Lake Fork Revisited
By Ronald F. Dodson, Ph.D.
I have focused on Lake Fork in several articles in the past. One of the toughest was a review of the impact of the Largemouth Bass Virus, which struck the lake in the summer of 1999. It was just one year after the disease caused a major die-off of bass in Sam Rayburn. The Rayburn experience was tough since I have had some of my favorite experiences with friends and my father on Rayburn. But the events on Fork were even more magnified since, by design, I spent at least two to three days a week on the lake during the summer of the infection. Seeing 4- to 12-pound bass slowly dying all over the lake was truly a depressing experience. This was a different situation for me than Rayburn in that I did not have to sift through the various (sometimes wild) explanations for the fish kill since I was there and observed it on Fork from the beginning. In fact I had already written in our magazine that the kill on Rayburn had to be from a species specific infectious agent while others were ignoring the obvious and going after various and sundry explanations.
The events on Fork can be best appreciated in the following example. I, like most serious fisherman on Fork, had worked out patterns over the years that were constantly reproducible each year at that same time. I am a hot weather fan and had for years fished a couple of holes in the far upper reaches of the lake that held schools of 4- to 8-pound bass. You could catch 10 to 15 when you visited each of the sites. Even better was the fact that they were in an area of the lake where fewer bass anglers fished and in shallower stained water where a crankbait would get appreciable attention.
In early May, I took my father to the holes and let him catch 10 or so fish. The guarantee was that the holes were going to only get better as we approached summer. My friend Jerry Dean wanted to make a film on Fork and set up an early June trip. My game plan was to catch fish in several of the places where you could catch singles and then as a fall back to the secret holes. The cameraman was instructed regarding his fate if he panned an area from which easy identification of the spots could be made.
Jerry and I have been fishing long enough to know that sometimes things work and you easily catch fish and sometimes you do not in spite of your best efforts. But this was going to be a piece of cake. Our friend at the marina had warned us that it had been tough. However, I knew they had been there two weeks before and I had left them alone in the meantime so as to assure my chance at TV stardom. Hole number one was without a strike. Hole number two finally gave up two fish after I had worn the paint off of two cranks. I was basically a Zombie with my mind totally blown. Sure I wanted to make a good show, but what had happened in two weeks and what did that foretell about the summer? In short, what had just happened on that trip could not have happened on Lake Fork at that spot and at that time of year.
In order to appreciate Fork before the die-off let me explain the conditions for fishing. I do so with the background that I have been fishing this lake since it first filled and every green tree had at least 10 red wasp nests about the size of a basketball. The lake was billed as the next great bass lake in the United States. It was managed with regulations, which were supposed to ensure peak survival of trophy bass, and was stocked initially with Florida bass in order to create the best gene pool for the production of quality bass. To make matters ever better, the Sabine River Authority left much of the timber in the lake. This gave excellent habitat for the developing population of bass from each year's hatch. Some areas were so thick with timber and brush that for the first five or so years you were not going to be able to fish for bedding bass from a boat since you could not get back into the shallows due to the thick jungle. Thus major hatches of fry survived and flourished. There was also (as with most new lakes or reflooded area of old lakes) excellent growth of vegetation. The result of the all of these factors was that the lake developed the best fishery I had ever seen. That is saying something because I fished Rayburn and Toledo from their inception and both were premiere lakes with excellent populations of bass.
For whatever reason, the environment in Fork produced schools of large bass and a zillion schools of smaller fish. Whereas folks would talk about schools on Toledo Bend and Rayburn of two-pound bass, on Fork the schools would often consist of four-plus-pound fish. These were not fishermen's tales and presence of such large populations of big fish resulted in a major influx of visitors to the lake from all over the United States and even from fisherman outside of this country. The emphasis in size produced some interesting and oversized baits. Many guides would use an AC plug at certain times of the year to attract the giant bass. This plug, for those who may have missed its pass through history, can be best described as a wooden plug consisting of a grooved lip that made it wiggle and two jointed sections best thought of as logs suitable for the fireplace. It obviously discouraged strikes from anything but larger fish since its size would clearly intimidate smaller bass.
So with that background, I chose to get a feel for the lake's present status from folks who make their living based on its fishery. These are the professional guides and marina operators. It does not make any difference how personable a guide happens to be, most folks expect to catch fish not just take a boat ride. Among the guides, I started with our own lake columnist Dean Stroman. Dean could not have been more in line with my perspective on the lake if we had been singing a duet. He stated that the lake was making a comeback, but that he doubted it would ever return to anything close to the pre-virus days. His example was that it was common for most guides to put their clients on 25- to 40 fish in the pre-die off days, but now even the best guides work hard to approach 25 fish per-day. The fact is that he does have numerous 25 fish days, but that is still different than the ratio when he could practically be assured of 25+ fish on every trip in the good old days.
I wanted to ask each guide the same question regarding an identifier as to the population of bass in a lake. That was, "Do you see schools in the past two summers and thus far into the warmer weather of this year?" As with my experience, Dean said only in a few places and no schooling in some of the old haunts where he and I witnessed the most dramatic die-off. The location where schools were more commonly seen last summer was on open lake points and the schools consisted of five to 10 fish rather than the schools of 30+ fish seen before the kill. The other point that Dean made was that the small schools were made up of one- to three-pound fish rather than the roving packs of 4-pound and larger fish in the old days.
He also had a considerable concern regarding the impact of certain types of vegetation in the backs of some coves. He felt that the total congestion threatened spawn areas in the sites and this certainly did not help in bringing back the population. Since I have ranted and raved positively in the past about vegetation, allow me to explain. If you get thick surface covering vegetation during spawn you may risk of total blockage of sunlight, which is a critical part of incubating the eggs. Likewise if the stuff mats, you block out bottom growing plants and they die. The water hyacinth has one of the fastest growing rates of any plant and can divide in as little as 12 days. This means it has a doubling time, which results in it taking over areas in a relative short time. This is of particular concern where the stuff is in backups and not subject to wind, which can raft it on windward sides and cause it to suffocate itself.
Dean also stated that the further up many of the feeder creeks you went, the harder the fishing became. This really hurts since these were the premier bass havens prior to the kill but does perfectively describe my "movie" hole. The other change that Dean acknowledged was the loss of the previously constant productivity experienced during the past years in the deep-water winter holes.
Another friend who has been a longtime guide on the lake is Hollis Joiner. Hollis and I go back a long way so his opinion is one I will take to the bank. He first started by telling me that Fork was much better than the past few years but still had a long way to go to be where it was before the die-off. I had to ask, "Have you seen fish breaking during the summer in the past several years?" The answer was as if he and Dean had rehearsed their response. The same was true as to the status of the upper ends of the major feeder creeks. Hollis indicated that some scattered fish were being caught in these areas, but as a guide he had to concentrate on areas that were the most productive and these were on the main-lake portions. Hollis was also very concerned with water hyacinth and the fact that if it stayed thick, the spawning grounds would suffer and if it were sprayed, the other water plants (that had been absent for several years in the same areas) might also die.
He was particularly optimistic regarding the fishery in that he was seeing some five- to eight-inch fish this spring which seemed suggest a very late spring or summer hatch on top of the representatives he was seeing from the typical spring representation of last year's crop. Hollis did note that all of the fish he and his clients were catching were healthy.
The second review of the status of Fork consisted of getting input from marina operators. I chose two of the more successful and long-term operators on the lake. Also both of these guys will as with the selected guides shoot straight. For input regarding the lower and mid portions of the lake I visited with Martin Edwards of the Minnow Bucket Marina. Martin started his business in 1984 so he has seen Fork from a true historical perspective. He was hoping for some really large fish this spring, but was happy to have lots of 10- to 11-pound fish caught. Interestingly, he noted that the folks from more open lakes such as those from up north were not having as much trouble finding fish as the locals following the die-off. He suggested this was because they were more attuned to open-water structure and we had been spoiled due to the presence of considerable hydrilla in the lake and the style of fishing most of us developed to exploit the grass beds. He felt that local fisherman have, in many cases, not adjusted as well to the loss of grass (which in most parts of the lake occurred about the same time as the die-off). He is also very concerned about hyacinth in that it can block out sunlight necessary for other bottom attached water vegetation to grow as well as block sunlight from the nesting areas.
Interestingly Martin does not believe the slot is having a positive effect in that the vast majority of the bass fishermen simply do not keep bass under any condition. In fact it is a real negative, as it impacts on the very important clients from outside of Texas since in many states a six-pound bass is a giant. These folks pump a lot of money into the Fork economy, but cannot legally bring a bass in the slot for weighing and pictures at a marina although for them it may be a bass of their lifetime. Martin said the guides who fought through the post-virus phase still have their following of clients. However, from his perspective, there are far fewer part-time guides and quite a few folks have given up guiding. The cost of gas had not come into effect as of this spring, but he is really concerned about its impact on the economy of the lake merchants if it stays up next spring especially regarding those who come from long distances out of state.
My next source of information on the lake status was Mr. Joe Axton who owns Axton's Bass City on the upper end of the lake. Joe has an extensive motel/lodge complex as well as a large tackle store and hosts a considerable number of tournaments on the lake. His story was very similar to that of Martin on the other end of the lake. This spring attracted more folks than the previous three springs. The client base consisted of folks from Ohio, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, and Nebraska, just to name a few. Joe said that the lake was improving and like Martin he felt that a major problem with those of us who were spoiled by working the hydrilla before the kill was a lack of the willingness to be adaptive in fishing the changing fishery after the fish kill and the grass died off. However he echoed the story of the guides in that certain parts of the lake like the upper ends of some of the major creeks simply have not come back to the level that most guides even try to fish them.
We discussed a couple of my past favorite areas in the upper end and Joe asked if I had ever thought that these spots were where most of the standing timber is still left and thus is where the major water turkey roosts are located. There were several years without much if any grass in these areas and it is an interesting issue as to whether the thousands of birds gave any fry from that spring's hatch much of a chance to make it through the winter and into the next year. These lovely birds are supposed to eat up to a pound of fish a day. If we have no grass in an area in which the little bass could hide, and then take five thousand birds times the number of days each bird stays on the lake, times one-pound of fish per day equals way too many pounds offish eaten. Get the potential for a major impact on the fishery?
Joe's story about schooling last summer was the same as the other guys. Gone are the large schools of four-pound+ fish. The small schools seen are usually made up of 10-inch or so fish. He has had excellent reports this spring of 6- to 8-pound fish, but not the very large bass he had hoped to see. He told me that the marina had a contest in which they would pay $1,000 for each 13-pound and over fish caught by a person who had registered with them and stayed at their facility. None have been brought into his marina during the last two years.
Joe believes the slot limit is costing considerable in revenue stream for the marinas at Lake Fork. He noted that the number of guides on the lake has somewhat dropped, but that the good guides still can produce 25+ bass in a day.
So what is the conclusion about the lake as compared with the pre-virus time? From all of the input it is improving each year. It has some hills to climb in that it is also an aging lake. However, if the hydrilla continues to flourish and the new hatches have good survival rates then it is going to continue to be a top bass lake. It is not, and probably never will be, as good as before the virus induced kill but the re-stocking of Florida's in the lake may kick the gene pool in gear to provide some larger bass being present in five to eight years. It has plenty of shad for forage, and still relatively good cover. However, my experience is the same as the folks I spoke with on the lake in that you would be wise to concentrate in the main-lake area until, or if, some of the older hot spots rebound.
One other thing about Fork is that each year more and more timber falls into the lake. The trees break at the usual water level, thus with any rise the lake will appear to have open water where there are really large numbers of stumps even in deeper water.
So if you do not really know where you are running, you are probably not in the marked boat cuts. Slow down for safety's sake.