Grasping a pot-bellied largemouth by the maw, I queried out loud to anyone who would listen.
“Why wouldn’t anyone want to do this?”
Catch a bass on the fly, that is.
Especially at Lake Fork, the best little bass fishing hole in Texas.
Orvis fly guide Rob Woodruff shows that Lake Fork bucketmouths and fly rods are a match made in East Texas heaven.
Fishing on a windy spring day, a guide’s day off guinea pig outing for my Orvis endorsed pal Rob Woodruff, the two of us were looking to prove wrong a couple of subtle assumptions that most Texans make about bassin’ on the fly.
The first being that such an endeavor is seriously fun…as long as you like catching dinks, that is.
The second being that bass fly rodding is almost always a quaint topwater affair, a method truly viable only at a few select times of the day or a few certain times of the year.
That might be the so-called book on fly fishing for bass, but on this particular day, as we tossed a couple of sub-surface offerings, we were mounting a case that said otherwise.
Not long after our getaway from the easternmost 515 ramp, a three-pound buck bass served as “Exhibit A” as he took exception to the bluegill hued “Rob’s Patassa” fly that I was tossing near shoreline cover.
A hop, a skip, and a jump later, I was admiring a bass in Woodruff’s Xpress bass rig that someone else had admired once before.
How so? The fish had a clear mark in the corner of its jaw indicating that it had been previously caught…and released.
Too valuable a resource to be caught only once, score one for conservation.
After that encouraging start, Woodruff and I ducked in and out of east/west facing coves and creek channels to stay out of the gathering southerly gale that was rolling big white caps on the main lake body.
As I found the rhythm of my Helios eight-weight rod, our conversation drifted to the excitement of the night before when the NCAA basketball tournament capped its run in dramatic fashion.
Suddenly, all thoughts of Butler’s near-miss buzzer beater shot against Duke were gone.
“Oh my gosh Burkhead!,” Woodruff gushed aloud. “That’s a MONSTER bass!”
Sure enough, the nine-pound class fish was a monster, even by Fork’s lofty standards.
For those unaware of Lake Fork’s amazing reputation, allow for a brief history lesson.
Impounded in 1980 when the Sabine River Authority of Texas dammed its namesake stream, Fork was a lake built from the ground up for trophy largemouth bass.
Unlike other reservoirs constructed in Texas during the same era, the 27,264-acre water body in Hopkins, Rains, and Woods counties wasn’t scoured clean of its East Texas timber.
Instead, with the exception of boating lanes cut out of the forest, virtually every precious bass-attracting stick was left in place in the reservoir.
In addition, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department pre-stocked ponds and small lakes in the future lake bed by removing undesirable fish and replacing them with Florida-strain largemouth bass adults and fingerlings.
By doing so, by the time Fork’s timber choked waters began to gather in earnest, the lake was already well down the road to producing Texas-sized bucketmouth bass.
Ask Mark Stevenson, a Dallas based fishing guide who set the Lone Star State’s bass fishing world on fire on Nov. 26, 1986 when he pulled a new state record largemouth bass from Lake Fork, a fish that tipped the scales at 17.67 pounds.
The first bass to ever be entered into the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s innovative ShareLunker program (which accepts bass weighing 13-pounds or better for selective breeding efforts and to promote catch-and-release of big fish), Stevenson’s catch started a veritable big bass revolution.
Dubbed Ethel, the big momma largemouth went on to became a mainstay attraction at the Springfield, Mo. Bass Pro Shops location for many years until her death in August 1994
In both life and death Ethel has been the cornerstone of modern Texas bass fishing, followed to date by 500 additional ShareLunkers ranging in size from the program’s entry point of 13.00 pounds all the way up to Barry St. Clair’s current state record mark of 18.18 pounds.
While 60 other public water bodies and more than a dozen private lakes have produced ShareLunkers since Ethel’s historic catch, her home waters have never wavered in occupation of the state’s big bass throne.
As of this writing, thanks to its combination of perfect big bass habitat, superb genetics, and strict angling regulations, Lake Fork has claimed a staggering 246 of those 501 ShareLunker entries including St. Clair’s current benchmark bass.
And that’s not to even mention the legions of trophy bass ranging from eight to 12 pounds that are pulled from Fork’s hallowed waters every month of every year.
Woodruff and his clients have landed a number of those trophy largemouths down through the years including the guide’s personal best bass, a behemoth approaching nearly a dozen pounds.
Unfortunately, on this particular morning in question, try as we might, neither the Quitman-based guide with his white-hued salamander imitating fly nor yours truly with my bluegill imitator could entice the nine-pound bass in front of us to join that list.
A short while later, our failed efforts were forgotten when Woodruff abruptly drove the hook home as a solid eight-pound largemouth pounced on his offering.
“That’s a big fish!,” he grunted as he leaned hard into the eight-weight.
Despite a brief tail-walking show, we never got to see exactly how big the bass might have been on the Boga Grip since the sowbelly became unbuttoned en route to her CPR session – caught, photographed, and released.
No matter, on Lake Fork, there’s always another big bass opportunity lying somewhere down the bank.
A short while later, as the ripples from Woodruff’s deftly placed weight-forward “Bass Wonderline” gently disappeared, another largemouth proved that point.
When the fly met sudden resistance Woodruff reared back into the fish, this time a bucketmouth that put on a fine show all the way to the boat where the Boga revealed her weight at a solid 5.25 pounds.
So much for dinks on the fly.
Stepping back from our quest only long enough to put away a couple of sandwiches and diet soft drinks, I peppered Woodruff with a series of questions concerning big bass on the fly including the late spring and early summer opportunity that exists to catch Fork’s post-spawn bruisers on full sinking lines.
But that’s another story for another time.
Because this day’s tale of bucketmouths on the fly wasn’t quite complete.
After wolfing down the last of the cola, a short boat ride put us into one of Woodruff’s big bass honey holes.
After working our way down a couple of shorelines, the guide pointed out a pair of sizable largemouths hovering in the shallow water.
“See that bass right there? She’ll go at least five pounds,” Woodruff said. “See if you can lay that fly in there.”
My first attempt was just off the mark.
But my second attempt was in the wheelhouse as the hefty female reacted angrily and swiped at the fly.
“She’s on it! Set! Set! Set!” Woodruff instructed.
Unfortunately, I pulled the trigger a second too late. As I tried to come tight to the fish, she had already spit the fly.
“Ok, she’s agitated, so lay that fly in there again,” Woodruff told me. “Not a bad shot Burkhead, now get ready. She’s looking at it…”
Burned once, this time I didn’t wait to feel the weight of the fish against the fly.
When I saw the sow move on the fly, I strip set and came tight to an angry bass.
“She’s on – you got her!” Woodruff shouted, drawing attention from every nearby metal-flaked bass boat.
With an audience of unsuccessful baitcasting anglers looking on in contempt, Woodruff’s alarm raised the stakes in the bay that we were fishing: could “Fly Boy” seal the deal and bring home the bucketmouth goods?
A couple of tailwalking jumps later, I was able to do just that as I eased the glowering largemouth to the boat where Woodruff scooped her up.
Moments later, after some CPR action, the Boga pronounced her weight at a solid 5.00 pounds.
No, not a new state record. And no, not another ShareLunker entry.
But as the big gal splashed her huffy goodbye a moment later, the grin on my face and on Woodruff’s gave simple credence to the point of our endeavors on Lake Fork that day.
A couple of pot-bellied five-pounders were proof positive that fly rods and bucketmouth bass are made for each other.
Especially on the best little bass fishing hole in Texas.