Lynn Burkhead — Classic Countdown: Ray Roberts has changed, will provide test

Herald Democrat
Hydrill and other types of aquatic vegetation aren't as common now at Lake Ray Roberts as they were back in the 1990s. That means that whoever wins the event--Fort Worth's Chris Zaldain, shown above, is one of the favorites--will likely find the winning pattern from the reservoir's timber and underwater topography.

Prior to sunup on a hot summer day back in the 1990s, my dad Bill and yours truly drove down Hwy. 377 towards the Buck Creek Ramp, planning to meet my longtime fishing guide friend Steve Hollensed.

On tap was a day on the water at Lake Ray Roberts, the North Texas water body preparing to host the 51st Bassmaster Classic in a couple of weeks from June 11-13.

During our journey south, I saw a glimmer of bright light streaking across the nighttime sky and pointed it out to my dad.

“See that pops?” I said, in one of the few moments when I knew something that my late father didn’t. “That’s the International Space Station passing over North Texas.”

Quietly smiling as only a son can when he thinks he’s got something on the patriarchal lion of the family, that was to be the end of my smugness. By day’s end, my dad and Hollensed had both turned the tables on me, catching the lion’s share of the largemouth bass that fell to Pop-R’s and Bass Assassins tossed over and around the vast hydrilla beds that Ray Roberts had back then.

As it turned out on that fishing trip — and almost always did, for what it’s worth — my father clearly knew best in faith, fishing, and life.

In the 20-plus years that have passed by since that angling trip in Hollensed’s Ranger bass boat, much has changed. My dad passed away four years ago last week, Hollensed is now an award-winning fly-casting instructor and Orvis endorsed fly guide for stripers on Lake Texoma, and I’m a middle aged empty nester failing in his effort this spring to land a truly big bass.

Oh yeah, the hydrilla is all but gone at Ray Roberts too, done in by a severe lowering of the lake for work on the dam a number of years ago, not to mention a topsy/turvy cycle of drought and flood in the 21st Century.

But what has changed most at Ray Bob is its reputation in the fishing world. Once hailed as the possible successor to Lake Fork, the 25,600-acre reservoir impounded in 1987 has never quite lived up to that advance billing.

The lake — which has some great crappie, white bass, and even fly fishing action for carp — is barely a half-hour’s drive from my D-Town backyard, occupying portions of Denton, Cooke and Grayson Counties. But while the lake has been listed several times by Bassmaster Magazine as one of the better fisheries in the central part of the country, the bass catching seems tougher now than it did back then.

The very first time I fished Ray Roberts was in the early 1990s, a mild February trip with Doug Rodgers and Randy Henderson that produced one of the first outdoor stories I ever wrote in this space. By the time we headed for the ramp, spinnerbaits and soft plastics had accounted for more than 30 largemouths, most in the 2- to 3-pound range and a couple even pushing upwards of  five pounds.

During the rest of the 1990s, various trips on my own and with Hollensed produced similar results, including one glorious summer evening when we caught numerous fish as we probed offshore spots with soft plastics. On one of those trips with Steve, he turned the tables on a rare, strong cold front on the Fourth of July, landing a fish north of eight pounds.

Today, similar numbers of fish aren’t as readily caught, but the lake’s reputation is that it can still produce a lunker weighing in the upper single digits or even pushing past the coveted 10-pound mark. In fact, the 2015 lake record at Ray Bob weighed 15.18 pounds and there have been six ShareLunkers caught over the years — five in March, one in April — that pushed the scales past 13 pounds.

With the Classic beginning two weeks from today, the Ray Roberts fishery reminds me of a good golf course where a major championship is tested, one that is tough but fair.

That means that there should be plenty of chance for a young angling wizard like Idaho’s Brandon Palaniuk or Fort Worth’s Chris Zaldain to figure out the lake and claim the Classic win. But much like Phil Mickelson’s historic PGA Championship win last Sunday, I’m going with experience in my pick, the kind that Leander, Texas angler and defending B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year Clark Wendlandt will bring to the 51st Classic.

Whoever wins and however the Classic trophy gets claimed, the winning pattern is likely to center around several things over the next two weeks. One of those is the weather, after a rainy and cooler than normal spring has kept lake temperatures lower than they would typically be heading into Memorial Day, not to mention pushing the lake level some 1.65 feet above normal as of this writing on Thursday afternoon.

There’s more rain in the forecast too, and that could potentially cause the lake to rise even higher. If it rises much higher, it could make the lake muddy and force anglers to probe the newly flooded shoreline cover and vegetation. If that’s the case, the winner might claim the $300,000 payday and big trophy by flipping flooded brush and vegetation much as Greg Hackney did when he claimed the June 2016 Bassmaster BASSfest title on a severely flooded Texoma.

If the water is basically where it is now, running a small crankbait, a Rat-L-Trap, a Fluke, a Chatterbait or even a spinnerbait along the edge of the flooded vegetation could be key. Topwaters could also work and there might even be a late bed fish to be caught, one that could help pave the way towards victory.

If that scenario doesn’t play out, then expect topography and trees to be the key ingredients for victory. The lake features an ample amount of offshore fishing opportunity, the kind of spots where post-spawn bass like to hang out.

While today’s electronic gadgetry and mapping is hard to beat, if one of the 54 Classic qualifiers has somehow gotten ahold of the 2004 Lake Ray Roberts version of the Martin’s Super Maps series, the old school paper map — albeit laminated paper — could help someone unlock the winning pattern and location.

Why? Because Martin’s Maps are incredibly detailed, offering the following items to anglers: “This map shows things such as topography, fence lines, tree lines, creek channels, borrow pits, submerged cars, culverts, underwater roads, ponds, cattle pens, rock humps, quick drop-offs, artesian wells, dams, & etc.”

In other words, on a lake where the winning pattern might be tough to decipher, a Martin’s Map is a bass angler’s dream for a little help in figuring everything out.

And two weeks from Sunday, some angler will live that Classic dream out, pulling five big ones from Ray Bob on Day One, five more good ones on Day Two, and finally five more on Day Three that provide the winning weight on Championship Sunday as the crowd roars, the lights flash, the confetti falls, and the Fox Sports TV cameras record it all.

I’ll be there watching and I’ll bet many of you will be too as the Super Bowl of Bass Fishing returns to North Texas for the first time since it’s visit to Texoma back in 1979.

My only regret is that my dad won’t be there to see it with me, relishing Ray Roberts’ time to shine in the nation’s bass fishing spotlight. But maybe, just maybe, he’ll be watching from the other side of eternity, flashing that loving father’s smile that I knew all so well.