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Lynn Burkhead — Latest ShareLunker shows big bass season is well underway

Herald Democrat
For the second time in the new year, a ShareLunker bass has been pulled from Texas waters. This time, the 13.02-pound largemouth came from Lake Austin after C.J. Oates caught the big fish during a Jan. 14 night fishing trip.

Not long after hitting the “Send” button on this week’s Outdoor Notes — which contained the tale of the year’s first Toyota ShareLunker largemouth bass caught recently at Sam Rayburn — I noticed the news flash that another ShareLunker has been pulled from Texas waters in recent days.

That bass was caught last week on the evening of Jan. 14 when Lago Vista angler CJ Oates pulled the 13.02-pounder from Lake Austin.

With the 2021 Texas big bass season already off and running with a red-hot January start, I’ll offer my opinions about what might be ahead for anglers as winter turns to spring.

But first, here are a few details concerning Oates’ big catch last week.

“It was a last-minute decision whether to fish Lake Travis or Austin,” said Oates in a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department news release. “Luckily my good buddy John Davilla talked me into Austin.”

Their wintertime fishing trip didn’t get off to a blazing fast start, at least not initially.

“The bites started off very slow and at the first five spots we hit we had nothing,” said Oates. “Around 9:30, BOOM, he catches a 11.30-pound giant on a glide bait swimming it next to a dock. We yelled, high-fived, took pictures, and then waited about 15 minutes before hitting that same dock.

“Low and behold, two casts later the fish of a lifetime. I then called Texas Parks and Wildlife, spoke to Kyle [Brookshear] and the rest is history! The ShareLunker program is truly a great program.”

Caught days after the season’s first ShareLunker Legacy Class bass was pulled from Sam Rayburn, Oates’ “ShareLunker #587” is now swimming at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens where TPWD biologists will attempt to secure a successful spawn from the fish this spring. And as those two recent catches indicate, the 2021 ShareLunker season is off and running just two weeks into the New Year.

“ShareLunker is off to a great start for 2021,” said Kyle Brookshear, ShareLunker program coordinator, in the TPWD news release. “The warmer than average weather patterns that we have had throughout the fall and winter seems to already have the bass looking towards spring.”

Brookshear noted that Oates' catch was the first Legacy Class largemouth at Lake Austin in nearly six years. That last ShareLunker bass, a 13.19-pounder that became SL #555, was caught on Feb. 21, 2014.

Incidentally, with the Oates ShareLunker from last week, Lake Austin has now produced 21 Legacy Class bass weighing 13-pounds or better.

“Since the lake lost its submerged aquatic vegetation, bass fishing has been tougher as the fish adapted to changes in habitat, and they were harder to find,” said Patrick Ireland, a district supervisor for TPWD’s Inland Fisheries Division. “We see the capture of this 13.02-pound bass and the 11.30-pound bass caught the same night as a positive sign for the fishery. It is a work-in-progress, but we are committed to restoring the level of trophy bass production in this lake.”

With that as a backdrop, what can Texas angling enthusiasts expect the rest of this winter and spring as the best time of the year approaches for serious bass fishermen?

For starters, the attention of the bass fishing world will soon turn to Texas with four professional tournaments between now and June.

The first of those tournaments is the Bass Pro tour REDCREST Championship event on Lake Palestine next month. Originally scheduled for Grand Lake in northeastern Oklahoma, Major League Fishing’s answer to the Bassmaster Classic was moved to East Texas after COVID-19 restrictions limited fan participation for the scheduled event near Tulsa.

Instead, the Top 40 pros from last year’s BPT circuit will fish on the 25,560-acre reservoir southwest of Tyler from Feb. 21-25. As they do, they’ll be hitting the East Texas reservoir about the time that big bass are staging up for the coming spawn.

While Palestine isn’t the giant producer that Lake Fork, Sam Rayburn, and Toledo Bend have been over the years, the lake record is still 13.22 pounds. And while vegetation is more limited than it is on other East Texas lakes, there is some aquatic vegetation along with some submerged timber, boat docks, and offshore structure.

Add in the fact that 2.6 million Florida-strain largemouth bass fingerlings were put into the lake in five stockings from 2000 to 2009 — not to mention the 2.1 million planted in eight stockings since 2012 — and there should be more than a few big fish swimming around in Palestine this spring.

After the BPT visit next month, the Bassmaster Elite Series will make itself at home with three different events. Two of those will be in April, one on the Sabine River system near Orange/Beaumont, the other on the legendary lunker factory at Lake Fork. While the Sabine River area isn’t likely to produce any real giants, 101 fishing pros visiting Lake Fork in late spring almost certainly will.

Then there’s the 2021 Bassmaster Classic, a championship event on Lake Ray Roberts originally scheduled for March 19-21 and now rescheduled for June 11-13 due to ongoing COVID-19 concerns.

Ray Roberts is a 25,600 acre water body in Denton, Cooke and Grayson counties — by the way, after a recent question about that number from Ray Roberts fly fishing guide Shannon Drawe, that acreage comes from the TPWD — and it has a well-known big bass history.

That history includes a lake record of 15.18 pounds, six ShareLunker bass, and 1.4 million Florida-strain largemouths stocked in four plantings since 2011. Even though the spawn will be over when the 51st Classic comes to Ray Bob later this year, I’m still expecting to see a few big fish caught, maybe even a bass or two in the double-digits.

And none of that includes the thousands of anglers who will take to Texas’ legendary bass waters over the next few months. After several years of great spawning habitat from heavy rainfall, expect to see plenty of anglers posting lunker catches as the year’s big bass season unfolds.

While it’s obviously been a difficult chore to break Barry St. Clair’s longstanding 18.18-pound state record mark for a largemouth bass set at Lake Fork on Jan. 24, 1992, there are plenty of double-digit fish still swimming around in Texas, so one day, I expect that record to fall again.

But don’t wait until the fish are up in the skinny water during March and April. Because as the TPWD big bass record book and recent ShareLunker catches show, the best big bass opportunities of the year might be now instead of later.

So bundle up for some early year bass fishing trips because if you don’t get out on the water the rest of January and February, the big bass news over the next few weeks might leave you feeling left out in the cold.