Top Spots for Fall Bass
Please note the publication date of this article. Statistics and seasonal information were accurate at the time of publication. Check links provided for the most current information.
By Larry D. Hodge
Published in Texas Sportsman, October 2006
Sometime in the middle of the nineteenth century, newspaper editor Horace Greeley advised, “Go West, young man, go West!”
That’s still good advice for bass anglers in Texas. In fact, this fall and probably for several falls to come, the bass fishing action in West Texas promises to be some of the best you’re likely to see in your lifetime. The reason has four letters and—sometimes—falls from the sky even in parched West Texas: rain.
Rains in 2002, 2003 and 2004 replenished a host of West and South Texas reservoirs that had been suffering the effects of a 10-year drought, including Lakes Amistad, Choke Canyon, Falcon, O.C. Fisher, Clyde, O.H. Ivie, New Ballinger, Oak Creek and Twin Buttes.
At that point another four letters came into play: TPWD. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Inland Fisheries Division placed lakes with rising levels on the priority list for stocking, and those fish already are or soon will be catchable size. “Our theory for stocking under these conditions is that survival of young fish is enhanced,” said TPWD regulations director Ken Kurzawski. “If we are stocking Floridas, their survival will be better than average, and that will increase the chances of their genes getting into the population to produce bigger fish.”
The result over the next several yeas will be bass fishing unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. Anglers are reporting—and I’ve personally experienced—20-, 30-, 50-fish days on lakes where you could hardly buy a fish three years ago. On a memorable trip to Amistad last year, I was part of a four-member party that boated more than 100 fish the first day and nearly 200 the next.
The Good Old Day of Bass Fishing Are Now
It won’t always be that good, of course, but Bobby Farquhar, TPWD’s Inland Fisheries regional director for West Texas, had this to say: “Right now is the time we have all been waiting for. The drought of the mid- to late 1990s that lasted until around 2002-2003 and is just now breaking for some lakes caused us to go through some pretty rough times. But when the rains came, it was like we had new lakes. I think the next few years should be some of the best bass fishing ever experienced in South and West Texas. This is the time the anglers should take advantage of the conditions, because we never know when the next down period will occur.”
The conditions Farquhar referred to have to do with improved fish habitat that resulted from higher lake levels. Consider Lake Amistad, for example. For several years you could cross the U.S. 277 bridge across the San Pedro Canyon north of Del Rio and not even be able to see water. Last fall I caught a 7-pound bass out of a hydrilla bed east of that bridge in 22 feet of water.
When it comes to fish in general and bass in particular, habitat is everything. Bass need shallow water to spawn in, and baby bass need vegetation to hide in until they have a chance to grow up. When lakes are low for a long period of time, lots of weeds and brush grow up in the dry lake bottom, and when the water comes back up, it’s like a new lake. Fish move into the flooded shallow vegetation, spawn, and raise tremendous numbers of young. And because they have cover and food, those young fish grow quickly, especially in warm South and West Texas where warm temperatures allow fish to feed and grow year-around.
Where Bass Have Boomed
Amistad is just one of the lakes to bounce back. “Falcon is absolutely chock full of young fish as a result of the water level increase and newly created habitat,” said Randy Myers, TPWD district biologist in charge of both Amistad and Falcon. “As long as water stays over the top of some of the brush, the habitat will be there to produce quality size fish in the near future.” In early 2006 creel surveys showed bass anglers averaging nine fish per 8-hour day with many reporting 50-fish days.
Choke Canyon is another success story. Two weeks before an unexpected rain event in July 2002, TPWD stocked 384,236 Florida largemouth bass fingerlings into Choke Canyon. “That was still a drop in the bucket compared to what nature put in the following spring because of better habitat for spawning,” said John Findeisen, the TPWD Inland Fisheries district biologist whose beat includes Choke Canyon. “In September 2002, after the lake had been full only six or eight weeks, we found native vegetation all over the lake. The following spring, hydrilla came on strong, and later that year another 180,014 Florida fingerlings were stocked.
“In 2003 the creel surveys showed lots of fish in the 8- to 12-inch range, and we were collecting about 93 bass per hour compared to 56 before the 2002 rise,” Findeisen continued. “In the spring of 2004 we saw a lot of fish in the 14-inch range, and by summer anglers were reporting lots of 15-to 17-inch fish. In the spring of 2005 the doors opened up. The average tournament fish was about 3.5 pounds, with lots of fish in the 7- to 10-pound range. One angler caught 9-, 11- and 12-pounders on the same day, and in March 2005 we had a Budweiser ShareLunker, a 13.26-pound fish.”
Findeisen looks for Choke Canyon to continue to improve as long as water levels remain near conservation pool. “I don’t think we’ve hit carrying capacity on the reservoir yet,” he said. “My expectation is the next two years will be incredible, with more double-digit fish than ever before. This is the longest period of time Choke Canyon has stayed at or near conservation pool level, and that means good spawns and tremendous growth.”
Lakes around San Angelo rose sharply in the falls of 2004 and 2005 and were stocked with huge numbers of Florida largemouth bass in succeeding years. Among those receiving stockings were Lake Clyde (45,277 fingerlings), Colorado City (206,049 fingerlings), E.V. Spence (374,077 fingerlings), New Ballinger (31,161 fingerlings), Oak Creek (133,837 fingerlings), O.C. Fisher (146,478 fingerlings and 239 adults) and Twin Buttes (150,017 fingerlings and 430 adults). By the time you read this, additional stockings will have been carried out.
What all this means for you is lots of naïve fish eager to bite your baits. Forget everything you may have heard about Florida bass being harder to catch than native northern largemouths. When they’re hungry—and like all teenagers, young fish are always hungry—Florida largemouths will eat your lunch and everything else you throw at them. Fishing with Ray Hanselman, Jr., on Amistad last September, we caught fish within seconds every time we drop-shotted a plastic worm into hydrilla in 20 to 24 feet of water. Then the water started to boil as 1- to 2-pound bass started hitting silversides on the surface. Hanselman continued drop-shotting, and I started chunking a small topwater into the melee. In 30 minutes we caught 27 fish, and I had to quit because my thumbs were so sore from lipping bass.
And now are you ready for some REALLY good news? By the time you read this, fall will have arrived—or be about to—and since winter is barely on speaking terms with South and much of West Texas, you can look forward to five months of excellent fishing weather while all the deer and quail hunters are off the water and in the woods.
Tips and Techniques
Repeat after me: Bass love hydrilla. Bass love hydrilla. On both Choke Canyon and Amistad, you won’t go wrong targeting hydrilla. Choke Canyon, being shallower, has more visible hydrilla; on Amistad you may have to use your electronics to find it. Native vegetation such as stargrass, coontail and eelgrass will always hold fish and many times larger fish, but in lakes subject to wide fluctuations in water level, these preferred plants won’t always be present in large amounts. But put some hydrilla in a lake and add water, and you have fish habitat almost instantly. In addition to adding cover, vegetation adds oxygen to the water and attracts baitfish, which use it as cover. It’s like a buffet for bass. If you were a largemouth, you’d hang out around aquatic vegetation, too.
Just any old hydrilla won’t do, however. Water depth and the location of the hydrilla are important. If you can find hydrilla near standing timber or a creek channel, fish it. Experiment at different depths until you find fish, then stick with that pattern. You may find fish only in hydrilla beds in 16 to 18 feet of water in the drains between points, or they may be holding on the bottom in flats with 20 to 22 feet of water. Wherever they are, remember that any given fish at any given moment is going to be exactly where it wants to be. You don’t need to know why, just where.
One way to increase your odds is to target hydrilla that reaches from the surface of the water all the way to the bottom. Rig a plastic worm so it stands out perpendicular to your line about a foot above a 1-ounce weight and fish it straight down under the boat. Or use a Texas-rigged heavy jig—at least 1.25-ounce—and pitch it 8 or 10 feet from the boat and let it free-spool through the grass all the way to the bottom. The bass will hear the bait tearing through the vegetation and pounce on it.
Sometimes it works best to fish the edges of the grass, sometimes the pockets, sometimes the top. Once you find what works, rig up several rods and go back to the same place as quickly as you can after catching a fish. Often the ones that missed out the first time will take your second offering.
Also remember when fishing hydrilla that a stout rod and stouter line are essential. When you hang an 8-pound bass and it wraps itself in 10 or 12 pounds of water-logged plants, finesse is not involved in getting it to the surface. Sheer horsepower is. A heavy rod and braided line in the 35- to 80-pound range are minimum. Make sure you don’t wave bye-bye to the fish of a lifetime because your line broke.
One thing that will make your life a lot simpler and let you keep your bait in water more—and catch more fish--is a bait-keeper that will keep your plastic lure from slipping down the hook when reeled through the hydrilla. One developed especially for fishing Texas lakes is called Hold-Onz and is available at Amistad- and Falcon-area bait shops. It can make one plastic bait last for hours.
The Stocking Story
Natural spawns, when they occur, produce the majority of fish in a lake. TPWD uses stocking to supplement natural production and jump-start fisheries in new or recently refilled lakes. In a few extreme cases in West Texas, lakes went completely dry or nearly so. [To find out where bass have been stocked in recent years, visit the TPWD stocking reports page.]
Predictions from the Pros
“Falcon Reservoir will have plenty of fish this fall and for at least a couple of years even if the water level drops,” said TPWD Inland Fisheries district biologist Randy Myers. “You can catch fish in the brush all year long, but when fall comes, you can also catch them on ledges and deep points. The big colors are watermelon seed or watermelon red Brush Hogs. Another good bet is to slow-roll a big, white spinnerbait with double willow-leaf gold blades across brush in 10 to 15 feet of water.”
Professional angler and guide Ray Hanselman, Jr., lives in Del Rio and calls Amistad his home lake. He was guiding angler Jason Baird when the Kansas resident caught Budweiser ShareLunker No. 400 from Amistad in February. “Drop heavy jigs and creature baits into deep hydrilla in the center of drains,” Hanselman advised. “The fish could be in 20, 25 or 30 feet of water depending on the lake level. The topwater bite will be good in the backs of little coves. Also try crankbaits in a bluegill pattern over the outside top edge of the hydrilla. For plastics, the best colors will be greens and browns. Senkos and flukes fished slowly over the grass will also produce.”
Hanselman says Amistad has slowly been getting better the last seven years and is probably the best it’s ever been right now. “You can expect to catch a lot of 5- to 7-pound fish,” he predicted.
Mandy Scott, assistant district supervisor for the area that includes Lake O.H. Ivie, says the lake has done an about-face over the last year. “On the creel surveys I did this spring, it was typical to see 20, 30, 40 fish a day, with several over 18 inches,” she said. “In the recent past, people were catching no 18-inchers at all.” Also in the last year, Scott said, hydrilla in the lake increased from about 200 acres to more than 2,000 acres, and that’s a good thing for fishing.
“One good spot is the hydrilla in front of Padgitt Park,” added John Ingle, a fish and wildlife technician who works with Scott. “Use frog-imitating lures as topwaters early. Once the water starts cooling off in the fall, run upriver and hit them with white spinnerbaits around mesquite trees or tick the tops of hydrilla beds with small crankbaits. When fishing around flooded saltcedar, used braided line or heavy fluorocarbon and check your line and retie often.” If you get tired of catching smallish black bass, tie on a crappie jig and go after white bass in the shallows.
District supervisor John Findeisen says you’ll find Choke Canyon fish just about anywhere there are hydrilla mats on top of the water. “If you can find timber mixed with the hydrilla, that’s the best,” he said. “Flip to the trunk of the tree rather than the outside branches, and use braided line.” Hot locations on Choke Canyon in the fall include Four Fingers, Possum Creek, the North Shore boat ramp cove, the South Shore flats, Hog Island and Huisache Island. But Findeisen says don’t ignore the south shore above the Highway 99 bridge. “There’s quite a bit of rock and gravel up there, and during fall electrofishing last year we found quite a few 4-pound bass up there,” he revealed.
Nature pulls strange tricks from time to time, and during the last year East Texas lakes shrank while South and West Texas lakes swelled. Fishing will boom in East Texas when those lakes refill, just as happened in southern and western parts of the state. When that happens, you’ll have even more great places to fish.
Texas bass fishing. You’ve gotta love it.
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