ORANGE, Texas — When asked if he had ever competed on the Sabine River, site of the March 14-17 Bassmaster Elite Series season opener, Elite Series pro Dennis Tietje chuckled.
“Only for about 30 years,” he replied.
He’s in the minority because the Elite Series has never had an event on the Sabine. Most of the 100 competitors don’t know what to expect in this week’s Sabine River Challenge presented by STARK Cultural Venues out of Orange, Texas.
That means Tietje has been getting a lot of phone calls from his fellow Elite Series pros angling for his secrets.
“Sure, they call — but I don’t tell them anything,” he said, the smile still in his voice.
Tietje would be wise not to surrender any advantage. An Elite Series first prize is $100,000, an instant qualification for the 2014 Bassmaster Classic and the early lead in the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year season-long points race.
Tietje already seems to have Lady Luck working for him. He just returned to the Elite Series after a medical leave in 2012 for spinal surgery, and where is the first event of the season? Where he cut his competitive teeth.
“I was totally shocked when I first heard the Elite Series was coming here. I never dreamed I would compete at the Elite level where I learned to fish,” Tietje said.
He lives in Roanoke, La., about 60 miles east of Orange. That’s given him many opportunities over the years to enter a number of small, local tournaments on the Sabine, which forms the southeasterly Texas-Louisiana border. No big tournaments, he’s quick to point out. To his knowledge, the Elite event is the largest organized tournament to come to Orange.
That fact has a lot to do with why Todd Faircloth has never competed on the Sabine River, even though he lives just 90 miles away in Jasper, Texas. He’s usually at work on the water far from home.
Ditto for Alabama’s Keith Poche, although some might assume he knows the Sabine because he is a native of central Louisiana. Growing up, he spent a lot of time on small waters near where he lived in Natchitoches, but he never fished the Sabine, he said.
To help close up the holes in their knowledge of the Sabine, Faircloth and Poche scouted the river system before the Feb. 11, 2013, cutoff. (After that date, all Elite competitors were barred from tournament waters until the official March 11-13 practice period.)
On his scouting trip, Poche said he was reminded of Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin fishery.
“It’s a lot like Atchafalaya, but I think it’s going to fish differently,” said Poche, who now lives in Alabama. “The largemouth size limit for the Sabine event is 14 inches, and that’s going to make it tough on a lot of guys to get a limit. And I don’t think we’re going to be catching a lot of 4s and 5s.”
He, Faircloth and Tietje described an area south of Orange, off the main Sabine River, where huge spreads of backwaters, bayous and feeder rivers and creeks in both Texas and Louisiana hold black bass. The Neches, Calcasieu and other rivers are fertile fishing grounds. The Intracoastal Waterway connects some of the waters. North of Orange, anglers will find more of a traditional river, but some of the same types of backwaters.
The size of the tournament waters means an angler’s morning choice about where to find fish will likely be the only choice of the day.
“In the backwaters, it’s like a maze, so many canals and cuts. You really have to pick an area and go with it,” Poche said. “There’s so much water, you can’t run from area to area.”
Especially in the river system’s lower reaches, the tides will play a big role, Poche said.
“You have to catch that water moving,” he said. “The tides will position those fish. It’ll be all timing — and getting the right bites [by larger bass] because there are a lot of smaller fish there.”
Faircloth made time to scout the Sabine River, even though he was prepping for the Feb. 22-24 Bassmaster Classic on Oklahoma’s Grand Lake, where he finished ninth, a heroic recovery from Day 2 in 21st place and a jumpstart mentally for his Elite season.
“I’ve been there for trout and redfish, but I’ve never bass fished down there, so I spent four or five days there just riding around,” he said of the Sabine fishery. “There’s so much water that’s accessible, so much to look at, I wanted to get at least a feel for it.”
He predicts that the majority of the tournament’s catches will come from the backwaters, and the spawn will play somewhat of a role.
“I think there definitely will be fish in all stages of the spawn. I don’t think they’ll be too far from where they live in summertime — around moving water. But moving water won’t play as big a role as it would in summertime,” Faircloth said.
Tietje also scouted the river before cutoff, just to brush up. His main challenge is to fight off “fishing the past,” a syndrome that can trip up any local favorite who can’t resist returning to once-lucrative spots, even though conditions are nagging at the angler to try something else.
Predicting a winning Elite Series weight is difficult, Tietje said.
“There’s not as many big fish as there was before the hurricanes, but we’re going to catch fish,” Tietje said. “Mother Nature has a way of bringing a fishery back real fast, and with the restocking programs, there’s a lot of fish, and anglers are going to catch a lot of fish.”
That said, the Elite field needs to get used to seeing the number 13 on measuring sticks.
“There are tons of bass, but many haven’t made it to 14 inches yet,” Tietje said. “You might have an angler catch 50 or 60 fish — and one keeper. But if the weather’s right, we’ll have a lot of limits. That’s the main thing: Mother Nature will dictate the tournament’s outcome, depending on rainfall, wind and temperatures the week of the tournament. None of us will know until the tournament starts.”
Because one of his sponsors, Gopher Industrial, is located in Orange, Tietje has driven through the town often lately.
“It’s unbelievable what the community is doing to make sure this tournament is memorable for anglers, their families and fans. They really want people to know what Orange is about. They even had boats out picking up trash on the river and people cleaning up along the shorelines. That was neat for me to see that. The whole community is excited about the Elite event coming to Orange.”
Bassmaster.com will provide extensive coverage of the tournament each day. On site, fans are invited to watch the Thursday-Sunday 7 a.m. launches and 3:15 p.m. weigh-ins at the City of Orange Boat Ramp, 1000 Simmons Drive and Harry Reed Road, Orange, TX 77630.
There’s no admission charge for any Bassmaster event, and access to Bassmaster.com is free.
The event’s title sponsor is STARK Cultural Venues, starkculturalvenues.org. Other local sponsors include Greater Orange Area Chamber of Commerce, www.orangetexaschamber.org; and the City of Orange, www.orangetexas.net.