T here are a passel of great bass lakes in Texas, but none are ringing the bell with bass fishing buffs these days like Toledo Bend—not even close.
Never mind that Bassmaster Magazine has ranked the big lake along the Texas/Louisiana border the best bass lake in all of America for the last two consecutive years. Fishermen like to see results, and there has been plenty of proof in the puddin’ to illustrate T-Bend’s current stature as Texas’s top-ranked muscle lake.
In May, Michigan bass pro Kevin VanDam caught 20 bass averaging nearly five pounds to win the four-day Bassmaster Elite Series event with 96 pounds, 5 ounces. What made KVD’s 21st career Bassmaster win even more stunning is it came during the post spawn under abnormally high water conditions that had the fish in somewhat of a funk.
Just prior to the tournament, a YouTube video surfaced online. It showed Lane and Hunter Martin of Paulina, Louisiana, boating an army of melon-shaped bass off a single spot. Their heaviest five fish totaled more than 42.97 pounds— a better than eight-pound average.You can see the phenomenal trip unfold at www.youtube.com/watch?v=bBlpKVLOPpM.
That’s remarkable stuff. However, the most impressive evidence of all came in the form of a massive display of trophy bass replicas set up at Cypress Bend Resort. The display was part of the Sealy Outdoors 30th Annual Big Bass Splash held May 20-22.
The replicas—139 of them—represented the final tally of heavyweight bass entered in the 2015-16 Toledo Bend Lunker Program.
Run by the Toledo Bend Lake Association, the program encourages anglers to bring any bass weighing 10 pounds or more to a designated weigh station around the lake. The bass will be weighed on certified scales. If the official weight is 10 pounds or more and the fish is healthy, the angler is eligible for a free fiberglass replica provided the bass is tagged and released alive back into the lake. The program runs for 12 months, beginning and ending in mid-May.
Initiated in 1992 by the Sabine River Authority, the TBLP has since awarded nearly 800 replicas. It also has generated a ton of publicity for the big lake through newspapers, magazines and social media, especially over the last couple of years.
The 2015-16 lunker season rolled to a close on the heels of a second consecutive record-breaking year. According to TBLP figures, 139 bass were officially entered in the program between May 15, 2015 and May 19, 2016—58 fish more than the previous year. Included were 93 fish in the 10 pound class, 31 11 pounders, a dozen 12 pounders, two 13 pounders and a 14.16 pounder that was the biggest fish of the year.
According to data compiled by TBLA president John Toliver, 13 of the fish rank among Top 100 heaviest T-Bend bass ever documented. Toliver added that roughly 70 percent (98) of the 139 entries were turned in by Louisiana anglers and 25 percent (36) by Texas anglers. Out-of-staters accounted for five entries.
Interestingly, Toliver said more than a dozen of the entries turned out to be fish that were caught and turned in by anglers during previous lunker years. One of the bass was caught three different times in the same general vicinity by three different anglers, all within the last year. Program officials know this because every fish turned in is tagged for future identification.
The TBLP data also shows that the four months spanning January through April were the most productive months for catching big T-Bend bass in 2015-16. According to Toliver, 98 of the 139 entries were caught during that period. March was the most productive month with 48 entries, followed by February (21) April (14) and January (12).
If all this stuff sounds familiar, that’s because it is. The TLBA didn’t invent the wheel with its lunker program. They just modified it a little.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has been gathering similar data and more for 30 years. The Toyota ShareLunker program uses bigger fish from a lot more lakes under a significantly more scientific format.
The TPWD program is open to bass weighing 13 pounds or more caught from any Texas lake between October 1 and April 30. A major difference between the two programs is TPWD takes temporary possession of each fish.
If genetic testing determines fish has pure Florida genes, biologists attempt to spawn it in hatchery raceways. Otherwise, the fish is returned to the angler who caught it.
Texas scientists originally believed the ShareLunker program might help unravel some of the mysteries behind big bass genetics. The idea was ultimately to produce bigger and better bass for anglers to catch. To date, there isn’t much evidence to show that those efforts have had much success.
However, ShareLunker has been a great public relations tool to promote the quality of bass fishing Texas has to offer. The program helped make Lake Fork famous, and it put dozens of other Texas lakes on the map for bass junkies looking for a big bite.
According to Toliver, public relations and luring more bass anglers to Toledo Bend to experience the great fishing the lake has to offer is among the the main focuses of the TBLP.
“It’s definitely adding to the economy around the lake,” Toliver said. “That’s what this area needs very badly. It’s a big plus, because it’s bringing a lot of fishermen to the lake.”
Toliver says the program’s free replica/live release policy also has some serious benefits because it encourages anglers to release trophy bass that might otherwise be kept for skin mounting.
“In general, our goal is for these fish to be released back into the lake to spawn and ultimately to be caught again,” he said. “We know it works, because we had 14 fish turned in this year that had been previously entered in the program.”
Email Matt Williams at [email protected]