By Bernie Schultz
When B.A.S.S. announced Lake Fork as site of this year’s Texas Fest, every angler in the field immediately thought of big bass. Because of good management and strict catch-and-release regulations, trophy bass are abundant on Lake Fork, and this year’s event certainly proved it.
Lake Fork covers nearly 28,000 surface acres, which is small in comparison to most other Elite Series venues. But with so many fish and only 75 competitors dividing its waters, there was plenty to go around.
My basecamp was Gary Yamamoto’s Sugoi Lakes Lodge in Mineola, just 20 minutes from the lake. There with me were Elite Series pros Cliff Prince, Jay Yelas, Brandon Card, Chad Pipkens and Yusuke Miyasaki.
Having good company with quality lodging secured, I was able to focus on the competition ahead.
On day 1 of practice, I started at the dam — rotating through a range of lures that included topwaters, jerkbaits and crankbaits. I worked my way steadily along the dam wall but after an hour of no action, I moved to the first main lake point. There, I discovered bass schooling on spawning shad.
When the sun got higher and the shad spawn stopped, I relocated to a nearby creek to look for bedding bass. That’s when I discovered quality fish in various stages of the spawn — some cruising, some locked down on nests and others guarding fry. I was surprised to see so many quality fish in the shallows.
As the day progressed, I scouted other creeks — marking fish and/or beds with my GPS, building confidence with each new coordinate logged.
On day 2, I arrived super early to take full advantage of the shad spawn. Again, I found bass actively feeding on shad. When the sun got high and the action slowed, I backed out, trying to locate where the schoolers might reposition. And though I could see them clearly on my Garmin Panoptix, I couldn’t make them bite. It was as if they were done feeding for the day.
Discouraged, I moved back to the bank and searched for more bedding fish.
On day 3, I resumed the shad-spawn pattern early and found several more spots. However, by that time, I could see that others were figuring it out. Not only my competitors, but weekenders, too. Getting any of the better locations to myself during the competition was becoming a concern.
With that in the back of my mind, I finished the day probing some deeper spots then headed to the lodge to prep my boat and tackle for the battle ahead.
Drawing out in the middle of the take-off order, I knew I’d be lucky to get a good starting spot to myself. There were only so many good places with bass feeding on spawning shad and with half the field out ahead of me, it seemed futile. But when my number was finally called, I found a nearby point unattended.
Once in position, I could see swarms of shad flickering as they pushed shallow against the bank. My first cast with a swim jig yielded a 14-inch keeper. After my official weighed and recorded the fish, I quickly released it and fired a cast back into the school. (Texas Fest rules require legal-size fish to be weighed and verified by an onboard official, then immediately released. The only exception is for a single trophy fish over the 24-inch slot limit. That fish can be brought to the stage and later released.)
The next cast I hooked up with a 4-pounder, but halfway to the boat, the fish pulled off. Minutes later, I hooked one over six. But it, too, managed to throw the hook.
Beside myself, I kept casting, eventually boating a couple of other keepers. Then the bite ended.
I had missed my two best fish within minutes of each other. Two that would have weighed a combined 10 pounds. I was crushed, and the sun wasn’t even above the tree line yet. Gathering myself, I moved to a nearby creek, hoping to catch some bedding fish.
Working through my recorded GPS numbers, I began finding empty beds. Wondering if they had been caught or possibly abandoned the spawn, I eventually ran into a 4-pound male guarding fry. I teased the fish with a number of presentations but it wouldn’t react. As a last resort, I pulled out a drop-shot rigged with a 3-inch, green pumpkin Senko. The fish bit instantly, then entangled itself in a submerged brushpile. Trying to work it free, my line eventually broke.
Again, I had lost a quality fish.
Two hours later — in a different creek — I finally started putting things together.
My first quality fish was five pounds. Soon after, I put several 3-pounders in the boat — all falling for the drop-shot Senko. By days end, I had a total of 15 pounds. Not a bad start on most lakes but on Fork, it was meager.
Thinking back on what might have been, I pulled my rig back to Sugoi Lakes to regroup. That night, heavy storms canvased the area. The lake was on the rise and I knew sight-fishing would become a challenge.
The next morning, I searched for bass feeding on shad but never scored. With another band of showers approaching, I picked up a white bladed jig dressed with a Swimming Zako and concentrated my casts on key bedding areas.
It worked! During the hour-long rain shower, I boated a 5-pounder with several fat twos. Around 1pm, the clouds began to part and sight-fishing was, once again, an option.
I raced to a creek I had found during the last day of practice — a spot that held numerous quality bedders. At the first coordinate I found a solid fish, but in a precarious position. It was bedding on the shallow side of a submerged gate and fencerow. The fence was laced with barbed wire.
What I assumed was a large male, kept circling its bed, chasing off bream and other intruders. With the boat in the best possible position, I dropped the Power-Poles and pitched a Wackly-rigged, 5-inch Senko over the fence to the far side of the bed. The fish took it immediately, but when I set the hook, it pulled free.
Nearly an hour later, I finally got the fish to bite a second time. Once the hook was set, I fumbled trying to get the boat against the fence line. I wanted to keep the fish from entangling itself in barbed wire. Just as I brought the boat against a gate, I watched as the fish swam through it for open water.
My heart sank.
Dropping to my knees, I held the gate with one hand while reaching for the line with the other. Just then, I saw the fish swim back through the gate — through the very same opening. As if a miracle, the big bass surfaced within reach and I quickly grabbed it by the lower jaw. To my amazement, the fish was nearly double the size I expected.
Once on the scale, it weighed 7½ pounds. A couple of photographs and high-fives later, I released her back into the lake knowing then that I would advance to compete on the weekend.
After the Cut
On day 3, I tried the shad spawn pattern once more. But after running a number of points, I had only two small keepers to show for the effort. I tried backing out and fishing deeper, but that yielded nothing. Frustrated with that, I moved to the same bedding area where I caught the 7-pounder the day before.
Visibility wasn’t great, but I could still see well enough to work some individual fish. Most were now guarding fry — anxious and continually moving. After hours of pounding on them, I managed to fool a 4-pounder and one just over three. By day’s end, I had put together a 13-pound limit. It wasn’t the weight I hoped for, but I did my best.
Back at the scales, I learned the bite was much better than I thought. Most of the guys had weights in the upper teens to mid-twenties. I lost ground on the leader board, but not in the Angler of the Year standings. That remained the same.
Texas Fest was a success, but looking back on all the missed opportunities, I can’t help but feel dejected. The season is passing by and I’m still outside the cut for the AOY Championship. I hope things turn for the better, and soon.