By Todd Ceisner
For years, anglers have wondered why B.A.S.S. hadn’t staged a Bassmaster Classic in the state of Texas, home to a healthy portion of B.A.S.S.’ membership base and some of the best bass fishing lakes in the nation.
Part of the reason for the Classic’s absence from the Lone Star State can be attributed to geography. The best lakes and their proximity to cities with the facilities and infrastructure capable of hosting a Classic always created a dilemma.
While Lake Conroe will never be confused with other A-list Texas bass factories like Toledo Bend, Sam Rayburn, Fork, Amistad or Falcon, the one thing it has going for it is it’s roughly an hour north of Houston, the fourth-largest city in the U.S. While the aforementioned venues have storied legacies in the sport, their distance from major cities almost automatically rules them out from hosting an event the size of the Classic. So, here we are in Space City during the fourth week of March, with Conroe set to host what’s being billed as the biggest Classic ever.
Up until the last 10 years, Conroe’s claim to bass fishing fame was that Rick Clunn guided (and lived) there for many years during the early part of his fishing career. When the Toyota Texas Bass Classic picked Conroe as its host venue for five years between 2009-13, those served as the biggest multi-day tournaments the lake has seen prior to this week.
As competitive as the local and regional tournament trails are in southeast Texas, Conroe is frequently passed over for multi-day or big-dollar tournaments in favor of much larger Sam Rayburn or Toledo Bend to the northeast. Conroe is home to a few local weeknight jackpot and weekend trails, but they don’t draw anglers from a wide radius. Maybe the Classic will change that.
“It’s neat from the standpoint that it’s a fishery that other than Toyota putting it on the map, it’s been a long time since anything large happened there,” said Russell Cecil, a Willis, Texas, angler who’s been a standout on the local and regional circuits and counts the Texas Tournament Trail championship at Conroe back in 2005 as one of his biggest victories.
The old cliché about things being bigger in Texas certainly may apply to this Classic. Records may very well fall in the following categories: biggest Classic bass, heaviest Classic five-fish stringer and overall Classic winning weight – basically the holy trinity of bass fishing superlatives.
This is the latest B.A.S.S. has staged a Classic since moving it from the summer timeframe in 2006. Conroe’s proximity to the Gulf Coast precludes it from getting any sort of harsh winter weather and this year was on the mild side. With temperatures expected to be in the 70s and 80s this week, it will look and feel like a mid-summer tournament, a nice departure from the recent Gore-Tex Classics. The behavior of the bass, however, will suggest otherwise.
Basically, they’re all over the map. Some have spawned and are already in post-spawn mode. Some are guarding fry while others have yet to spawn and still others are no doubt in the midst of the ritual as you read this. Either way, this should go down as a spawn Classic with much of the weight caught shallow.
“Shallow water will dominate this tournament,” said Cecil. “I love to fish offshore as much as anyone, but March is the absolute worst month to fish out there. This will be a spawn tournament, but it won’t be so much all-out sight fishing because all fish are in some stage of the spawn. You have bucks who’ve been on the bank for a while and females just getting there, looking for a mate or just getting done.”
Friday’s forecast of thunderstorms accompanied by 30-mph winds could take sight-fishing off the table for part of the day, but the consensus is it shouldn’t hamper fishing in a significant way. Bass tend to bite better when the weather is unsettled or a little volatile. It will, however, be the field’s first taste of rough weather after a pretty stable practice session.
In a normal year, locals say the competitors would be hitting Conroe at the prime time for a sight-fishing spawning bonanza, but a mild winter – water temperatures rarely, if ever, plunged into the 50s – has seen plenty of fish spawn already.
“I’ve seen it like this once in past 10 years,” said Nacogdoches, Texas, angler Todd Castledine, who won his first boat at a tournament on Conroe. “They never left from being shallow. The water temperature literally never got below 55 degrees, which is almost unheard of. They started spawning maybe in early January. I’ve only seen that once before.”
Dave Lefebre has won at Conroe before and feels good about how his practice went this week.
“It’s fishing like it’s April and May,” added Casey Sobczak, the owner of 6th Sense Lure Co. who fishes Conroe almost weekly. “We’re already fishing for post-spawners. Usually (in March), it’s spawners and nothing else.”
There’s also plenty of productive water up north – above the Highway 1097 bridge – where young willows and brush offer flippers an alternative to the docks and other hard cover that dominates the southern end of the lake. Canals and marinas will also draw their share of attention.
One interesting sidebar to this year’s Classic will be to monitor how well the anglers who’ve struggled in the first two Elite Series events – nine Classic qualifiers are 85th or lower in 2017 Angler of the Year points – shift gears and potentially turn things around in Houston. Another will be to see if any of the five Texans in the field can continue the recent trend of anglers residing in the Classic’s host state taking home the victory. The last three Classics have been won by virtual locals, which is why all eyes will be on Keith Combs this week as the Huntingdon native looks to add to his two Conroe TTBC victories with his biggest win yet.
Before getting into more about the bite, here's the lowdown on the lake itself.
BassFan Lake Profile
> Lake name: Conroe
> Type of water: Reservoir on West Fork of the San Jacinto River
> Surface acres: 22,000
> Primary structure/cover: Docks, marinas, riprap, causeways, bulkheads, brush piles, bushes, laydowns, willow trees
> Primary forage: Shad, crappie, bluegill
> Average depth: 20 feet
> Species: Largemouth
> Minimum length: 16 inches for largemouth
> Reputation: Heavily-pressured lake with potential for big fish; one of the better lakes in Texas, but not among the elite
> Weather: After mostly stable conditions through practice, wind and rain will greet the field on day 1. Thunderstorms will linger into Saturday morning, but things should settle down for the final day.
> Water temp: Has gone from mid 60s to low 70s since start of practice last Friday
> Water visibility/color: Depends on location on lake; some areas up north have little to no visibility while cleaner water is on south end
> Water level: Normal
> Fish in: Various depths
> Fish phase: Pre-spawn, spawn, post-spawn
> Primary patterns: Jigs, spinnerbaits, crankbaits, worms, ChatterBaits, some sight-fishing, possibly topwater
> Winning weight: 67 pounds (3 days)
> Cut weight (Top 25 after 2 days): 25 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 3 for Conroe
> Biggest factors: Crowds – Spectator traffic could have a bigger impact on this Classic than any other
> Biggest decision: Whether to focus on a specific plan or junk it up
> Wildcard: A deeper-water hotspot where post-spawners are grouped
Below is a closer look at Conroe, thanks to the Navionics web app:
At roughly 22,000 surface acres, Conroe is the smallest Classic venue since Lay Lake hosted it in 2007 (Grand Lake, last year’s Classic venue, is nearly 42,000 surface acres). While Lay is a narrow strip of water on the Coosa River system, Conroe is a heavily developed reservoir with massive lakehouses, most of which are fronted by bulkheads.
With winds expected to be in the 15- to 30-mph range for most of the tournament, there will already be a fair amount of wave action, but when hundreds of bass boats are added to the equation as fans trying to get a front-row glimpse of the action take to the water, those seawalls will be a blessing and curse.
Some fish like to spawn along them so they could attract some attention, but at the same time, they’ll be the source of soreness. Competitors got a taste of it last weekend as nice weather brought out plenty of pleasure boaters and churned up the waters.
“Mark it down, before this tournament’s over, someone’s going to hurt their back,” said Matt Herren. “Someone will push it too hard. It’s a rough lake when it gets whipped up. Those waves hit those bulkheads and just bounce back.”
Jared Lintner said he’d almost prefer fishing a Great Lake than Conroe when it’s rolling.
“I’ve never been beat so bad in my life than I was on Saturday,” Lintner said. “I’d almost rather be on Erie. With all those seawalls and bulkheads, when it starts it never stops. It’s like a 21,000-acre washing machine.”
Spectator traffic may play as big a role in this Classic than any of the previous 46 Classics and it’s certainly on the mind of competitors. Some envision scenarios where some exposed shallow water areas might become unfishable due to the churn caused by the wakes and waves. It’s the ultimate Catch-22 – sure, Conroe offers a great opportunity to catch big fish in a big-event scenario, but will it ultimately prove to be too small for an event of this stature?
“I have no concept of what the galleries will do to that place – that would be my biggest concern,” Cecil said. “I’d be so worried and I’d be recruiting a traffic cop. It’ll be a shallow-water thing and if you have 100 boats following you, that could be an issue.”
“I’m glad my last name is Crochet and not VanDam or Reese,” quipped Cliff Crochet, who’s in his fourth career Classic, referencing the supposed large galleries that could follow Kevin VanDam and Skeet Reese.
Cecil fished his first tournament years ago at Conroe. He likes that it demands a big-fish mentality as it commonly produces 8- to 10-pounders. The challenge, he says, is that they’re not easy to pattern.
“Getting to experience tournaments elsewhere having fished the FLW Series, my favorite thing about Conroe is any time of the year you can catch a difference maker on any cast,” he said. “You can be having not the greatest day and all of sudden you catch two big ones and have 25 pounds.”
While some BassFans like to compare and contrast fishing in Florida and Texas due to their penchant for producing big fish and even bigger stringers, Cecil said it’s odd to catch a slew of small fish at Conroe like is common at many Florida lakes. Conroe’s length limit for largemouth is 16 inches so it’s logical to assume there won’t be many fish weighed in that are less than 2 1/2 to 3 pounds.
“You do not catch very many little ones in Conroe,” he said. “Generally, you’re fishing for big ones. You can power-fish out there all the time because you have to fish for big ones.”
Shaw Grigsby says sight-fishing won't be part of his strategy in this year's Classic.
To Cecil, Conroe’s in the best shape it’s been in in years in terms of fish habitat despite its lack of aquatic vegetation. A severe drought between 2010-12 had the lake level down for an extended period and that allowed new growth willow trees (locals call them “beanie bushes”) and other brush to establish themselves. Now, all that cover is in the water and it figures to attract plenty of attention this week.
“The lake is in great shape,” Cecil said. “It’s going to be a good Classic with a lot of things in play. During the drought, the lake got lower than I’d ever seen it. It spent a lot of time at 6 feet (below pool), which allowed a lot of shoreline cover to start to grow. Now, there are tons of willow trees with good diameter up to 8 inches.”
The majority of the new cover is on the north end of the lake where much of the water is surrounded by the Sam Houston National Forest and is sitting in 2 to 2 1/2 feet of water.
“It’ll be exciting to watch guys catching them a lot of different ways,” Cecil said. “It will fish wide open and should fish big for as small as it is.”
Both Cecil and Castledine raised the possibility that a shad spawn could very well come into play during the Classic. With the prolonged mild weather the area has experienced, it wouldn’t surprise either of them to see a few anglers run into a flurry of bites that way.
“It never usually happens until mid to late April, but we had it on Rayburn the other day,” Castledine said. “Then we had pre-spawners on a shad spawn when it’s usually post-spawners. If someone figures out a shad spawn that’s not on the bank, but a 4- to 7-foot shad spawn deal in the morning, they might blow it out in the first 30 minutes. It might only happen one day, though, but catching 25 pounds in 10 minutes is possible.”
Cecil concurred, adding that with the water temp having been consistently in the 60s and rising, a shad spawn is very real possibility.
“That’s the wild card to me,” he said. “If I were fishing it, I’d probably sight-fish day 1 and unless they were just coming to the bank, I’d be thinking about post-spawn and shad spawn the rest of the day. You can probably live on sight fish on day 1, but I don’t think you can win it sight-fishing. There won’t be enough of them littered everywhere and you can’t get away from everyone.”
Don’t Overthink It
By its nature, the Classic can be like competing in the mental Olympics. There’s so much going on – on and off the water – it can be an exhausting exercise. At Conroe, keeping it simple will be the best approach. The lake is void of aquatic vegetation so there are no hydrilla or eelgrass flats to probe for hours on end, waiting to run into a pod of bass.
What it does have is an ample supply of hard cover, some of which doesn’t look all that fishy. That’s the stuff Castledine says to throw at.
“Any time you see deeper stuff, if it looks good, fish it,” he said. “If it looks boring or there’s nothing to it or you have stretches of bank with rock underneath that nobody knows about it, there will be fish there. That’s why I’d have a ChatterBait or swimjig tied on.
“The most important thing is you can pick what part of the lake you want. The north end will be the wild card. They are probably done spawning up there and there’s a lot of them. It’s pretty shallow up there with the willows and alley ways and ponds.”
Bottom line: Conroe is a power-fisherman’s dream.
“You don’t have to overthink them on that lake,” Castledine added. “You can throw down a bulkhead and catch ‘em.”
If Casey Sobczak, the young entrepreneur whose 6th Sense Lure Co. is based in Willis, were to be fishing the Classic this week, he’d for sure have a hollow-body frog tied on and he’d be sure to fire it in and around the countless docks that line roughly more than half of Conroe’s shoreline. In fact, Sobczak predicts half of the top 10 will catch a meaningful number of fish on a frog this week.
“When they spawn on the ladders and outside edges, you can catch some giants doing that,” said Sobczak, who frequently fishes tournaments at Conroe and uses the lake to test new baits and colors.
If BassFans watched “Zona Live” last week, they saw Mark Zona and Greg Hackney put on a topwater clinic with the hollow-body Strike King Poppin’ Perch at Gross Savanne Lodge in Louisiana, a 3 1/2-hour drive due East from Conroe.
Certain docks that are adjacent to deeper water already get a ton of pressure, but Sobczak feels that other docks that might be on the post-spawn migration path might be worth a look.
“It’s going to be the docks that will be near secondary areas close to where they’ve spawned,” he added.
It might not be a pattern that carries someone to a win, but it could be a component to broader game plan built around hard structure.
Conroe doesn't line up well with Ish Monroe's preferences, but he hopes to ride a shallow-water bite to a strong finish.
Notes from the Field
Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll be competing this week.
“I committed to fish how I’m confident fishing, win, lose or draw. Shallow-water power-fishing – you can win that way any time anywhere. That’s what I’m confident in and that’s what I’m doing. The north end definitely suits that style, but there’s other stuff scattered around the lake that also suits it.
“This is my fourth Classic. I’ve finished 13th, 32nd and 46th. It was all the same. On Monday morning, when we wake up, it’s only different for one person so I’m fishing with the most confidence I can. Most of the fish I caught were keepers. I didn’t see any big ones, but you just have to fish and catch as many as you can.”
“I really like the lake just because it had a lot to offer compared to the lakes I fish in California. It has a little of this and a little of that. It’s like a combination of a bunch of lakes I fish back home. Coming here, I was expecting a full-blown spawning and swimbait type deal. I’ve talked to some buddies who are also fishing this week and none of us really have a good grasp if they’re coming or going or are in between. They’re just really scattered.
“In January when I was here, I was wearing shorts and a tee shirt and I caught frog fish. I expected some cold fronts to come through, but it’s been a real mild winter and I think the fish are real scattered. I’m not saying it’s tough, but it’s not wide open. I haven’t seen the major spawn type deal where everything’s shallow. It’s not like that for me. I looked a lot and have seen a few, but no giants.
“It’ll be interesting to see how it shakes out. I think guys will catch them from 1 foot out to 14 feet on a variety of baits. I’m pretty excited about it. The fish are heavily pressured and this time of year, I don’t think anybody has a distinct advantage. I know Combs is the heavy favorite and he knows more than anyone here, but whether you’re fishing 1 foot or 14 feet flipping or casting, you can catch a 10-pounder any time your bait is in the water.”
“It’s not going to fish like I thought it was going to fish. I had thought it was going to be a pretty solid dose of post-spawn fish and that’s not the case. I haven’t found what I wanted to find. Everything is changing. I’ve been getting 3- to 3 1/2-pound bites, no big bites. Maybe when I settle down and fish an area I will, but I haven’t put my hands on a fish over 4 . I shook off a few, but stuck a few, too.
“Conroe is not a lake to get a lot of bites at. It’s not a numbers place. You just have big, quality fish here. The hardest deal for me so far is I cannot use my eyes to tell what they’re doing. Most lakes we fish around the spawn, I can tell physically by looking at the beds to get a sense of what they’re doing – if there are fish guarding fry or bluegill spawning. Here, you really can’t. Either it’s water color or the depth. A lot of places where fish spawn are bulkheaded in canals and it’s 3 to 4 feet deep. It’s just hard to see. I can’t tell if they’re done or still coming. It’s absolutely puzzling because you’ll catch one that’s fatter than a pig and then catch one that’s laid out.”
“It’s a lot different from what I expected. I was expecting to find a clear idea of what the fish are doing. There’s no rhyme or reason right now. There’s a lot of pre-spawn and lot of post-spawn I’m sure. I’m sure there are a few spawners, too. We’re not on a great moon for sight-fishing either.
“I like the way practice is set up. We’re either going to get dominated by Keith Combs or it’s going to be a junk-fishing deal and it’s going to be the guys who roll with it and put it together. If it’s not a Keith Combs domination, you’re going to have to work hard. You could weigh in five fish caught on five different baits.”
“(Wednesday) was a waste of time. I got two bites all day and didn’t catch either one of them, but I’m ready. I know what I’m doing. I just thought I could find something weird because I can’t catch them out on stuff that looks right like drops and points and brush. I thought maybe they’d be in between somewhere.
“I was pretty confident after Saturday. I know what I’m doing and I didn’t want to educate any fish all week. It’s not great, though. I could zero. It’s a grind. It’s tough. I don’t care what anybody says. There is always someone smashing them, but I don’t think the person that’s going to smash them knows that yet.”
“It seems like when we started practice, it was just off the back side of a cold front and I think every day it’s getting a little better. I can find enough clarity to see one, but I can’t find enough clarity to my liking. You can be looking at one on a bed and you cannot see him and then you’ll get him to move and you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s him.’
“I don’t think you’re going to win this shallow, not at all. If I can catch one off a bed, they’re going to be little bucks that aren’t worth talking about. I’m not going to be sight-fishing. I don’t care (about the wind). It might affect some, but it’s part of a game. Now, if I were sight-fishing, I would care, but I’m not so I don’t.”
“I’m definitely not ready fish wise. I’m ready to go fishing, but fishing wise I haven’t found enough to win with. We’re going to keep looking. I finally got a few decent bites today, but it’s nothing I can win with. They were definitely bigger than the first three days’ of practice for sure, but it was kind of random stuff.
“The weather shouldn’t hurt it. Being able to fish stuff with it being so wavy and windy will be the only thing. It should make the fish bite for sure. I was going to be off shore and my first bite this morning was the biggest I’ve caught since we’ve been here so I’ll probably be half and half. I probably start the morning deep since that’s the best time to catch them and then just go from there. I do like fishing deep because you can catch more than one off of a place.”
“I went out (Wednesday) with a game plan of checking some stuff I’d found, fishing wide open and hitting one area of the lake that I didn’t get to. I did all three of those and I feel like I eliminated a lot, which is good and I didn’t want to, but I caught three big ones today. It’s one of those deals that the way I’m catching them you’re not sure when it bites, so I hooked them and I caught three over 5 today. That gives you some positive vibes.
“I think this is a junk-fisherman’s paradise and I think they’re moving by the hour, seriously. A lot of guys thought this was going to be a bed-fishing tournament, but I feel like there are more coming out and they’re more transient than just sitting there. I like that. I’m a fan of those fish that are sliding.
“I like that I’m getting those types of bites, but the thing is this is the Classic and you keep beating yourself up about it. The biggest problem is I’m not getting a lot of those bites. I might get three to seven or eight bites like that per day depending on how things work out, but it’s the Classic and if I can land five of them, they’ll weigh 25 pounds.”
“It’s not great for me. I saw some stuff I like, but it’s not what I need and I know that so I don’t know what to do. I knew coming into this Classic and the lake that we’re on, I never fare well on small ponds that especially have a lot of boat traffic because I don’t like to fish that way. It’s just a small pond. I had a mindset about stuff I was going try and it didn’t work so I’m going back to basics.
“I want it to storm and blow and rain and do a lot of weird stuff that hasn’t been happening. I want to throw big baits and when you come to a small pond, you can’t throw big baits because they see everything 10 times over so they eat a lot of little stuff. The (lake) record was caught on a finesse worm. What does that tell you about the lake? When a 15-pounder is caught on a finesse worm … that doesn’t happen in California. You catch it on a swimbait, a big jig or off a bed.
“I’ll be shallow. That’s what I want to do so that’s what I’m going to do. There are enough fish there to have a decent tournament, but I haven’t found the fish to win.”
“I don’t know where to start. I’m not concerned like a lot of guys. It’s because the fishing is so random. It’s hard to figure anything out. I think most everybody I’ve talked to feels the same way. It’s partly the time of year we’re here. It’s like we’re here too early and too late at the same time. I think they’re way more ahead than people think. I think a majority are definitely done (spawning) and there might another small wave coming, but they’re not coming up now. We’re at the tail end of a secondary spawn – that’s my guess.
“A lot of the fish are finishing up. I’ve seen a lot of fish guarding fry and a lot of fish I have caught are skinny, spawned out and beat up. Then, there’s the occasional one that’s fat and healthy that hadn’t spawned yet, and there aren’t very many of those. There just aren’t many fat ones and you might catch one or two a day.
“Starting off practice, I thought I knew right where I was going to start for sure, but every day I go there, there are a ton of boats there. It’s a good spot, but I just don’t know if that’s many fish left. I might start somewhere I would’ve never thought to start on the first day. I won’t decide until I’m idling out in the morning. I think that’s how this tournament is going to be.”
> Anglers will launch at 7:20 a.m. CT all three days from Lake Conroe Park (14968 Highway 105, Montgomery, TX). Doors open at 3:15 p.m. for the weigh-ins all three days at Minute Maid Park (501 Crawford Street, Houston, TX).
> The Bassmaster Classic Expo will be held at the Gerald R. Brown Convention Center. Hours will be: Friday – noon to 8 p.m.; Saturday – 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday – 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
> Fri., March 24 – Thunderstorms - 78°/65°
- Wind: From the SSE at 20 to 30 mph
> Sat., March 25 – AM Thunderstorms, Then Sunny - 86°/62°
- Wind: From the WSW at 10 to 20 mph
> Sun., March 26 – Partly Cloudy - 84°/68°
- Wind: From the S at 10 to 20 mph