Lynn Burkhead — With East Texas bass fishing, sometimes father knows best

Herald Democrat
As Jim Spitzmiller recently proved on Nacogdoches Lake, when it comes to bass fishing in East Texas, sometimes father knows best. The father of the bride, that is, not the father of the groom!

Several years ago, I found myself in East Texas covering a fishing tournament, sitting in the back of a boat taking photos of bass pros doing what they do best, catching fish.

That wasn’t unusual since I’ve covered a number of B.A.S.S. and Major League Fishing events over the course of my outdoor writing career, including the 2017 MLF World Championship event that was being contested on waters around Nacogdoches.

What was a bit unusual at that particular springtime bass derby a few years ago was the knowledge that in a few months, my youngest son Will would be living in Nacogdoches as he began a journey towards a forestry and wildlife management degree at Stephen F. Austin State University.

So as MLF pros like Greg Hackney, Jeff Kriet, Kevin VanDam and eventual winner Bobby Lane began to prowl about on Nacogdoches Lake, Lake Naconiche, Lake Jacksonville and Kurth Reservoir that week, I paid a little bit more attention. The reason was simply that I suspected I might see one or more of those waters again as my son attended college in Lumberjack land.

As I recall, power fishing techniques and a normal spring produced some great fishing that week. I saw Mark Davis catch an 8-pounder, saw topwater explosions as anglers fished shadowy pockets, and even saw Tim Horton catch 88-plus pounds of bass one day as he repeatedly cast a deep diving crankbait over an offshore roadbed loaded up with largemouths.

With that backstory told, yours truly found himself in the middle seat of Jim Spitzmiller’s Skeeter bass boat a few weeks ago, watching the sun come up on Nacogdoches Lake, happy in the knowledge that a few hours later, my son Will and Jim’s daughter Ashley would say “I Do” to each other as they exchanged vows during their wedding ceremony.

Jim — an avid bass fisherman who fishes tournaments all over Texas and Louisiana, including his home waters on Sam Rayburn — occupied the front deck, his friend Jeff Kropik occupied the back deck, and I tried to man the middle.

As we pulled away from the boat ramp that morning, it was hard not to admire the Creator’s beauty spread out on the Pineywoods’ landscape that surrounds the 2,212-acre lake located 12 miles west of the town it’s named after.

Like I did in 2017, I thought once again that Nacogdoches is the perfect bass lake, offering anglers a tremendous variety of fishing options that range from a serpentine creek channel on the north end to plenty of offshore possibilities, shallow spawning flats, and coves as you move towards the dam on the reservoir’s other end.

But it was Nacogdoches’ lush aquatic vegetation consisting of hydrilla and other submerged plants, not to mention a myriad of shoreline cattails, laydown logs, and submerged stumps, that intrigued me the most as the Skeeter slowed down, Jim put the trolling motor into the water, and we started fishing.

When the boat’s skipper presented me with several rod-and-reel options that sported different lure possibilities, my eyes locked onto the power fishing stuff — squarebill crankbaits, spinnerbaits, and hollow-bodied frogs — even as he suggested something slower and more methodical.

As a guy who has read plenty of KVD power fishing stories — heck, I’ve even written a few over the years — I turned my nose up at the slower stuff and opted for lures that I could chunk and wind. Since it was mid-April and we were in East Texas, I was sure I could coax a big bass into a reactionary strike despite the heavy thunderstorms that had scrubbed the air of pollen the night before.

And that’s where I made a huge mental error, opting for the technique I preferred — explosive topwater bites — versus fishing the conditions of that day, which included a post-frontal wind out of the north and cooler than normal water and air temperatures.

It’s an idea that I’ve written about down through the years as I’ve covered Bassmaster Elite Series and Major League Fishing events, the idea of fishing the fish rather than fishing history. But sometimes, I don’t always practice what I preach, in print or otherwise, and it showed that morning as the clock slowly ticked by.

In a big cove, where I distinctly remembered the fish catching antics of one of the MLF pros a few years ago, the water screamed for a frog. After all, it was mid-April, there was submerged vegetation everywhere, and the fish should be shallow, right?

Fishing a frog with braid, I fearlessly cast that plastic Kermit into tight spots, knowing that a giant bass was lurking below. After all, Nacogdoches has a reputation as one of East Texas’ better bass fisheries despite its moderate size, producing numerous 2-4 pound fish and the occasional bucketmouth.

The latter includes the lake record, a 15.34-pound ShareLunker that angler Joe Castle landed on Feb. 29, 2020 while fishing a Senko. With two other ShareLunker size fish being pulled from Nacogdoches, and plenty more in the 5- to 10-pound range, I already had the headline for this column written in my mind: “Outdoor Writer Catches Career Best…on Son’s Wedding Day!”

Except that’s not the way it worked out. While I had a couple of half-hearted swipes at the frog, I couldn’t catch the good bass that I was seeking as I fished power fishing techniques. Lazy misses on the frog, yes. Nothing at all on the squarebill crankbait. And finally, a 2-pound bass on the spinnerbait.

Meanwhile, Jim was putting on a clinic from the front deck, catching a solid fish or two on a shad-colored Fluke, and then cleaning house after he switched to a six-inch Zoom Speed Worm in watermelon red. With every fish he caught, he kept gently urging Jeff and I to make the switch too.

We did occasionally, but I never felt comfortable dragging the Texas-rigged worm back to the boat in short, methodical hops that were agonizingly slow for my angling tastes. So, despite picking the Speed Worm up on a number of occasions throughout the morning, I never stayed with it very long as I dreamed of a big topwater bite at the next likely looking spot.

And as I committed one of the cardinal sins of fishing, that of fishing history — frogs in East Texas on a mid-spring morning — Jim did the smart thing and fished the actual conditions of the day, made challenging by both the current cold front and the deep snow and cold a few weeks earlier in mid-February.

As a result, while the action wasn’t red-hot that cool morning with the fish closer to the beginning of the spawn than to its end, the father of the bride put several good bass into the boat, including one that was between four and five-pounds. Meanwhile, the father of the groom stubbornly stuck with his plan during a sluggish spring season, catching only one small largemouth before we departed for the rest of an absolutely great day that saw our kiddos tie the knot.

When we left the boat ramp just short of noon — formal suits, ties, and the wedding photographer would soon be calling our names, after all — I smiled wryly as I recalled yet again a truth that I’ve steadily learned down through the years, in fishing and otherwise.

And that truth is this, that sometimes, including on Will and Ashley’s wedding day in Nacogdoches, father knows best.

The other one, that is.