THEY SAY RECORDS are made to be broken, but plenty of folks are beginning to wonder whether anyone will ever crack the mark Barry St. Clair put on Texas bass fishing way back in 1992.
More than a quarter-century has passed since that fateful January day when the Athens angler dunked a live shiner in 42 feet of water, reportedly somewhere in the mouth of Little Caney Creek. He was hoping to catch another crappie for the skillet. He reeled in a whale of a largemouth bass instead.
St. Clair’s catch was so enormous it dethroned the former state record—a 17.67 pounder—caught on a Stanley jig more than six years earlier by Lake Fork guide Mark Stevenson.
Weighing a whopping 18.18 pounds, the fish didn’t come as much of a surprise, either. St. Clair’s giant bass came as the cherry on top during a magical stretch of time when Lake Fork was spitting out bug-eyed behemoths like a gum ball machine that refused to run out of goodies.
The 27,000-acre reservoir was truly phenomenal during its heyday. In addition to producing seven of the state’s 10 biggest bass on record—including five 17 pounders—Fork became a virtual blood bank for Toyota ShareLunkers cracking the 13-pound benchmark.
To date, the popular reservoir is responsible for 30 of the 50 heaviest bass reported statewide. It’s interesting that all but six of the 30 bass were caught between 1986 and 1999.
Only one other Top 10 bass has been reported in Texas since Bryan Turner’s 16.89 from Fork in February 1993, which holds the No. 8 spot. That fish, a 16.8 pounder, was caught from Sam Rayburn in May 1997. It ranks No. 9.
January 24 will mark the 27th anniversary of St. Clair’s bass taking over the top spot on Texas’s Top 50 list. Though hundreds of heavyweight bass have been reeled in from dozens of lakes in the meantime, none have seriously challenged the title.
The 16.89 pounder probably had the most potential of all. It may have gotten there had it gobbled up a 1 1/4-pound crappie or a couple of big fish prior to eating Turner’s soft plastic lizard.
Texas’s mega bass cycle has slowed to a crawl over the last decade. Though 11 fish from seven different lakes have cracked the Top 50 list since 2009, there hasn’t been a Texas bass heavier than 16.17 pounds reported since March 2010.
The most recent Top 50 entry was John LaBove’s 15.48 pounder from Lake Fork last March. LaBove’s bass was the first Top 50 fish reported from Fork since 2013. It ranks No. 48.
Thus the foundation for a question Texas bass junkies have been pondering for years:
Will Texas ever see another state record largemouth bass?
It’s impossible for anyone to answer the question with any certainty, no matter how many times or ways the fat gets sliced. The only reliable reflection of the future is the passage of time itself.
Someone could break the record tomorrow, a week down the road, or maybe 20 years from now.
Of course, it’s also entirely possible that an inquiring mind not yet born could still be visiting the same fish, and the same topic, at the turn of the next century.
I’ll go out on a limb and say the latter isn’t going to happen. My guess is St. Clair’s record will eventually take a tumble. It might be wishful thinking, but I believe it will happen much sooner than later, too. Quite possibly within the next 5 to10 years.
Which lake will serve as the stage for the magical cast is anybody’s guess. Odds are it will come from a special body of water with an unusual environment and a very unique set of circumstances in play. Lake Naconiche fits that bill.
If there is any one lake that might have the upper hand as far as state record potential goes, it would have be 700-acre Lake Naconiche. Located in northeastern Nacodoches County, the lake was impounded in 2009 and has been managed for trophy bass from the very start.
TPWD has stocked the lake with Florida bass from the get-go, including hundreds of adult ShareLunker offspring and retired hatchery brood fish weighing three to seven pounds.
The fishery is protected by a 16-inch maximum length limit. The rule prohibits anglers from retaining bass longer than 16 inches, unless the fish is a potential candidate for the ShareLunker program. The regulation also is in effect at lakes Bellwood, Davy Crockett, Kurth and Nacogdoches.
Good genetics and restrictive limits aren’t the only things Naconiche has going for it. The constant level reservoir is fueled by several spring-fed creeks. The water is extremely high in nutrients, and the lake’s forage base of threadfin shad and bluegill is thriving as a result.
Those factors, coupled with great habitat comprised of hydrilla and jungles of timber and dense brush left intact prior to filling, have set the stage for a perfect storm that already appears to be brewing.
Naconiche produced a 14.12-pound lake record in July 2016 and a 13.06-pound Toyota ShareLunker in Feb. 2017. That’s impressive considering it opened for fishing just seven years ago.
TPWD fisheries biologist Todd Driscoll of Brookeland has been riding shotgun over Naconiche from the start. He says it is almost scary to think about what might be swimming around in the little lake in another few years. More year classes of fish from banner spawns dating back to 2010-11 and beyond will begin reaching their full trophy potential. The magical age is 10.
“I think it’s just now coming into the infancy stages as far as its true trophy potential goes,” Driscoll said. “It’s going to be like a mini Lake Fork. We’re going to have all those big year classes since 2010-11 coming on like a production line, year after year. There’s no telling how long it will last, either. My guess is it’ll be a long time before the productivity of the lake starts to decline. There are a lot of chicken farms along the watershed, so it’s pretty heavily fertilized.”
As earlier mentioned, abundant habitat is another plus the fishery has going for it. In addition to hydrilla and other vegetation that grows as deep as eight feet in places, the lake’s bottom in the Naconiche and Teleco creek arms resembles an underwater jungle. In fact, it is so thick with lay downs, logs, stumps and brush that Driscoll thinks it could actually be a detriment to the catchability of the fish. He knows this from multiple hours spent mapping the lake’s bottom with his electronics.
“It’s solid wood from 10 feet to the bottom and extremely difficult to fish effectively,” Driscoll said. “There is so much brush that I honestly believe there could be numerous giant bass that die of old age in that lake without ever being caught. With so much food available they could just lay up in a big ol’ logjam and never move around. That’s just how thick it is.”
Only a fool would nix Lake Fork from the list of other possibilities. Although it’s not the big bass factory it once was, there is way too much big bass history to rule it out as a candidate to produce the next state record. Just when you think Fork is dead, it roars back to life with a flurry of huge fish. It’s happened more than once.
Sam Rayburn, Toledo Bend, Falcon and Amistad have to rank high the hit list, as well. All are massive water bodies with lake records in excess of 15 pounds, good water quality and tons of forage.
Of the four, Rayburn may be the best bet for kicking out a record-class lunker in the near future. That’s largely because it tends to maintain consistently good habitat such as hydrilla, torpedo grass, terrestrial willows and buck brush from one year to the next. The habitat serves as a nursery for little fish and a playground for big ones.
The 114,000-reservoir east of Lufkin has been fishing extremely strong the past few years and was completely off the charts in 2018. This was reflected by numerous five-fish tournament limits topping the 30-pound mark and a couple over 40 pounds.
If there is one thing the Sam Rayburn and other other three fisheries have working against them, it’s fishing pressure. That’s the word from Dave Terre, chief of inland fisheries management and research with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
“These are all great fisheries and produce giant bass, but those lakes (Sam Rayburn, Fork, Toledo Bend and Falcon) also receive high fishing pressure and a good amount of weigh-in type bass tournaments,” Terre said. “Keep in mind that big bass need to live long to get to the size of a state record. We know, based on our studies, that large bass are more susceptible to delayed mortality in tournaments. If one of every two eight pounders dies following a tournament weigh-in, this lessens the chance that some will survive to be of state-record size.”
Terre cited a TPWD delayed mortality research study centered on 16- to 24-inch bass that were held in live wells and taken to tournament weigh-ins. The biologist said 46 percent of the bass used in the study died within six days.
“By comparison, those same size fish had a zero percent mortality if just caught and immediately released,” Terre said. “If there are a lot of tournaments on a lake, it’s easy to see how this might lessen the opportunities for a state-record class fish. This is not to say that tournaments are hurting these fisheries, but they definitely could be limiting their trophy potential.”
Some anglers may contend the same argument could be made for taking 13- to 16-pounders out of our lakes and transporting them ShareLunker headquarters for spawning. I’ve spoken to some fishermen who had rather take a quick photo of such a fish and slip it right back into the water rather than donate it to the program.
Terre said comparing tournament-caught bass to ShareLunkers would an “apples to oranges comparison.”
“Fish donated to us through the ShareLunker program are not exposed to the stress of a weigh-in, so that would make it different from a typical fishing tournament handling process,” he said. “We know that live well containment can also add to stress on bass depending on how well fish are cared for in that environment. In the case of ShareLunker, fish are generally held in live wells but once they are turned over to us they receive the benefits of our equipment and abundant care by our fisheries biologists.
“Once the fish gets to Athens they receive 24/7 attention by staff in our purpose-built fish care facilities. If a fish is injured in some way, we believe that a fish has a better chance of survival with us because we have the capacity to act quickly to lower stress levels and speed healing of wounds.”
The biologist said 16 percent of 324 ShareLunkers have died since the program relocated to its state-of-the-art facility in Athens. He doesn’t believe the minimal losses have been a factor in the long dry spell between state records.
“Some ShareLunkers have been caught multiple times by anglers and our selective breeding program has recently been shown to be producing new generations of ShareLunkers resulting in new entries into the program,” he said. “I’d say the program is making strides to improve big bass fishing in Texas.”
Like many anglers who take their bass fishing seriously, I am way past ready to see a change at the top of the Top 50 list. It makes no difference whether the fish weighs an ounce more or a pound, it is high time for somebody to pummel the 18.18.
When it will happen is anybody’s guess. Hopefully, it will be sooner rather than later.
—story by MATT WILLIAMS
Biotactic tracks radiotagged Largemouth Bass in Lake Eugenia to further understand seasonal movement patterns and critical habitat use. Results from this four year study will help address issues related to invasive species and seasonally variable water levels