledo Bend, but at Texoma mid-March to early-April is when the action for big fish starts getting hot."
So what does in fact lie ahead for Texas anglers as they set out to catch big bass on the long list of premier fishing lakes in the Lone Star state?
From Toledo Bend to Texoma and from scenic little Caddo Lake to Falcon and Amistad, this could be one of the best seasons in many years for bass 10 pounds and larger.
A number of factors in play contribute to that bright forecast. For one, plentiful rains from last spring through the fall provided lots of nutrients for baitfish and yearling bass, kept the water temperatures at moderate levels and prevented the levels of most reservoirs from dropping drastically, as they have in the past when things were complicated by heavy demand and drought conditions.
The picture is especially bright in East Texas, where lakes like Toledo Bend, Sam Rayburn, Fork, Lake O' The Pines and Caddo rule the big-bass picture.
Fork, of course, is one of the nation's premier trophy-bass fisheries. You can look for it to continue to produce some hefty double-digit largemouths this year. And look for the other top East Texas lakes to do the same, as their bass typically begin changing their patterns at the same time.
The action generally speeds up dramatically in late February, when the fish's movements begin increasing. During the first two weeks of March, big-bass fishermen like Wilford will begin targeting the narrow draws and small humps in 12 to 18 feet of water with either heavy jigs or Carolina-rigged soft plastics. As April nears, more bass will be caught in 8 to 12 feet of water, but by then many will already have moved onto the beds as well.
At Rayburn and Toledo Bend, the hydrilla beds are extremely thick and grow far out from the bank into deep water, and thus will concentrate some of the best action during pre-spawn. Draws that dart through the deeper hydrilla, as well as dropoffs along submerged creek banks and underwater humps, have long been known to yield up many of Toledo Bend's and Rayburn's larger bass in February and early March on jigs and heavily-weighted plastic worms on Texas and Carolina rigs.
Lake O' The Pines and Caddo may be close neighbors, but they're hardly identical. The secret to catching big bass at either during the pre-spawn and spawning seasons lies in considering what unique advantages each has to offer in the way of habitat.
Caddo's water level averages only around 10 feet, so there are no deep draws and only a few small channels for the fish to follow to their spawning grounds. The big cypress trees, especially those that are isolated away from the larger stands of timber, are prime places for the female bass to stage while they search out spawning grounds. Locate the lone cypress trees with moss and other aquatic vegetation around their trunks at or just below the surface and you'll have found one of the main keys to catching larger bass at Caddo.
At Lake O' The Pines, the bass perennially follow the Jack Hudson Boat Lane along the Cypress Creek channel below the Highway 155 bridge. They'll stage along the edge of it before moving into shallow water around mid-March.
Although many areas of the lake will produce big bass during the spawn, one of the hottest areas is in the multitude of button willow islands above the Highway 155 bridge. That spot is a jig fisherman's paradise for flipping and pitching. The bass action in the button willows usually begins around mid-March, and continues to be hot all the way through mid-April.
In addition to these fine larger reservoirs, East Texas also has a host of smaller impoundments that are expected to continue to yield big bass from February through April. Among them are lakes Holbrook, Murvaul, Mill Creek, Quitman, and Winnsboro.
In South Texas, look for Choke Canyon to produce several big bass this year. That entire sectio
n of the state, a region in which drought conditions are the norm, received lots of heavy rain last spring and summer. The result for Choke Canyon is a lake level that was higher entering the prime season for bass spawning than has been the norm for several years.
Combine that with generally mild summer water temperatures, which helped produce lots of baitfish, and plenty of vegetation around the banks, for much-improved habitat conditions, and you've got a largemouth bass fishery with faster-growing bass.
Falcon Reservoir, on the other hand, will not offer the steady action so closely associated with other lakes such as Choke Canyon. But look for it to produce a few really big bass this year. Falcon's water level has remained more than 40 feet below full pool for two years, and much of the lake's good spawning habitat is gone. However, the lake has a healthy baitfish population, and early March will likely will see some big bass produced on deep-diving crankbaits and plastic worms fished in 4 to 6 feet of water close to deep-water dropoffs such as points and creek channels.
Amistad Reservoir at Del Rio also has had an extremely low water level for two years. But heavy rains on the upper Rio Grande and Devils River watersheds last summer did bring the lake's level up by 5 feet, to a level 35 feet below full, and flooding a lot of vegetation that had grown along the banks when the level fell past the 40-foot low mark.
The best thing about Amistad is its tremendous bass population - one of the best in the state, in many anglers' minds. Even though the lake is low, it has more deep water in it than many fishermen realize is there. At its current 35 feet below the level at full pool, the lake is still 200 feet deep near the dam.
Deep water is plentiful as well in the numerous canyons and draws that jut off the Rio Grande channel and point the way to potential bass-spawning areas. During early March, the bass will be in those draws and canyons in about 15 to 22 feet of water.
Hydrilla can be found in many of the canyons and draws on the upper reaches of the lake. The larger bass like to hang out in the thick vegetation before moving onto the flat, rocky ledges and points to spawn. A Carolina-rigged plastic worm or a deep-diving crankbait that will go deep enough to just tick the top of the hydrilla generally produces more big fish in the canyons and draws than do other lures.
The fish will begin spawning in mid to late March, and by early April, most of the larger bass will already have spawned. However, veteran Amistad anglers have learned that, rather than disperse into much deeper water, many of the bass simply return to the deep hydrilla in the canyons and draws. The same tactics that get the job done in early March will work again in April.
The Hill Country has some of the best largemouth bass lakes that Texas has to offer, but several of them are overlooked by many of our anglers. They pay more attention to lakes like Fork, Rayburn, Amistad and Toledo Bend, and unaccountably neglect the Hill Country's finest, lakes like Buchanan, L.B.J. and Canyon.
Buchanan especially should not be passed over if you're wanting to try for a big bass at a lake you haven't fished before. The upper Colorado River area abounds in excellent spawning areas close to deep water. In February, Texas- and Carolina-rigged worms fished along the dropoffs into early March should garner the best catches. By mid-March and on through April, topwater lures such as buzzbaits and stick baits should spark lots of exciting bass-fishing action in the flooded shallow vegetation.
In the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex area, Lake Ray Roberts shines the brightest. That's because it has enormous bass and baitfish populations, and generally gives up the best catches despite heavy fishing pressure. The huge hydrilla beds around Wolf Island are well known for producing lots of bass during pre-spawn on spinnerbaits and Carolina-rigged worms fished along the outside edges of the vegetation.
Also, various treelines and fencerows in 8 to 12 feet of water but close to deeper water attract lots of pre-spawn bass, as do the numerous underwater stock tank dams and logpiles throughout the middle and upper lake.
In April, many bass will have moved onto their nests, but many bass also will be caught by anglers working Texas-rigged plastic worms flipped or pitched into the thicket trees in 4 to 6 feet of water in the upper creek areas.
Lake Texoma isn't particularly known as a big-bass lake these days, but the Red River impoundment does produce a lot of fish year 'round. During February, the bass will still be in deep water and not moving around much. Around mid-March, the fish will begin to move into smaller creeks, where they stage around boat docks, tire barriers near marinas and rocky boulders near points.
The sandy banks just off the creek channels as well as small points and shallow, flat draws will become spawning grounds for April bass. Crankbaits, Texas-rigged plastic worms and Carolina-rigs with leaders 2 feet or shorter will become the lures of choice for most veteran Texoma anglers.
What's the biggest sleeper bass lake for this season? That title has to go to Possum Kingdom Lake, northwest of the Metroplex. It's been three years since a major fish kill hit the lake, and the largemouth bass stocked by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in that three years have helped it tremendously.
A fish kill early in 2003 - also blamed on golden algae - was confined to some small shallow coves on the upper end of the lake. It has been estimated that 99 percent of the fish lost were gizzard shad, carp, buffalofish and gar.
Couple three years' worth of stocked largemouths with the fish not killed by the golden algae in January 2001, and then combine that boosted population with three years of negligible fishing pressure - and you've got a lake with a virtually untapped bass fishery! Also, the special 16-inch minimum-size limit that went into effect two years ago is showing positive signs for the fishery.
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The biggest problem lying ahead for most anglers: choosing which lake to fish. Look north, south, east or west, and you'll find satisfying bass-fishing action at a host of great Texas lakes throughout the next few months.
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