LAKE NACOGDOCHES in eastern Texas was in the news a lot last spring. Local angler Joe Castle put the popularity ball in motion on February 29, his 28th birthday.
Castle was out for a celebratory morning of fishing when he made an ordinary cast that produced a truly remarkable fish. The 27.5-inch bass weighed 15.34 pounds.
It’s the biggest bass reported statewide since March 2018, when John LaBove of Greenville landed a 15.48 pounder at Lake Fork. Castle’s fish smashes the 34-year-old lake record of 14.02 pounds from March 1986 and is the lake’s fourth Toyota ShareLunker to crack 13 pounds since the program’s inception.
Subsequent genetics testing performed by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department fisheries scientists identified the bass as the offspring of a 14.50-pound Toyota ShareLunker caught at Tyler State Park Lake in March 2008. Castle’s 12-year-old fish was stocked in the lake as an “advanced growth” fingerling (six-plus inches) in 2008, according to TPWD fisheries biologist Todd Driscoll.
Not surprisingly, word of the Castle’s whopper spread quickly via various news outlets and on social media. The buzz resulted in tall waves of fishing pressure that got even bigger with the coronavirus scare as locals and out-of-towners put a steady beat down on the little lake hoping to get a big bite of their own.
Cody Monlezun and Drew Middlebook were among the crowd on the morning of March 16. The young anglers were successful in their search for a really big bass. It just didn’t happen the normal way.
Monlezun, 17, said they were probing a shallow water flat along the lake’s northeast shore when he spotted a fish floating on surface.
“At first I thought it was a gar,” Monlezun said. “Once I got closer, I could tell it was a big bass, and that it was dead. My first thought was, it’s a 10 pounder.”
Monlezun’s uncertified digital scale told a much different story. He said the scale bounced back and forth between 15.10 to 15.79 pounds.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “It was huge. The first thing I did was check to see if it had choked on something, but there wasn’t anything in its mouth or throat.”
After taking a few photos, Monlezun said he placed the dead fish back in the water and drove away. The big bass was subsequently recovered by another angler and reported to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
The angler froze the bass and still had possession of the fish as of April 6, according Toyota ShareLunker program leader Kyle Brookshear.
“We still need to collect the fish, try to collect a viable tissues sample, and get that sample to the genetics lab for testing,” Brookshear said in an April 6 email. “With everything going on with COVID-19 and the modified processes with our working environments that we are having to implement, it has made these normal business practices more difficult for us to achieve in the timeline that we would prefer to complete them in.”
We hope someone has made the two-hour drive to retrieve the fish by now. Lots of folks have speculated that the floater is related to Castle’s bass. Scientists also can determine the age of the fish by examining its otoliths, which are small bones within the skull.
Either way, there is no way to accurately determine the actual weight of the bass when it was alive. Nor is it possible to determine the cause of its death.
According to TPWD fisheries biologist and Toyota ShareLunker caretaker Tony Owens, it is entirely possible the fish may have died of old age.
“That’s something we’ll never know for sure, but we do know these fish are senior citizens,” he said. “How long they can live in the wild depends on a lot of different factors. Once they reach 12 to 15 years old, they are probably getting pretty close to the end of their lifespan.”
“Ethel” lived considerably longer on easy street. Ethel was the nickname Lake Fork fishing guide Mark Stevenson gave to the 17.67-pound former state record largemouth he caught at Lake Fork in November 1986.
In early 1987, Stevenson leased the big bass to Bass Pro Shops for display in company’s flagship store in Springfield, Missouri. Texas’s most famous bass spent the next eight years finning around in the store’s massive aquarium, where it had a full-time caretaker and was viewed by an estimated 20 million visitors before she died in 1994.
Ethel was 19.
Email Matt Williams at [email protected]