It's March Madness time in Texas! Bass-fishing style, that is!
Sunday, March 11, 2018 was a day college basketball fans around the country live for — the annual selection of the NCAA teams to play in March Madness.
In Texas, the term March Madness means something else right now, since East Texas' big-bass factory Lake Fork is on a sizzling run not seen in years.
On Thursday, March 8, 2018, exactly one week to the day after Greenville, Texas, angler John LaBove landed a 15.48-pounder at Lake Fork that easily qualified in the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's ShareLunker program.
Anglers have four different ShareLunker categories to consider: Lunker Class (bass weighing at least 8 pounds or measuring 24 inches); Lunker Elite Class (weighing 10 pounds or more); Lunker Legend Class (13-pound or better largemouth that is released); and the Lunker Legacy Class (13-pound or better largemouth bass between Jan. 1 and March 31 loaned to TPWD for its selective breeding program).
While on an annual family trip to Lake Fork, angler Michael Terrebonne, of Cut Off, La., landed his own 13-pound ShareLunker trophy.
But the 27,690-acre Fork wasn't done as Alex Finch got into the ShareLunker act on Sunday, March 11, 2018, landing a 13.06-pound Legacy Lunker, the third such fish in only a nine-day span.
"This was one thing in my lifetime I said I wanted to do â€“ catch a ShareLunker," said Finch, of North Richland Hills, in a TPWD news release. "I've accomplished a lot in the sport of fishing and I've caught a lot of big bass by most people's standards, but I've never put one on the scale and had it read like that. My initial reaction was like finally!"
Using a self-made bait â€“ the Finch Nasty Thumper Gizzard Shad â€“ Finch said it was a no-brainer to donate the bass to the ShareLunker program, something he credits with helping to make bass fishing in Texas "â€¦better than it is in any other state."
It's obvious that includes Lake Fork.
"I've been fishing at Lake Fork for five years and I've seen it cycle," said Finch. "Last year we really started to see the population of fish coming back. We knew there were going to be some big fish caught here this year, but we had no idea we would be seeing three ShareLunkers in nine days â€“ that's incredible."
While details on Finch's March 11 big bass catch are few at the moment, there is a little bit more known about the Terrebonne big bass from March 8.
p>"We come to Lake Fork every year â€“ it's our favorite place to fish," said Terrebonne in a TPWD news release. "We've talked about catching a ShareLunker before but we never imaged we would catch one that big. I still can't believe I did it, when you actually catch one it's such a shock."
Terrebonne's lunker largemouth came in six feet of water, and only a few days after the Louisiana man had pulled a 9-pounder from Fork.
"I didn't realize how big the fish was until it turned sideways and I realized it was huge," said Terrebonne of his ShareLunker, which happened to be the 573rd such bass in Texas history and the 260th such largemouth pulled from Fork.
"Everyone was so excited and yelling 'Get the net! Get the net!' When we got her onto the boat and saw how big she was and so full of eggs I know I definitely wanted to donate her to the ShareLunker program for spawning."
After being weighed and held at a local marina, the bass was obtained by TPWD Inland Fisheries biologists, who then transported the largemouth to the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens. Now in the TFFC's so-called "Lunker Bunker," the Terrebonne bass is being monitored and cared for by hatchery staff as the fish prepares for spawning.
"We are very grateful that Mr. Terrebonne decided to loan this impressive fish to the Toyota ShareLunker program," said Kyle Brookshear, Toyota ShareLunker program coordinator, in the news release.
"Growing bigger, better bass for future generations depends on us being able to selectively breed the state's biggest fish, and we couldn't do it without anglers like Mr. Terrebonne loaning their catches to us."
Over the years, Fork has been particularly kind to the ShareLunker program, now producing 260 bass (as of March 11, 2018) that have weighed 13 pounds or better. Crunch the numbers and that's nearly 50 percent of the program's 573 total entries.
That impressive Lake Fork ShareLunker list includes the current state record (Barry St. Clair's 18.18-pounder caught in Jan. 1992) and the former state record (Mark Stevenson's 17.67-pounder, a bass dubbed Ethel after it was caught in Nov. 1986).
Fork has also dominated the overall largemouth bass record book, producing the top six bass in Lone Star State angling history along with seven of the state's Top 10, 16 of the state's Top 25, and 30 of the state's Top 50.
A little more number-crunching reveals that of Fork's 260 official ShareLunkers, those fish have been caught by anglers from 84 different communities scattered across the vast Lone Star State.
What's more, in addition to the anglers from Texas, Fork ShareLunkers have been caught by anglers from 16 other states: Oklahoma (18 ShareLunker anglers), Louisiana (15), Missouri (8), Arkansas (3), Illinois (3), Kentucky (2), Wisconsin (2), Alabama (1), California (1), Indiana (1), Kansas (1), New Jersey (1), New Mexico (1), South Dakota (1), Tennessee (1), and West Virginia (1).
When you consider how many anglers have been lured to Fork â€“ from virtually every state in the nation and a number of countries around the world - without catching a ShareLunker, the local economic impact is profound. Just ask the hotel owners, restaurant operators, gasoline dealers, grocers, and bait shop proprietors in such nearby communities as Alba, Emory, Quitman, Winnsboro, and Yantis to name a few.
What makes the sprawling reservoir in Hopkins, Rains, and Wood counties so prolific for big bass?
"We get asked a lot about what it was about Fork that made it so special," said TPWD Inland Fisheries biologist and district supervisor Kevin Storey, the man who has overseen the big bass lake since the late 1990s.
"Other states have often wanted to replicate Fork and they'll ask, 'What can we do?' Well, I think all of the right factors were in place at the right time on Fork."
Storey noted it's easy to speculate about what those factors might have been, such as the great amount of standing timber left in the lakebed, fertility of the watershed, the hydrilla and vegetation present for a number of years, pre-stocking of ponds in the lakebed, tremendous forage base, long imposed 16- to 24-inch slot limit, catch-and-release ethic that is embraced with almost religious fervor, etc.
"In my mind, all of those things and more were a bit serendipitous," said Storey. "They all happened to take place at the right time and we ended up with a very dynamic lake."
The numbers bear that idea out, even if those numbers have slipped from Fork's heyday in the late 1980s and 1990s when two state records and a whole lot of state-recognized bass were caught. In recent years, as Fork continues to move farther away from its impoundment date back in 1980, ShareLunker numbers haven't been as strong and no bass anywhere near the St. Clair state benchmark has been caught.
"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."
And with plenty of 7- to 10-pound plus bass still being caught by anglers â€“ along with a 15.48-pounder and two 13-pounders in the past nine days â€“ Storey isn't convinced that Fork's "Stop the presses!" kind of glory days are completely behind the state's best-known bass fishing gem just yet.
"I don't know, I keep hoping that someone will stumble onto one that is at the upper end (of the big bass spectrum)," he said. "I still believe that chance is out there.
"I would love to see another state record come out of Fork, or something that even approaches that."
With the recent fireworks from the East Texas lunker factory, stay tuned.
Because Fork is on fire and the best big bass fishing action of the year is underway and should last for another few weeks in East Texas.