By Todd Ceisner
Few fisheries can match the history Sam Rayburn Reservoir has with pro bass fishing tournaments.
The southeastern Texas fishery has been an epicenter for competitive fishing for several decades and hosts literally hundreds of tournaments each year now and ranks among many pros’ favorite lakes to fish. It’s also served as a flashpoint for several innovations that are mainstays in today’s fishing culture.
In 1972, anglers began to employ garden hoses and sprinklers as makeshift aerators in an attempt to limit fish mortality following a tournament at Rayburn. In 1993, Randy Dearman used a line folks called “Lynch Line,” which was made of a braided, synthetic material used in bulletproof vests to win the B.A.S.S. Texas Invitational there. Soon after, line makers began introducing their own versions of superline.
While the lake has experienced some low-water periods in recent years, Rayburn’s reputation as a bass-fishing Mecca remains pretty stout these days and this week it’ll play host to yet another major event as more than 110 anglers will compete in the season-ending FLW Tour Open. It’s the first time since 2006 (Elite Series) that a Tour-level event has been held there. A mainstay on FLW’s Texas EverStart Series schedule, Rayburn hasn’t been on the FLW Tour schedule since 1998.
Those who know the lake well – and there are plenty of them fishing this week – will tell you the lake’s been fishing a bit on the tougher side for the better part of the last 8 months. The lake level had been down considerably since the middle of 2010, but this spring it filled up at such a rate that it covered up a lot of shoreline vegetation, which later died off. The combination of 10 to 12 feet of new water and slightly stained conditions has thrown the fish for a loop this year.
The refrain from pros in practice was catching small fish was no problem at all, but 11 pounds a day won’t put anyone near the top of the leaderboard. There’s been no rhyme or reason to catching the bigger fish as they seem to be just roaming now in advance of settling into any sort of seasonal pattern.
Last week, the lake shot up a foot as a result of some heavy rains and it scattered the fish pretty well as many of the pros found in practice. Compounding matters was the first real cold front of the season followed the heavy rains and it brought water temperatures down into the low 70s.
Warm weather is expected to settle over the area for the tournament so more changes are expected. Fish were being caught all over the lake in practice, but the quality fish Rayburn is known for haven’t shown themselves with the frequency some were hoping for.
Before getting into more details about the bite, here’s the lowdown on Rayburn.
BassFan Lake Profile
> Lake Name: Sam Rayburn Reservoir
> Type of Water: Lowland impoundment
> Surface Acres: 114,500
> Primary structure/cover: Standing timber, brushy shoreline, creek channels, humps, laydowns, pads, grass beds
> Average depth: 15 feet
> Species: Largemouths
> Length limit: 14 inches
> Reputation: Long considered one of the best big-bass lakes in the country
> Weather: A cold snap last weekend (highs in the 60s) lasted through Monday, but gave way to a warming trend with temperatures expected to reach the mid-80s through the tournament
> Water temperature: Low 70s in the morning, warming into the mid-70s by late day
> Water visibility: 2 to 3 feet on the average
> Water level: 3 to 4 feet below normal pool, but 10 feet higher than last year
> Fish in: 6 inches to 20 feet
> Fish phase: Early fall transition
> Primary patterns: Topwaters, big worms, crankbaits, spinnerbaits, Carolina rigs, umbrella rigs, some flipping
> Winning weight: 71 pounds (4 days)
> Cut weight (Top 20 after 2 days): 25 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 3.5 for Rayburn
> Biggest decision: Shallow, deep or both
> Wildcard: Giant bites. A 6-pound or better kicker or two (or three) could turn someone’s fortunes around in a hurry
While the new water that came into the system last week soaked a lot of shoreline grass, it’s the recent cold front that has the fish scattered from the shore out to 20 feet or more.
Brett Hite will need another strong finish this week to move into the Top 5 in Open points.
“Some of the creeks are muddy, but the pads and grass are still in play,” said Lynn Atkinson, who runs a guide service at Rayburn. “A lot of fish are still being caught a little deeper still. This next cold front may help push them back on up to the bank. We had them in the pockets, but the cold front we’ve been having along with the rain kind of pushed them back out.
“When the lake came up 13 feet, it covered up all of the eelgrass and that (affected the water). The fish then moved out of the shallows and went deep. There are still plenty of options out there with all of that water.”
The hydrilla has bounced back, he said, and is up to 8 feet in some creeks, but there are stretches of the lake with very little vegetation. Where there’s grass, though, threadfin shad can be found in big numbers and he figures the next good cold front will act as a feeding bell for droves of bass. He said any number of techniques and presentations will put fish in the boat, but there’s no real big-fish pattern working right now.
“If you can get on a point that’s wind blown and has a lot of these little bean trees still sticking up in the water and get a spinnerbait going, you could get a quick limit that way,” he said. “It seems like these fish are moving out more around 11 or 12 o’clock to that next drop.”
Other locals have noted how small the lake fished this summer and with the Rayburn Oilmen’s Classic tournament slated to run Friday and Saturday, it’ll be key to have multiple backup areas to work on.
“It’s going to make the lake that’s already fishing small a lot smaller,” said Tour pro Chris McCall, a Jasper, Texas, native who guides on the lake. “There’s a lot of lake right now, but in my opinion and it’s been this way for months, 70 percent of the fish are coming out of 30 percent of the lake. I don’t know what to expect.”
BassGold Says …
The last major pro tournament at Rayburn in the fall was the Bassmaster Central Open, which attracted 193 boats back in September 2009. Stephen Johnston, who guides at Rayburn and Toledo Bend, caught 57-05 and won by more than 10 pounds over Elite Series pro and Jasper, Texas, resident Todd Faircloth, who’s in the field this week.
For a more recent point of reference, the winners of last weekend’s Bassmaster Weekend Series weighed 39 pounds over 2 days and the runners-up had 27.
One thing that many people like about Rayburn is it’ll typically produce fish no matter what presentation or technique is used. Deep or shallow, 30-fish days are possible. Where the bigger, tournament-winning bites come from, however, is what the pros are interested in this week.
While the data that’s available through BassGold certainly supports the fish-anywhere-with-anything theory, certain areas or structure elements play bigger this time of year. For instance, of the 21 pattern breakdowns available for Rayburn tournaments in September and October, the dominant “Macro Factors” are offshore structure and shoreline, which squares with how the lake has been fishing this week and in recent weeks and months.
In terms of “Habitat Factors,” it’s a dead heat between “Ledge/Drop” and “Wood” for Top-5 finishes, but the slight edge goes to ledges when the criteria is narrowed to 1st-place finishes.
Bait-wise, worms have been the ticket for scoring high finishes at Rayburn in the fall with crankbaits and jigs next in line.
Jacob Wheeler is fishing his first major tournament this week since winning the Forrest Wood Cup in August.
At the conclusion of this week’s event, the Top 5 anglers in Open points will earn berths in next year’s Forrest Wood Cup, scheduled for Aug. 15-17, 2013 at the Red River in Shreveport/Bossier City, La.
Larry Nixon enjoys a comfortable 29-point lead over 2nd-place Bill McDonald, but it tightens up from there. Dave Lefebre is 3rd, just six points behind McDonald. John Cox is 4th, three points back of Lefebre and one point ahead of Bryan Thrift in 5th. Scott Canterbury is just five points out of the final automatic qualifier spot.
There’s sure to be plenty of shuffling this week as those near the top look to stay there. The obvious advantage to advance qualification is it takes a measure of pressure off heading into next year’s Tour schedule. With the Opens eliminated from next year’s schedule, pre-qualification for the 2014 Cup won’t be an option.
Here’s how the Top 15 in points looks heading into this week’s tournament:
1. Larry Nixon: 567
2. Bill McDonald: 538
3. Dave Lefebre: 532
4. John Cox: 529
5. Bryan Thrift: 528
6. Scott Canterbury: 523
7. Brett Hite: 509
8 (tie). Koby Kreiger: 506
8 (tie). Jason Christie: 506
10. Art Ferguson III: 504
11. Mike Surman: 502
12. Jeff Gustafson: 501
13: Scott Suggs: 499
14. Greg Bohannan: 491
15 (tie). Chris McCall: 489
15 (tie). J.T. Kenney: 489
Notes from the Field
Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll be competing this week.
“I was here one time in December for a half day, but the lake was way lower then. My impression right now is there are a lot of fish in this lake. It’s definitely tough to get a big bite. They’re inconsistent or at least it seems that way. There are plenty of fish, oh my goodness, but getting that big bite and patterning the bigger fish is difficult.
“I’m feeling pretty confident. There are fish shallow and there are fish deep. You can do whatever you want on this lake and that’s what's really cool about it. On a scale of 1 to 10, I’m probably a 7 – not overly confident, but feeling good about what I found. One or two more little pieces to the puzzle and it could turn into a really good tournament.
“You can mix it up. There are still a lot fish in brush piles so a guy can mix it up and catch them. I’ll probably fish both and as the tournament develops I’ll make a decision on what to commit to more. You have to be really flexible going in.”
“We’ve had a cold front and the lake’s come up about a foot since the cut off. They’re biting. There are a lot of small fish, but you’ll still catch a big ‘un every now and then. Before the cut off, I caught a 9 and a 6 in one day. Big fish are hard to come by out here. It seems like we’re catching more small ones here now and you can catch them about anywhere, too. They’re catching them out of the grass, some deep and out of brush piles and on top. It’s just fall feeding going on. It’s kind of scattered.
“It’s fishing good. I think there will be a lot of limits. It’s just catching those kickers. There will be a 20-pound bag for sure on the first day. I don’t think anybody can do it every day, but there will be some big bags. If somebody gets on the right group of deep fish here, they can put it away. Otherwise, it’s just going to be scrambling.”
“It’s not as easy as I thought it would be. Usually at this time of year, Rayburn is really good – you just go down a grass line and catch fish. You can do that right now. It’s just that the better quality is few and far between. The place is full of fish and has a lot of big fish in it. If you put that many good anglers on a good lake, there are going to be a few guys who figure it out.
Todd Castledine has a strong history at Rayburn.
“Normally, this time of year when we have a cold snap it makes the fishing better. You’ll start seeing a lot more activity and the fish will start chasing bait. You can catch fish that way now, but I’m not seeing the bigger fish doing that. I’m not real sure if we’re a little early for the (transition).
“I’m not fishing for points this week so this is like a freebie for me so I’m going to probably tend to be looking for more bigger bites than usual.”
“It’s a great lake. It’s loaded with fish. The main challenge is running around on it. There’s a lot of standing timber. There are tons of fish being caught, but I really didn’t figure out yet how to catch those big ones. It seemed like it was more luck when you’d catch one. You’d be catching 2-pounders and then all of a sudden you’d stick a 5-pounder.
“I didn’t really figure too much out. It seems like there are some deep and shallow and whoever figures out that wad of big ones is going to be okay rather than having to run around trying to find them. The lake’s so big. I’ve hardly seen anybody. It reminds me a little of (Lake) Toho in some areas with the grass. I think someone’s going to really catch ‘em. This place is loaded with big fish.”
“I don’t think it’s fishing very good, but it really hasn’t fished good since about March. There are a lot fish biting, but man, there are a lot of little ones biting. This is typical of October when the first hard front comes through. The little ones go crazy. The first 2 days weren’t any good for me. I think I may have caught 10 or 11 pounds a day. I think (Tuesday), I saw some better ones.
“I think they’re going to get back into what they’ve typically been doing the last few years in October. At least I’m hoping they are. It’s going to fish kind of small because we don’t have the grass that we normally have. The grass that is growing isn’t really in the right places for this time of year so that’s going to be another problem.
“I like to stay on the banks and fish the grass because that’s how I fish, but I did check some deep spots Monday and got bit out in 19 or 20 feet.”
Top 10 To Watch
With the above in mind and more, here, in no particular order, is BassFan's recommendation on the Top 10 to watch at this event:
1. Keith Combs – Playing a hunch here, but he’s a Texas guy who knows the lake well and has a couple Top-15s in EverStarts at Rayburn. Also coming off a 3rd-place finish at the Toyota Texas Bass Classic 2 weeks ago.
2. Keith Caka – A stalwart at Rayburn, he’ll make his FLW Tour debut this week fresh off a strong PAA Series campaign.
3. Todd Faircloth – The Elite Series pro lives in Jasper and fishes Rayburn regularly. Coming off a stellar 2012 Elite season, his versatility will be a valuable tool this week. He’s not fishing for points so he’ll be on big-fish patrol.
4. Cody Bird – He’s had quite a year – 11 tournaments, nine checks. He’d love to cap off the Tour season with another strong showing at his favorite lake.
5. Michael Williamson – Lived close to Rayburn for 25 years before moving to Arkansas and is coming off a 7th-place finish at the Wheeler Lake FLW Tour Open, where he worked almost exclusively with a frog.
6. Bryan Thrift – Momentum and confidence are two crucial elements in fishing and he’s loaded with both after his final-day 25-pound performance at the Toyota Texas Bass Classic earned him the victory at Lake Conroe. Duplicating that weight at Rayburn this week may be hard, but he’s one of the few who could do it.
7. Jim Tutt – After the best Tour Major season of his career, he’s yet to cash a check in three Opens. He has a long history of top finishes at Rayburn, including an EverStart Series win in 2002 to go with five other Top-10s.
8. Todd Castledine – One of the top locals when it comes to Rayburn. Was 5th at the Central Open back in ‘09.
9. Greg Hackney – If they’re in the grass, he can dig ‘em out with the best of them. Won the 2006 Rayburn Elite Series stop, albeit it was in March, and has two other Top-10s in Opens.
10. Dave Lefebre – Texas fishing suits his style and he’s been down there for a few weeks now for the Texas Toyota Bass Classic and last week’s Lake of the Pines EverStart.
> Anglers will launch at 7:30 a.m. CT all 4 days from Cassels-Boykin County Park (FM Road 2123 off State Hwy 147, Zavalla, TX 75980). Weigh-ins on days 1 and 2 will get under way at 3 p.m. CST at Cassels-Boykin County Park (same address). Weigh-ins on days 3 and 4 will be held at 4 p.m. CST at Walmart (2500 Daniel McCall Drive, Lufkin, TX 75901).
> Thurs., Oct. 11 – Partly Sunny - 86°/64°
- Wind: From the SSE at 4 to 8 mph
> Fri., Oct. 12 – Mostly Sunny - 86°/65°
- Wind: From the SSE at 6 to 9 mph
> Sat., Oct. 13 – Mostly Sunny - 87°/68°
- Wind: From the S at 9 to 15 mph
> Sun., Oct. 14 – Partly Sunny - 86°/67°
- Wind: From the SSE at 6 to 9 mph
> Jay Yelas and Luke Clausen wrapped up their practice sessions and neither is hot to trot about what they found. To read about how they think things will play out, click here to go on tour with BassFan Big Sticks.