By Todd Ceisner
To the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s ShareLunker Program, the fish is simply known as No. 458.
For Ricky Bearden, the fish’s significance is expressed in four digits – 15.93. That was the weight of the largemouth bass that Bearden caught at Lake Conroe on Jan. 30, 2009. It was 27 inches long and had a 22-inch girth.
Conroe has produced the seventh-most ShareLunkers (17) of any public lake in Texas. All 17 of Conroe’s ShareLunkers have been caught during the December-April timeframe, which is part of the reason why BassFans are so anxious to see what the 52-man Bassmaster Classic field will haul to Minute Maid Park in Houston this week.
Will a 10-pounder be caught? Will someone catch a “teener”? Heck, might Bearden’s record fall this week?
The ShareLunker website that details Bearden’s catch indicates it was caught with a plastic worm. Meanwhile, the TPWD’s page devoted to archiving all of Conroe's record fish catches lists a crankbait as being Bearden’s bait of choice that day.
Bearden is aware of the conflicting information that’s out there and chuckles every time he’s asked to correct the record.
“Zoom black Trick Worm,” he said, proudly. “I throw it every time I go out. That’s my confidence bait with a 3/16-ounce bullet weight.”
It was chilly on the morning of Friday, Jan. 30, 2009, as Bearden headed out on Conroe alone. None of his buddies wanted to tag along. Too cold, they said.
“There was ice on the boat that morning,” Bearden recalled.
Bearden was on the lake practicing for a tournament that weekend and his goal was to find a few big fish on beds that he could come back to. When he pulled into the back of Weir Creek, an area known for harboring prime spawning habitat, he encountered a series of canals that weave through a residential area. At the point where two of those canals intersect, there’s an 8-foot hole.
Bearden picked up his Trick Worm and fired a cast beyond the supposed location of the dropoff, into water that was no more than a foot deep. It was the only cast he made to that spot because when his worm started to descend into the deeper water, Bearden felt a jolt on the end of his line.
“When the fish hit I remember it just slowly moving away,” he said. “I tightened the line and set the hook. The fish came out towards the boat and I let it run around three times. Finally, I saw the fish and I was in shock. I hadn't even gotten the net out yet.”
Yes, the net. He had a brand new one, but it was stowed away in the rod locker, so he had to maintain pressure on the fish all the while getting the net ready to deploy.
“The fight took a good 3 to 5 minutes,” Bearden said. “I was pretty close to the bank, so I just kept letting it pull drag and it finally wore down.”
When he lifted the net in the boat and saw the size of the fish, Bearden didn’t know how to react.
“It was a shocker,” he said.
With no one to high-five or celebrate with, Bearden kept fishing another 10 minutes before sitting down to call his father.
“I said, ‘Dad, I think I might’ve caught the lake record,’” Bearden remembered saying.
His father suggested he go to Stowaway Marina, which was around the corner from where he’d caught the fish. When the fish was weighed on a certified scale, it registered 15.93 pounds, which eclipsed the previous lake record (14.91) by more than a pound. His biggest bass at Conroe prior to setting the record was a 10.44-pounder.
The record bass was then turned over to the TPWD, which kept it until it was done spawning. It was released alive on May 14, 2009.
“The fish is back in the lake now,” Bearden said. “I’d like to catch it again.”
Rick Clunn got his start as a fishing guide at Lake Conroe in the 1970s.
Still, more than 8 years after the catch, he’s asked about that fish. Just this past weekend, while launching his boat for another tournament at Conroe, another competitor jokingly asked for his autograph.
“It’s pretty cool,” he said. “Everybody I run into, they know my name and want to know about it and people want to talk about it.”
Clunn’s Love (and Hate) Affair
Mention Lake Conroe to Rick Clunn and his initial reaction is … sadness.
“It’s not for the reason most people think, which is that I didn’t qualify for the Classic this year,” the four-time Classic champion said. “It’s a completely different lake now from when I knew it. I always hate missing the Classic.”
Clunn’s connection to Conroe runs much deeper than his falling short of being in the Classic field for what would’ve been a record 33rd time. He owes the rise of his fishing career in the 1970s and '80s to Conroe.
In 1974, he started a guide service at Conroe, 2 years after the lake opened. The next year, he moved from Houston to Conroe and lived in a small cabin by the lake. He paid $125 per month in rent.
“I started a relationship with the lake and the whole area,” he recalled. “Guiding is all about who knows you and word-of-mouth and recognition.”
Nothing helped Clunn’s recognition more than his first Classic win in 1976 at Lake Guntersville.
“After that, my phone started ringing off the wall,” he said.
Oil companies from around Texas called Clunn, wanting to book him on every one of his open dates to entertain clients. He adored the lake in its early stages.
“Early on, it had a lot of brush and timber,” he said. “It was a young lake and we all like to fish lakes like that. By the fourth and fifth years, they become incredible. Even after it started to slow down with hydrilla, it exploded again. I will always appreciate it.
“It taught me so much about how to use a depthfinder. Up until then, they were only was used to find how deep you were. It was still a pretty wild lake back then. It was a very pretty lake, but more importantly a good fishery.”
But as the lake evolved, it became a flashpoint for controversial management practices. Clunn refused to sit idle as efforts to curtail aquatic vegetation greatly impacted the fishery.
“Lake Conroe fed me for about 10 years earlier in my career,” he said. “It was an incredibly good lake. Then it got hydrilla in it and it became a political battle. I got involved with the TPWD and the bureaucracy in Austin.
“It was a big development lake and Conroe was made a test tube for Texas A&M research projects,” Clunn added. “They obliterated the habitat in the lake.”
Clunn, with the help and support of the Texas Association of Bass Clubs, tried to keep the state from deploying grass carp at Conroe as a means to control the spread of vegetation. Eventually, the carp were introduced and obliterated much of the lake’s aquatic vegetation.
It touched off a cycle of events that saw habitat restoration efforts be successful, only to have carp re-introduced and herbicides employed to control the spread of various aquatic vegetation. The TPWD responded by stocking Conroe with F1-strain largemouths in an attempt to augment the bass population there.
“Texas has the second-best game and fish group in the country and that is the salvation for that lake,” Clunn said. “Whether the Classic big bass or limit record will be broken there is all thanks to the TPWD.”
Zell Rowland (left) wakes up every day a short walk from Lake Conroe and thinks the lake will show out in a big way for the Classic this week.
Eventually, Clunn shuttered his guide business as he was able to support himself on tournament winnings and endorsement income. Still, he holds Conroe in high regard despite the changes that have gone on there.
“It’s not the lake I used to fish,” he said. “It’s a night and day difference.”
Home Sweet Home
Like Clunn, Zell Rowland has a strong connection to Lake Conroe. As a resident of Montgomery, Texas, he wakes up every day two blocks from a boat ramp on the lake. He guided there for 18 years. He, too, has witnessed its highs and lows.
“It’s a lake that over the last 25 years has gone through several different changes,” Rowland said. “It had lot of vegetation to now it’s more of a structure lake. Now, because the lake was down for a long time, there is some growth back in the water and that gives us different types of vegetation.”
Rowland began his guiding career at Conroe when he was 16 years old. Clunn’s operation was already up and running and Randy Fite, Clunn’s cousin and a deep-water pioneer, also guided at the lake. They all operated out of the old Fisherman’s Reef Marina off Highway 105.
“My first introduction to Clunn was when he hooked himself in the head with his own (Heddon) Hellbender,” Rowland recalled with a chuckle.
Rowland remembers vividly the changes the lake underwent after the introduction of grass carp, but he noted that the after-effects of Hurricane Alicia in 1983 also played a role in the demise of the lake’s aquatic vegetation.
“The water came up and stayed up and stayed muddy for weeks,” he said. “When it went back down, 85 percent of the hydrilla in the lake was gone. Ever since then, with all the things that have been done to this lake from carp to different chemicals, they have tried to plant hydrilla in there and it won’t grow. There are not enough nutrients.”
Rowland decided not to get as involved as Clunn did on the political side when the issue was a hot topic.
“When guys live on a lake, all of us in our careers, from Rick to me to Denny Brauer, we get so wrapped up in the political side of the sport that it eats us up,” Rowland said. “It can take 3 to 5 years out of your career. You get ate up with the things that aren’t right or good, but then you realize you’re just one guy and you’re not going to change squat.”
The decline in vegetation was a double-edged sword – it reduced the amount of cover the bass had to use, but it made for some happy guide clients.
“When you take away all of the fish’s cover, and back then 60 percent of the lake cover was hydrilla, you take away their hiding place,” Rowland said. “It was nothing to catch five that weighed 25 (pounds). It made for some great guide trips.”
Rowland’s memories on Conroe are plentiful, not the least of which was being around Clunn during his guiding and early tournament years.
“I got to fish with Rick here a lot and being able to be around him for that many years guiding is better than anybody saying anything about being around Kevin VanDam,” he said. “This lake and people around the lake have been great supporters of mine. It’s been unbelievable.”