By Todd Ceisner
The last time Lake Fork hosted a major bass fishing tournament in 2015, it took more than 89 pounds to win a three-day event. The year before that, the winning total was an eye-popping 110 pounds, again for three days.
As the famed northeast Texas reservoir, which was built to be a destination bass fishery, takes its latest turn in the tournament spotlight this week as it hosts the latest edition of Bassmaster’s Toyota Texas Fest, the question on the minds of BassFans seems to be: How high will the weights go this time with four days of competition on the docket?
There’s really no telling.
The format this week will follow that of previous Texas Fest events and Toyota Texas Bass Classics. Anglers will be accompanied by marshals, who will weigh each fish on the water so the fish can be immediately released. Daily totals will be determined by the cumulative weight of an angler’s five heaviest bass. If a bass measures longer than 24 inches, an angler is permitted to keep it to show off on stage at the daily weigh-in.
While the potential for prodigious weights and gargantuan fish exists at Fork – it is home to more than half of the bass entered into the state’s gold standard ShareLunker Program as well as the current state record – the weather, at least during the first couple days of competition, will be a major factor.
Thunderstorms, some of the severe variety, are headed toward Fork tonight and some estimates are calling for more than two inches of rain to fall by Friday evening. That could force some to alter their plans on the fly while others could reap the benefits.
There are 11 anglers in the field this week with previous TTBC experience at Fork from either 2014 or 2015. Among them is Keith Combs, who put up video game-like numbers in winning the 2014 event with 110 pounds. His daily average was 36.67 pounds and his average fish that week weighed more than seven pounds.
While Fork is not known as a great lake to catch a lot of fish, its allure comes from the knowledge that the next cast could result in the biggest bass of someone’s life. Clent Davis said he caught what he estimated to be a 12-pounder on Tuesday, but couldn’t weigh it or photograph it since other competitors were within view at the time. He said it was easily the biggest bass he’d ever caught. Jamie Hartman said he caught just three fish on Monday and only two were keepers, but one weighed in excess of nine pounds.
Mark Pack, a former tour pro and longtime guide at Lake Fork who averages six days a week on the water, said a guide client from Colorado caught five double-digit bass in a three-day span a couple weeks ago.
“We’ve been catching big ones in the muddier water,” Pack said. “A 40- to 45-pound bag is possible if you hit the right spot. The key is duplicating that every day.”
Pack said the lake has seen four straight years of solid recruitment, meaning the fishery should be in great shape for years to come.
“We’ve had great spawns the last four years and those fish that hatched four years ago, some are hitting seven pounds already,” he said. “This lake is loaded with 7- to 10-pounders right now.”
Before getting into more about the bite, here's the lowdown on the lake itself.
BassFan Lake Profile
> Lake name: Lake Fork Reservoir
> Type of water: Manmade impoundment of a tributary of the Sabine River
> Surface acres: 27,600
> Primary structure/cover: Plentiful standing and submerged timber, stumps, hydrilla, milfoil, duckweed, ledges, docks, brush piles
> Primary forage: Shad, crappie, bluegill, crawfish
> Average depth: 12 to 15 feet
> Species: Largemouth
> Minimum length: Typically, a slot limit protects bass between 16 and 24 inches at Fork, but since this is a catch-weigh-release format event, the slot limit won’t be in effect
> Reputation: It was built to be a premier fishery and it’s annually considered a top bass fishing destination capable of producing double-digit bass on just about any cast
> Weather: Heavy rains moved in Wednesday and thunderstorms are in the forecast for Thursday and Friday. Conditions are expected to improve for the final two days
> Water temp: Mid 60s to mid 70s depending on location
> Water visibility/color: The wet winter has put a good amount of stain in the whole lake while there are places that are pretty dirty to muddy
> Water level: It’s been up and down with the rainy spring, but it’s currently dropping toward full pool; could rise again with coming rains
> Fish in: Various depths
> Fish phase: Mostly post-spawn, some late spawners
> Primary patterns: Cranking, flipping, frogging, big worms, swimbaits
> Winning weight: 115 pounds (4 days)
> Cut weight (Top 35 after 2 days): 34 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 3
> Biggest factors: Weather. How much rain falls and how much the water level rises and how’s it managed will have a big impact on the fishing
> Biggest decision: How long before bolting for another area? Some creeks require long idle times with all the timber so time management will be crucial.
> Wildcard: Big bites. Plenty of 6- to 8-pounders will be caught, but will anyone tangle with a double-digit brute this week?
Here's a look at how Forks lays out, courtesy of Navionics:
Pack said he believes the majority of fish (“80 percent”) have spawned and are in the process of heading to their offshore haunts. Others have said there’s a slew of fish crowding the bank.
“They haven’t gone deep yet,” Pack added.
There are fish to be caught in the morning this week around areas where shad are spawning – Pack said the main lake water temperature has reached 70 degrees, which is a trigger for shad to begin spawning – but how long those episodes last is anyone’s guess. Plus, with the field blasting off at 7 a.m., chances are a bulk of the feeding activity could be over by the time the field leaves the dock.
Pack said how the Sabine River Authority, which controls the water levels at Fork, reacts to this week’s rainfall could go a long way in determining how the fishing plays out during the tournament.
“The fishing is really good when it’s on the rise, but when the (flood) gates are open it’s real, real tough,” Pack said. “Sometimes they’ll pull it (down) before it rains.
“These are some of the moodiest fish on this lake being that they’re Florida-strains. When the water starts pulling, it shuts them off.”
Despite the water being dirtier than usual, big fish are still being caught with regularity at Lake Fork.
According to current water level data, it appears as though the SRA is releasing water in advance of the coming storms.
That means a multi-pronged approach could be required to do well this week. Surely, some will focus only in the shallows in the hope to escape with a decent finish, but to contend for a win it’ll take a combination of patterns.
“A guy who can change with conditions can do well,” Pack said.
To do that at a stump- and tree-infested place like Fork requires at least a modicum of experience navigating the lake in addition to knowing what changes to make given the conditions. One competitor who fits that description and will garner plenty of attention as a “local favorite” is Lee Livesay, an Elite Series rookie who’s 14th in Angler of the Year points after four tournaments. Pack says Livesay will have an advantage based on his history on the lake, but Fork can make a hero out of just about anybody.
“Anybody can pull up on a spot at the right time and catch ‘em,” he said.
Notes from the Field
Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll be competing this week.
“I came here a couple years ago for a sponsor deal, but it’s different now. The last time I was here, the fish were starting to show up offshore. I haven’t even looked offshore this go-around. The way I feel right now is the last wave of fish is up shallow. I wouldn’t even call them stragglers because there are that many up there.
“I’m just trying to catch enough to do well and get out of here with some points and a decent check. I’m sure there will be several in the top 10 who fish shallow, whether it’s a shad spawn or just fishing the bank.
“I’ve caught some 6s and 7s, but nothing bigger than that. I’m going to fish the way I’m comfortable. Not that I don’t like fishing offshore, but I like to frog and flip and junk-fish, and it’s one of those times of year where junk-fishing works best. You can go a long time between bites here, so knowing when to stay and go will be a big key. I’m not like Livesay – I don’t know all the points with hard spots – so I’ll be putting my head down and catch all I can catch.”
“It hasn’t been what I was hoping for. Fish will get caught, but it’s always different than what you think it’ll be. I’ve caught some nice ones and there’s a good bite in the morning. After that it gets hard. There are also some good fish up shallow, but they’re not easy to catch.
“I haven’t looked a ton at offshore stuff because I feel like there’s enough fish up shallow to do well. You might not win that way, but you can have a fun tournament. I found a few things with fish mixed in off the bank, too. That shad spawn is critical because you can catch ‘em quick. I’m just not sure how long it lasts like that.”
“We’re supposed to get a lot of rain and that could make the shallow bite better if the water comes up. It’s exciting when you know you could catch a 10 or 12 on your next cast. That’s a cool feeling.”
“It’s the in-between time, but we’re still going to catch ‘em Thursday. I caught the biggest bass of my life Tuesday and that gave me confidence in a place, but I never got another bite after that.
“It’s similar to this time of year on the Tennessee River – if you know it well, you can do well on big ones, but there’s not a lot to run to out there yet. I’m going to bear down on a couple deals and hope to catch enough not to finish last. So far, my best tournaments have come after my worst practices and I feel like I have had a terrible practice aside for one magical bass.”
“I need about another week and a half. There’s a lot to look at. It’s been tough. I had a decent morning Tuesday, but the whole afternoon was a struggle. It’s the phase they’re in. It’s hard to blame it on the higher water, but that hasn’t allowed them to pull offshore real good. Most of the water is murky and some is very dirty. Even the main lake toward the dam has a lot of color to it.
“It’s just a survival-mode tournament for me. Catching five a day I’ll be alright with. I just really don’t get it. I spent seven days down here to pre-practice and learned it well and had a lot of expectations. I’ve gone to spots that they should be just coming to first after spawning and can’t get a bite.”
A Few to Keep an Eye On
With the above in mind and more, here are a few anglers BassFan thinks stand a chance to fare well in this event.
> Keith Combs – One of two guys in this week’s field able to claim he’s cracked 100 pounds in a tournament at Lake Fork (Stetson Blaylock is the other). After two mid-pack finishes in South Carolina, he’s back in his comfort zone in Texas.
> Lee Livesay – Speaking of comfort zones, Livesay is off to a great start with three top-20 finishes so far. Most are penciling him for at least that this week at his home lake.
> Ray Hanselman – It’s Texas, so any time Hanselman is competing, consider him a factor. He’s made three cuts this year, but has yet to finish higher than 25th.
> Jason Williamson – Has built a big-fish reputation over his career and is coming off a solid two-week run in his home state (21st at Hartwell, 4th at Winyah Bay). He’s in decent shape points-wise, so he could afford to take a risk or two this week.
> Clark Wendlandt – Another Texan who won’t be intimidated by what Fork throws at him. He’s been in a rut since a top-15 finish at the St. Johns River so he’s due to put himself in contention.
> Anglers will launch at 7 a.m. CST all four days (Thursday, Friday, Sunday and Monday) at the Sabine River Authority (353 PR 5183, Quitman, TX). Weigh-ins, starting at 4 p.m. each day, along with a fan expo (Saturday and Sunday) will be held at the same site.
> Thurs., May 2 – Thunderstorms - 72°/64°
- Wind: From the SE at 10 to 15 mph
> Fri., May 3 – Thunderstorms - 77°/63°
- Wind: From the SE at 5 to 10 mph
> Sun., May 5 – Partly Cloudy - 82°/65°
- Wind: Light and variable
> Mon., May 6 – Partly Sunny - 84°/68°
- Wind: From the SSE at 5 to 10 mph