February 16, 2016
In the waning sunlight of an early spring afternoon, the kind where the light is warm and golden, where the wind dies to a steady breeze, and where sound carries a heck of a lot farther than most would believe, the inevitable finally happened.
The inevitable, that is, the annual big bass spawn at Lake Fork.
“Hey look, those two guys are fly fishing.”
I shot a glance at Rob Woodruff, my longtime friend and an Orvis-endorsed fly fishing guide (www.flyfishingfork.com ; (903) 967-2665), and gave a smirk.
He smiled knowingly.
Because we both knew what the two guys behind us really meant.
“Hey, look at those two idiots who are fly fishing on Lake Fork! Geesh! Why fish for the little guys with those buggy-whip sissy rods when you can fish for the real double-digit giants like the ones we’re after.”
The truth was little did they know.
Because little was hardly the word to describe the kind of day that we were having on Fork's timber- and vegetation-choked waters.
In fact, little is a word rarely applied to any form of bass fishing still found at the East Texas giant factory lying not far from Quitman.
For starters, angler Barry St. Clair’s Texas state record largemouth, an 18.18-pound behemoth, hails from Lake Fork.
Ditto for the previous record, a 17.67-pound lunker caught by Mark Stevenson.
And the same goes for some 30 other members of the state’s hallowed top-50 largemouth bass list.
If that's not enough proof as to Fork's continuing status as THE lunker factory in the Lone Star State, then next consider that of the 564 Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) ShareLunkers caught to date, a full 257 of them have hailed from Fork.
And wait, because yes, there's even more proof. In a 10-year TPWD study, more than 12,800 trophy largemouths weighing 7 pounds or better were caught and documented at Lake Fork.
That included some 1,167 bass over 10 pounds; 417 weighing 11 pounds or better; 192 weighing 12 pounds or more; 49 at 13 pounds or greater; 15 bass weighing 14 pounds or more; six tipping the scales at 15 pounds or greater; and two that weighed 16-plus pounds.
Mind you, those are just the ones that were actually entered into the voluntary reporting program (one that TPWD operated in cooperation with the Lake Fork Chamber of Commerce, the Lake Fork Sportsman's Association and several area marinas).
And who knows how many more – hundreds? thousands? –weighing more than 7 pounds were caught, released and never reported by anglers during the decade long study?
Put simply, while angling fans of other top-rated waters in the state might howl at this claim, Lake Fork still remains today as the best overall big bass lake in the Lone Star state.
But I digress.
Because if that was the first truth apparent to me on this particular outing, then the second one was that my pal Woodruff knows the 27,264-acre Fork extremely well, having fished and guided on his home water for the last two decades.
While some anglers might scoff, using a fly rod doesn't really hinder one's ability to land a big spawning bass at Lake Fork. (Lynn Burkhead photo)
The accumulation of knowledge and experience that countless days on the water at Fork brings has always been noticeable to me when I get to spend a day there with the Texas A&M entomology grad.
Like any good guide, he points out things that I am apt to miss like a submerged roadbed, the stumps of an old submerged fence row and even an old water gap and how they all factor into the travels that bass will make from their deep wintertime haunts to the shallow springtime spawning flats.
Like a sponge trying to absorb every last drop, I always come home after such a trip and drag out my Fork maps, having learned specifics about the lake itself and more about bass fishing in general.
On this morning, Rob pointed out that so early in the March spawning game, the cloud cover and cool temps would likely lead to slow fishing.
But then he added that when the sun pokes out for good in the early afternoon, the fishing should improve as we tossed big flies looking for big fish.
True to form, the morning was slow. But after enjoying a hot lunch at a nearby marina, we hit a secondary creek for the first time that day as the sun finally arrived in full force.
A half-hour later, as Woodruff worked a fire-tiger-hued Patassa fly (his own hand-tied rabbit-strip/deer hair sub-surface creation that mimics the action of a jerk-bait) along the deep end of a lay down log, there was a sudden tell-tale flash.
Which was quickly followed by a grunt at the front of the Xpress boat as Woodruff strip-set the hook and said, “There she is!”
One splashy thrash later and we both knew that this was the kind of bass people come to Lake Fork to catch.
A minute or two later, Woodruff finally won the battle with his Orvis Helios eight-weight and 16-pound-test leader as the big fish protested her way into the net.
A second later, Woodruff’s Boga Grip told the numerical tale of this hefty bucketmouth bass: a big female tipping the scales at just a hair past 7 pounds.
After a few pictures, the CPR (catch, photo and release) process was completed and the big girl slid away.
We both smiled as she swam into the depths to sulk for a few moments before heading back towards her pre-spawn staging spot just off the bank.
But that fish hardly marked the end of our day. Instead, it really served as the beginning.
An hour or so later, it was my turn.
One minute my bluegill-color Patassa fly was being stripped through the water, the next a lightning bolt was at the end of my rod as I strip-set the hook.
That fish, one that later weighed 4.5 pounds on the Boga, wasn’t eager to come to the boat, splashing its protest a couple of times, diving under the rig and then heading for the motor’s prop to saw the leader in half.
Fortunately, all of the knots held true and the fish was finally scooped up to be admired.
March is a good time for fly rodders to target big Lake Fork lunkers moving from their wintertime deep-water haunts to shallow springtime spawning flats. (Lynn Burkhead photo)
But even then, our day was not done.
Because an hour later, in another of Woodruff’s favored early-season spots, he suddenly exclaimed “There she is!” and reared back on the hook-set.
One splash later and I was the one exclaiming "That’s a huge fish!"
This fish used brute strength to head for the bottom, then for deeper water, then for timber that would fray the line.
But Woodruff calmly played the battle out on his fly rod, kept the fish from any line breaking cover and allowed me to finally scoop the net under the big girl and bring her into the boat.
Where we admired an epic fish, a giant female that would go just past the 9-pound mark on the Boga.
Editor’s Note: FYI, that’s just a few ounces below the Lake Fork fly rod record largemouth bass mark of 9.52 pounds. That’s a mark that Woodruff and his clients have broken several times over the last 10 years. Despite that fact, neither Woodruff nor his clients have yet elected to pursue such a record.
After a few high-fives and photos, Woodruff slid the big gal back into the water. With a tail-slap splash, she slid away into the depths.
And that’s where the late afternoon sun revealed a truth that the two snickering anglers mentioned earlier couldn’t understand.
A truth that seemed readily apparent to both Woodruff and myself after having landed three big fly rod bass in an afternoon of fishing, bass that tipped the scales at more than 20 and a half pounds.
And that truth is this: big flies, big bass and the legendary Lake Fork still add up to extremely big smiles.
Texas-size grins, in fact, fly rod or not.