By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
Sam Rayburn Reservoir has seen better days than the 4 that will comprise this week's FLW Tour stop. Several factors are combining to prevent the big East Texas impoundment from living up to its long-held reputation as one of the country's top bass fisheries.
Rayburn still harbors big fish – lots of them. They're not easy to catch right now, though, and the ones involved in the reproduction ritual aren't easy to see. The water level's a few feet low, which has taken some of the traditional flipping cover out of play, and visibility is poor due to wind, rain and a shortage of grass.
Predictions as to how much weight it'll take to win the third stop on the six-event 2014 schedule vary widely. Some who fared well in practice are thinking 80 pounds or more will be necessary, while others are saying the best cumulative mark won't get out of the 60s.
A bag or two exceeding 25 pounds could show up, but there will be many more than don't go much over 10. The prevailing opinion is that an average of 17 pounds a day will put an angler in contention for the Top-20 cut, and achieving that will require one or more of the 4-pound fish that are so elusive at the moment.
Before getting into more about the bite, here's the lowdown on the fishery itself:
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: Stormy and windy at the start of the event, then much calmer for the weekend
> Water temperature: High 50s to mid 60s, depending on location
> Water visibility: As little as 1 1/2 feet in some places
> Water level: About 3 feet below normal pool
> Fish in: 1 to 15 feet
> Fish phase: All stages of the spawn
> Primary patterns: Lipless crankbaits, bladed jigs, swimjigs, crankbaits, spinnerbaits, flipping, lizards, Senkos, trick worms, topwaters
> Winning weight: 72 pounds (4 days)
> Cut weight (Top 20 after 2 days): 32 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 2 for Rayburn
> Biggest decision: Battle the crowds around the best grass or gamble on something more off-beat
> Wildcard: Big ones on beds that are visible – they'll be rare, but extremely valuable
Slow to Warm Up
Most competitors would've predicted that this event would be dominated by sight-fishing when the schedule was released last summer. However, it appears as if that tactic will be only marginally effective.
The big issue is visibility. The water is way off-color in the north end, where the anglers will launch out of Lufkin, Texas. It's clearer down south, but also considerably colder.
The volatile weather and the shortage of grass (which acts as a filter when it's abundant) are the primary reasons that the water is the same color as some popular varieties of tea.
"We just have these years when the grass doesn't grow as good," said former Tour pro and local ace Chris McCall, who's a co-owner of the Rayburn Tackle Monkey. "We've had a lot of wind and a lot of cold and the lake's been turbid all year long. We just haven't had any stable weather.
Brett Hite has had resounding success throwing a ChatterBait so far this year, and that tactic should produce at Rayburn.
"The lake's a month behind where it should be. Water temperatures are running from 56 to about 63, and usually by now we're seeing 68 to 70 in some of the warmer creeks."
The spawn is on (and has been for awhile), but bedding fish can only be spied in select places due to the turbidity.
"I'm not a big sight-fisherman, but in years like this the guys who are don't do as well, and we've got some good ones here," McCall said. "I don't think it sets up very well for it. There's a couple areas where you can catch them that way, but there'll be several boats in there. There's no way it'll hold up for 4 days."
Need More than One
Ron Risenhoover, a Lufkin resident and longtime East Texas tournament competitor, said the anglers who fare best will likely work several confined areas where they can manage their fish for multiple days.
"They'll have to have the patience to fish slow in those 'confidence areas' without having to see their fish," he said. "The community holes like the Canyons, Veach, Caney Creek and Five Fingers all have limited grass, but don't expect the grass to be a significant factor with the fish moving shallow to spawn.
"Even though Rayburn is known as a Rat-L-Trap lake, that's a seasonal pattern governed by the grass conditions and is almost over. The current fishing is very sporadic and not consistent for tournament-size fish due to the fish moving up to spawn – they're very sluggish and not very aggressive. There are numerous smaller fish to be caught, and those will distract tournament anglers from the required larger bags that will be needed to make the cut for the last 2 days."
He suggested that the top finishers might have to take on a gambler's mentality.
"It will depend on what they are looking to accomplish in this tournament: Will they be satisfied with maintaining FLW Tour points or will they try and go for the win? Catching one big fish can help for 1 day, but being able to consistently catch the bigger average fish will make the difference."
Notes from the Field
Here are some practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll compete this week:
"It's been kind of tough on me, or at least it was (Tuesday). The first 2 days of practice I had 14 to 15 pounds, and I don't know how that'll fare.
"It's kind of a funny deal right now – they're already well into the spawn, there's a lot of post-spawn fish, but the water temperature's 62 degrees and there's some presently trying to come up. I've caught some decent ones and I've found some 5-pounders that were locked down on beds that I didn't mess with, so I think I can catch a good one here and there. I think I might have to pull back a little because (day 1) won't be a sight-fishing day because of the weather, but day 2 should be.
"I'm just hoping to survive (day 1) and then after that I think I can do okay. I'll have to wait and see what everybody else is doing and what the weights are going to be."
"I've had good days and bad days – or parts of good and parts of bad days. I feel like I understand what's going on right now, but things will change on a daily basis and I'll probably have to go out there and wing it a little bit.
"There might be a few caught sight-fishing, but I don't know that that'll dominate the tournament by any means. I think right now more people are catching pre-spawn fish, but that's why I say things are changing rapidly. The spawn's not over with and there's some fish that are wanting badly to go that way. Whether they'll get there while we're fishing this tournament remains to be seen.
"I think you'll see a couple bags over 20 and there might even be a 25, but I don't think it'll take a ton of weight to win – not a 20-pound average, for sure. I think it'll be 60 to 65 pounds when it's all said and done. A guy who catches a huge bag is going to have a hard time repeating it.
"The guy who wins is going to have to be somewhat versatile and make adjustments as he goes. I'd be surprised if somebody gets something going and rides it the whole way."
"Overall I've gotten a lot of bites, but a lot of them were on the small side, what I consider to be males. I haven't gotten very many big ones at all and that's kind of surprising. Coming here, with the way the whether was setting up, I thought it was going to be a slugfest, and it still may be. I don't listen to much talk, but guys are saying it's going to take 17 pounds a day to make the Top 20 and if that's the case, I'm on the wrong body of water. I haven't seen those kinds of fish at all."
Jason Christie caught plenty of fish in practice, but quality was lacking.
"One of the worst things about being a fisherman is going into an event with expectations. I was thinking I'd come in here and sight-fish, but I haven't found enough on the beds to last for 1 day, much less 4. I haven't fished the entire lake, but I've bounced around some and I haven't seen the quality that some other guys are talking about."
"I hate to jinx it, but I really enjoyed myself during practice. Usually, though, when I win practice, I suck during the tournament.
"I got here a day late and I think that helped me. Guys really caught them the first day in the windy weather, but the second day was calmer and more sunny and I just got dialed in. It took me about half a day, but when the weather broke I got in tune with what some of the big females seem to be doing.
"I need the sunshine, and of course, it's supposed to rain and be cloudy and stormy (on day 1). I think I could catch up to 20 pounds, but I might only catch 9."
"Practice has been pretty good for me, really. There's so many things going on and so many different ways to fish, you can go about it just about any way you want to.
I'm staying out of the pockets because they've got boats coming in and out all day long – it's literally a zoo in any cove on the lake. I'm targeting pre- and post-spawn fish and I've got it going pretty good.
"This lake has a lot of 13 to 14 1/2-inchers and not a bunch of 2 1/2- to 3-pounders. You've got to get the 4- and 5-pound bites because there's so many small males. I think it'll be won offshore myself – there's fish on beds, but with the rain and the wind and the clouds (on days 1 and 2), it'll be hard to see them."
Top 10 to Watch
Based on the above factors and more, here (in no particular order) are BassFan's recommendations on the Top 10 to watch for this event.
1. Brett Hite – He's ChatterBait-ed his way to two tour-level wins already this year and there's absolutely no reason that tactic won't produce this week.
2. Andy Morgan – He puts himself in contention no matter what's going on and he's particularly scary when he can fish in haphazard fashion. Rayburn will change, and he'll find ways to adapt.
3. Larry Nixon – Who knows who was President of the U.S. when he started fishing here (maybe Lyndon B. Johnson?). Vast experience on a venue often doesn't pay off, but the guess here is that it will this time.
4. Jay Yelas – He spent the better part of a decade living on this lake and has seen it in all of its various moods. His patience will be a big virtue this week.
5. Scott Suggs – He's another who can fish without feeling the itch to pull up the trolling motor every 5 minutes, and his Rayburn ledger is solid.
6. Clark Reehm – He hasn't had a Top-40 tour-level finish in nearly 2 calendar years, but he's got some momentum after a 2nd-place showing at last week's Toledo Bend Rayovac. He's overdue.
7. Cody Bird – He's had some struggles since a strong 2012 campaign, but this is a place he knows well. If he can get on a crankbait bite away from the bank, he could make some serious noise.
8. Randall Tharp – He's almost at Morgan's level as a guy you can't afford to pick against at any venue. Mental toughness is his forté, and that'll play big this week.
9. Wesley Strader – The Tennessean has been on a roll as of late and there's no reason to think he can't continue it here. He can boat them from shallow water as well as deep.
10. Chris Baumgardner – He's off to a solid start this year and he's about as good at catching them from shallow water as anybody. His tightly focused, low-key approach might be just the ticket for this derby.
Anglers will take off from Cassels-Boykin County Park located at FM Road 3123 (off State Highway 147) in Zavalla, Texas, at 7 a.m. each day. Thursday's and Friday’s weigh-ins will be held at the park beginning and 3 p.m. Saturday's and Sunday’s final weigh-ins will be held at the Walmart in Lufkin (2500 Daniel McCall Drive) beginning at 4 p.m.
> Like many in the field, Jay Yelas and Luke Clausen both had mixed results in practice. Neither expects catching keepers to be a struggle, but getting a few larger specimens could be a hit-or-miss proposition. To read their practice recaps, click here to go to ProView Reports.
> Thurs., March 27 – T-Storms - 74°/65°
- Wind: From the SSE at 15 mph
> Fri., March 28 – Isolated T-Storms - 86°/53°
- Wind: From the S at 8 mph
> Sat., March 29 – Partly Cloudy - 76°/44°
- Wind: From the N at 9 mph
> Sun., March 30 – Sunny - 77°/48°
- Wind: From the ENE at 8 mph