By Todd Ceisner
BassFans are probably getting tired of hearing and reading about how the historically long and cold winter of 2013-14 has impacted bass fishing across the Midwest and the South. Cover your eyes, folks, because we're about to tell you that even as the calendar is set to turn to May 1, parts of southeast Texas are still feeling the effects.
It snowed in that part of the country four separate times in February and the prolonged cold has delayed some of the spawning activity of bass at Toledo Bend Reservoir, site of the Bassmaster Elite Series tournament this week. Fish, big and small, are scattered all across the massive, timber-laden impoundment along the Texas-Louisiana border, but the story of practice was the number of fish still hugging the bank as part of their spawning rituals.
It's left some competitors, including those who live nearby and have long histories on the lake, in a state of disbelief.
"It's May in southeast Texas and bass are still on beds," said Matt Reed, who's astonished at how far behind the fish seem to be. "I just couldn't imagine there being this many fish on beds, but it's going to play a major factor. It's mind-boggling."
It won't be the only deal happening at Toledo Bend, which should offer anglers a plethora of patterns to catch decent stringers. The trouble is it's been a struggle during practice to get one or two patterns to come to the forefront. The water's much higher than it was in 2011 and 2012 and it has the fish spread out.
The grass is plentiful and loaded with bass and there's never a shortage of wood to target on this lake. What's more, it appears the 106 Elite Series pros will be treated to a string of warm, sunny weather this week with the lone X-factor being the wind. While the forecast calls for nothing greater than a 10-mph breeze, even that can stir up the massive reservoir. During practice, the winds were relentless, making it difficult to truly work through areas quickly.
It'll be the circuit's third trip to the historic impoundment in the last 4 years, so there's very little in the way of secrets. Dean Rojas beat Gerald Swindle by an ounce in April 2011, finishing with 70-15. The following year, Brent Chapman prevailed during his Angler of the Year season with an 83-09 total that included a pair of 23-pound-plus stringers.
With the lake fishing as well as it is and the number of quality fish swimming around, it's conceivable to think the winner this week will need at least two 20-pound sacks to his credit. There are many known community holes, particularly around vegetation, and those figure to get plenty of attention this week as the season reaches its halfway point.
For some competitors, this marks the start of a three-events-in-three-weeks stretch. The Toyota Texas Bass Classic is slated for next week at Lake Fork before the Elite Series visits Lake Dardanelle in Russellville, Ark., the following week.
Before getting into more about the bite, here's the lowdown on the lake itself.
BassFan Lake Profile
> Lake Name: Toledo Bend
> Type of Water: Reservoir
> Surface Acres: 200,000-plus when full (the largest man-made impoundment in the South)
> Primary structure/cover: Flooded timber, ledges, brushpiles, grass
> Primary forage: Shad, crawfish
> Average depth: 15 feet
> Species: Largemouths and spotted bass
> Length limit: 14 inches (largemouth), 12 inches (spotted bass)
> Reputation: A legendary fishery that's developed more of a reputation as a big-fish factory in recent years.
> Weather: Barely a cloud in the forecast. Expected to be warm and sunny right through Sunday with very light winds.
> Water temp: Low to mid 70s generally; some spots are still in the 60s
> Water visibility/color: 4 to 6 feet in general with a good color most everywhere else
> Water level: About a foot below normal summer pool
> Fish in: 0 to 18 feet, with some still on beds
> Fish phase: Pre-spawn, spawn and post-spawn
> Primary patterns: Cranking, flipping and pitching, spinnerbaits, swimbaits, Texas- or Carolina-rigged plastics, topwaters, sight-fishing, jerkbaits
> Winning weight: 83 pounds (4 days)
> Cut weight (Top 12 after 3 days): 43 pounds
> Check weight (Top 50 after 2 days): 26 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 4 for Toledo Bend
> Biggest factor: Big bites. With the wind forecasted to be calm, the focus will be on the giants that swim at Toledo Bend. A 7-pounder or better each day will be crucial to making a run at a win.
> Wildcard: North end. It got blown out on Sunday by the wind, but if it rounds back into form it could produce.
Around the Bend
Current FLW Tour pro and former Elite Series angler Clark Reehm, who lives in nearby Huntington and finished 2nd at the Toledo Bend Texas Rayovac Series last month (he would've won had it not been for a dead-fish penalty), anticipates this week's event mirroring the 2011 event moreso than the 2012 tournament simply because the timing is closer on the calendar and because of how the seasons have lagged behind this year.
Toledo Bend is a goliath 80-mile long reservoir along the Sabine River between Texas and Louisiana.
"The fish are so far behind with the cold winter we had," Reehm said. "It snowed here four different times during four different weeks. It got so cold for so long through February. Typically, we see a big wave move up (to spawn) in February, but this year it seemed like that was delayed until March. Right now, there's a quite a few on the south end to be caught sight-fishing even though I think the majority of fish will be post-spawn.
"I think it'll be a combo deal, much like when (Dean) Rojas won here," he added. "He caught some big fish on a topwater and jerkbaits really dominated that event. This week is going to be a wide-open event and guys are going to be able to catch them any way they want to. I think it'll be the best event of the year as far as guys getting to do what they want to do."
And that includes some bed-fishing. Still, the prevailing thought is that the winning stringers will be made up largely of post-spawners, but there are fish literally everywhere and the playing field is somewhat leveled out, which is a contrast to the 2012 event in which the fish were grouped up more out deep.
"It's going to be a combination of things and bed-fishing will be a factor this week," Reehm said. "Can someone get 4 days' worth of bites doing it, who knows, but some guys will contribute a few fish off beds."
A bit of a cold front blew in Monday night and pushed the overnight lows into the 40s most of the week, meaning the water temps won't make any significant jumps until possibly the weekend when warmer nights return.
Toledo Bend has long been known as a big-bass fishery. The quantity is now starting to catch up to the quality.
"The lake is as good as it's ever been for quality," said Reehm, who fished the Elite Series from 2008-13. "Hands down, it's better than (Sam) Rayburn now."
To promote and preserve the bass fishing at Toledo Bend, the Toledo Bend Lake Association has been sponsoring a Lunker Bass catch-and-release program that rewards anglers who catch a 10-pounder with a replica mount. Last season, which ran from June 2012 to May 2013, produced a record 58 bass weighing 10 pounds or more. With a couple weeks left in this season's program it ends May 14 the mark was eclipsed on April 27 when the 59th 10-pounder was certified.
Among the anglers who've caught a 10-pounder at Toledo Bend this year is Elite Series pro Dennis Tietje, who stuck a 10.05-pounder on Feb. 13. Noted Toledo Bend guide Darold Gleason has registered three 10-pounders this year, the biggest being an 11.71-pound brute that came in early April.
"We will see a double-digit fish this week, maybe more than one," Reehm said. "A man that doesn't have them real good on day 1 could get right back into it with a bite like that. The potential is there to have a giant bag.
"There are a ton of fish in the lake and a lot of 2-pound fish, too. People look at Toledo Bend and Rayburn and see all the giant fish being caught, but a lot of guys in local derbies still come in with 10 or 12 pounds and even then they'll have a 4-pounder to get them to that point."
Dean Rojas has a soft spot in his heart for Toledo Bend and this week he'll be looking for his third career win on the massive reservoir.
Notes from the Field
Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll be competing this week.
"I have a couple things going on that I can catch some fish, but it's one of those things where you're on a lake you know real well and you've fished it for a ton for years and you have a way you want to catch them when you get here. Well, that ain't working. It's not the typical Toledo Bend for this time of year. It's like the whole country. It's behind by maybe 2 or 3 weeks.
"I was expecting to catch them in 12 to 18 feet in the grass, but I can't get it going. That's where they go when they get done, but I can't put it together like I want to. There are plenty of ways to catch them right now. It's just hard to target big ones.
"This winter was phenomenal. I had a guide trip over here before I left for Florida and we caught over 30 pounds a day. I figured I could come back and find those fish post-spawn, but I went into that area and can't even get a bite in there. We're going to catch a ton of fish, but targeting the big ones will be hard. Some will be caught, I have no doubt, but they'll be random."
"Practice was okay. I got some bites. I'm not 100 percent sure how things are going to go. It seems like things are changing a little bit. They're hard to keep up with right now. It seems like you're going to need a couple different patterns going to do well.
"There's just a lot more shoreline cover than there has been in previous years and the fish have a lot more room, which is a great thing for the fishery. The fishing overall has been pretty good. I've caught some fish way out, but I'm not sure if that's where they're going or if they're coming back. I don't know yet."
"Everything is a little behind and we're here earlier than we were (in 2012). There are still fish on beds and there's nothing out deep like when we were here before. We were catching them in 20 to 25 feet and deeper. They just haven't made it there yet. I think there will be some fish caught sight-fishing.
"There is a lot more grass than last time we were here. The only grass I remember was on the lower south end and some grass around mid-lake. If you get around grass, you're around fish, which means you're around people. A few places I got bites (Tuesday), I was within talking distance of two or three boats.
"One of the places I caught them last time, I went in and fished it, got a bite and left. That's where I'll start. What's there I don't know. I made three casts, got a bite and left. If they're there it could be really good, but it's a different year. I've gotten bites shallow and in the grass and I've been out Carolina-rigging. You can go down the bank and get bites, move out to 10 to 12 feet and get bites and out deeper, too, but there are not as many as 2012."
"This lake is a giant. I think it's going to be a more shallow deal or not too far off the bank. It's not been that great for me. I was expecting it to be a lot better. I'm thinking 15 pounds (a day) could be looking good with 17 or 18 a day winning.
"There are a lot of fish just off the bed and they're not yet in their feeding mode. They're in that weird mode right after the spawn. I've been trying to find where they're coming to. I know there's some up on beds, but I'm trying to prepare for what's going to happen, not what's happening now. That's a tricky deal.
"There is a ton of grass and that gives them a lot of places to hide. I'm catching a ton of fish. It's just hard to get a 3-pounder right now. All the community holes will get a lot of pressure. I'm trying to find stuff off away from that. There are so many tournaments on this lake and those areas are good for a reason because that's where the tournaments are won."
"The fish are everywhere and very tough to catch. I think it warmed up too quick. There are plenty of fish done spawning and plenty trying to spawn, but there aren't a lot of big ones on beds, at least from I found. I have 10 rods on the front deck so it's one of those deals. Some fish are out, some are in and they're doing all kinds of things. We're right in that weird deal that makes it tough to get on a pattern.
"I think, overall, weights will be down. Weights are never great this time of year and this won't be much different. The wind has been howling and today it was just unbearable. You were almost afraid to run your boat around with all this timber. I think we'll see a few 20-pound bags and someone with 23 or 24 pounds will be leading after day 1. From there, a guy who can catch a 4 or 5 each day and have a decent limit around 18 pounds will probably do well, but I don't see it taking 80 to win.
"I'll catch a couple here and there, but it's won't be a slugfest for me unless I get something going tomorrow. You can go into one creek and the water temp is 80 and run into the next one and it's 68. It's just weird."
"I'm kind of confused on things right now. I expected it to be a lot better than it has been. With the water up as high as it is and with the winter lasting longer and things being behind, I think the fish are spread out. There are a lot of fish deep and a lot of fish shallow. It's been hard to get on one solid pattern. I haven't been able to find anywhere where the fish are really ganged up. It's not going to be a tournament with three or four rods and call it good. I'll have 10 to 12 rods out and probably throw all of them.
"The water doesn't seem like it's as clear as it was a couple years ago and I haven't been able to tell if the fish are biting better in the dirtier water than the clear areas. There will definitely be guys fishing grass. Anytime you're at Toledo Bend, especially in the spring and especially when you have grass from the bank out to 20 feet, it's going to come into play somewhere."
"The fishing is just sporadic right now. The last two times we were here I feel like the fishing was better. I felt like the fish were ganged up more than they are now and you could get on some things better."
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. Dean Rojas He's won twice at Toledo Bend and feels as comfortable there as any other stop on tour. His versatility will be a big key this week as he looks to shake off a 97th at Table Rock.
2. Todd Faircloth Sam Rayburn is more his backyard, but Faircloth, who's 5th in AOY points, was a Top-20 finisher the last two times the Elite Series came to Toledo, plus he won just down the road at the Sabine River last year.
Matt Reed has been surprised at how far behind some of the fish at Toledo Bend are this week.
3. Keith Combs With the Toyota Texas Bass Classic slated for next week at Lake Fork, we fully expect Combs to be in big-fish mode this week. He should be in a comfort zone being he's close to home.
4. Mark Davis After three straight Top-3s to start the year, it's hard to pick against the AOY points leader. He took 7th in 2012 here, plus he's historically strong during this time of year.
5. Brett Hite Hasn't fished Toledo Bend a whole lot, but his proficiency on grass lakes, especially this year, is second to none. He's also looking to snap out of a four-event funk since his win at Seminole.
6. Kevin VanDam With the lake fishing wide open, expect him to go with his strength offshore as he looks to keep the momentum wave going after a Top-5 at Table Rock.
7. Stephen Browning Fresh off an Open win over on the Red River last week, he says he's going to continue to fish his strengths and not take risks now that he's made the 2015 Classic. He'll have plenty of options to fish shallow this week.
8. Greg Hackney He's been on a tear recently (aside from a bomb at the Beaver Lake FLW Tour), and Toledo squares up nicely with his repertoire, plus he was 4th there in 2012.
9. Gerald Swindle If there's a week and a lake where someone can run around and do a little bit of everything, this is it and Swindle, who's quietly had a good start to his season (9th in AOY points), would love to capture Elite Series win No. 1 at the lake where he lost by an ounce 3 years ago.
10. Dennis Tietje He owns a place on the lake and earlier this year caught a 10-pounder, so he knows where some big ones live. His local knowledge might give him an upper hand, something he needs as he comes in 91st in points.
> Anglers will launch at 7:20 a.m. ET each day from Cypress Bend Park (3462 Cypress Bend Dr., Many, LA). Weigh-ins each day will get under way at 4:15 p.m. at Cypress Bend Park (same address).
> Thurs., May 1 Mostly Sunny 73°/48°
- Wind: From the NW at 5 to 10 mph
> Fri., May 2 Mostly Sunny 77°/50°
- Wind: From the NW at 5 mph
> Sat., May 3 Sunny 84°/55°
- Wind: From the SW at 5 to 10 mph
> Sun., May 4 Clear 85°/68°
- Wind: From the SW at 5 to 10 mph
> Kevin Short and Byron (B.J.) Haseotes will not be competing this week. Short returned home to Mayflower, Ark., earlier this week to tend to damage done to his home by a tornado. Haseotes is home with a medical condition that's preventing him from fishing this week.
> Brent Chapman didn't stumble upon a honey hole in practice this week like he did when he won at Toledo Bend in June 2012, but he's hopeful what he did find pans out this week. To read his practice recap in BassFan's ProView Report, click here.