Fake Fork fishing guide Mark Stevenson likes to recall that crisp Thanksgiving eve back in November 1986. That’s the day he caught Ethel. Ethel was a pot-bellied largemouth with a serious weight problem that made his career and forever changed the scope of Texas bass fishing.
The way Stevenson tells it, a nasty cold front had pushed across eastern Texas two days earlier and left chilly temperatures, blue bird skies and high pressure in its wake. The conditions weren’t ideal for catching a big one, but Stevenson decided to go fishing anyway.
It’s a good thing, too. Around noon, the veteran guide pitched a 1/2-ounce Stanley Jig tight to a bush in Garrett Creek. No sooner had the bait reached bottom than he felt what turned out to be a magical “thump.”
Moments later, Stevenson hauled aboard a 17.67-pound monster that was eventually certified as a new Texas state record. The fish has since been stripped of the title by an 18.18 pounder that was caught on a live shiner by a crappie fisherman.
However, Stevenson’s bass still ranks as the biggest Texas bass ever caught by a bass fisherman who was targeting bass with an artificial lure.
The fact the big fish came from Fork was certainly no shocker. But what continues to surprise a lot of folks is the timing of the deal. November has never had a real rich history for producing big bass in Texas, particularly those rare double-digit teeners.
The majority of the bigger bass are caught during spring, when the fish are heavy with eggs and more accessible in the shallows.
To wit: Only 12 of the 565 13-plus pounders turned over to the state’s Toyota ShareLunker program were caught during November, and four of them were caught by crappie fishermen. In contrast, March has produced 239 ShareLunkers, followed by February (130) and April (88).
If you’re beginning to get discouraged by the numbers, don’t. Texas is home to a passel of great bass lakes and many of them have earned reputations for producing exceptional fishing and big bites during all seasons of the year. Here are three good bets as fall gives way to winter:
Size: 692 acres
Description: Located northeast of Nacogdoches, Naconiche is a spring-fed jewel that has been intensively managed for trophy bass from the very start. Impounded in 2009, the lake opened for fishing in Sept. 2012 and has since produced several whoppers, including a lake record 14.12 pounder last July. The origin of the big fish is unclear, but was likely one of the dozens of retired hatchery brood fish that was stocked in the lake prior to opening.
The lake opened under a five-fish, 18-inch minimum length limit, but was recently placed under an even more restrictive 16-inch maximum length limit aimed at enhancing the trophy fishery by protecting all bass greater than 16 inches.
The Fishing: This is heavy cover fishing. With the exception of the 150-acre lake proper, all of the timber along the Telesco and Naconiche creek bottoms was left intact, creating a jungle of thick cover to provide bass with a nursery and a playground. Even today some areas remain impassible to boat traffic, so it stands to reason there are fish in the lake that have yet to see a lure.
Size: 86,000 acres
Description: The fertile South Texas reservoir straddles the Texas/Mexico border near Zapata and is fed by the Rio Grande and Salado rivers. It is also influenced by numerous creeks and draws during big rains.
Impounded more than 60 years ago for local water supply and irrigation, Falcon is prone to radical fluctuations in water level that have historically taken the habitat and bass fishery on a rollercoaster ride of peaks of valleys.
Following an extended down cycle created by drought in the 1990s and early 2000s, the lake roared back to life 10 years ago and eventually became the No. 1 ranked bass lake in America after Mississippi bass pro Paul Elias set a four day, 20 bass weight record of 132 pounds, eight ounces there during a Bassmaster Elite Series event in April 2008.
After undergoing another down cycle in recent times, the lake appears to be bouncing back once again. According to James Bendele at Falcon Lake Tackle, two teams weighed in more than 42 pounds during a two-day, API event in early June. It is worth noting that teams were allowed to weigh only three fish per day, which equals a seven-pound average.
The Fishing: Productive fishing patterns hinge heavily on water level. When water levels are sufficient, flipping and pitching around shoreline bushes and hardwoods are big time players. Otherwise, you should try dredging bottom around old building foundations, river/creek ledges and gravel points using crankbaits, Carolina rigs and football jigs.
Lake Sam Rayburn
Size: 114,000 acres
Description: Naming Texas’s Top bass lakes for fall and leaving out Sam Rayburn would be like omitting Toledo Bend or Amistad from the same list. All of them are great, but space is limited, so I made this pick simply because I’ve got a soft spot for the big lake east of Lufkin.
Impounded along the Angelina and Attoyac rivers in the 1960s, Rayburn is like the Energizer bunny in that it keeps going and going despite intense fishing pressure from weekend recreational crowds and tournament anglers who routinely bring limits weighing upwards of 20 pounds to the scales. The lake is tied as the second leading producer of ShareLunker entries statewide (26), including a 13.1 pounder that was caught last November.
When it comes habitat, Rayburn has a stacked deck. In addition to shoreline willows and buck brush, torpedo grass has come on strong in recent years to provide fish plenty shallow cover when water levels are sufficient.
The lake’s hydrilla beds took a big hit a couple of years ago as the result of high water, but the green stuff is making a good comeback in just about every major creek south of the Highway 147 bridge.
The Fishing: Anglers are apt to find the big bite just about anywhere this time of year. But with hydrilla beginning to regain a toehold in water as deep as six to eight feet, it would be a good idea to test the water around it with a crankbait, topwater, Senko, frog, swim bait, spinnerbait or a light Texas rig. Areas with shoreline torpedo grass can be equally productive at times.
Anglers who had rather fish away from the bank should check out main lake ridges, ledges, points and humps in water ranging 18 to 25 feet deep. Although it is often times a numbers game, anglers can rack up some big weight offshore in short order if they stumble across the right group of fish.
Other Good Bets:
Lake Pinkston: 520 acres
Brandy Branch: 1,200 acres
Lake Nacogdoches: 2,200 acres
Toledo Bend: 186,000 acres
Lake Palestine: 20,000 acres
Lake O’ The Pines: 18,700 acres
Lake Amistad: 64,900 acres
Kurth Lake: 726 acres
—story by Matt Williams