Texas bass anglers are blessed with a wide range of great fisheries in just about every geographic region of the state.
To hear David Burman of Orange tell it, the brackish and saltish back waters that are the Sabine and Neches river complexes of deep southeast Texas may be the most diverse of them all.
No doubt these waters are certainly among the most unique. It’s one bayou, creek, canal, slough, marsh and oxbow after another down there. It’s all laid out in a winding, twisting, skinny water setting where the banks are lined with hydrilla, milfoil, tules, lay downs, blow downs, stumps, bushes, cypress trees and knees.
Translation: It’s one of those places where the feel of remoteness is the norm, and just about everything looks fishy.
It’s so easy to get caught up in the next cast or pushing farther back into a good-looking area. Even a veteran river rat can get turned around pretty quick on a cloudy day with no GPS to guide the way. For a newcomer, the Sabine can be a downright intimidating place.
“A guy can get lost out there if he isn’t careful, because it’s one little nook and cranny after another,” said Burman, an Orange native who typically fishes the river no less than a dozen times a month. “The fishing can be really good, but it also can be pretty challenging at times because there are so many variables involved that can affect it from one day to the next. It’s always changing.”
That’s because these are fresh waters that become increasingly brackish as the flow creeps southward before ultimately mixing with the saltwater bays that flank the Gulf of Mexico. Burman says tides and water clarity are always factors to contend with in this part of the world.
The fishing tends to be best when the water is moving in or out with the tide. It can be especially good you get a 18-24-inch rise after the tide has been out for a couple of days. “You can really crush them when that happens,” he said.
When it comes to water clarity, Burman says it is always best to look for the clearest you can find. The problem there is clear water can turn to chocolate overnight, which can add to the challenge of locating fish consistently and figuring out the best way to exploit them.
Burman says a handful of areas consistently hold the clearest water and he advised looking to the marshes to find it.
“The main thing to remember here is to stay away from the chocolate-colored water,” he said. “The marshes are almost always clear and that’s usually where you’ll find most of the bigger fish. The farther off the main bayous you can get the clearer it gets. The farther off a main lake back in the swamp around the cypress and tules the clearer it gets.”
Because of the erratic conditions, Burman says it can be tough to nail down any sort of pattern that will hold up for consecutive days.
“You might go out the day before a tournament and absolutely whack them flipping a creature bait around grass or brush. The next day they may not touch anything except a buzz bait,” he said. “It’s difficult at times to get these fish dialed in on a solid pattern for more than 1 1/2 days. There are a lot of fish here to catch and it’s a great platform to learn because it forces you to be versatile.”
Another factor that can have an impact the fishing quality is the availability of forage. During late spring, especially during May, there is almost always an abundance of it—namely threadfin shad.
“There will be literally thousands of 1 1/2 to 2-inch shad out there and the bass will be gorging on them,” Burman said. “It can be difficult to match the hatch when that is going on.”
As abundant as the forage can be in late spring, the smorgasbord is typically short-lived. By June, Burman says the bass will have wiped out most of the shad and will be feeding more on perch and crawfish.
“From about June through August is when the fishing gets really good,” Burman said.
Good for the Sabine, that is. Five-fish, 30 pound sacks are nothing more than a pipe dream around here. In fact, tournament limits weighing upwards of 15 pounds are exceptional.
That’s because the bass in these waters just don’t get very big. They never have. And they never will. The harsh environment in which they live just won’t let them.
That’s the word from Texas Parks and Wildlife Department fisheries biologist Todd Driscoll of Brookeland.
Driscoll and his staff carried out a lengthy research study a couple of years ago aimed at learning more about the population dynamics of the bass that live there. In addition to assessing the size and age structures, they wanted to gather information on annual mortality rates.
The results from the study—which involved using electrofishing gear to collect 600 bass in waters from the lower Sabine and Neches rivers as well as Taylor, Big Hill and Hillebrandt bayous.
This eventually led to a decision to lower the minimum size limit from 14 to 12 inches on bass on the Sabine River in Newton and Orange counties, and in Chambers, Galveston, and Jefferson counties. The new limit went in effect Sept. 1, 2016.
The biologist said there were some interesting findings during the study.
“One thing we learned is the population down there suffers from very high annual mortality,” said Driscoll. “The annual mortality (70-75 percent) is double what we see on some of our larger reservoirs such as Sam Rayburn and Toledo Bend.
“Although we don’t know for certain, we highly suspect that very little of the annual mortality is driven by the anglers,” Driscoll added. “Instead, we believe it is attributed to the harsh conditions in which fish live down there, mainly as the result of the variable salinity influence. Another big stressor is the lack of availability of high quality forage.”
Driscoll says the bass population in the study area is unique when compared to those of inland reservoirs, yet it is virtually identical to the bass populations found in other coastal complexes like the Atchafalaya Basin and Mobile-Tensaw Delta.
“The common threads are that all of these coastal bass populations are moderately to highly abundant, have slow growth rates and experience high annual mortality, yet the fish have great body condition.”
Driscoll said a meager seven percent of the 600 bass collected during the study were legal keepers under the statewide 14-inch limit. In contrast, the biologist said 35-40 percent of the bass electrofishing crews collect during fall surveys on Toledo Bend and Sam Rayburn bump the 14-inch mark.
The biologist said the study also showed a significant difference in growth rates between coastal bass and reservoir bass.
“The bass on Rayburn and Toledo Bend normally reach 14 inches at about 2 1/2 years old,” he said. “Growth rates of coastal bass are much slower, about 3.9 years to reach 14 inches.”
The new limit appears to have spurred the interest numerous tournament organizations have in visiting the area.
Bass Champs, arguably the most popular team circuit in the state, held its annual championship on the Sabine in Oct. 2016. Last month, the Southeast Texas High School Bass Fishing Association hosted a qualifying tournament there that probably drew more than 500 teams. In June, the Bassmaster Central Open will visit Orange.
“The new limit has definitely made the fishery more attractive for tournaments,” Burman said. “And a lot of anglers really like it. You don’t catch a lot of big fish here—a four pounder is a really good one—but it’s a fun and challenging place to fish where you can catch good numbers. It’s really a unique place.”
If you are planning to visit the Sabine in the near future, here are five baits David Burman says you should have tied on when you get here and where you should throw them:
1/8 ounce white or white/chartreuse buzz bait: Throw it around grass or wood.
1/4 to 3/8-ounce jig, black blue or green pumpkin: Flip and pitch it around wood or grass.
KVD 1.5 Squarebill Crankbait, chartreuse/black or sexy shad: Throw it around wood; attempt to deflect it off stumps and lay downs.
Dark brown or black Spro 65 Hollow Body Frog: Fish it around grass, wood and other shallow cover.
Yamamoto Senko, watermelon red or green pumpkin, weightless or with a split shot: Fish it along grass edges and around wood cover. Dipping the tail in chartreuse Spike It produces more bites.
—story by Matt Williams