It is hard to look at Bassmaster’s 100 Best Bass Lakes rankings and see New York’s St. Lawrence River sitting in the No. 1 spot.
I admit to a home state bias. I admit to a regional bias. Maybe it is because I am still out of sorts over a Chicago company taking control of Whataburger. When I think of bass fishing, I think of year-round fishing for big largemouth bass, not some place where they can’t catch smallmouths half the year because the weather is too cold or you have to fish around cargo ships. Or a place where between December and much of June you can’t keep a bass because the season is closed.
If Texas’ Sam Rayburn Reservoir is going to drop out of the top spot I am good with it trailing Alabama’s Lake Guntersville, but falling to third behind the St. Lawrence River and Guntersville is hard to take.
It helps that Lake Fork was listed No. 5 on the top 10 nationwide list of lakes. So does a regional list in which Texas had a total of 10 lakes.
B.A.S.S. explains the lists were decided by input from state fisheries agencies along with tournament results. Rounding out the national top 10 list was Clear Lake, California, as No. 4 and Tennessee’s Chickamauga Lake, California’s New Melones Lakes, Michigan’s Lake St. Clair, South Carolina’s Santee Cooper Lakes and New York’s Lake Erie as six through 10.
Texas was placed in the Central region lakes. Texas lakes making that list along with Rayburn and Fork include Toledo Bend, Falcon, Conroe, Caddo, Lyndon B. Johnson, Ray Roberts, Texoma and Lake O’the Pines.
There really is no debate about Rayburn being the best bass lake in the state. It has been on a run in recent years and shows no signs of slowing down.
It has become easier to question Lake Fork’s status until remembering it was judged at a level much greater than any lake anywhere. It has slipped and now is just as good as the very best, but still better than most.
“Does Fork still have the potential to duplicate its heyday in the 90s? No,” said Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Fisheries biologist Jake Norman. “But there are some basic principles in ecology driving that and they really can’t be broken. The reservoir deserves the fifth-place ranking it received right now despite the downside of increased fishing pressure from increased national attention. I feel confident there are less than five lakes in the country that have the potential to produce the fish or fishing trip of a lifetime 12 months out of the year, and Fork is without a doubt one of those five.”
Norman said there can be tough days on the lake, but when it is right the chances to catch an 8-pounder or better are probably as good at Fork as anywhere.
He added that the new lake phenomenon that has occurred since the end of the 2015 drought is just now kicking in. Statistically it takes an average of three years for bass on the lake to reach 16 inches, and those fish are starting to show up. It should be a sustained turnaround because there have been four consecutive strong year classes.
Looking at the results of this year’s Skeeter Owners tournament last month shows an upward trend. Held under perfect post-spawn conditions, Norman said fishermen weighed an event-record 29 bass over the slot in a day and a half.
Being almost 70,000 acres larger than Rayburn, it is always surprising that Toledo Bend never really stacks up as well.
“I think it’s primarily due to quantity of habitat during the spring and early summer when cover is so important for bass fingerlings to avoid predation,” said TPWD Fisheries biologist Mark Webb. “Rayburn, being a flood-control lake, often has thousands of flooded acres of trees, bushes and other semi-terrestrials when the lake gets high. During extreme events, the front edge of the flooded trees can be over 10 feet deep at Rayburn. During an average year, the flooded cover will be 4 to 6 feet deep. This leads to extremely strong year-classes of bass essentially every year.”
Webb said in comparison Toledo Bend might come up a couple of feet. He said declining vegetation like hydrilla is also a factor because it provides less cover for small fish and making it easier to target legal fish, which are often kept on Toledo Bend.
“Our last three creel survey years reflect high angler harvest rates at Toledo Bend (42-68 percent). Compare this to the 25-30 percent harvest rate at Rayburn,” Webb noted.
Caddo and Pines are two of the East Texas old-timers on the list. TPWD Fisheries district biologist Tim Bister makes an argument for both being on the list.
“Caddo has a long history of producing big bass. There is plenty of prey fish in the lake, which translates to good growth and body condition. TPWD and Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries stock Florida largemouth bass in the lake to enhance the quality of the genetics in the bass population,” Bister said. He added that the Texas side has produced some good bass the last couple of years while giant salvinia coverage has been down.
In the case of Pines, he said the lake has consistently plodded along for years, and recent surveys show an increase in the number of bass above 14 inches, which should mean even better quality in the coming years.
TPWD manages about 130 lakes 1,000 acres and larger around the state. More than half of those have produced Toyota ShareLunkers over the years showing how spread out the quality of bass fishing is in the state.
“The Texas lakes on that list are all worthy. There are many other Texas lakes that could be considered in that company. It depends on the criteria used and the given year’s habitat conditions as to how any ranked list would be formulated,” said Craig Bonds, TPWD Fisheries Division Director.
Since the department does not gather tournament data, its best indicator of statewide quality is the revamped ShareLunker program. This past season, bass 8 pounds and larger were placed in the program from lakes as far north as MacKenzie, just south of Amarillo, to Falcon in the south, Amistad to the west back to Toledo Bend.
“I’d never sleep on perennial high performers such as lakes Athens, Palestine, Nacogdoches, Naconiche, Alan Henry, Amistad, Stillhouse Hollow, Travis, Austin and others. Replenishing rainfall has alleviated drought and golden algae concerns in several perennial, or at least historic, all-star lakes out in the western part of the state, such as O.H. Ivie, Possum Kingdom, Oak Creek, E.V. Spence, Twin Buttes, Fort Phantom Hill, Amon G. Carter and others. These latter lakes are poised for breakout years in the very near future,” Bonds said.