Despite its reputation as the most storied lake in the history of Texas bass fishing, heavy overnight thunderstorms caused some problems on Lake Fork as Thursday’s first round of the 2019 Toyota Bassmaster Texas Fest got underway.
But after an hour’s delay in launching the boats of the 75 anglers competing in this weekend’s big bass slugfest that benefits the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, by late morning, the East Texas reservoir was already showing off again.
Specifically, 40-plus bass weighing north of four pounds had already been registered by late morning in the catch-weigh-release tournament format pioneered in this event several years ago.
Those bass included four caught by Fort Worth’s Chris Zaldain, one of the pre-tournament favorites, fishing a big Megabass Magdraft Swimbait on windblown points where he was hoping to cash in on the developing shad spawn.
In fact, Zaldain — one of the rising stars in the newly revamped Bassmaster Elite Series circuit this year — had already caught two seven-pounders by 10:30 a.m. on Thursday morning, one weighing seven-pounds, six-ounces, the other weighing seven-pounds, four-ounces.
With two other bass above five pounds, Zaldain took the early BassTrakk tournament lead with five bass weighing 30-pounds, 10-ounces.
“As for me, I am going for five big bites a day, nothing more, nothing less,” Zaldain told Bassmaster.com blogger and writer Craig Lamb. “I’m not throwing anything shorter than six inches, mostly nine. If the fish are in front of your lure, they eat it. There is no finessing to it.”
But that lead wouldn’t last as Brandon Card used an 8-pound, 12-ounce bass to get to the lead with 31-11. And then Chad Pipkens overtook Card, pushing the lead to 31-15, announcing that the Lake Fork shootout was on.
Indeed, when you fish on Lake Fork during the springtime, you either go big, or you go home. The fact that at least six bass north of seven-pounds had already been weighed on Thursday seemed to prove that.
As does Fork’s well-known history of the past two Texas state record largemouth bass — including Barry St. Clair’s current benchmark of 18.18 pounds — and 261 of the state’s 581 ShareLunker bass weighing 13 pounds or better.
While not the lake it was in the 1980s and 1990s, Fork is still at the top of Texas’ well known bass fisheries, no place for the timid if winning a big tournament title and payday are your goals.
That’s the goal of everyone competing in this weekend’s tournament with a total payout of $1 million and a $100,000 champion’s check. And don’t forget that a Toyota Tundra pickup truck will be awarded to the angler who weighs in the heaviest bass of the week.
One key thought on Thursday morning was whether or not this weekend’s event would be won in the shallow stuff or would the season’s deep-water big bass fireworks kick off this weekend?
Those are the kind of fireworks that happened back in May 2014 when this event’s predecessor — the Toyota Texas Bass Classic — visited Fork, ironically enough with some heavy rains rolling through the area as the tournament began.
That didn’t stop Keith Combs from showing off what he — and Lake Fork — could do as the East Texan won the event for the third time in four years, posting a modern tournament era record with 15 bass that weighed a staggering 110-pounds even in the three-day event.
With four days this go around, Combs had predicted earlier in the week that it would take 128-pounds to win the 2019 Texas Fest, adding that Fork’s famed offshore big bass bite was days away from developing.
If that were to be the case, there’s little doubt that Combs will be in the mix with his deep diving crankbaits.
But on Thursday morning, that bite had yet to develop for the Huntington, Texas resident and two-time winner on the Elite Series. Still, the East Texas pro told Bassmaster.com writer Alan McGuckin that he was brimming with confidence.
Given his track record at Fork — including a 10-pound plus fish caught in competition and a nine-pound plus fish caught in practice this week — and it isn’t hard to imagine Combs winning here again if the weather isn’t the week’s biggest story.
By early afternoon, Combs was starting to figure things out, approaching 30-pounds on the leaderboard, and announcing that he wanted to be in this weekend’s championship mix.
If he can survive the cut into the weekend’s action, expect Combs and his big fish baits — including his Strike King 10XD crankbait, a 3/4-ounce flipping-and-pitching jig, and a 1/2-ounce swim jig — to be a player again as Combs tries to rejoin the “Century Club.”
Still, with more storms in the forecast, the weather is a wild card and could turn the 2019 Texas Fest into a wide-open derby where a surprise could take place by Sunday afternoon.
In fact, there was plenty of scrambling already taking place on Thursday morning during the Bassmaster Live! Internet coverage on Bassmaster.com.
That’s what happens when heavy overnight rains inundate the region, shift the wind to the north, and raise the lake level a few inches in a matter of hours.
“It looks like a lot of these guys are trying to reinvent their practice (sessions),” said Mark Zona, one of the Bassmaster Live! hosts. “You can tell by their mannerisms that their gig has left.”
One angler backed up that sentiment on camera when he weighed a small fish a few moments later: “Seven-pounders in practice, one-pounders during the tournament.”
Meaning that the winning pattern could come from just about anyone fishing just about anywhere on the 27,264 acre reservoir near Quitman.
“In the short time we’ve been out today, Steve Bowman and I have seen anglers taking three different approaches to catching bass,” blogged Jim Sexton on Bassmaster.com “(They are) 1) out deeper searching for post spawners, 2) in the middle, in about six feet of water, trying to catch bass moving out, and 3) in shallow looking for spawning bass.
“We’re clearly in a time of transition.”
Maybe so, but the expectation here is that despite the topsy turvy spring weather this week, Fork will show off once again by Sunday evening.
And when the grand old East Texas lunker factory does so, there will be some big fish fireworks over the weekend as an Elite Series pro grabs the $100,000 paycheck and the biggest win of his angling career.
Because when you’re fishing at Lake Fork during the month of May, big is the only way to go.
Editor’s Note: The May 2-4, 2019 Toyota Bassmaster Texas Fest continues today through Sunday with daily takeoffs and weigh-ins occurring at the Sabine River Authority Park near Quitman. Takeoffs are scheduled to begin at 7:00 a.m. and weigh-ins at 3:00 p.m. For information and scheduled events – which includes a concert on Saturday by country musician Chris Knight, please visit www.bassmaster.com .