It seems like it happens every year, usually more than once. A crappie fisherman armed with bantamweight tackle heads out to one of the major bridge crossings at Lake Fork hoping to sack up a few keepers for the freezer, but winds up getting into a nasty scuffle with a heavyweight largemouth bass instead.
Occasionally, somebody gets lucky and wins the mismatch, but most don’t even come close. The normal showdown between a crappie fisherman and a lunker largemouth usually ends almost as quickly as it starts. So fast, in fact, that the angler is usually left with a baffled look on his face as he surveys the damage and scrambles for excuses to nurse a battered ego.
“I hear about it all the time, sometimes on a daily basis,” says Tony Parker, manager of Minnow Bucket Marina. “Crappie fishermen hook a crappie and a big bass swims up there, eats the crappie and breaks their line. It really happens a lot in fall and late spring, when the crappies really stack up around the bridges.”
The correlation between big bass and crappie at Fork has been well advertised, but Parker says for some reason it is not a pattern that a lot of bass anglers have taken to heart.
“Over the years there have been quite a few ShareLunkers caught around the bridges by crappie fishermen,” Parker said. “I tell our bass fishing customers all the time that they should really concentrate on the bridges if they want to catch a big bass, but it seems like most of them had rather do something else. They used to fish grass when we had it. Now, they concentrate more on main lake structure. The bridge/crappie deal is way overlooked.”
As much as big bass like to feast on crappie, they may like to munch on yellow bass (also called bar fish) even more. Native to many riverine reservoirs in eastern Texas, yellow bass are sometimes mistaken for white bass or young striped bass. Distinguishable traits include a yellowish belly, two broken lowermost stripes and second and third anal spines of equal length.
It’s worth noting that adult bar fish don’t grow very large, but make excellent table fare. Adults will average about 6-8 inches long, but fish ranging 10-12 inches have been documented in exceptionally fertile waters such as Sam Rayburn and Toledo Bend.
Like whites and stripers, yellow bass tend to run in large schools. They also tend to congregate around main lake structure such as ridges, points and humps during the fall, winter and summer, often in relation to balls of shad, just like black bass do.
Connecting the Dots
For years, many bass anglers who discovered schools of pint size bar fish would write them off and look elsewhere for bigger largemouths. Some still do, but a few have learned that can be a huge mistake, sort of like looking for greener grass on the opposite side of the fence.
TPWD fisheries biologist Todd Driscoll of Brookeland knows the scenario all too well. Driscoll, also is a marine electronics expert who competes in few bass tournaments on the side. He too, used to consider a big school of yellow bass lighting up his Garmin electronics as nothing more than a grand opportunity to stock a freezer with a bunch of tasty filets.
But times have changed. According to Driscoll, bar fish ring the dinner bell for heavyweight largemouths a lot louder than some anglers might realize. Penetrate the school with a spoon, Carolina rig, crank bait, jig or a big swim bait, and you might just catch one of the biggest fish in the lake.
“I don’t necessarily think you need to mimic a bar fish for it to work,” Driscoll said. “It’s more about getting bait in there amongst them. I’ve caught plenty of good quality fish around bar fish on a big flutter spoon.”
Driscoll began connecting the dots a few years back when he used his electronics to locate schools of what he suspected to be bar fish and white bass hanging tight to deep, main lake structure with no shad around. Interesting to note, he dropped a 3/8-ounce spoon down to verify what he was looking at, he caught a mixture of bar fish, white bass and some good size largemouths.
“After I did that a few times it became pretty apparent to me what was going on,” he said. “Catching a big bass around a school of bar fish isn’t something you can always bank on, but I’ve caught enough bigger bass around them at certain times of the year that I’m convinced there is a dynamic worth paying attention to.
“Think about it. What would you rather do if you were a six or eight-pound bass—chase a bunch of two-inch shad around all day or hunker down in 20 to 30 feet of water and grab a 6- to10-inch bar fish every now and then? Big bass are opportunistic predators, and they love to eat bar fish.”
Veteran Lake Fork guide Lance Vick was quick to agree. Vick, along with a number of other bass guides, enjoyed some outstanding fishing around mega schools of bar fish at Fork until white bass populations exploded in the reservoir roughly five years ago.
“It was pretty much a fall deal, and it was a big time pattern,” Vick said. “It still works, but it’s not near as pronounced as it used to be back in the early 2000s.
Ever since we got the influx of sand bass, those big, beautiful schools of bar fish are pretty much non-existent. It seems like the sand bass have taken over.”
Driscoll says it’s a different story at Toledo Bend and Sam Rayburn. The biologist says both lakes have historically maintained abundant populations of white bass, and still do. In the meantime, yellow bass populations have soared, especially over the last decade or so.
“Those two lakes are growing some big ones, too,” Driscoll said. “On some lakes they don’t get much bigger than five or six inches, but we’re growing some mega yellow bass on Toledo Bend and ‘Rayburn. Fish in the 10-inch range are pretty common. I’ve seen some as big as 12-13 inches.”
Bass anglers aren’t the only ones who have caught on to the bar fish pattern. Custom lure designers have been helping bass anglers “match the hatch” for the last several years with hand-painted crankbaits and spinnerbaits that look remarkably similar to yellow bass.
“Some of the major lure manufacturers have even gotten on board,” said Toledo Bend fishing guide Stephen Johnston. “Strike King is making a 10XD in a bar fish pattern that works great.”
Just ask kayak fisherman Robert Morton of Houston. Last November, Morton was casting a bar fish pattern 10XD around the FM 154 bridge at Lake Fork when he hooked and landed a career best 12.36 pounder.
Big bass love bar fish. No doubt about it.
—story by Matt Williams