Autumn date's unusual but Fork’s potential excites B.A.S.S. pros

By Lynn Burkhead
For the Herald Democrat

When officials with the Bassmaster Elite Series announced that they would be making their way to Lake Fork for the 2020 Toyota Bassmaster Texas Fest, there was little doubt that the fishing would be good.

After all, it almost always is, particularly when some of the world’s best angling pros are dissecting the 27,264-acre timber studded lake near Emory and Quitman.

But if the big bass fishery is familiar — Fork boasts the current Texas state largemouth bass record (Barry St. Clair’s 18.18-pound lunker in Jan. 1992), the previous state record (Mark Stevenson’s 17.67-pound Ethel caught in Nov. 1986), and more than 240 ShareLunker sized specimens topping 13 pounds — the timing of next week’s Texas Fest at the lunker factory is not.

That, of course, is because of the abrupt schedule changes forced on professional fishing this year thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic that began in March and continues its deadly scourge to this day.

For a time, it wasn’t certain that the tournament — any tournament, really — could even be held. But as the weeks of an uncertain spring gave way to summer, officials began to loosen restrictions and pave the way for life to return to normal, even for professional anglers.

Sort of, that is. Because what should have been a warm weather tournament earlier in the year became a chilly weather late autumn event thanks to the coronavirus rebooting the schedule.

With competition days being Nov. 5-8, daily take-offs at the Sabine River Authority / Lake Fork launch at 6:40 a.m., and daily weigh-ins at 3 p.m., the event is the final derby on the 2020 Bassmaster Elite Series schedule as well as the last opportunity to grab a qualification spot for the 2021 Bassmaster Classic next March at Lake Ray Roberts.

In short, with final Classic berths on the line, as well as Texan Clark Wendlandt trying to move from third place to first in the B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year title race, there will be a lot of nerves and raw emotion next week as the Elite Series arrives at Fork.

“This is going to be a tournament where you can catch them any way you want to — deep, shallow, in between, south end, north end, middle,” said Longview’s Lee Livesay, a one-time guide on Fork and the winner of the Elite Series mid-October event on Lake Chickamauga. “I think everything is going to play and it’s going to be good.”

While spring tournaments capitalize on Fork’s legendary sized lunkers and the shallow-water bite, next week’s derby should be all about the fall feeding frenzy as bass prepare for the coming winter. That means that baitballs of threadfin shad — and any lures resembling those protein-rich snacks — should be in trouble.

If the weather were normal, that would be a given, that the Fork bass would be smashing shad left and right. But with an arctic front that brought record low maximum temperatures to Texomaland this week, not to mention snow and a historic ice storm in the Texas Panhandle and Oklahoma, all bets are off.

Why? Because Fork is filled with Florida-strain largemouth bass, a species of the big green sunfish that doesn’t typically respond well to big cold fronts. That could mean that in a weird way — hey, it’s 2020, right? — the fishing next week could be more about Fork’s big fish and not numbers of fish despite the derby’s late autumn date.

“The biggest thing we’re going to be facing is this little front,” said Livesay in a news release. “It’s been hot and it’s just getting cold. These fish like it cold and (the fishing) is better here until the water temperature gets into the low 50’s. So, it’s actually going to be beneficial towards us catching bigger fish.”

Livesay, who has plenty of local knowledge that should help his cause, says that recent Fork derbies don’t paint a promising picture. But on the other hand, it’s fall feeding frenzy time and a few days of stable weather could make a big difference.

“We’ve had a couple of big bass tournaments and they did not catch them very well on the upper end of the size. So, it might be perfect for the lake to bust loose and everybody catch a big bag of fish.”

With the lake lower than it might normally be at this time of the year, the East Texas pro feels confident after his first career Elite Series win earlier this month. But he admits that the water level could be a bit of a wild card.

“I’ll fish deep, I’ll fish super shallow, I’ll fish wood — a lot of them start getting on wood when it’s cold,” he said. “I’ll fish anything and everything in between. I’ll fish topwaters, I’ll fish slow dragging baits, buzzbaits, Rat-L-Traps; there’ll be a little niche for everything going on.”

Keep in mind that given Fork’s slot limit restrictions, this tournament is being conducted with a catch-weigh-release format with onboard judges weighing the fish as they are caught and then immediately releasing them back into the water. The only exception is one bass over 20-inches, which anglers can bring back to the weigh-in stage to show off as the Bassmaster LIVE cameras film the action.

“It’s going to be who figures out how to catch those four or five big fish a day that are a little bigger,” said Livesay. “You’re not going to see the mega bags this time of year. Instead of 10-pounds (four-day totals), you’re going to see 80-pounds win.”