By Lynn Burkhead
OSG Senior Digital Editor
Last April, the folks at Major League Fishing wanted to turn the eyes of the bass fishing world on MLF's hometown when they announced the 2021 Bass Pro Tour REDCREST Championship would visit the Tulsa, Okla. area and nearby Grand Lake o' the Cherokees, one of the top fisheries in the country.
But as it turned out, COVID-19 continues to have the last laugh on many things in the sports world and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic response turned the BPT announcement last spring into something of an April Fool's joke a few weeks ago when a late change of venues was announced.
Out is the Grand Lake event, postponed to next year, and in is the revamped Feb. 22-26 REDCREST Championship derby at Lake Palestine in the Pineywoods of East Texas.
Why the switch? Well, while the fishing could have occurred at Grand Lake, the inability to bring thousands of Major League Fishing fans to downtown Tulsa's 350,000-square-foot River Spirit Expo facility to attend the REDCREST 2021 Expo eventually forced officials with MLF/BPT and the city to alter the plans.
Because of that, the attention of the bass-fishing world now shifts to a relatively obscure fishery east of Dallas where the Top 30 anglers from last year's abbreviated 2020 Bass Pro Tour season will compete in the second ever REDCREST derby. At stake is the opportunity to wrestle the event's big trophy away from defending champ Edwin Evers and claim one of the sport's biggest paydays, a $300,000 winner's check.
What the BPT Pros Will Face
What will the BPT pros find as they descend on Lake Palestine in a few days?
For starters, while the 25,560-acre lake 15 miles southwest of Tyler isn't as famous as some of its neighbors like Lake Fork, Toledo Bend, and Sam Rayburn, Palestine isn't a bass-catching lightweight either.
It's a popular fishery for local and regional bass fishing tournaments, offering the chance for ample catches of largemouth and spotted bass. And the most recent Texas Parks and Wildlife Department fishing report from Palestine is decent with clear water, water temps near 50 degrees and fair bass-catching action happening for anglers tossing swimbaits, jigs, crankbaits, and crawfish soft-plastics near boat docks, creek bends, ledges, and rocky coves.
That's good news for the 30 BPT pros arriving at Palestine at a time when bass are starting to think about staging up for the upcoming spawn. And for many East Texas angling veterans, that means it's a good time to put on a Rayburn Red One Knocker lipless crankbait, throw it near vegetation, start winding, and hang on.
While Palestine isn't the lunker producer that Fork, T-Bend and Big Sam have been over the years, the lake can still kick out some big ones like the 13.22-pound TPWD ShareLunker specimen that Casey Lee Laughlin tricked into eating a Zoom Speed Craw on Feb. 1, 2014.
That lake record came not even a year after Palestine's first ShareLunker was entered into the program, a 13.14-pounder caught by Lindell Dee Booth, Jr. on March 2, 2013.
And just recently, on Jan. 30, the Neches River impoundment created back in 1962 produced its third-ever ShareLunker bass. That most-recent SL bass came when Trinidad, Texas angler Daniel Ramsey used prior history to his advantage and caught a 13.07-pound lunker that helped him secure a Media Bass tournament win.
Lunker-Sized Bass in Palestine
While Palestine might not always be thought of as a big-bass factory, you'll have to excuse Ramsey as he thinks otherwise after his ShareLunker catch and a five-fish bag limit that weighed 28.96 pounds.
"Last year during this same tournament on Jan. 26, 2020, I weighed in a 12.65-pound bass off a dock with brush that had 16 feet of water at the end of it," he said in a TPWD news release.
At the end of last month, he put that knowledge to good use again, catching an even bigger fish (some are speculating it was the same fish he caught a year ago) that propelled Palestine into the spotlight as the REDCREST derby approaches.
"I went back to that dock because I had caught a big one on it the year before, so I knew it held good fish this time of year," said Ramsey. "My first cast was at about 7:01 a.m. and at about 7:10, I pitched up under the dock and started working my M-Pack jig back to me. I was within five feet of where I caught the 12.65-pounder last year when I got the hit. I set the hook and got her to the boat and couldn't believe what I had just done."
While Ramsey's bass is only the third ShareLunker ever entered from Palestine, it's also the third such fish to be caught in the last nine years. And in the revamped and multi-tiered ShareLunker program now in place, several other lunker-sized catches were reported at Palestine last year, fish ranging from 8.17 pounds up to Ramsey's 12.65-pounder mentioned above.
Take a look at TPWD's stocking history at Palestine – along with several years of flooding rains and excellent spawning habitat – and there's ample reason for the BPT pros heading for the East Texas waterbody to be excited as the 2021 REDCREST prepares to begin. That includes 2.6 million Florida-strain largemouth bass fingerlings that were put into the lake in five stockings from 2000 to 2009 and 2.1 million Florida-bass fingerlings planted in eight stockings since 2012.
With all of that duly noted, how does the lake fish? While vegetation is more limited than it is on other East Texas lakes, there is some scattered vegetation at Palestine along with some submerged timber, boat docks and offshore structure. That should mean a variety of methods and patterns will be in play as BPT pros seek to light up the ScoreTracker.
Will There be Snow?
If there's a downside to the impending REDCREST derby at Lake Palestine, it might be the winter weather in the forecast over the next week across Texas, Oklahoma and much of the rest of the nation.
Already this winter, East Texas has experienced a rare multi-inch snowfall in mid-January and more could be on the way as cold weather, ice and snow threaten the region over the next several days.
Obviously, Florida-strain largemouth bass and significant cold weather won't make for much of a slugfest at Palestine. But if the pros heading for Palestine this week can catch a break and see the weather trends starting to moderate and stabilize later, perhaps they can still find some great pre-spawn action.
In fact, the bass fishing in January was nothing short of lights-out across East Texas with multiple big bass catches, along with several huge tournament bags. The REDCREST field can feel buoyed by the recent surge of red-hot bass fishing action that saw four ShareLunkers landed in January, one of the best such runs in a number of years.
Two of those recent 13-plus pound ShareLunker bass came from Sam Rayburn, one came from Lake Austin and the other was Ramsey's fish from Palestine. Those catches, which don't include a couple of other near-miss lunkers caught and released at other lakes, indicate that Texas is primed for a big-bass explosion after several years of great water levels and spawning habitat brought on by El Nino-fueled rainfall.
The bottom line is that the Texas big bass season is already off to a red-hot start this year and we're just past Valentine's Day.
"Having four ShareLunkers loaned just in the month of January of the collection season is a phenomenal start to 2021," said program coordinator Kyle Brookshear in a news release. "There have only been a few other times in the program’s history that January has been equal to or more productive."
One of those years was in 2011, with five ShareLunker entries in January. Another was in 2005 with four entries, still another was in 1995 with seven entries, and last but not least, there was also 1992 with five entries. All of those great January runs produced a spring season of great fishing, not to mention Barry St. Clair's 18.18-pound state-record largemouth pulled from Lake Fork on Jan. 24, 1992.
While there isn't much chance that one of the BPT pros will break the Lone Star State's longstanding bass benchmark later this month, no one will complain when the MLF cameras are capturing video and still images of fish in the 3- to 5-pound range being caught and maybe, just maybe, something even north of 10 pounds.
The winter weather in the forecast might be a bit of a wildcard – if it gets bad in East Texas, think about what it would be like in northeastern Oklahoma – but recent ShareLunker catches, Palestine's steady bass-fishing history and the pre-spawn calendar period suggest a great event with can't-miss live streaming and television action.
And that's good news as the angling world prepares to turn the spotlight on East Texas again, even if the ongoing pandemic and Old Man Winter keep trying to steal the show.