Big Sam Is Back

Is the sun rising or setting on Sam Rayburn Reservoir?

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, June 2004

You’ve heard the saying, “What goes up must come down.” Sam Rayburn Reservoir proves the reverse is also true: What goes down must come back up—at least when you are talking about bass fishing.

Fishing on Big Sam has rebounded since largemouth bass virus (LMBV) killed a number of big fish in the summer of 1998. Records from the McDonald’s tournament held annually on the East Texas reservoir show that the 240 fish weighed in over a three-day period averaged 6.7 pounds in the five years preceding the kill. In 2003, five years later, the 240 fish averaged 6.07 pounds.

That’s each.

Rayburn Rocks When It Swings

“In order to have a good bass lake, you have to have habitat, and your better habitat comes from terrestrial vegetation,” says Will Kirkpatrick, who started guiding parttime on the lake in 1974 and has lived and guided there fulltime since retiring in 1986. That third of a century of experience on Rayburn gives him valuable perspective on the lake’s ups and downs.

“Early in spring, when fish move into shallow water to spawn, you need habitat that will protect and nourish the fry for the first four or five months of their lives, and Rayburn has almost always had high water levels in the spring,” Kirkpatrick explains. “When the lake gets down to, say, 158 feet as it did in December 2003, 17,000 acres of its 750-mile shoreline are exposed and grow up in grass and buckbrush. This provides the habitat for the fry and grows the nutrients they need.”

While drought might seem to be a bad thing for a lake—and if you’ve ever run over a barely submerged stump and taken a hunk out of your boat you might agree—wide swings in water level are sometimes a good thing for a fishery. “The years the lake has gotten really low—1976, 1977, and 1978—were what brought Rayburn back from its first slump, after the new lake effect wore off,” Kirkpatrick says. “In 1988 it got down to elevation 151, and grass and brush grew up on 35,000 acres. All the big fish caught in the mid-1990s were spawned in that vegetation when the lake came back up.”

Records of lake level fluctuations show wide swings between high and low levels from one year to the next. Some years the difference is only four feet or so, but more often it’s in the teens, and the 35-year average is just shy of 11 feet. Most years Big Sam grows a lot of terrestrial vegetation and a lot of bass, and that’s why Kirkpatrick confirms that year in and year out, Sam Rayburn is the best bass lake in Texas and perhaps the nation, Lake Fork notwithstanding.

Summertime and the Fishing Is Fine

I got a taste of what Sam Rayburn has to offer last October, when I accompanied Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Todd Driscoll, Jules Smith and Ray Lenderman on an electrofishing expedition on the lake as part of an exploitation study I’ll talk more about later. While the majority of the hundreds of bass they netted, tagged and returned to the lake that night were healthy “footballs” in the two- to four-pound range, twice pandemonium broke out as two-foot-long, ten-pound-plus sows flashed white bellies as they rolled to the surface. Those lunkers, and many more like them, lurk in the lake. And June is the ideal time to go after them.

“By June the spawn is over, the fish have settled down, and their basic prey is threadfin shad,” says Kirkpatrick, who’s been fishing the lake since it was a mere five-year-old in 1970.

In addition to habitat for young fish, Rayburn has plenty of places for adult largemouths to live, and because it is a relatively shallow lake, you can target the fish and get lures in their strike zone any time of year. That fact lay behind Kirkpatrick’s choice of where to build his retirement home. He located on the huge peninsula that lies between the Angelina River and Ayish Bayou, south of Texas 147. “I am within two miles of three different boat launches with 17 ramps facing three different directions, so no matter what the wind is doing, there is always a place you can go to fish,” Kirkpatrick says, ticking off his favorites: Veach Basin, Needmore Flats, Farmers Flats, Caney Flats, Five Fingers.

“In June the lake will probably be a little above normal pool level of 164.4, and hydrilla beds will be about half grown, two to three feet below the surface,” says Kirkpatrick. “This makes for prime topwater and buzzbait fishing. Major points and flats will not be choked by hydrilla, making them ideal for fishing either Texas- or Carolina-rigged soft plastics. The outside edges of hydrilla are where crankbaits that run four to six feet deep will work.” He also favors walking baits, poppers, and slush baits, but he especially likes thin crankbaits in emerging hydrilla or in eel grass. “If you find eel grass, fish it,” he advises. “Bass will pick it over all other kinds of vegetation.” After catching two feisty bass off a point covered in eel grass, I have to admit he knows what he’s talking about.

Kirkpatrick uses his fish finder to target drop-offs where big fish hold in June. “The fish are starting to pull out into deeper water, so the closer you can stay to a creek and deep water, the bigger they will be,” he reveals. “I’ve caught over 100 fish over eight pounds, and all have come within casting distance of deep water. The main problem most people have when targeting big fish is using too small lures and not fishing slow enough. If you want to catch big fish, go big, slow, and deep.”

The first question most people ask about a big fish is, “What lure did you catch it on?” According to Kirkpatrick, that’s the last thing you should be concerned with. In fishing schools he’s run on Rayburn since 1989, he teaches students to record information on each fish they catch. “One of the most important things in fishing is knowing how to set a pattern,” he says. He teaches students to record what time of day, kind of holding cover (grass, hydrilla, stumps, etc.), structure (flats, points, creeks, humps, ridges, edges) and depth fish are caught. “If you know those four things, you can figure out what lure to use,” he says.

While topwaters and spinnerbaits work well in low light, bright conditions call for soft plastics. When I fished with Kirkpatrick last fall, we had two days of clear skies and little wind, and soft plastics were the best producers. Kirkpatrick rigged me a soft plastic jerk bait using a dog-eared sinker, and I caught two bass in three casts tiptoeing the bait through eel grass near the bank. In another spot he Texas-rigged a sickle-tailed worm and had me work it slowly through hydrilla, coaxing another fish into biting. All of the bites were subtle. Several times I hesitated when I felt a tug, thinking it might be grass, and found the tail on the bait roughened when I reeled it in. “When in doubt, jerk,” Kirkpatrick says.

“Often the secret with soft plastics is to work them slow, slower, and slower once your bait enters the cover,” Kirkpatrick advises. “The strike is usually either a light tap or you won’t be able to feel your bait. If you think you’re getting bites but you can’t hook up, try down-sizing your lure.” The shorter bait will generally solve short-striking problems.

My proudest catch was not that large, but it bore two pink plastic tags affixed during the electrofishing in October. That fish, and nearly 6,000 others wearing similar decorations, will play a key role in Sam Rayburn’s future.

Giving Big Sam a Hand

I ask Will Kirkpatrick what the biggest problem facing Sam Rayburn will be in the future, and he gives me a one-word answer: “Pressure.” In answer to my raised eyebrow, he expands. “There are a lot more of us now than there were 20 years ago, and we’re a lot better at what we do.” The Texas population is predicted to double in the next 30 years. More people catching more fish—often the same fish—will bring unprecedented pressure to bear on the lake.

While recreational fishers are responsible for part of the pressure on the fishery, tournaments are a major contributor. Rayburn is the number one tournament lake in Texas, hosting as many as 250 tournaments a year, some of which have 6,000 entrants. It’s easy to see why the lake is so popular. Due to Corps of Engineers restrictions, there is very little commercial lakeside development, and the lake sits in the middle of Angelina National Forest. The scenery is superb, and just the scent of pines wafting across the water in the early morning is reason enough to fish Rayburn.

One of the benefits of fishing is having fresh fish to eat, and keeping a few filleting-size bass can benefit the fishery by helping keep predator and prey numbers in balance. When you practice catch-and-release, however, you should handle fish as little as possible and get them back into the water quickly. Bring the fish to the side of the boat and then grasp it only by the lower lip. Lifting it clear of the water will generally stop it from flopping as you remove the hook and then gently lower it back into the water. Touching the fish removes its protective slime and often leads to infections. If you catch a bass that has a thumb-sized lesion on one side and four finger-sized ones on the other, you can be sure it was handled improperly.

“If we could just get all anglers and tournament directors to adhere to the guidelines in the booklet Keeping Bass Alive (available from B.A.S.S. by calling 334/272-9530), we could greatly improve the survival of caught fish,” Kirkpatrick says. The booklet gives detailed information on why bass die and complete instructions for proper handling of fish and maintaining them in livewells and at tournament weigh-ins.

Exploitation Is not a Dirty Word

“Exploitation is harvest, the removal of fish by anglers,” says Todd Driscoll, the TPWD district fisheries biologist in charge of Sam Rayburn for the last five years. There’s nothing wrong with exploitation—in fact, that’s why the fish were put there, and that’s why TPWD tries to manage the fishery so as to produce as many fish as possible. “Year in and year out, Sam Rayburn is very consistent in terms of bass numbers because of good recruitment in the spring,” Driscoll says. “Four out of five years we will have high spring water levels to inundate terrestrial vegetation and give young bass plenty of cover to hide out in. Two or three years down the road, those fish will be catchable. Overall, Sam Rayburn is extremely consistent in terms of the number of bass produced each year.”

Numbers of fish are just one part of the equation, however. Anglers, especially tournament anglers, also want to catch large fish. Big fish in Rayburn took a hit in 1998, when largemouth bass virus killed many fish over four pounds. “Since then, the reservoir has been recovering nicely,” Driscoll says. “It’s maybe 90 percent recovered. There’s no doubt, looking at creel surveys plus tournament results, that the size of fish has stabilized at what we saw pre-kill. Sam Rayburn is back.”

Keeping the fishery at its current high level of productivity with ample big fish is what the exploitation study now under way is all about. “Typically, exploitation refers to anglers keeping fish, taking them home to eat,” says Driscoll. “Sam Rayburn and a handful of other lakes in the nation might be the exceptions, due to the popularity of tournament fishing. We know that tournaments kill some fish. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just a reality. There are so many tournaments here that tournament-related mortality certainly contributes to annual exploitation, but right now we don’t know if this mortality significantly affects overall bass numbers. The annual exploitation estimate at Sam Rayburn will include both the harvested bass numbers and those fish that die from tournament-related stress. Our ultimate goal in doing an exploitation study is determining the best way to manage the Sam Rayburn fishery.”

Although tournaments uniformly practice catch-and-release, many bass die from stress or other causes after being returned to the lake. A 1998 study found that 26 percent to 28 percent of fish weighed in and then released might die. With 250 tournaments weighing in thousands of fish each year, it’s obvious there could be additional impacts that need to be added into the management equation.

However, until now no one has ever undertaken a study to find out how big these impacts are, and if they are significant. That’s what Driscoll and his colleague Jules Smith set out to research. Aided by TPWD biologists and technicians from across the state, in three nights of electrofishing in October 2003 they tagged and released 5,958 largemouths in Sam Rayburn ranging up to 11 pounds. Two hot pink tags each bearing a unique number and Driscoll’s office phone number (409/384-9572) were placed in each fish.

“We strongly encourage all anglers who catch a tagged fish to call our office,” Driscoll says. “All we need is the actual day you caught the fish, the location the fish was caught, the numbers on the tags, and whether you released the fish. If you release the fish, please don’t remove the tags.” (Some fish have already been caught more than once.)

In November 2004, Driscoll and Smith will analyze the data to determine how many of the tagged fish were caught, harvested, and utilized in tournaments, and from that they can extrapolate how many fish in the lake are being removed each year.

And how will that information be used? “What’s driving this is a Texas A&M study on the opinions of anglers who fish Sam Rayburn,” Driscoll explains. “This study revealed that about half the bass anglers wanted the current 14-inch minimum length changed to a more restrictive regulation. The assumption is that a more restrictive length limit would increase the total number and size of bass in the population. However, we don’t know whether the current level of annual exploitation is limiting the quality of the largemouth bass fishery. The exploitation study will allow us to determine just how much a potential length limit change will increase bass fishing quality.”

Driscoll is quick to add that a change in regulations is not a done deal. “The first step will be to determine if a more restrictive length limit will provide any benefit. If the data indicates it won’t, we’ll stop right there. If we find there would be a benefit, we will take the data to the people and let them tell us what they want us to do. If people don’t want a change, we won’t make one.”

Can the best bass lake in Texas be made even better? Stay tuned.

Additional Information

Fishing Sam Rayburn Reservoir — Check this page for more fishing tips and access information
Budweiser ShareLunker Program — more than 20 entries in this statewide bass breeding program were caught in Big Sam

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