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Lynn Burkhead — Fork Derby shows pathway to fall fishing success

Herald Democrat

Over the years, if you’ve read the drivel in this space, then you’ve probably discerned a trend in any stories penned here about fall bass fishing opportunities in North Texas.

First, the bass bite is usually better later in the autumn season as waters begin to significantly cool down from warm early season lake temperatures and reservoir turnover. And second, lure selection is pretty easy then since local bass are starting to chow down heavily on threadfin shad as they start feeding up for the coming winter.

If that’s the company line here — at least my company line, after years of tinkering with the sport and paying attention to those who make their living from it — then a reasonable follow-up question might be as to whether or not those ideas actually work when you load up the bass rig and head for your favorite bass water.

After paying attention to last weekend’s season ending Bassmaster Elite Series derby on Lake Fork — the Texas Fest, benefitting the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department — I’d have to say that apparently, the answer is yes.

While the overall fishing success in this rare November tournament — brought about by COVID-19 rescheduling necessities — wasn’t as good as it might have been in March, April, or May, it was still pretty good on the 27,264-acre lake sandwiched between Emory, Mineola, and Quitman.

In fact, for winner Patrick Walters, the fishing action was downright epic as his winning performance of 20-bass tipping the scales at 104-pounds, 12-ounces will attest to. That four-day weight total was good enough for the latest entry into the Bassmaster Elite Series’ coveted Century Club as well as giving the Summerville, S.C. pro an all-time Elite Series tournament winning margin record of 29-pounds, 10-ounces.

Clearly, Walters figured out the magical waters of Fork last week, keying on bass suspended at 10 to 20-foot depths in flooded timber. His four-day total was good enough to capture the event’s $125,000 top prize, seal a third-place finish in the 2020 B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year standings, and earn an invite to the 2021 Bassmaster Classic on Lake Ray Roberts.

How did the South Carolina pro go about catching the fish that secured his first career Elite Series victory? For the most part, by following the script mentioned above — active baits and mostly in shad color patterns.

Specifically, according to a great photo essay put together on Bassmaster.com by photographers Steve Bowman, James Overstreet, and more — Walters relied on a selection of jerkbaits to trigger bites from the suspended bass at Fork. Those jerkbaits — a Rapala Shad Rap Deep and a Megabass Ito Vision 110+ — were in shad colors according to the photos I saw.

For the record, according to Bassmaster.com, Walters used a Daiwa Steez CT SV baitcasting reel loaded up with either 12 or 14-pound Suffix fluorocarbon, all at the end of a Daiwa Tatula rod. If jerkbaits are in your game plan this fall or sometime next spring, that’s a good combination to consider.

Obviously, in a tournament win where Walters lapped the field in a fishing performance for the ages, he figured something out that nobody else did at Fork last weekend.

But that doesn’t mean that the other anglers were left wondering about how to catch Fork’s lunker bass either. In fact, Keith Combs, a Huntington, Texas resident who shines in East Texas fishing derbies, used his standard arsenal of deep diving crankbaits to post a runner-up finish with a four-day total of 75-02.

In winning his $40,000 paycheck, one of the best anglers to ever come out of the Pineywoods used a Strike King Pro Model 6XD crankbait on a rod-and-reel combination featuring a Shimano Curado DC baitcaster and a Shimano Zodias Cranking Rod. In addition to that lineup, Combs — who also used some more brightly colored crankbaits than some of the others did — used 15-pound Seaguar InvizX Fluorocarbon and Owner STY35 #1 treble hooks as he probed deeper areas around flooded timber.

Jay Yelas, the 2003 Bassmaster Classic champion and a former resident of the Tyler area, finished third with a four-day total of 69-14, good enough for a $30,000 payday. Yelas, who now lives back in his home state of Oregon, looked at a lot of isolated woody cover in the back of creeks and near boat docks. He went a bit old school in his shallow water approach, using a chartreuse and white ½-oz. MGC spinnerbait featuring tandem silver and gold Colorado blades along with a 3/8-oz. Z-Man Chatterbait featuring a Yamamoto Zako trailer.

In throwing those shallow water baits, Bassmaster.com noted that Yelas relied on a Lew's Custom Pro Rod, a Lew's HyperMag Speed Spool Reel, and Strike King Tour Grade Fluorocarbon Line.

Next up was Idaho pro Brandon Palaniuk, finishing up his first season back on the Elite Series after a one-year hiatus to fish on Major League Fishing’s Bass Pro Tour. Palaniuk, who already has an Elite Series win in 2020 on his resume, had a chance this past weekend thanks to his four-day effort of 69-05.

He got the Top 5 finish thanks to a combination of Rapala DT 14 and Rapala DT 16 crankbaits, both in shad resembling patterns. In winning his $22,000 payday, BP as most anglers know him, used a Daiwa Steez A 6.3:1 casting reel, Alpha Angler Mag-Rebound rod, and 12-pound Seaguar InvizX Fluorocarbon.

Palaniuk, the 2017 B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year and a five-time winner on the Elite Series who will now fish his 10th Classic next spring, also used an X-Zone Pro Series Mega Swammer on a 3/4-oz. swimbait head. When fishing that lure setup, he relied on a Daiwa Tatula Elite baitcast reel, an Alpha Hitter Rod, and 15-pound Seaguar Tatsu line.

Finally, 5th place finisher Brad Whatley, who cashed a $20,000 check for his four-day tally of 68-09, also fished active baits that resembled threadfin shad.

Whatley’s first bait of choice was a prototype squarebill crankbait by A Band of Anglers — one with a sharply tapered metal bill that gave the bait a very wide wobble — and a prototype ½-oz. bladed jig with a swimbait trailer. As for the color choices, well, you already know.

By the way, Whatley’s squarebill was fished on a Daiwa reel and a Castaway Taranis rod while the bladed jig was fished on a Castaway Nano rod and Lew’s Reel.

What does all of this talk about numbers, lures, and rods and reels mean for Texomaland anglers?

Simply this — if you can tear yourself away from hunting over the next few weeks, there’s some pretty good bass catching opportunity remaining this fall on a number of North and East Texas water bodies.

The largemouths are feeding up, lure selection is easy, and the fishing is as good as it will get until sometime next spring.

In other words, it might be worth skipping the deer stand and duck blind this weekend, even if you’re not a bass fishing pro. The fishing is good, so good that even someone like me has a reasonable chance of angling success. And that’s really saying something.