I said it aloud, although I was alone in my home.
I had just checked the outcome of this year’s Toyota Texas Bass Classic and could hardly believe my eyes. Once again Keith Combs took home the top prize in the all-star event, but it was his winning weight that caused such a stir.
For the 3-day tournament held on Lake Fork, Combs weighed 15 bass for an unheard-of 110 pounds. That’s well over a 7-pound average per bass, easily the largest in the history of the major tournaments.
That’s a bigger average than the recent Okeechobee beat-downs, bigger than Guntersville has ever been, bigger than Clear Lake, and even bigger than the monster-fest at Falcon a few years back.
From the results, it’s evident Lake Fork is one of the best, if not THE best, big bass fishery on the planet. Briefing the tournament report and top finishers’ stories, it seemed as though 8- and 9-pounders could be ordered at a carry-out window.
Sure I, like many BassFans, remember Fork bursting onto the scene in the late '80s. Seventeen and 18-pounders made the cover of BassMaster. For the first time, there was real talk of a world record being produced somewhere outside of California. The Texas Top-50 big bass list was, literally, rewritten in a matter of a decade.
Gradually things cooled down, or so they seemed. Recent publicity has been centered on other locales (the aforementioned G-Ville and Big O), as well as the smallmouth meccas of the North. So where has Fork been all along? And is it really that good?
I called Kevin Storey, the management supervisor of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's District 3B, which includes Lake Fork. I posed a simple but bold question, considering all we’ve recently been taught. “Is Lake Fork the best trophy bass lake in Texas?”
His answer was a straightforward yes, judging by history. While other fisheries get hot and receive the corresponding ink, Fork just “keeps chugging along,” producing literally thousands of trophy bass over time.
My questions were endless for Storey, as I still couldn’t comprehend that I hadn’t been clued in earlier. I, like many, fished Fork a time or two, but wasn’t overly impressed. I guess I was missing the boat.
Storey gave me a brief history lesson. Lake Fork was impounded in 1980 and stocked with Florida-strain bass. Since that time, a few key factors have been at least partially responsible for its incredible ability to produce trophy fish:
> Lake Fork has always had a stringent slot limit, which has changed over time to further protect large bass, and currently covers fish from 16 to 24 inches.
> The catch-and-release mentality among Fork’s bass fishermen is “almost fanatical," as Storey phrased it, and very few trophies are removed from the system.
Like most lunker fans, I’ve followed the storied advancement of Texas onto the scene of trophy bass management. Years ago, I spoke with several outside biologists who were skeptical of the then-progressive thinking of spawning genetically superior fish through the Texas ShareLunker program, in which biologists use giants for brood stock. In fact, Texas has repeatedly gone out on a limb within the fishery management community with its management approach. Right from the get-go, it made it well known that bass were No 1.
“The agency has a long history of being proactive” Storey added. “(They) have worked for a long time to encourage the development of trophy fisheries."
Remember, there is always pressure from constituents to manage for numerous species and uses within a public resource. Going all-in for bass is likely much easier said than done. But long ago, some very smart people recognized the potential of gearing a large percentage of management dollars toward America’s No. 1 gamefish. And now Texas is reaping the rewards.
“Initially there may have been some criticism,” Storey said, but now, “conservation agencies around the country have expressed interest in what we are doing."
No kidding. You’re growing giant bass in every corner of the state…
Another factor I had to bring up, that went somewhat along with usage issues, was aquatic vegetation. I found it funny that, when Storey offered his viewpoint, it was like speaking with a bass fisherman rather than a state fisheries manager.
“We are adult enough to know that that component (hydrilla) is important to Lake Fork, and we have always encouraged it,” he surprisingly said. “Hopefully the hydrilla will come back."
Hydrilla has come and gone in Lake Fork through the years, the cause of which remains a mystery to anglers and managers alike. Surprisingly, TPWD has been blamed for spraying hydrilla when, in fact, all it treats for are water hyacinths.
I briefly daydreamed: Fisheries managers who stock Floridas, eliminate the harvest of any bass between about 3 and 9 pounds, are in favor of hydrilla, and, for the most part, place bass and bass fishing above other usages in select trophy waters. Somebody poke me.
Fork continues to be a hawg factory; that much is evident. But perhaps the TTBC anglers’ approach to the fishery also had something to do with the recent monster catches. During our conversation, Storey made it a point to mention that some local anglers have recently been down on Lake Fork, complaining that their catch rates were off from the norm.
Perhaps the top touring anglers took a different approach. Describing the TTBC’s top finishers, Storey pointed out that these anglers “came in with a completely open mind” and that may have been the key component.
I immediately thought back to the Bassmaster events in the mid-'90s when the pros first visited Minnetonka. At the time, a lot of press was generated by the ability of the Southern fishermen to apply their favorite techniques to an “unknown” fishery. I remember Jim Bitter, David Fritts and Davy Hite among the leaders, and the events dominated by Carolina-rigging outside grass lines.
Maybe the recent Lake Fork mash-up was similar. The world’s best took to the lake and showed everybody how truly special it is. Maybe now the trophy-chasers will again add Fork to their list of stops, leaving behind the overcrowded and overrated others.
The lake really put on a show for fans like me. But in Texas, the land where everything’s bigger, it was just business as usual.
(Joe Balog is the often outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)