By Bernie Schultz
Toledo Bend is one of the best lakes in the country, yet every time B.A.S.S. holds an event there I somehow miss out on the action.
Featuring more than 185,000 surface acres, the Texas-Louisiana border lake provides ideal habitat for growing big bass … and lots of them! Depending on the water level, the winning fish may be found deep or shallow — perhaps even both.
That was the situation going into this year’s event.
With the lake at full pool, shoreline cover was abundant, yet many of the lake’s bigger fish were already moving deep. Knowing this, I still felt my chances were stronger on the bank.
Off To a Bad Start
Ahead of the event, I made a stop in Alabama to do some saltwater fishing with a sponsor. It was a nice break and the fishing was good, but somehow I contracted food poisoning and was forced to lay up for a couple of days.
At one point it was so bad, I thought I might have to withdraw from the tournament. Eventually things improved and I was able to finish the drive to Louisiana.
Arriving in the afternoon on Monday — our first day of practice — I launched north of the Pendleton Bridge to scout a couple of creeks on the Louisiana side. The time passed quickly and though I caught plenty of fish, none were of the size needed to be competitive.
At sunset, I met up with fellow Florida pro Cliff Prince and followed him to the home of John and Kelly Girouard — our gracious hosts for the week. The Girouard’s lakeside place was a welcome sight. Situated on the shores of Lanan Creek, it was the perfect setup. I immediately felt right at home.
Early the next morning, Cliff and I drove south to an area known as the Indian Mounds. Adjacent to the boat ramp were mats of floating vegetation — a mixture of thick hay-like grass with salvinia (a large form of duckweed). Combined, they formed a dense canopy in 4 to 6 feet of water.
I immediately broke out two punching rigs: One set up with 30-pound Sufix 832 braid, a 3/4-ounce VMC tungsten flipping weight and 2/0 VMC wide-gap flipping hook, dressed with a Yamamoto Fat Baby Craw. The other was a similar setup, but featured heavier 65-pound braid, 1 ¼ -ounce weight with punch skirt and Yamamoto Flappin’ Hog. Both baits were green-pumpkin in color.
My plan was to alternate the two depending on the thickness of the cover.
Just as I began flipping the mats, a massive school of bass erupted in the middle of the cove. Quickly, I picked up a Rapala SkitterPop and fired it in their direction. After boating numerous fish, I realized most were non-keepers … so I went back to flipping the mats.
I had a number of bites in one key stretch. Some felt heavy, but with so many boats in the area, I was afraid to set the hook on any of them.
Sometime later, Cliff emerged from the back of the cove, reporting that he, too, had had a good number of flipping bites. From that point on, I decided to spend the rest of the day looking for more matted vegetation.
At the mouth of Six Mile Creek, I found several pockets lined with the right mix of cover. Farther south, I found more in the back of Mill Creek. By day’s end, I had marked more than a mile of productive shoreline on my Raymarine GPS.
That night, while having dinner at the Girouard’s, I shared my findings with Cliff. He reported similar success, and that he had also found some deeper fish off points. I told him I’d give that a try, but that I planned to fish a popper most of the next morning.
When daybreak came, I headed south on the Louisiana side, hoping to find some easy topwater fish. In several places I connected, but there was no rhyme or reason — just scattered, isolated bites.
Once the sun got up, I ignored Cliff’s recommendation and resumed the search for matted cover. By 3pm, it was time to go to registration. At that point, I felt flipping would be my best chance for success.
The first morning of competition, I raced to the schoolies at the Indian Mounds. My hope was to put a quick limit in the boat, then commit to flipping the rest of the day.
When I arrived, the wind was blowing directly into the cove. As a result, there was no surface activity. Seeing that, I switched to a Carolina rig to probe bottom. Within an hour I pulled three keepers aboard, but they were all around two pounds so I decided to break out the long rods.
Soon, I discovered the flipping bite had changed as well. It took some time, but I eventually caught a fourth fish — another 2-pound keeper. I remained hopeful the bite would improve as the sun got higher.
By early afternoon I had worked my way south to Mill Creek, and on one particular stretch, I got several critical bites. Unfortunately, most of the fish tangled themselves so deep in the grass there was no way to get them out. The stuff was like hemp — gnarly and unbreakable.
One after another, each good fish tore free. I remember telling my Marshal the tournament was getting away from me.
Finally, around 2:30, I caught a 4-pounder. But it was too little too late. At weigh-in, I learned my 10-pound limit was well shy of the cut. Day 2 would have to be much stronger if I was to make it through to the weekend.
Back at the house, the Girouard’s had prepared another outstanding meal; smoked venison with mashed potatoes and gravy with fresh veggies. It was the highlight of my day.
During dinner, Cliff shared how poor his day had also been. I guess the saying “misery loves company” holds true — hearing his frustrations seemed to soften mine. We laughed it off, challenged each other to do better, then called it a night.
One Last Shot
The next morning, I skipped the schoolies and made a stop on a seawall where I’d caught a nice topwater fish in practice. Paralleling the bank, I made long casts snug to the wall. Nothing bit.
From there, I moved to a stretch of riprap. Still nothing.
By that time, the wind was beginning to howl. I told my Marshal we were flipping the rest of the day … do or die.
I raced to a brushy bank in the back of Lowe’s Creek — a spot where I’d had a few bites in practice — and in minutes, I put two keepers in the boat. Knowing I needed bigger fish, I ran back to the best mats I knew of.
The hours passed quickly, and I got a few good bites, but like the day before, every quality fish seemed to tear free. It was an exercise in futility, and by day’s end I had only three fish to show for my efforts.
When I reached check-in, there was a large crowd of spectators lining the seawall. Embarrassed, I bagged my fish and headed for the weigh-in line. When it was all said and done I had sunk so far in the standings, few were below me.
After pulling the boat out, I met up with Cliff and the Girouard’s at the Power-Pole dinner. Each time we go to Toledo Bend, famous Cajun, Tony Chachere prepares a crawfish feast for the anglers and sponsors, and it’s always outstanding. It was a relaxing time, and it helped put the day’s frustrations behind me.
Looking back, I was the source of my own undoing. After finding a quality flipping bite, I put the blinders on — essentially discounting any other potential patterns. My focus was so narrow, I even missed the flipping bite in the cypress trees. The mats totally consumed me. Unfortunately, they were so thick and gnarly, the fish had the advantage.
It was a hard lesson to learn, but at least I know what to avoid next time we visit Toledo Bend.