By Todd Ceisner
BassFan Editor

Justin Atkins is really anxious to make a competitive cast at Lake Conroe, site of the second Bass Pro Tour event, which kicks off Tuesday and concludes Sunday. You would be, too, if you spent roughly two weeks riding around on a lake, but were unable to fish at all.

Atkins’ first introduction to Conroe was in December 2016 as part of a survey crew Humminbird dispatched to the lake in advance of the 2017 Bassmaster Classic. Back and forth he went across the lake – eight hours a day for 12 straight days – helping gather more detailed contour data that was then incorporated into an updated Lakemaster map.

He never made a single cast.

“I may not know how to catch one, but I know how to get around there,” said Atkins, who is looking to bounce back from a disappointing showing (76th) at the Kissimmee Chain of Lake two weeks ago. “When you ride around day after day, you see a lot of things and pick up on a lot of things.”

He’s hoping to cash in on what he remembers and that it coincides with finding some productive areas, something that proved troublesome two weeks ago. Prior to the Bass Pro T opener, he’d never made a cast at the Kissimmee Chain either. Couple that with the event serving as his introduction to MLF’s catch-weigh-release format and the less-than-ideal conditions in practice, it was an uphill battle considering many in the field had plenty of history at the fishery.

“Randy Howell told the story about where he caught them on day 1 was a place he’d fished nearly 20 years ago,” Atkins said. “I was in second grade back then. It’s not an excuse, but my practice was horrible and I was behind the 8-ball. It was cold, rainy and windy – not the conditions you want when trying to find something in Florida. The guys who caught them found them during the tournament. I just didn’t do that.”

He said adjusting to the ScoreTracker certainly played a role in his Shotgun Round struggles (two fish, 2-14).

“It was definitely different,” he said. “Knowing what everybody is catching plays on your mind. I felt like I had it under control on day 2, but on day 1 it didn’t take long to spin me out. As far as the format, I really liked it. It’s different. For 20 years, I’ve caught the best five I could weigh in. That will always have a place for me, but this format is cool. Every bite matters. If you miss one in a regular tournament, it’s maybe not a big deal, but here, it could be a big deal. I’m just looking forward to starting on a fresh note.”

The same goes for Kevin VanDam, who comes to Conroe after an uncharacteristically poor showing (70th) in Florida. He tried to get dialed in on the offshore fish, but never collided with a big group like a few other competitors did.

“I tried to fish a little of everything,” he said. “I just never had a lot of bites. I struggled with execution, too. It’s hard to force them into biting a moving bait. They weren’t aggressive and I missed a lot. Day 2 was pretty frustrating because I ran to Kissimmee and within five casts, I lost a 5-pounder. I had eight on that day and landed one. It was one of those deals.”

He scrambled later in the day in hopes of mounting a rally, but wound up with just one fish on his scorecard.

“I knew where I was at toward the end of the day,” he said. “I had to find something and I tried to fish offshore. I didn’t fish for bites to move up a little. I fished like I thought I could to make a comeback.”

Conroe will require a bit different mindset compared to what worked at the Kissimmee Chain.

“Targeting numbers or thinking you’re going to catch a bunch doesn’t always work out,” VanDam added. “I think just as many guys whose strategy was to fish for quality bites did well, but this isn’t the type of fishery that’s conducive to hitting a school. The biggest thing you have to do is fish your strengths and style. Because it’s a different format you might think you have to change styles, but as we saw last week that is not the case. I’m going to fish my style and what I have confidence in. It’s worked for 28 years so I’m not going to change.”

VanDam believes those with experience at the heavily-developed lake will have an upper hand in the early rounds because of the amount of “dead water” throughout the lake. He’s competed in four Toyota Texas Bass Classics and the 2017 Bassmaster Classic at Conroe.

“Maybe some of us overthought the whole thing (in Florida), but I won’t make the same mistake at Conroe,” he said.

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

Brent Ehrler wouldn't mind finding a few fish similar to the 9-12 he caught on day 1 of the 2017 Bassmaster Classic at Lake Conroe.

Conroe is one of 10 lakes in Texas that’s produced at least 10 registered ShareLunkers (any bass over 8 pounds and 24 inches) since the tracking program began in 1986. The two biggest bass in MLF competition were recorded at the season opener and VanDam thinks that record will be in jeopardy again.

“I will be surprised if we don’t see a 10-punder caught,” he said. “One of those goes a long way.”

Just ask Brent Ehrler.

The California pro has made a habit out of catching giants when competing in Texas. In 2015, he caught a 10-11 en route to winning the Toyota Texas Bass Classic at Lake Fork. Two years later, he caught a 9-12 on day 1 of the Bassmaster Classic at Conroe and held the lead entering the final day before Jordan Lee mounted a historic comeback to capture the win. Later in the 2017 season, Ehrler caught a 9-01 at Sam Rayburn Reservoir Texas Fest to claim big-bass honors a new a Toyota Tundra.

Big fish aside, Ehrler has a bit of a score to settle with Conroe after his bitter loss to Lee in ’17. He said he has mixed emotions even at the mention of the lake now.

“I have fished a couple tournaments here now and didn’t like the outcome of the last one,” he said. “It doesn’t give me a warm, fuzzy feeling to come back here.”

He said he’s done replaying the final day of that tournament in his mind and hopes to write a new, successful chapter this week.

“Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t catch ‘em on the last day, but I had the bites to win over the course of days 2 and 3,” he said. “I lost fish that cost me that win. This week is just another tournament on the calendar right now.”

Like VanDam, he believes big fish will play a key role this week while the quantity of fish caught will be less than what was seen in Florida.

“I think there’s a chance a 10 or 12 will be caught, but the number of fish is going to be half of what it was at Toho,” he added.

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
> Size requirements: 1-pound minimum
> Reputation: Heavily-pressured lake with potential for big fish; one of the better lakes in Texas, but not among the elite
> Weather: Cold front to start the derby, then warming before another front arrives on the weekend. Cloudy all week.
> Water temp: Mid to upper 50s
> Water visibility/color: Naturally off colored
> Water level: Normal
> Fish in: Most depths
> Fish phase: Mostly pre-spawn
> Primary patterns: Jigs, spinnerbaits, crankbaits, worms, bladed jigs
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 2 for Conroe
> Biggest factors: How the cold, colored water will impact the bite
> Biggest decision: When to pick up and move
> Wildcard: A deeper-water hotspot where fish are grouped up

Below is a closer look at Conroe, thanks to the Navionics web app:

Be Prepared for Change

A lot has happened at Conroe since the last time many of the BPT anglers saw it during the 2017 Bassmaster Classic. Later that year, Hurricane Harvey slammed into Texas’ Gulf Coast and brought catastrophic flooding to the Houston metropolitan area and southeast Texas. The area around Conroe was not spared as the lake rose to record levels and releases through the Conroe Dam were more than double the previous record.

In the wake of Harvey, the West Fork of the San Jacinto River was overrun with silt deposits and a major dredging operation was needed to restore the river’s capacity. State and local officials developed a temporary flood mitigation plan that allowed for the dredging and also called for seasonal drawdowns at Conroe. While the lake is currently at its normal level (201 feet), a cooler than normal winter has the bass a little behind schedule, according to Bassmaster Opens angler Billy Smith Jr., who has lived on Conroe for the last 10 years.

“It can create a pattern change when the lake comes down,” Smith said, “or they want to move up with water or pull out with a drawdown. We have had cooler temps than normal so they might not know what to do. We’re supposed to have another front in time for the tournament, too.”

Major League Fishing
Photo: Major League Fishing

Aaron Martens will be part of Group A that will get first shot at Lake Conroe on Tuesday.

Still, he believes conditions will stabilize enough through the week to allow Conroe’s big-fish reputation to shine through.

“The fish are getting close (to spawning),” he said. “There have been two fish over 12 pounds caught in the last two weeks and a 13 was caught and released.”

Smith said he enjoys the challenge that Conroe presents to anglers. Since it’s void of most grasses, locating a concentration of fish can be a chore at times, not to mention it’s a hot spot for recreational boaters.

“There are so many elements you’re competing against,” Smith said. “Not only the fish, but lake is known as a recreation lake and there’s never been any good natural vegetation, so that adds to the difficulty. You have to fish for them. You can’t go to the grass beds or timber like other Texas lakes.”

What wood is in the water will get plenty of attention this week, though, between all the docks and seawalls on the lower and middle sections to the flooded brush and bushes up north, especially above the Baker Bridge (Highway 1375).

“The fish are on the move and guys are going to have fish in various places,” he said. “You’ll have them offshore and pre-spawn for sure, and actually some up shallow. I’d be willing to bet we see some in each phase in the spawn.”

He cited air temperatures in the 90s within the last week getting that activity going and overnights in the 30s contributing to a slowdown.

If he were prepping for a tournament at Conroe this week, Smith said he’d seek out some “middle ground,” an area where fish are coming to and leaving from as part of their seasonal journey.

“The conditions are changing and the fish are not sure where they want to go with the weather,” he said. “The guy who wins will focus on fish coming and going. You’re going to have to change as they look to change.”

Field Notes

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

Aaron Martens (Group A)
“It seems like they bite when you get around them. I know how to get bites, but it’s been a couple days of cold fronts. I’ve searched and searched and then I gave up. Some people always find a little wad of them, but it’s never me. Hopefully, with the water changing and new water coming in it will concentrate them.

“I’d say they’re still early pre-spawn and we’re a ways off from the first spawn. This is a funky time of year when they go from one thing to another. You’re going to have to trash-fish and do everything, in and out. The problem is I’ve been here so many times and I still don’t know it that well. I can’t get a guesstimate of how many fish are in this lake. I’ve caught 50 in a day before, but I haven’t seen that in a few years. I’ll take Group A on this place. The easy to catch fish are going to vanish tomorrow with the 40 guys out there.”

Cody Meyer (Group B)
“It’s been pretty tough. They’ll still get caught, though. Any time you have super cold water and it’s muddy, it’s never good. Tomorrow it’s supposed to get windy and then go down into the 30s. It’s just a bad week to be on Conroe.

“I don’t think there will be tons of fish caught, but there are great big ones here. I’m going to fish both shallow and deep. There’s a lot of structure and docks. You’ll be out there and finally get a bite and think this is it, that you’ve figured it out. Then three hours later, you’re like, ‘Nope, that was luck.’”

Stephen Browning (Group B)
“I’ve never been here before, so I had high expectations coming in just from what we’ve heard of it and watching the Classic and knowing we’d be earlier in the year. This place reminds me of places I grew up on in the backwater lakes of south Arkansas, but it’s been really tough to get a bite. When it gets tough like this, I always seem to have a bait that I have confidence in, but I haven’t found that bait yet. I’m just going to mix it up that first day and maybe I have a semi-advantage having not fished here before so I can just sit back and watch ScoreTracker. I think I’ll be more at ease on day 2 versus having to go out there tomorrow.”

James Elam (Group B)
“For the person who does well he’ll have to put himself in the right position and get a sniff of what’s coming and things will develop for him during the tournament. It will be wide open until the last day. It’s just that we got unfortunate in terms of the timing of when we’re here. We’ve got some unlucky weather.

“I don’t know much about water levels here, but it looks like we have some dirty water and it’s not been real easy to pattern or find them. (In the 2017 Classic), I really came to understand this lake and how stingy and tough it can be. It still has some positives, but it has its certain little things and you have to be patient here because it’s not a big numbers place. I’m just happy I’m not in Group A. I don’t feel confident at all, but that doesn’t affect the way I fish. It’s my job and I’ll fish harder because of that.”

Keep an Eye On

Here are a handful of anglers who might fare well considering the way Conroe is setting up this week.

> Kevin VanDam (Group A) – He rarely has two stinkers in a row and the conditions seem to favor his offshore preference.

> Bobby Lane (Group B) – He’s dangerous just about anywhere, but he has top-15 finishes in three of his last four tournaments in Texas, including an 8th at Conroe in ’17. That doesn’t include his MLF World Championship triumph in Nacogdoches, which was filmed in early 2017.

> Jordan Lee (Group B) – Because why not? He returns to the scene of his first Classic triumph on the heels of a win in Florida.

> Aaron Martens (Group A) – Has a few 20s on his Conroe resume and was 37th at the Kissimmee Chain. Hasn’t contended since his win at Lake Champlain in 2017, so he’s about due.

> Brandon Palaniuk (Group A) – Had the above-average fish figured out at the first stop (2.51 pounds-per-fish), just not enough of them. Conroe was not kind to him at the ’17 Classic (49th) so he’ll be another competition with redemption on his mind.

Launch/Weigh-In Info

> Anglers will launch at Lakeview Marina (880 Beach Walk Blvd, Conroe, TX). Following a 30-minute ride-around, lines in (first cast) will be at 8:30 a.m. EST. First period ends at 11 a.m. Second period will be 11:15 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. Third period will be 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.

> The MLF NOW! live stream (10 in-boat cameras) will begin at 11 a.m. EST at and continue until 4:30 p.m. A post-game show will take place from approximately 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. and also be streamed on the MLF website.

Weather Forecast

> Tues., Feb. 12 – Partly Cloudy - 62°/36°
- Wind: From the NNW at 14 mph

> Wed., Feb. 13 – Partly Cloudy - 65°/51°
- Wind: From the SE at 9 mph

> Thurs., Feb. 14 – Mostly Cloudy - 75°/58°
- Wind: From the SSW at 15 mph

> Fri., Feb. 15 – Mix of Sun, Clouds - 72°/44°
- Wind: From the NW at 12 mph

> Sat., Feb. 16 – Mostly Cloudy - 65°/47°
- Wind: From the ESE at 6 mph

> Sun., Feb. 17 – Mostly Cloudy - 66°/51°
- Wind: From the ENE at 9 mph