TPWD's Craig Bonds presents the current lake conditions and how that may affect fishing this week on Lake Fork, the best trophy bass fishery In Texas and some say, the entire USA.
With the eighth annual Toyota Texas Bass Classic poised to start tomorrow and run May 9-11th, everything about Lake Fork is perfect for this world championship event, according to Craig Bonds, the Texas Parks & Wildlife Inland Fisheries Region 3 Director.
Working out of TPWD’s Tyler, Texas office, Craig supervises a region that is basically all of East Texas. He has five district fisheries management offices within his region and the fisheries biologists are the ones that are actually out there in the field collecting information on the lakes and fisheries in East Texas. Bonds coordinates their activities and supervises them. Together, they make decisions on setting length limits and making stocking recommendations, they take annual surveys and work on improving fish habitat and other projects that help make fishing great in the state of Texas.
The current water level at Lake Fork is about 3-1/2 feet below full pool. The water level never has fully recovered from a severe drought back in 2011. The last time the lake was at full pool was in June 2010. It got to an all-time low of 8 feet below full pool in October 2011. It was still about 6 feet below in September 2013 but has been kind of on a slow, steady rise in the 7-8 months since then, and has increased to its current level – about 3-1/2 feet below full pool currently. The slow rise this spring has flooded some shallow cover, and bass have been using those areas since about mid-April to spawn.
BASS IN TRANSITION FROM SPRING TO SUMMER HAUNTS
Craig Bonds has heard from some people who have been out fishing the lake recently that the bass spawn overall is on the tail end right now. There are still fish on the nest, but by the time the TTBC pros get out and start competing over the end of this week, Bonds believes that there will still be some fish spawning although probably not enough bed fishing activity to sustain a pro angler for three days. Bonds suspects that most of the anglers will be targeting postspawn fish because the vast majority of the fish on Lake Fork have already spawned and started their move back out toward deeper and main lake habitat.
DELAYED SPAWN THIS YEAR
Bonds said the spawn this year was delayed because the area has had an unseasonably cold March so the fish didn't really start spawning very much until about mid-April. That put the spring approximately 3 weeks behind in the spawning cycle than Lake Fork would typically be at this time of year.
The spawn on Lake Fork takes place on a "staggered spawning gradient" which means that more bass up in the shallow, dingier end of the reservoir typically start spawning first because that's where the water warms up the quickest – and then the spawning wave starts to move down-lake…so right now at Lake Fork, the latest spawning activity that you will probably see here would be on the southwest shoreline in some of the creeks down near the dam on the southern end of the lake because that section gets less sunlight in the spring time and it is a little bit deeper water, a little bit clearer water – and that situation heats up slower. So fish down near the dam will be the ones most likely to be spawning late and probably during this tournament to some extent – as opposed to the fish that spawn much earlier up lake in the dingier, shallower water.
Another thing that happens is the bass population typically spawns in a 60 to 90 day protracted period. There may be peaks within that period with some fish moving in to spawn while others are moving out, and still others that have already spawned and gone. So they don't all spawn at the same time but they do so over a protracted period, usually about 60 to 90 days within a reservoir like Lake Fork. This is an environmental adaptation for the population so that under various environmental conditions you would hope that at least some of those nests are successful if they spread their spawning out over several months.
Since the lake water level has been down for almost 3 years, a lot of the traditional shoreline habitat has been exposed and dry. Therefore, most of the habitat that is available on the lake right now, of course, is the old flooded timber that Fork is full of and famous for. Most is broken off at the waterline and with the lake down a few feet, some is very visible. Underneath the water, there is much more inundated timber that cannot be seen.
Then there's some hydrilla in Lake Fork. This is an exotic aquatic plant that has been present in the lake for many years but it has experienced fluctuations in abundance, all of which is unrelated to any grass treatment activities. The TPWD hasn't been doing any herbicide or other grass control treatment – because it isn't necessary at the time. The hydrilla here has naturally fluctuated as water levels have fluctuated. It's starting to come back a little bit more this spring and Bonds feels that some of the pro anglers may target some of the areas with good hydrilla. Bonds knows that up at the top of the lake around the Birch Creek area and up on the west side of the lake as well as the east side (the Caney Creek side), up in Glade and some of the other creek arms have good hydrilla now. There is also a little bit of Eurasian milfoil but mainly hydrilla is providing some submerged vegetative habitat for bass currently.
RUNNING THE LAKE
The Sabine River Authority has done an outstanding job of marking the boat lanes through the timber on Lake Fork with floating buoys that are reflective so you can run even at night in the navigable channels. However, if you get out of the navigable channels, there is quite a bit of timber under the waterline, so idling back into some of Lake Fork's long creeks may take a while to get back in there. Down at the far lower end of the lake, there is quite a bit of open water that you can run around in, but above the bridges (in approximately the upper two-thirds of the lake), if you want to run wide open, you usually have to stick to the marked boat lanes. Time management for idling into and out of some areas will certainly be a factor for many pros this week.
FORK'S PREY BASE
As far as the main prey base for Lake Fork, it consists primarily of threadfin and gizzard shad which are in high abundance. Lake Fork is a very productive system. It has reasonably high nutrient-loading and a lot of that just naturally comes from Lake Fork's watershed drainage area. It’s a fairly nutrient-rich watershed so there is a lot of plankton production within Lake Fork which drives a fairly abundant shad base.
There is also an abundant sunfish base, and multiple species of sunfish. Bluegill are the primary backbone of that sunfish base but there are 2 or 3 other species of sunfish as well that are available for prey. In addition there are multiple other species that bass sometimes prey on including yellow bass.
There definitely are good numbers of crayfish in the lake and the bass do eat them too.
Bonds has heard reports that the early morning topwater bite is starting to get good and that big fish are being caught shallow early but then later in the day, most of the fish, especially the bigger fish and the big aggregations of big fish are probably going to be caught a little bit deeper in more offshore water, possibly with deeper diving crankbaits and other types of deep techniques.
One other thing that may be advantageous to some pros this week is that the bluegill sunfish are starting to spawn right now – the first wave. So there are some sunfish beds up shallow and Bonds suspects that some of the pros may fish around those bedding sunfish colonies because some of the bass do move in there to feed some times.
Shad should also be spawning right now and during the tournament. Unlike the sunfish, shad are broadcast spawners – they do not build nests like sunfish do, but shad do move closer in to the shoreline when they spawn (so the broadcast eggs may settle on and adhere to hard objects) and the shad are more vulnerable during those times to be eaten by bass – so some bass will be keying on and looking for those shad to spawn in the early morning hours this week.
A PRODUCTIVE FISHERY
The total fish biomass is high on Lake Fork. It's not just bass and their prey. Lake Fork is an excellent channel catfish lake, it's an excellent crappie lake and for the past three years, a smallmouth buffalo and carp tournament has even been held on Lake Fork. Anglers routinely catch smallmouth buffalo and carp between 30 to 60 pounds! Fish of all varieties and sizes grow very well on Lake Fork.
LARGEMOUTH BASS STAND OUT
Certainly the largemouth bass is the stand-out that has put Lake Fork on the map. When Lake Fork was constructed back in the late 1970s and filled around 1980, it was primarily built as a future water supply reservoir, primarily for Dallas but it was also built and constructed with recreational fishing in mind. Planning a reservoir in part for fishing is unique among reservoir construction, especially during the several decades prior and up to the 1970s. Most reservoir basins of that era were simply clear-cut of timber and solely built for either water supply or hydropower or some other utilitarian purpose…but Lake Fork was built with fishing in mind from the get-go and it was stocked even prior to filling with Florida bass.
BEST TROPHY BASS LAKE IN TEXAS
As it has developed, Lake Fork has gained a world-renowned reputation for trophy bass fishing. Interestingly, even though the peak in Lake Fork's trophy bass production may have been in the early to mid-1990s, the reservoir and fishery has aged very well, thanks to proactive bass management by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Through the years, Lake Fork has maintained a very high level as far as overall good quality/quantity of bass production and particularly trophy bass production even to the present day.
The Toyota ShareLunker program that Texas Parks and Wildlife runs (to promote and propagate 13+ pound bass), if it wasn't for Lake Fork, the ShareLunker program would probably only have about half the number of teen-sized bass that have been donated over the years (since 1986). As a matter of fact, as of spring 2014, Lake Fork is responsible for 256 of the 557 Toyota ShareLunker entries – or about 46% of the entire ShareLunker program. TPWD has had 3 ShareLunker entries from Lake Fork this past year – which leads the state. So Lake Fork is indisputably the king of trophy bass fishing when you look at it over the span of several decades and it just continues to be the most outstanding fishery.
FUELED BY A POWERFUL WATERSHED
What helps you understand what makes Lake Fork "Lake Fork" – it was constructed on Lake Fork Creek and there is also Caney and Little Caney creeks sort of below the confluence. Those are the three main creek arms that feed into Lake Fork but the watershed itself really isn't very large. The watershed area is typically small because it is a "tributary reservoir" to the main Sabine River. It's not a main stem reservoir. Lake Fork is a reservoir on a tributary and the watershed drainage area is located almost above the headwaters of those tributaries so it doesn't have a huge watershed and often times when you have a headwater tributary reservoir like that, it doesn't receive as much nutrient loading – however the Lake Fork watershed has maintained a fairly nutrient rich system.
The watershed is blessed to lie in an area of Texas that does receive substantial rainfall on average. Although the lake is still trying to catch up with the drought of 2011, typically this area of Texas receives somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 inches of rain per year.
Wood County, Rains County and other counties that are in the Lake Fork watershed drainage district have historically harbored many dairy farms. Not as much anymore, but there are a few working dairy farms today in the watershed. The important aspect though, is that prior to reservoir construction there were quite a few small-time milk-producing dairy farms. A lot of the fertilizer for hay pastures and the resultant cow manure, things like that still contribute to a lot of the nutrient-loading into the watershed. Also as the shoreline of Lake Fork gets more residential and business development (especially within recent years), septic systems and rain runoff of fertilized landscaping has also contributed a little to the nutrient load. Yet it's not only the above factors – I don't think we fully understand exactly why the watershed here is so nutrient-rich, said Bonds.
Report provided by Russ “Bassdozer” Comeau, PAA