When bass anglers dream bronze fish, it’s only natural for their minds to wander northward to famed hotspots such as lakes Erie, St. Clair, Champlain, Sturgeon Bay and the St. Lawrence River, or to storied Dixie waters like Pickwick, Dale Hollow or Kentucky Lake.
On a good day it is not uncommon to catch 100 or more fish on these fabled smallmouth waters, and a few of the tail-walking, flip-turning brutes are almost certain to scare the hell out of seven pounds.
It would be a far reach to say there is a lake or river in Texas that can hang with any of the aforementioned smallmouth factories when it comes to kicking out bronze-back bullies. But there are a handful of places around the state where anglers can find decent numbers of the hard-hitting sport fish and have a fair shot at hooking up with an outsize smallie upwards of five pounds.
Brian Van Zee knows a thing or two about Texas smallmouths. Van Zee is Region 1 Inland Fisheries Director for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. He lives in Waco, which is located in close proximity to some the state’s premier smallmouth lakes.
I recently caught up with Van Zee and asked him to name what he believes to be the top smallmouth waters the state and to rank those fisheries in numeric order. Here’s what he had to say:
Size: 12,385 Acres
Location: Lies on the Leon River in Bell and Coryell counties
Lake Record: 6.47 pounds, 22.5 inches, Feb. 1999
Description: The lake boasts classic smallmouth habitat with steep banks, plenty of deep water and plenty of long, rocky points.
Van Zee is certain he will catch some flack from some of his colleagues in North Texas when they learn he named Belton over Texoma as Texas’s top pond for smallies, but in his opinion it is just that good.
“Some folks probably aren’t going to agree, but in my opinion Belton has to be No. 1,” he said. “That’s based on our survey data and angler input. Guys catch a lot of quality smallmouths at Belton. Most tournaments over there are won with a mix of largemouths and smallmouths. Often times the biggest fish in the bag will be a smallmouth.”
The 6.43 pound lake record smallie caught by Ron Gardner has stood since Feb. 1999, but Van Zee says he has a good hunch bigger ones have been caught and released without being reported.
Elite Series pro Keith Combs of Huntington of agreed. Combs, 39, grew up in Belton and fished the lake just about every weekend for about 20 years. He claims he boated four over six pounds there during the 1990s and early 2000s and feels certain there are bigger ones out there.
“Belton is a great smallmouth lake and it’s just going to keep getting better,” he said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if somebody catches a new state record there. It’s got a ton of bait fish, plus it has a lot of new growth cover that was flooded this year after several years of low water.”
Combs says smallies can be caught using a variety of lures such as shallow diving crankbaits, jerk baits and jigs. He pointed out that the bigger fish are usually caught in fall and winter on shallow clay points using Wiggle Warts and Strike King 3XD cranks, then switching to jerk baits on gravel points in spring.
Since 1978, Belton has been stocked with more than 1.6 million smallmouths raised in TPWD hatcheries.
Size: 74,686 acres
Location: Lies on the Red River and Washita River along the Texas/Oklahoma border
Lake Record: 7.06 pounds, 22.75 inches, Jan. 2006
Description: Texoma is large in size and heavy on structure with gobs of submerged rock, boulders, and rock bluffs that lure smallmouths like a magnet.
Van Zee ranks Texoma high on his hit list of Texas smallmouth lakes for obvious reasons.
“It’s a big lake with lots of deep water, steep banks and plenty of rocky habitat,” Van Zee said. “It’s another lake where tournament anglers often weigh in mixed limits of largemouths and smallmouths, often times with some heavy smallmouths in the bag.”
Although largemouths can be caught all over the lake, the best smallmouth fishing usually takes place around the steep bluffs in the vicinity of Eisenhower State Park, the Denison dam and up the Washita River to an area known as Willow Springs.
“Basically, the whole lower third of the lake is good,” says Longview bass pro Jim Tutt. “It has a lot of what I call “smallmouth-looking water”—big boulders, rocky points and gravel bottoms. It’s a great lake for smallies. If I lived closer, I would figure out how to target them exclusively.”
Tutt has landed multiple smallmouths weighing upwards of four pounds on Texoma. In 2013 he brought in a six-pounder during an FLW Rayovac event held there. He says they can be caught on assorted baits ranging from Carolina rig creatures to grubs, topwaters, spinnerbaits, shaky heads and Alabama rigs.
“With smallmouths it’s not so much about the bait as it is the location,” Tutt said. “They aren’t everywhere. If you’re not fishing where they live you aren’t going to catch them.”
TPWD stocked about one million smallmouths in Texoma from 1981 to 83. The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife and Conservation also has stocked some fish, but today’s population is pretty much self-sustaining.
Location: Above Lake Amistad
Lake Record: No rod and reel record recorded with TPWD. The Catch and Release record caught in March 2011 was 21 1/2 inches.
Description: The Devils is a spring-fed river with exceptionally clear water surrounded by rugged wilderness that ranks among the most scenic in the Southwest. The river is a favorite among experienced kayakers with its slow moving pools and intermittent rapids that range from Class I to III, depending on water levels. It is home to the largest continuously flowing waterfall in Texas—Dolan Falls.
Van Zee ranked the Devils high on his hit list not just because of the outstanding fishing, but because of the incredible aesthetics.
“Floating the Devils River is truly a unique experience,” Van Zee said. “Access can be difficult, and it is very remote with a beautiful setting where you see very few other people. The remoteness certainly adds to the quality of the experience.”
Gerald Bailey has been guiding on the river for 23 years and says the smallies you catch there are somewhat different from those caught in a reservoir environment. “They are bad asses,” Bailey said. “The constantly fight the current, so they are extremely strong.”
Bailey said anglers land good numbers of fish in the three pound range, but larger fish upwards of 6 1/2 pounds have been caught.
Access is limited on the Devils, and it is best use a reputable outfitter when making a multi-day float through the forbidding country. Just so you know, this isn’t a trip for casual paddlers, weak minds or anyone with an inferior craft. To learn more about the area, planning a trip and to find a list of outfitters, check out tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/devils-river/river-trips.
Size: 6,684 acres
Location: Built on Denton Creek in Tarrant and Denton counties.
Lake Record: 4.75 pounds, 21 inches, May 2006
Decription: Van Zee described ‘Vine as an up-and-coming smallmouth fishery that has been heavily stocked with more than 700,000 fingerings, the majority since 2008.
2nd Runner Up• Stillhouse Hollow
Size: 6,429 acres
Location: Five miles west of Belton off US 190
Lake Record: 6.75 pounds, Jan. 1993
Description: Another up-and-comer, Stillhouse boasts classic smallmouth habitat with its steep banks and rocky shorelines. The lake has received regular stockings totaling nearly 1.3 million fingerlings since 1974. Its more recent stocking came in 2011.
Story by Matt Williams