By Todd Ceisner
In two of the last three years, Toledo Bend Reservoir has been tapped by the editors of Bassmaster Magazine as the top-ranked bass fishing lake in America.
While there certainly is a measure of prestige that accompanies such lofty recognition, it also can serve as a double-edged sword. Toledo Bend already gets a healthy amount of fishing pressure from the recreational and tournament crowds. Add in the droves of anglers drawn in by the novelty of fishing the top-rated lake in the land and you get a lake that barely gets a rest. Not to say that’s a bad thing, but it’s the new reality along the Texas-Louisiana border, where no doubt the crowds will be out again this week as the Elite Series resumes its season on the heels of the Bassmaster Classic at Lake Conroe and Houston.
This week marks the fifth time since 2011 that Toledo Bend has been on the Elite Series schedule. Each year, a different incarnation of the sprawling, timber-infested Sabine River reservoir seems to avail itself.
> In 2011, Dean Rojas beat Gerald Swindle by a single ounce in April with a mix of topwater and sight-fishing.
> The following June, Brent Chapman committed to an offshore plan that combined a jig and spoon to pick up his first Elite Series win.
> When the circuit returned in May 2014, it was in the midst of a late-arriving spring and Jacob Powroznik seized upon a shad spawn in the morning with a jerkbait before showing off his sight-fishing prowess later in the day to bag his first Elite Series victory.
“Every year they come here, the winner is doing something different from the group,” said Darold Gleason, who operates the South Toledo Bend Guide Service.
The difference at the Bend this week will be the water is a few feet lower than it was for last year’s event (early May), when Kevin VanDam mixed some topwater fish with some deep-cranking to win with more than 90 pounds.
The lower water will take the flooded shallow cover strategy off the table, but the lake may come up a little in the wake of the harsh storm system that came through last weekend. The winds howled on the final practice day, muddying up some of the shallows and forcing most of the field into creeks and pockets, while a pretty significant cold front – overnight lows will be in the 40s both Wednesday and Thursday night – moved in.
By the weekend, though, temperatures will be back into the 80s and high skies should offer up opportunities to capitalize on what remains of the latest wave of spawners. More importantly, the wind isn’t supposed to kick up until Sunday at the earliest.
There’s considerably less vegetation, especially hay grass, in the lake compared to previous years, but where there is hydrilla and/or milfoil, it’s healthy and holding fish.
Russ Lane is preparing to fish shallow and deep this week.
For some anglers, especially those who competed at Conroe, this will be their fourth straight week of fishing in east Texas. Last week, some headed to Sam Rayburn Reservoir to pre-fish for the Toyota Texas Fest (a combination of the former TTBC and BASSFest) in mid-May.
Toledo Bend marks a return to points tournaments as the focus will shift back to the Angler of the Year standings, where plenty of big names have a lot of work to do over the final seven events.
Before getting into more about the bite, here's the lowdown on the lake itself.
BassFan Lake Profile
> Lake Name: Toledo Bend
> Type of Water: Reservoir
> Surface Acres: 185,000 acres (the largest man-made impoundment in the South)
> Primary structure/cover: Flooded timber, ledges, brush piles, grass
> Primary forage: Shad, crawfish
> Average depth: 15 feet
> Species: Largemouths and spotted bass
> Length limit: 14 inches (largemouth), 12 inches (spotted bass)
> Reputation: A legendary fishery that's developed more of a reputation as a big-fish factory in recent years.
> Weather: Warm and sunny without a lot of wind.
> Water temp: Low 70s
> Water visibility/color: Some creeks and pockets are stained, but should be clearing up through the tournament
> Water level: Couple feet below normal pool
> Fish in: 0 to 15 feet
> Fish phase: All phases of spawn
> Primary patterns: Cranking, jerkbaits, flipping and pitching, spinnerbaits, swimbaits, Texas- or Carolina-rigged plastics, topwaters, sight-fishing, vibrating jigs
> Winning weight: 84 pounds (4 days)
> Cut weight (Top 12 after 3 days): 50 pounds
> Check weight (Top 50 after 2 days): 25 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 3 for Toledo Bend
> Biggest factor: Big bites – a limit of 3-pounders won’t cut it at a lake where 7-pounders can turn things around in a hurry
> Wild card: Spawners. If there’s another wave coming, the high-sky conditions will be conducive for looking. Also, docks could be key since they’re some of the only significant shallow cover in the lake right now.
Here's a closer look at Toledo Bend, thanks to Navionics:
Feeling the Effects
The majority of the rain that accompanied the deadly storm system that spawned tornadoes and violent thunderstorms across the region last weekend stayed to the south of Toledo Bend, but the lake still may come up slightly as a result of the deluge.
“It might affect some of the creeks being muddy, but this time of year it’s always a shot in the dark,” said Gleason, who also competes in the Bassmaster Central Opens. “Wind is always a big factor this time of year.”
Beyond Wednesday’s big blows, things should settle down and stabilize for most of the tournament. The after effects of the wind, however, will be the X-factor come Thursday.
“Somebody may have a magic place found, but getting there or fishing it effectively may be a bigger deal,” Gleason added.
“There are places near where we’re staying that the water looked real pretty on Tuesday, but today it looks like chocolate milk,” said Russ Lane.
Regardless of the conditions, there is no mistaking this lake’s proclivity for churning out big fish and plenty of them.
“The majority of big fish are still here – they’re just very well educated,” Gleason said.
With this year’s tournament falling five weeks ahead of last year’s Elite Series visit, the fish are all in all stages of the spawning process. Much like the bass at Conroe, it could be challenging to rely on one thing for the duration.
As is often the case at a place as prolific at Toledo Bend, there are fish shallow and deep and they’re apt to bite darn near anything. The winning fish could be somewhere in between.
“It just depends on what you like,” Gleason said. “My guess is the majority are done (spawning), but some will be spawning. It’s setting up similar to the year Powroznik won. I know some are still spawning, but most are done. Due to the milder winter that we had, we were catching them off beds in January.”
The water level will change how many attack the lake this week compared to last year. There was plenty of flooded cover north of the Highway 6 bridge last year, but that won’t be a factor this week.
Jordan Lee will compete as a Bassmaster Classic champion for the first time this week.
The high water also put a dent in the hydrilla and milfoil and the decrease in hay grass has been a result of a spraying campaign on the Texas side of the lake, which reportedly is part of an attempt to control the spread of salvinia.
“This year, there are certain creeks that have hydrilla and some that don’t,” Gleason noted. “There will be a lot of guys in community areas, but more so because of the concentration of grass. I can’t see anyone separating themselves enough in those areas to win, but there will be checks cashed out of there. If someone runs away with it, they’ll have a couple offshore schools found.
“It’s setting up for someone to find something a little different. It will be unique to see if someone can piece together a different bite.”
Notes from the Field
Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll be competing this week.
“We’re here earlier than I’ve ever been here. It’s a different year. These fish are pretty much spawned out. There are so many fish in this lake that there are fish in all stages. The fish I’ve caught have been so random. I’ll catch one on one bait and throw it for an hour and then don’t catch another one. I’ll pick something else up and catch one right away, then nothing else for a while.
“All the fish I’ve caught have been pretty shallow. I feel comfortable any time they’re spawning, but the rain we had Sunday, it’s muddied the creeks up. I know a lot of guys were planning on sight-fishing. Some were clearing up (Tuesday) and they should be clear by the weekend, but I have to make it to the weekend first.
“I wasn’t expecting them to bite very good Monday, but I caught ‘em pretty good. I did catch a 9-pounder and I caught a lot of fish. I caught quite a few first thing Tuesday, but from 11 a.m. on, I only caught one keeper. It’s random.”
“It’s way big and the problem is you have to run the trails. When it gets rough, you have to run the trails no matter the waves. It’s very frustrating because apparently you can catch them any way you want – in, out, up, down and in the grass. The guys who’ve been here in the past know what’s going on and know where they’re at when they’re not here or there.
“It’s an ever-evolving lake daily. From what I’ve seen, I think the majority of fish have spawned. There are still a lot of fish shallow, but it’s a lot of smaller fish. I’ll probably fish the weather more than any spot. This lake is full of chunks – 3- to 4-pounders, but I haven’t caught any of those. I’ve caught a bunch of 2 1/2- to 2 3/4-pounders. The opportunity is there to catch a big one each day, but I think it’s changing so much from day to day that it’s hard to tell what’s going to happen.”
“It’s been alright. I’ve caught some, but it wasn’t phenomenal. Tuesday wasn’t real good, but I would’ve had a decent day if I counted everything I caught until I got off the water. They only give us until 3 during the tournament.
“It’s so hard to get around here. You get in the boat lanes, but to go into a pocket, you have to idle forever. Then you get in there and don’t catch anything so you have to idle all the way out.
“I think there’s a lot going on. Guys will catch them out deep. I’m fishing the bank. I had a good practice last year and focused on deep fish, but they vanished. The shallow fish are more dependable and I can cover more water. It’s springtime and I’m more comfortable up on the bank right now. It’s a lot of junk-fishing.”
“I’m rigging up stuff for sight-fishing, some stuff for some deep holes and stuff for a shad spawn. I have three or four deals where I think I can get some bites. None of them are all that special. We’re in that spot we all call that funky period. It’s the late, late spawn and the females are in recovery mode. It’s slow, but you can get around them once in a while.
“The waters down 2 1/2 feet so it’s like a 4- to 5-foot swing from last year. Another thing is there’s like 10 percent of the hydrilla that’s normally here. Same with the hay grass. The past couple years, there were a bunch of fish caught out of it. It seems like the dominant cover right now is docks, but I haven’t gotten anything going that way.”
“This is probably the biggest mess of rods I’ve ever had going into a tournament. This is a great fishery, so they say, but it’s a place I haven’t done well. I don’t feel like I read it well. I can go to (Sam) Rayburn and feel at home. I thought I would break it this time, but I haven’t. That doesn’t mean I won’t catch ‘em. I’m just not sure how it’s going to go.
Cliff Prince caught a couple big fish in practice and hopes he can keep it going in the tournament.
“There are a lot of things going on. There are fish on the bank and I know there are fish offshore. I think the spawn has been so drawn out, too. It takes a different mentality here because it takes a while to get from point A to point B. At this place, you make a decision and it’s 30 minutes to idle into a place and then you fish a while and if it’s no good, it’s another 30 minutes out.
“Just from the vibe I’ve gotten, it seems a little bit tougher than normal. There are a lot of good fish here so you don’t have to go through 20 fish to have a good bag here. At least, I hope that’s how it goes for me.”
"If there’s ever a place to turn my fishing around, it’s Toledo Bend. It doesn’t appear to be the Toledo Bend we’re all used to, though. You can usually catch them any way you want to here.
"I think I’ve had a decent practice, but I’m only able to catch them one way, so that’s been frustrating in a way. Tuesday, you could fish. It was nice out there. Today, it was about survival because it was blowing so hard. I eliminated water and have places where I’ll be around fish all day so I’m looking forward to getting out there. I’m excited. I have a plan and will try to stick with that plan and hope it works."
Top 10 To Watch
With the above in mind and more, here, in no particular order, is BassFan's recommendation on the Top 10 to watch at this event:
1. Greg Hackney – He’s usually good for a paycheck at Toledo Bend, but coming off a 30th-place finish at the Classic, we’re thinking he’s anxious to make amends. He’s adept at getting away from the crowds and Toledo Bend is certainly a place to go off the grid.
2. Jacob Powroznik – He’s hoping a 12th-place showing at Conroe snapped him out of the early-season funk that has him 82nd in points. He won sight-fishing at Toledo Bend back in early May 2014 and rest assured he’ll have that as part of his game plan this week.
3. Mike Iaconelli – Has had some premium showings so far (11th at Cherokee, 6th at Classic), but also a stinker (93rd) at Okeechobee. His best Toledo Bend finish (18th) came last year, but he has the all-around game to excel.
4. Jordan Lee – The newly-minted Classic champ has missed just three money cuts in 19 full-field Elite Series events. He’s been on some kind of roll since last May, so we have no evidence that points to a drop-off. If anything, he could be getting better.
5. Todd Faircloth – East Texas is his neck of the woods and he’s had three top-20s at Toledo Bend, but last year (57th) didn’t go his way.
6. Kevin VanDam – He battled the crowds last May at Toledo Bend and snapped a 63-month winless streak with nearly 100 pounds. We probably won’t see the century mark this week, but Toledo Bend is a power-fisherman’s paradise and matches up with his mentality.
7. Tommy Biffle – This is his kind of place with shallow cover and offshore structure and he needs a good shot of momentum after two finishes in the 80s to start the year. He placed 9th here a year ago.
8. Steve Kennedy – Anytime a big-fish venue shows up on the schedule, Kennedy manages to show up near the top of the leaderboard. Coming off a runner-up finish at the Classic, his confidence has to be sky high and he’s got some momentum with eight checks in the last 10 full-field Elite Series events.
9. Cliff Crochet – He faded (to 19th) over the final 2 days at Conroe, but day 1 of the Classic was a reminder of how he can make things happen in a hurry in shallow water. Consistency will be key this week as he looks to climb from the 80s in points.
10. Dean Rojas – A former winner at Toledo Bend (2011), he’s likely still sour over a disappointing Classic showing (32nd), but a good showing this week will erase that from his mind. Since back-to-back top-10s last year, he’s made the money in one of the last four full-field events.
Here’s a look at the top-50 and top-12 cut weights for the past four Elite Series events at Toledo Bend:
> May 2016 – Top 50: 28-09; Top 12: 54-07
> May 2014 – Top 50: 28-14; Top 12: 54-07
> June 2012 – Top 50: 22-09; Top 12: 49-15
> April 2011 – Top 50: 26-13; Top 12: 46-04
> Anglers will launch at 6:45 a.m. CT all four days from Cypress Bend Park (3462 Cypress Bend Dr., Many, LA 71449). Weigh-ins all four days will get under way at 3:45 p.m. at Cypress Bend Park (same address).
> Thurs., April 6 – Clear – 72°/47°
- Wind: From the NW at 5 to 10 mph
> Fri., April 7 – Clear – 74°/49°
- Wind: From the N at 4 to 6 mph
> Sat., April 8 – Sunny – 80°/56°
- Wind: From the S at 5 to 10 mph
> Sun., April 9 – Sunny – 82°/63°
- Wind: From the S at 10 to 15 mph