The bass fishing world is all abuzz in the Lone Star State after the reported catch of a 15.48-pound trophy Lake Fork bass.
It's an argument that goes on at nearly every dockside coffee shop and café scattered around the state of Texas:
"What's the best big-bass lake in the Lone Star State?"
For years and years, the answer has been Lake Fork, despite regular challenges from other big-bass hotspots like Alan Henry, Amistad, Falcon, O.H. Ivied, Sam Rayburn and Toledo Bend.
And only a cursory glance at the voluminous numbers from the East Texas lake in Hopkins, Rains, and Wood counties certainly shows why.
That includes the 15.48-pound largemouth John LaBove caught recently that ranks in the top 50 all-time in Texas.
"SHARELUNKER!!," declared the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department ShareLunker Facebook page. "John LaBove caught and entered this 15.48-lb beauty out of Lake Fork! She was weighed and held at the Minnow Bucket (Marina) until staff arrived, an official ShareLunker Station. Thank you, John for supporting the future of Texas bass fishing!"
LaBove's lunker is the latest in a long series of big-bass catches on Lake Fork.
Starting Nov. 26, 1986, when guide Mark Stevenson landed a 17.67-pound bass he nicknamed "Ethel," Lake Fork has virtually dominated the upper echelon of Texas bass fishing.
Stevenson's "Ethel" was a then-state record bass that jumpstarted the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's ShareLunker program a little early thanks to a phone call from the late Dallas Morning News outdoors writer Ray Sasser.
Want proof of Fork's big-bass stranglehold on Texas?
Then consider the top six largemouth bass ever caught in Texas — including "Ethel" and the current Barry St. Clair state-record largemouth of 18.18-pounds — all hail from Lake Fork. So do seven of the state's top 10, 12 of the top 15; 16 of the top 25, and 30 of the top 50.
Another sign of Fork's dominance as the state's big-bass king is the sheer number of TPWD ShareLunker entries that the 27,690-acre Sabine River Authority-controlled reservoir has churned out since the fall of 1986.
In the first era of ShareLunker history (from 1986 until 2017). Fork produced 257 of the 570 bass weighing 13 pounds or greater that were officially entered into the program.
And now, in the newly revamped 2018 version of ShareLunker, Lake Fork has once again leapt into the spotlight, claiming the first-ever Lunker Legacy Class entry.
Fork's new leap into the state's big bass spotlight came on Thursday, March 2, 2018 when LaBove caught his double-digit behemoth at the East Texas water body near Quitman.
After its weight was certified, the Greenville, Texas angler's bass became the 48th biggest largemouth ever caught in the Lone Star State and the 258th ShareLunker bass from Fork.
"The fish was loaned for spawning and will be part of the Legacy Class," noted TPWD Toyota ShareLunker coordinator Kyle Brookshear. "The fish has a length of 26½ inches with a girth of 22½ inches. A black-and-blue jig was used in four-foot of water to catch the fish."
The lunker largemouth catch, which came one day after the March 1 full moon, also put to rest — for a little while at least — the rumors that have circulated the last couple of years about the demise of Fork.
Why such dock talk about arguably the state's most historic fishery?
For starters, despite its longtime dominance in ShareLunker lore, the LaBove bass marks the first official Lake Fork ShareLunker entry in more than three years.
"We have had reports of fish being caught that were large enough to be entered into the program, but for whatever reason, those anglers chose not to," said Kevin Storey, the longtime TPWD Inland Fisheries biologist and district supervisor whose territory covers Lake Fork.
In recent years, the long-time ShareLunker program has come under fire from some anglers for a variety of reasons that range from whether the program has produced any value beyond public relations, where bass fingerlings from the program are distributed, and the unfortunate deaths of some big SL spawning bass entered into the agency's selective breeding program.
Add in the effects of lowered spawn success and recruitment following several years of harsh drought across the state and the program fell on harsh times with only five SL bass entered in 2014-15, two in 2015-16, and five in 2016-17.
Fork's last SL program bass was a 13.88-pound largemouth caught on Nov. 20, 2014, by David Roulston of Frisco.
Whether the program's decline came from lessening popularity or challenging environmental conditions, it was obvious in recent years that the program was a far cry from its heyday when 30-plus bass weighing 13-pounds or more would be entered.
As that realization became even clearer, TPWD decided last year that it was time for a change.
That led to the newly revamped ShareLunker program (www.texassharelunker.com and/or the ShareLunker smartphone app), which debuted on Jan. 1, 2018.
Under the program's current make-up, anglers now have four different possible avenues of ShareLunker participation: Lunker Class (catching a bass weighing at least 8 pounds or measuring 24 inches); Lunker Elite Class (catching a bass weighing 10 pounds or more); Lunker Legend Class (catching a 13-pound or better largemouth that is released); and the Lunker Legacy Class (catching a 13-pound or better largemouth bass between Jan. 1 and March 31 that is loaned to TPWD for its selective breeding program).
Despite rumors of its demise, Lake Fork is still alive and well.
"It's not what it once was, but it's still world-class," said Storey. "I'd still put it high on any list for potential fishing destinations for someone to go to if they want to catch a big bass."
"As you and I age, there are changes in our bodies," said Storey. "And there are changes in a lake's ecosystem, too, changes that we cannot reverse.
"Now you can have some changes, like recovery from a drought, which can create something of a new lake effect. And that can lead to more nutrients and a mini-boom in the population.
"But you can't expect to see Fork become again what it once was from the late 1980s through the 1990s. That's not going to happen. But even so, there's still a high probability of seeing something like the huge bass that was caught last week."
With the success of recent bass spawns (in many portions of Texas, there has been too much rain since the Super El Nino of 2015), better times are coming in the Lone Star State's fishing world.
And at Lake Fork specifically, the continued success of the reservoir's 16- to 24-inch slot limit (which leads to plenty of seven, eight, and nine-pound bass), good habitat, and ample baitfish (shad are prolific on the lake), and there is plenty of reason to believe that there should be plenty more good fishing to come at Lake Fork for years to come.
And who knows, maybe even another 15-pounder or two — and dare I say another state record somewhere down the road? — the kind of big bass that Lake Fork is legendary for.