By Todd Ceisner
BassFan Editor

It appears that, beyond a shadow of a doubt, Sam Rayburn Reservoir will be a fitting venue for the first-ever Toyota Bassmaster Texas Fest, the product of the merger of the Toyota Texas Bass Classic and BASSFest.

It’s been 11 years since the Elite Series paid Rayburn a visit and judging from local intel and recent tournament results, the lake is in prime condition for the Elite Series field to show it off. Because of its proximity to Toledo Bend Reservoir, it’s only natural the two lakes are often compared on the basis of how good each is fishing. The verdict this year appears to be in Rayburn’s favor.

Multiple 20-pound stringers (maybe a couple approaching 30) are likely each day with a wealth of 16- to 18-pound bags expected as the lake harbors an incredible population of 3- and 4-pound bass. A consistent wind out of the southeast is expected to blow and that may factor into some game plans, but all indications are pointing to an east Texas shootout as the Elite Series season hits the midway point.

The format that will be employed this week could also offer a look into the future of B.A.S.S. events as it will follow that of past Toyota Texas Bass Classics, where all legal bass caught are weighed in the boat by a marshal and then logged through the course of a day. The angler is then credited with the weight of the best five bass at the end of the day. Each angler is allowed to keep one fish over 21 inches to bring back to show off on stage.

The competition kicks off Wednesday and the full field will be back on the water Thursday as well. Only the top 51 will be on the water Friday before a day off Saturday for seminars and fan engagement. The event will conclude Sunday featuring the top 12 competitors.

The one difference between the TTBC and this week’s event will be B.A.S.S. marshals will be utilizing scales manufactured by Brecknell, the same scales used by Major League Fishing. In the TTBC, scales were used that only registered in quarter-pound increments. With this being a points event, B.A.S.S. needed to invest in reliable scales that will register in smaller increments.

If practice reports are any indication of how the tournament will play out, the new scales will get plenty of use.

“Unless someone just goes way out of the way to do something different, no one should come in with less than 14,” said local pro Todd Castledine, who’s from Nacogdoches, Texas, and back in February caught a 27-00 stringer on the final day of the FLW Series event at Rayburn to complete a 9th-to-1st comeback. “Some guys might try to do some different stuff, but if you just try to catch fish, you should catch 14 in your sleep. It’s that good.”

“The last two or three years, Rayburn has been the hottest tournament lake around,” added Bassmaster Opens competitor Darold Gleason, who guides at Toledo Bend, but also frequently fishes at Rayburn. “Twelves months out of the year, it produces and that’s what amazes me about it. All the anglers should be looking forward to it.”

The challenge has been trying to locate where the groups of bigger fish Rayburn is known for are located. Are they well off shore near ledges or creek channels or still hunkered down in the vast stretches of hydrilla?

Before getting into more about the bite, here's the lowdown on the lake itself.

BassFan Lake Profile

> Lake Name: Sam Rayburn Reservoir
> Type of Water: Lowland impoundment
> Surface Acres: 114,500
> Primary structure/cover: Standing timber, brushy shoreline, creek channels, humps, laydowns, pads, grass beds
> Average depth: 15 feet
> Species: Largemouths
> Length limit: 14 inches
> Reputation: Long considered one of the best big-bass lakes in the country
> Weather: It’s been stable and aside from a chance of rain Thursday and Sunday, nothing too crazy is in the forecast. The winds are expected to be mainly out of the south-southeast, which could be an issue if it gets gusty.
> Water temperature: Mid 70s in the morning, warming into the mid 80s through the day
> Water visibility: Clarity is good all around the lake
> Water level: About 1 foot below normal pool
> Fish in: 1 to 15 feet
> Fish phase: Mostly post-spawn
> Primary patterns: Bladed jigs, swimjigs, big worms, crankbaits, spinnerbaits, flipping/punching, lizards, Senkos, trick worms, topwaters
> Winning weight: 90 pounds (4 days)
> Check weight (Top 51 after 2 days): 31 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 4 for Rayburn
> Biggest decision: Battle the crowds around the best grass or gamble on something more off-beat
> Wildcard: Having multiple schools to rotate around

Here’s a closer look at Rayburn, courtesy of the Navionics web app:

School Days

While there may still be some late spawners scattered around the lake, the fish some competitors have no doubt focused on in practice are those that spawned weeks ago, maybe months. They’ve recuperated and are now heading out to deeper water with a few of their buddies.

Some have noted marking “wolf packs” or small groups of fish that feed actively, but then disperse and vanish soon after. Having multiple schools pinpointed will be a must since it’s not common at Rayburn to be able to hammer away at the same offshore area multiple days in a row.

“Those summer schools are just getting out there,” said Gleason, who operates South Toledo Bend Guide Service. “They’re going to be fresh and ready to go. The key is that they’re usually frisky this early in the year and they’re usually grouped up pretty tight. There will be lots of schools around structure like road beds and creek channels.”

B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito
Photo: B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito

Fred Roumbanis says he has confidence in several areas around the lake.

Of course, the wind will be a determining factor in how much offshore fishing gets done. It’s east Texas, after all. There’s always a breeze. Castledine said anything out of the northwest or southeast could be detrimental because that’s how the lake is situated.

“Those fish out there are easy to catch, but they’re just hard to find,” he said, “and hard to manage. They don’t stay around for a while.”

Need to Move, Mix It Up

Castledine and Gleason concur that this tournament will not be won off of one spot. Both insist it’ll take multiple areas and most likely a shallow-deep combo to go home with the win and accompanying automatic berth in next year’s Bassmaster Classic.

Castledine was on the lake briefly late last week and caught fish pretty easily just going down a shallow grass line. That’s one option this week, but to contend for the win, it’ll take more than one pattern and one spot, even though he always thinks there are winning-caliber fish up shallow at Rayburn.

“You just can’t sit on the same areas and do it all day long,” Castledine said. “You’ll have to fish new water every day and catch new, fresh big ones every day.

“I know some guys who aren’t ever going to go shallow, but if it blows, you’ll have to save yourself shallow. I have a different take because I always think you can win shallow here.”

Gleason said it’ll be crucial to have productive areas all over the lake as a way to be prepared for various conditions.

“I don’t think that someone who goes shallow can knock it out of the part just shallow,” he said. “They will need to fish deep for a big one or two. It’ll help to have some options depending on weather conditions, too. If it’s windy and the offshore bite isn’t going, you might have to survive shallow.”

Notes from the Field

Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll be competing this week.

John Crews
“I don’t think it’s going to go berserk like it would on a pre-spawn deal, but there are a lot of fish in this lake and a lot of good fish. I’m not sure if I’ll fish deep or shallow. Knowing me, it’ll probably be a mix. I think you can compete either way, but I feel like it’ll be won deep. I also feel like guys can fish their strengths here.

“The toughest decision will be where to start. I have a bunch of places I want to fish, but I’m just not sure where to start. I think you will have to have multiple areas. I haven’t seen anything with any sort of concentration of fish. Even if somebody finds a deep school of fish, I don’t think you can work them for more than a day or two.”

Aaron Martens
“It’s been a struggle to find some bigger fish. Someone may have found something where they’re piled up. For most people, it’s been hit and miss. Everyone is catching fish but if you’re throwing big baits or little baits, all you catch are 14-inchers everywhere you go. Occasionally, you get a big one. I guess you just have to weed through them.

“My frustration (this season) has been building. I want to end it. It’s not fun at all. It’s not because of a lack of effort, though. It could be really easy if you find them here. I’ve been looking and graphing and fishing. I’ve found some areas that might be okay. I’ve caught a lot of fish, but weight-wise I haven’t caught much. Who knows, maybe a bad practice will be good for me.”

B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito
Photo: B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito

Last year at this time, Kevin VanDam won at Toledo Bend fishing mostly offshore.

Fred Roumbanis
“Everything is post-spawn. Because the water’s at a pretty good level – it’s higher than I remember it – it keeps fish shallow and I think you’re going to see lot of guys fishing shallow and guys fishing offshore. I can catch them both ways.

“The big deal is trying to get a big bite. I caught an 8 (Monday), but it was after tournament hours. The average fish I’m seeing is about a 2-pounder. I believe a guy that gets a big bite and a couple 4s will set himself apart. It’s a really healthy fishery and we’re going to see a lot of fish caught.

“I’ve caught a big one deep and a big one shallow and that’s good. I feel like I have a solid milk run of the whole lake. I can bounce around and not go back through areas. I think there has to be some schools located offshore and I think it’ll be won deep, but I don’t think you have to fish deep to get paid this week.”

David Williams
“It’s fishing pretty good. You can catch ‘em pretty much any way you want to fish, but they’re pretty scattered. I haven’t found a winning pattern, but you can catch all the fish you want. It’s just been tough to get the good bites for me.

“I think it’s just such a big lake that area is crucial here. You can fish the same stuff and get bit, but if you get in one little area, it seems like every fish is 3 or 4 pounds. Then you can fish the same stuff in another creek and they’re all 1- or 2-pounders. You have to get around the bigger ones and go through them.

“I’ve stayed shallow pretty much the whole time. It’s such a big lake, I feel like you have to commit to one or the other. I found some fish early the first day and have been running that kind of pattern all around, trying to find some better fish. There are so many 3-pounders in this place and a lot are still recovering from spawning a month ago. There are some fat ones, too. I’m not sure I’ve fished anywhere with so many fish in the 3- to 4-pound range in a lake. I think you’re going to need a 6 or 7 to be in contention for the final day.”

Stephen Browning
“For me it’s like night and day (compared to Toledo Bend). From what I can gather and what I’ve seen this lake is fishing a whole lot better than Toledo than what we saw last month. I’ve caught fish shallow and deep. I think the late spawners are still around in less than 10 feet, but I feel like those that did it back in early March are out a lot deeper now.

“The grass is healthy and in really good shape. It’s maybe as good as I’ve seen it. I’m fairly confident the guy who wins will definitely be out, especially with this type of format. There’s a chance to get two or three schools of 4s to 6s and rotate through them and then let them go. It will be interesting to see how guys manage fish because they’re not in big schools right now.

“It’s going to be a thing where you don’t want to burn through a bunch of fish. You’re going to have to be a fish manager simply because you could go back to the same area and catch the better ones later. I’ve caught them in 20 to 22 feet and you can probably get a few up shallow or gamble and hope to fire up a school.”

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. Todd Faircloth – The five-time Elite Series champion is having himself another quietly superb season with four money finishes, including a top-12 at Toledo Bend. Rayburn is his backyard and he always prides himself on putting on a show when he competes around home.

2. Keith Combs – Another local who's made countless casts at Rayburn over the years. He finished off the pace at Lake Conroe in the Classic and was in the 40s at Toledo Bend, so rest assured he wants to be in the hunt come Friday and Sunday this week. His deep-shallow versatility will be a valuable tool.

3. Kevin VanDam – Don’t look know, but the seven-time Angler of the Year is sitting 5th in points after a runner-up finish at Ross Barnett Reservoir. It was about this time last year that he laid waste to the field at Toledo Bend while riding an offshore pattern. Expect him to have plenty of cranking rods rigged up this week.

4. Steve Kennedy – By most accounts this will be the biggest weight tournament of the year and Kennedy is no stranger to those. Whether its flipping brush or grass shallow or winding a swimbait offshore, he’s a big-fish magnet who needs to rebound after placing 104th at Ross Barnett.

5. Greg Hackney – He hasn’t missed a cut in a full-field event since his DQ at Cayuga Lake last summer. He’s up to 3rd in points after four events and has enjoyed plenty of success at Rayburn in the past (Elite Series win in 2006, 3rd place in 2014 FLW Tour). He’s on a roll and on a pond he likes. Beware.

6. David Fritts – After a dynamite start to the season, Fritts fell off the pace with a 103rd-place showing at Ross Barnett. Now, he gets to probe the offshore structure that’s so plentiful at Rayburn. The timing seems right for this to fall into his cranking wheelhouse.

7. Chris Zaldain – Off to an uncharacteristic start with three results of 90th or lower this year, so he needs to get things turned around in a hurry. This could be the opening he’s been looking for. Always seems to connect with big fish. Don’t forget he won the Tundra at last year’s TTBC.

8. James Niggemeyer – He’s been out guiding at Lake Fork so expect him to be in tune with what’s going in east Texas. He’s 89th in points, so he’s another competitor that would benefit greatly from a good showing.

9. Russ Lane – If there’s a shallow-deep mix going on, he has the tools to get the job done. He’s alternated made cuts and missed cuts so far, but the way Rayburn is setting up seems to line up with how Lane likes to do his work – flipping and cranking.

10. Edwin Evers – He’s made three cuts since missing the money at Cherokee Lake to start the season, but hasn’t been a factor on the weekend yet. He’s 19th in points and could make a big jump if he’s able to tame Rayburn.

Launch/Weigh-In Info

> Anglers will launch at 7 a.m. CT Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday from Cassels-Boykin Park (Farm-to-Market Road 3123, Zavalla, TX 75980). Weigh-ins all four days will begin at 4:30 p.m. CT at the George H. Henderson Expo Center (1200 Ellen Trout Dr, Lufkin, TX 75904).

Weather Forecast

> Wed., May 17 – Party Cloudy - 84°/70°
- Wind: From the S at 10 to 20 mph

> Thu., May 18 – Chance of Rain - 88°/70°
- Wind: From the SSE at 10 to 20 mph

> Fri., May 19 – Partly Cloudy - 88°/68°
- Wind: From the SSE at 10 to 20 mph

> Sun., May 21 – Thunderstorms - 79°/63°
- Wind: From the SSE at 5 to 10 mph