By Matt Williams
March is time for all good anglers in the Lone Star State to put on their skinny-water game faces and get ready for war against Texas bass.
The call to the shallows coincides with the signs of the times. March falls during the heart of the spawn on many lakes across Texas, pre-spawn on others. That means armies of bass — small and large — will be setting up camp in or near isolated pockets, flats, points and other sun-baked sweet spots.
Spring's warming water temps combined with the bass' killer instincts naturally puts the fish in the mood to chase and chomp. Toss a weightless Senko, Rat-L-Trap, wacky worm, jerkbait, Texas-rigged lizard or any number of springtime favorites near shore these days and it's not a question of whether you are going to get bit. It's when.
Translation: Spring is a great time to be a bass angler in Texas, particularly since there are so many good places to play the game. It's not just an East Texas thing, either. Lakes all over the state are well known for producing fast action and big bites at this time of year.
There's more good news. After several years of low water, many Texas lakes have refilled and are in great shape as winter gives way to spring. Some are supporting jungles of terrestrial vegetation that flourished during previous down cycles, creating a nursery for young bass and valuable forage and a playground for anglers to toss their baits. Here's a Texas bass forecast you can hang your hooks on.
Big Sam has proved itself as a big-bass mecca time and again, but spring is when this big lake east of Lufkin can really be good to you. While spawning activity has been known to get under way as early as February at the lake's northern reaches, March and April typically are the months when the bulk of spawning activity occurs.
Shallow flats, creeks and points north of Highway 147 and at mid-lake should get plenty of play this month. Early on, when the fish are just beginning to push shallow, it's hard to go wrong with bladed jigs, Rat-L-Traps, swim jigs, swimbaits, spinnerbaits, jerkbaits, frogs, buzzbaits and weightless Senkos tossed around shoreline torpedo grass, willow bushes, and new-growth hydrilla beds. Carolina rigs and medium-diving crankbaits also are good choices for picking off big pre-spawners staged at mid-range depths along underwater drains that connect shallow water to deep.
Once the fish go on beds, you need to slow down the pace with Texas- and Carolina-rigged lizards, tubes, jigs and wacky worms. If water levels are sufficient, try flipping and pitching around shoreline bushes.
Water temps on the Texas/Oklahoma border lake are slower to warm than on those located farther south, causing the spawn to run about a month behind. March is widely known as a pre-spawn month, and so anglers can look for the fish to be staged at mid-range depths in the mouths of pockets, marina coves and rocky points.
Texoma can be good from one end to the other, but lake regular Dan Wilson of Pilot Point says the lower end of the lake typically produces the bigger tournament sacks. Some of the better areas include Eisenhower State Park, Soldier Creek, Caney Creek and Willow Springs.
Texoma is one of the few lakes in the state that maintains topnotch largemouth and smallmouth fisheries simultaneously, and many anglers will rank it as the lake in the state for brown fish weighing upwards of 5 pounds, mainly because it has lots of deep, rocky habitat and bluff banks where the fish can thrive.
Local angler Dan Wilson says the best fishing patterns include throwing jerkbaits, small finesse jigs, swimbaits and Carolina rigs on main-lake points, secondary points and transition banks in water ranging 6 to 12 feet. If water levels are sufficient, flipping shoreline bushes and other wood cover in the backs of creeks can come into play toward the end of the month as water temps heat up.
"The Alabama rig also can be real effective if you've got some wind, Wilson said. "Problem is you may have to fight off the stripers."
It's worth noting there are some "home-grown" monsters finning around in Texoma these days, courtesy of bass fishing legend Jim Houston's Twin Eagles Ranch. In May 2015, heavy flooding breached the dam on Houston's 125-acre lake and dozens of bass weighing 8 to 12 pounds went downstream via Demar Creek, en route to the Washita River.
"We lost literally hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of fish," Houston said. "It was no doubt the biggest stocking of big bass and crappie that Texoma has ever had."
Although it's not kicking out the numbers of ShareLunkers it did back in 2005-06, the 2,900-acre reservoir near Lubbock is still good for a giant every now and then. But what has really gotten the attention of locals in recent times is the lake's abundant population of "Alabama bass."
Josh Helmstetler of Big Spring helped push the popularity in January 2015 when he caught a 5.98 pounder there on a LIVETARGET jerkbait.
Once considered to be a subspecies to the spotted bass native to numerous watersheds around eastern Texas, the American Fisheries Society designated the Alabama bass as a species unto its own about two years ago. About 150 adult fish were stocked in Alan Henry in 1996 as part of an experiment and the population has taken off amid Henry's deep, rocky habitat.
Helmstetler, who fishes the lake two to three times per month, says March typically is a pre-spawn month with water temperatures ranging from the low to mid-50s. He pointed out that the majority of the Alabama bass would be caught toward the lake's lower end, where the water is clearest. Big Grape and Little Grape creeks are among hottest spots on the lake.
"The fish are going to be suspended about 6 feet down in about 15 feet of water," Helmstetler said. "The key is to tick the tops of the flooded trees and brush with a jerkbait or a crankbait. A good day is about 25 to 35 fish in the 15- to 16-inch range and maybe a couple of bigger ones, and maybe two or three black bass mixed in. These fish are really healthy and they fight extremely hard."
For trophy-sized largemouths, Helmstetler suggests sticking close to the channels and keying on well-defined bends and channel swings.
"These largemouths are going to be staging, and they can be tough to catch at times because the best areas get hammered pretty hard," he said. "You'll be fishing for two to three bites a day."
March on Lake Conroe means lots of fish will be finning around the shallows. Some will go on the bed, others will be milling around spawning bass, according to fishing guide Butch Terpe. While cooler-than-normal weather might push the meat of the spawn forward a week or two this spring, the veteran guide predicts there will be plenty of fat largemouths finning around in skinny water all month long.
"March is one of my favorite months," he said. "Some of the biggest fish of the year are caught here during March. Some of them are caught off beds and some of them are in a pre-spawn mode. If you like to fish shallows, now is a good time to come to Conroe."
Terpe suggest keying on the backs of coves, pockets and creeks with plenty of available cover such as bushes, logs and other junk in water 4 feet deep and less. That's where the spawning bass are most likely to set up camp.
"There are a number of good areas, but some of them are historically better than others," Terpe said.
One of his favorites is Loch Ness. Other good ones include Caney Creek, Walden, Lewis Creek, Atkins Creek, and Lake Paula.
Terpe suggests tossing Texas-rigged plastics around any shallow cover you come across. Lizards are always good, as are brush hogs, Senkos, craws and worms. "You can also expect to find some fish hanging around the rocks, especially during the pre-spawn," he said. "A square-billed crankbait can be hard to beat in that situation."
It's worth noting that 21,000-acre Conroe will host pro bass fishing's Super Bowl — the Bassmaster Classic — on March 24-26. So it might be wise to plan your trip with those dates in mind — unless you like fishing in super-crowded conditions
LAKE O' THE PINES
When Longview bass pro Jim Tutt gets a break from his springtime tournament schedule, he always makes time for a trip to this 19,800-acre bass factory. According to Tutt, it's a great lake for catching numbers of bass and big ones alike.
"Pines will be on fire, provided we don't get a bunch of high water like we did last year," Tutt said. "And you'll be able to catch them a whole bunch of different ways."
Down south, Tutt says, world-class sight-fishing prospects wait in the clear waters of Johnson and Alley creeks. "If I were fishing to win a tournament there, that's definitely what I'd be doing," Tutt said. "Some big sacks will be caught off beds all month long."
Tutt says the water won't be clear enough for sight-fishing farther north in the vicinity of the Highway 155 bridge, but there still will be lots of fish on beds or roaming over shallow flats that can be caught by blind casting with weightless Senkos and Flukes, Texas-rigged plastics, and buzzbaits.
"A good backup pattern will be fish the flats right along the edges of the river with Chatterbaits, spinnerbaits or a Rat-L-Trap," he said. "That's one neat things about Pines. The average angler can come here and catch fish doing just about anything he wants."
After going through a multi-year down cycle resulting from drought and low water, the bass population on Falcon appears to be bouncing back strong. While the lake isn't producing the armies of double-digit fish it was seven or eight years ago, the numbers and quality are still pretty darned good.
"It's fantastic," says veteran fishing guide Jim Edwards of Zapata. "We're not catching the big numbers of big bass we were catching a few years ago, but they are coming. This lake is full of bass in the 1- to 3-pound range right now, and there are quite a few fish in the 4- to 10-pound range out there. Falcon bass grow 2 pounds a year after the first year because they've pretty much got a year-round growing season. Two years from now this place is going to be on fire with big fish."
While there could be a few fish still spawning in March, Edwards expects the majority of the bass will be in transition between shallow spawning areas and deeper haunts.
"Depending on what kind of winter we had, it's probably going to be mostly a post-spawn deal," said Edwards. "In a normal year, the bulk of spawning will occur in February."
For best results the guide recommends targeting channel breaks and channel swings in 4 to 8 feet of water on both the Texas and Mexico sides of the lake, using square-billed cranks, spinnerbaits and soft jerkbaits. There also should be a good flipping bite in the bushes on creature-style plastics.
OTHER TEXAS BASS LAKES
Ranked as the No. 1 bass Lake in America in 2015-16, this Texas/Louisiana reservoir is an obvious hotspot for catching numbers of bass and big ones alike. March and April are the peak spawning months on the 186,000-acre reservoir and anglers can pretty much pick their poison when it comes to catching fish — as long they think shallow, especially from mid-lake south toward the dam.
After multiple years of low water, the 21,400-acre reservoir northeast of Garland is now experiencing the benefits of the "new lake effect" after big rains in spring/summer 2015 pumped it full and flooded an abundance of terrestrial vegetation that sprouted along shorelines on flats during the extended drought. All the new cover is sure to bolster spawning and recruitment while providing plenty of targets for anglers.
The 7,800-acre Panhandle impoundment near Snyder got a significant boost in water level during summer 2015, flooding fields of salt cedars that flourished during a multi-year drought. That factor, combined with back-to-back Florida bass stockings in 2015-16, laid the foundation for some excellent bass fishing in years to come. The same scenario is playing out at Lake Medina near San Antonio.
Like its neighbor Falcon, Lake Amistad near Del Rio is on the mend and on the verge of busting loose with some really big bass. Hydrilla has re-established as deep as 30 feet and there are scads of bushes in the shallows that are sure to be holding plenty of spawning fish throughout the month. Five fish sacks in the 20- to 25-pound range are fairly common already.