There's a reason the most predictable bass fishing in Texas takes place in lakes east of Interstate 35: That's where the water is — usually. Spring 2015 is the perfect illustration of that.
In late September 2014, total reservoir capacity in Texas stood at 64 percent, but almost all lakes west of I-35 were at 50 percent or below, and some were plumb dry.
Hurricane Odile did dump a lot of water on parts of West Texas in September, and some lakes rose significantly, but the overall effects were minimal.
Texas has yet to recover all the subsurface moisture lost during 2011, the single worst drought year ever recorded in Texas, which limits run-off and streamflow following rain — the thirsty soil is still soaking it up. Some three-fourths of the state is still classified as abnormally dry or in some stage of drought.
Even east of I-35 the news is not all that good. Lakes in the Dallas-Fort Worth area are generally in worse shape than those farther south and east. Of course, a few days of soaking rains can make a huge difference anywhere in Texas.
All that being said, the best approach is to monitor lake levels and troll the Internet for information from Web sites, guides, and fellow anglers. Some lakes in West and South Texas will fare better than others, so it will pay to do your research. Conditions can and will change with water levels and seasons, and you may have to adjust locations and techniques to catch fish.
Which brings us to the bottom line of this year's bass forecast: While traditional bass fisheries such as Falcon, Amistad, O.H. Ivie, Alan Henry and Lake Austin will produce fish, for the best chance of catching large numbers and large sizes of bass this spring and summer, go east.
Looking strictly at water levels, East Texas lakes that stand to remain relatively stable and offer good access and fishable bass habitat include Athens, Bob Sandlin, Caddo, Conroe, Fork, Gilmer, Moss, Lake O' the Pines, Livingston, Monticello, Murvaul, Palestine, Ray Roberts, Rayburn, Somerville, Texoma, Toledo Bend, Waco, and Wright Patman.
It's no accident that many of the lakes on that list have produced one or more Toyota ShareLunkers in recent years. And since each lake producing an entry receives a portion of the ShareLunker fingerlings produced that season, fish with the genes to grow big are out there.
Before we get into the bass bounty that is in East Texas, there is good news about Possum Kingdom, a deep, clearwater reservoir with a rock shoreline and lots of docks and standing timber about 75 miles west of Fort Worth. Heavily impacted by golden alga fish kills in recent years, it has been restocked to the point it has redeveloped as a quality bass fishery, producing fish weighing more than 9 pounds in 2014.
"Anglers can find bass throughout PK," says Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist Robert Mauk. "Largemouth bass can be caught using any traditional fishing technique; simply fish what you have the most confidence using.
"In early spring and fall bass move to the backs of coves and hold near standing timber and laydowns."
Summers provide good topwater action during low-light periods, and docks provide holding spots all year long. Popular areas to fish are Cedar Creek, Caddo Creek, Bluff Creek, and Neely's Slough. Most bass anglers prefer to avoid fishing summer weekends to avoid heavy recreational boating traffic."
It's important to note that on PK, as well as on other Texas reservoirs, anglers are working together and partnering with TPWD to improve the quality and quantity of fish habitat.
TPWD has stocked more than 1 million Florida largemouth bass into PK since 2010, and to give those fish a place to live and grow, the Hells Gate Bass Club and the Mineral Well Bass Club formed a Friends of Reservoirs chapter to help TPWD build and deploy brushpiles and fish-attracting structures and to plant aquatic vegetation. Any interested person or group can donate or form a chapter by going here.
Heading east, a number of smaller reservoirs should be on anglers' radar. Gilmer is only a tad more than 1,000 acres, but it has plenty of bass anglers' favorite plant, hydrilla, and was stocked with more than half a million Florida largemouth bass between 2008 and 2013. Gilmer produced a Toyota ShareLunker in 2011.
"There really isn't a bad place to fish in Gilmer," advises TPWD biologist Tim Bister. "During early spring, a weightless Senko-type soft plastic in watermelon red, black/blue, and June bug red are preferred. Also successful have been Yellow Magics and other topwaters. Once the sun has been up a few hours, fish the edge of the hydrilla with finesse baits or shaky heads. A plum or other dark-colored Carolina rig in open water is another good choice."
Lake Raven in Huntsville State Park is only about 200 acres, but it has produced multiple double-digit bass and has been stocked with select Toyota ShareLunker offspring. It has abundant native vegetation and some hydrilla. TPWD fisheries technician Mike Gore recommends fishing a weightless worm in submersed vegetation and a weedless frog over lotus pads.
If you want to sample the best of spring bass fishing within a small area, there are three lakes near Nacogdoches that have everything a bass angler could ask for. Lake Nacogdoches has abundant bass over 4 pounds thanks to a 14- to 21-inch slot limit in place for years that was recently changed to a 16-inch maximum length limit to protect the larger fish.
"Although submerged vegetation is present throughout the reservoir, the upper 25 percent has the most cover and has numerous creek channels that provide good bass structure," says TPWD biologist Todd Driscoll. "Lipless and squarebill crankbaits, spinnerbaits, and jerkbaits are all productive."
Just north of Nacogdoches is Lake Naconiche, which opened to fishing in 2012. "Population surveys show the bass population in great shape with high numbers of fish as well as high numbers of large bass," Driscoll says.
"Fishing will be exceptionally good during the spring, and bass can be caught lakewide around vegetation and woody cover. Pre-spawn bass can be caught on lipless crankbaits, spinnerbaits, jerkbaits, and swim jigs worked over vegetation. Soft plastics are best for spawning and post-spawn fish." Very heavy cover in the creek arms of the lake argues for the use of kayaks or canoes.
For sight-fishing fanatics, Lake Kurth has clear water and high bass numbers. At just over 700 acres, this reservoir is easy to cover by motor- or human-powered craft. Break out the kayak and put the sneak on some big sow bass.
Lake Athens has come on strong in recent years, producing two Toyota ShareLunkers last season. That's led to heavy fishing pressure, but "the abundance and diversity of habitat facilitates multiple fishing styles and disperses angling pressure throughout the reservoir," says TPWD biologist Jake Norman. "The aquatic plant community within the reservoir is second to none. If we were to take one reservoir within the state of Texas and make it the 'poster child' for an ideal balance of aquatic vegetative habitat, it would be Lake Athens."
Norman adds that no matter your fishing style, Lake Athens can accommodate you. "Unlike some reservoirs that reward only the anglers who have the right location, presentation, and bait dialed in, anglers on Lake Athens can typically just fish their strengths and be successful," he says. "If I was limited to just one approach, I would tie on a weightless watermelon fluke and slowly flip the inside, outside, and middle of submersed vegetation." However, one of last season's ShareLunkers was caught on an Alabama rig and one on a DD-22.
If fishing big water is your thing, East Texas offers plenty of choices. Perennial big-bass mecca Lake Fork gets half a million or so Florida largemouth bass fingerlings every year, and hundreds of them have grown to 13 pounds or better. Anglers catch about 7,000 bass 7 pounds or bigger every year from Lake Fork.
In recent years Lake Fork has joined the ranks of lakes that fluctuate several feet a year, and this has required anglers to make some adjustments, says TPWD biologist Dan Bennett. "Bass patterns have been to associate with structure in deeper water, anywhere from 8 to 30 feet," he says. "You'll have to spend a lot of time scouting and use your sonar to find concentrations of fish. Bass will certainly migrate toward shore during the spawning season, but if spring 2015 is like that of 2014, expect the spawn to be unpredictable and spread out over several months."
It may be instructive to remember how Keith Combs won the 2014 Toyota Texas Bass Classic on Lake Fork with a world record of well over 100 pounds of fish during three days. He used a technique called "strolling," making very long casts and working the bait back to the boat. Bone up on that before heading to Fork and be ready to do battle.
Lake Palestine has been blessed with stable water levels the past few years and has remained full. A strong spawn in 2007 coupled with regular stockings of the Florida-strain largemouth bass means there are lots of fish in the lake old enough to weigh 10 pounds or more. TPWD biologist Jake Norman recommends starting with search baits in the Kickapoo Creek and Neches River channels in the upper end of the reservoir and expanding to the flats and timber as the water warms.
"Areas such as Saline Bay, Flat Creek, and Highsaw/Ledbetter bays become prime locations for spawning bass," he says. Target boat docks as summer sets in.
Another lake where targeting docks pays off is Lake Conroe, which is at full pool and has lots of flooded vegetation as well as fish-attracting structures placed in the lake by TPWD and local partners through a Friends of Reservoirs project. TPWD's Mike Gore says to fish shallow-running, square-billed crankbaits around docks and piers, deep-diving crankbaits around brushpiles, crankbaits and football jigs in channels and drains, and shaky head jigs along riprap.
If you like consistency, Sam Rayburn and Toledo Bend reservoirs are for you. Spring bass fishing has been good on those reservoirs for as long as anyone can remember.
"Focus on staging and spawning areas — secondary points and coves — and remember that the best early-spring fishing will be in pockets protected from north winds," says Todd Driscoll. "The lipless crankbait bite for staging, pre-spawn fish is legendary on both reservoirs, with the key being submerged hydrilla. Crayfish- and shad-colored crankbaits are productive. Umbrella rigs have also produced very well in recent years during pre-spawn. Later, the best fishing will be in spawning pockets using finesse plastics."
No matter where you fish in the Lone Star State, be prepared to deal with changing water levels and fish having to adapt their habits to whatever nature throws at them. Fish don't migrate, so lakes that have had fish will continue to have fish. Your challenge as an angler is to find what they want and give it to them.
That may be the only constant in Texas bass fishing.