By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
Bassmaster Elite Series anglers should have no worries about being unable to catch a weighable fish in 2 days during the circuit's third visit to the Sabine River since 2013, and thus leaving the event with no Angler of the Year points. A regulation change will make keepers easier to come by and limits more numerous than they were in the two previous editions, but there will still be some awfully small bags that go to the scale.
The venue in extreme eastern Texas has become a favored stop for B.A.S.S. because of the huge crowds that show up for the weigh-in and peripheral festivities. But unlike most Elite derbies, those fans don't see a lot of lunkers held up by the competitors; the system isn't home to all that many bass to begin with and the majority that live there weigh less than 2 pounds.
The tournament was originally scheduled to take place in early April, which would've put it on the peak of the spawn. It was postponed for 2 months due to high-water conditions and the field will now pursue fish that have transitioned to their summer phase.
Weights throughout the standings sheet will likely be higher than on the previous visits thanks to a reduction in the minimum-length requirement for largemouths from 14 inches to 12. That stems from a decrease in the size of the playing field, as this time anglers will be restricted to fishing the waters within five Texas counties. Waters in Louisiana, which remain under the control of private property owners despite legislative attempts to change that unique situation, are off-limits.
Essentially, anglers can fish only one side of the river, and it's the side with less "fishy" water. Conversely, it's also the side with the lower keeper length, making a lot more fish eligible for a boat ride.
Here are some of the basics about the fishery:
BassFan Lake Profile
> Name: Sabine River
> Type of Water: Tidal flood-control river
> Surface Acres: N/A
> Primary structure/cover: Stumps, laydowns, standing timber, scattered mats
> Primary forage: Crawfish, shad, mullet
> Average depth: 6 feet with deeper holes in main channel
> Species: Largemouths, spotted bass
> Minimum length: 12 inches for largemouths
> Reputation: With Sam Rayburn and Toledo Bend reservoirs a short drive to the north, the Sabine is not considered a hot spot for largemouth anglers. Some report that it's fishing better in the aftermath of last year's hurricane
> Weather: Lots of sun with daily high temperatures in the 90-degree range. Wind (mostly from the south) should be moderate.
> Water temp: High 80s to low 90s
> Water visibility/color: Stained to muddy. There’s little to no visibility in most areas.
> Water level: Normal
> Fish in: 1 to 8 feet
> Fish phase: Summer
> Primary patterns: Flipping, pitching, topwater, bladed jigs, spinnerbaits, shallow crankbaits, swimbaits, Texas-rigged plastics
> Winning weight: 52 pounds (4 days)
> Check weight: (top 50): 17 pounds (2 days)
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 3
> Biggest factors: Patience and commitment, as 2-pound-plus bites won't be easy to come by.
> Biggest decision: Whether to stay with an area that's a known producer or seek out another that may have more potential for quality
> Wildcard: 5-pound bites – they'll be huge difference-makers
Here's a look at how the Sabine lays out, courtesy of Navionics:
The winners of both previous Sabine River tournaments (Todd Fairlcloth in 2013 and Chris Lane 2 years later) pulled their best fish from Taylor's Bayou, an 18-mile-long slough about 10 miles south of Beaumont. That could be the case again, although some anglers say the place has less vegetation due to the flooding that occurred the past couple of years.
Cory Rambo, a longtime tournament competitor in the region who operates Rambo's Outdoors in the host city of Orange, thinks the main river might hold the key to victory this time. It now holds more big fish than it did before due to the major weather events.
"The fishing has been excellent," he said. "All the flooding we've had has kept a lot of saltwater out and a lot of freshwater in and some bigger fish have come in through the Toledo Bend dam and stock ponds that got flooded. It also let some out of the backwaters where they were trapped."
He said some 20-pound stringers were caught in local derbies earlier in the year and a one-day tournament last weekend was won with 17. The winning weights for the past Elite events were in the 50-pound range for 4 days, or an average of about 12 1/2 pounds per day.
Chris Lane says the Sabine is fishing much differently than when he won in 2015.
"Limits should be very easy – you should see 99 percent of the field catch a limit. To get those bigger sacks you need a 5- to 8-pounder and we've even seen a few 9-pounders.
He expects topwaters, crankbaits and flipping to be the predominant tactics. The primary cover types targeted will be cypress trees, dock piles and other natural or man-made stuff, with large sunken watercraft also playing a role.
Here are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll compete this week.
"I found a couple little areas that have quite a few fish in them, but the challenge is going to be how many boats are in there with you. You can't put much thought into that ahead of time – you just have to get out there and see what's going on and jockey around and make it work.
"I've always fished in Louisiana when we've been here before, so I've had to do a lot of homework for this won. I went and looked at Taylor's before it went off-limits and I caught a few fish, but it looks nothing like it did on the (Bassmaster) shows from the other tournaments.
"I'm just going to have to grind and try to catch one of those good ones that can really set you apart from the competition. I'm looking forward to it in a weird kind of way."
"It's a little bit tougher than I thought it would be. I thought it was getting better and better and it was decent in last year's Open, but one thing is the water's lower than it's been in years past. I think these fish like it better when the water's high.
"I haven't been able to figure out the 2- to 3-pounders with any consistency. I've caught some keepers, but it's not like it's been totally easy to catch those, either. Last year you could go around and catch those fairly easily.
"What you want to do is have one area that you're confident about fish being in and then spend all day there. I don't feel like I've found that yet."
"It's a lot different than last time and it's frustrating at that. You're around some of the best water there is, but you can't fish in Louisiana waters and that makes things pretty tight. It's fishing very small.
"It's weird to go down a river and see everybody fishing the same side of it, but it is what it is and we're just going to have to deal with it. The fact that it's a 12-inch limit is a positive, I guess. I haven't seen any quality fish and I don't think too many guys have seen any over a pound and a half or 2 pounds. We're dealing with a very tough fishery right now and that's to be expected.
"The bottom line is that somebody's going to win this event and it doesn't matter what the final weight is, as long as you've got enough at the end. Despite the fishing conditions, we're going to eat plenty of crawfish and have a good time with the people of Orange."
"Not being able to fish in Louisiana is a killer – it really minimizes the amount of fishable water. We're fishing a small, small portion and you can almost break it down into acres.
"I've caught a few keepers, but the biggest one I've put on the scale weighed 1.34 pounds. I haven't heard of anything much bigger than that. You have to just put your head down knowing that if you catch five 1 1/4-pound fish, you might get paid."
Angler of the Year leader Brent Chapman found some decent fish in practice, but he's concerned about having to share them.
"I think it's fishing about the same as before, but because of the 12-inch size limit, it's fishing better. The cut weight is going to go out and you're still going to need 14-plus-inchers to do well. Instead of guys having three fish for 6 pounds they'll have five for 8 1/2 pounds and that'll take the cut weight from 12 pounds (over 2 days) to 16 or 17.
"I think it'll be won in Taylor's again because the biggest concentration of (Florida-strain largemouths) are in there. I hooked one good on Tuesday, I don't know if it was a mudfish or a bass, but I saw the shadow and it was 6 or 7 pounds."
Top 10 to Watch
Here, in no particular order, are BassFan's recommendations for the top 10 to watch in this event.
1. Brent Chapman – The Angler of the Year leader is having a tremendous season, with three top-20s and a 29th in four events, and he's a superb shallow-water tactician. Look for his roll to continue.
2. Dean Rojas – There will be some fish that are susceptible to a well-placed, properly maneuvered frog imitation and he's as good as there is in that department. He's looking to get back on track after a mediocre finish and a bomb in his last two outings in the wake of a strong start to the season.
3. Todd Faircloth – This is his neck of the woods, he's won here before and the setup suits his style. At No. 48 in the points, he needs a strong mid-season finish as a foundation for the Northern swing.
4. Takahiro Omori – If not for a stinker at Kentucky Lake a month ago, he'd be dueling Chapman for the points leadership. The Sabine is a much better fit for his bank-beating tendencies and it'd be no surprise if he's in contention for his second win of the season.
5. Bill Lowen – With just one 50-cut through the first four events, he's had a difficult first half of the season and could be in danger of missing his second straight Classic. He excels on river systems, though, and could easily get things turned around this week.
6. Jared Lintner – He's a guy who rides momentum, whether it's good or bad, and it's really good at the moment. Flipping is his forté and he'll be able to do that all week.
7. Greg Hackney – This scenario is pretty much ideal for his skinny-water skill set. He's notched a win in each of the last two even-numbered seasons (2016 at Texoma, 2014 at Cayuga) and this seems like a good place for him to keep that streak going.
8. Stephen Browning – He's a true river rat who relishes the opportunity to compete in warm, shallow water. His season has been pretty lackluster to date and this is a good chance to make a big forward leap in the points standings.
9. Gerald Swindle – He's fished pretty well since a bomb in the season opener at Lake Martin, but hasn't come close to a top-12 showing in four outings. Junk-fishing is his game and he'll get to play it throughout the event.
10. Jason Christie – He's become a default pick in this space for seemingly every tournament and he rarely disappoints (he has three top-10s in four tries this season). Nothing suggests he won't be right there again.
Anglers will launch at 6:05 a.m. CT each day from City of Orange Boat Ramp. Weigh-ins will take place at the same location beginning at 3 p.m.
> Thurs., June 7 – Partly Cloudy - 90°/72°
- Wind: From the SSE at 7 mph
> Fri., June 8 – Mostly Sunny - 91°/72°
- Wind: From the S at 7 mph
> Sat., June 9 – Sunny - 90°/73°
- Wind: From the S at 10 mph
> Sun., June 10 – P.M. T-storms - 89°/74°
- Wind: From the SSW at 9 mph