Elite Series pro Dennis Tietje has owned a place on Toledo Bend for 24 years, but the 49-year-old angler has been fishing it much longer than that.
"I took my first trip to Toledo Bend when I was six months old," said Tietje, who lives in Roanoke, La. "Every summer after that, it was where we went on our summer family trip. So you could say I've been on Toledo Bend for 49 years now."
That last statement was a joke. But Tietje wasn't joking when he said the lake is in better shape than he's ever seen it.
"The grass is returning in a lot of areas," he said. "The water color has been better lately, which has allowed the grass to grow deeper. The schools of baitfish are plentiful, and the bream are plentiful.
"The last time we were here, there were a bunch of 8-pounders being caught. Now there's a bunch of 10-pounders being caught."
The Toledo Bend Lake Association sponsors a lunker program that offers a replica mount for anyone catching and releasing a bass weighing at least 10 pounds. In the 2012-2013 season, there were a record 58 lunker entries. That mark has been matched this year — No. 58 was caught on April 19th.
"We've got three weeks to go, so we expect the record will be broken this year," said Linda Sparks, the director of the Sabine Parish (La.) Tourist Commission. The annual total runs from May 15, 2013, to May 14, 2014. The replicas are provided by the Toledo Bend Lake Association.
Tietje caught one of the 10-pounders this year — a 10.05 on February 13. The 185,000-acre lake, which forms part of the Texas-Louisiana border, has been off limits to Elite Series anglers since March 31.
The Elite Series has been here twice recently: Dean Rojas won in 2011 with 70 pounds, 15 ounces; Brent Chapman won in 2012 with 83-9.
Expect the winning total this year to be closer to the 20-pounds-a-day average that Chapman won with in 2012. Former Elite Series angler Clark Reehm of Huntington, Texas, finished second in an FLW Rayovac Series tournament at Toledo Bend in March. His three-day total of 61-9 was seven ounces shy of first place. A 10-3 was big bass in that event.
"They'll be able to catch 'em any way they want – shallow, deep, whatever," predicted Reehm in a recent visit. He agreed with Tietje that the lake, impounded in 1969, is in great condition.
Tietje riding a lucky streak
The story of Dennis Tietje's unusual catch during practice at Table Rock was recounted in a pre-tournament story on this website. Tietje's lucky streak got better as the tournament began.
To recount the story, here's how the streak started: Tietje decided he was going to check out the crankbait bite during the final practice period at Table Rock on Wednesday.
"On my second cast, I set the hook, got one," Tietje said.
But as he was reeling the bass to the boat, Tietje saw his crankbait in one place and the bass hooked on a jerkbait in another direction.
"I'd hooked a line that had a fish on it," he said. "I hand-lined that fish to the boat, just so I could get the lure. I figured it might bring me some luck during the tournament."
Tietje brought a three-pound bass to the boat, released it and kept the lure. Then he noticed some weight on the other end of the line. So he hand-over-hand brought it to the boat. Attached was a Cabela's rod-and-baitcaster combo. It seems this bass had snatched the lure, line, rod and reel from an unfortunate angler's hands.
The lure was a Strike King KVD jerkbait, and it did bring him some luck.
"I caught my very first fish the first day on it, and my very first fish the second day on it," Tietje said. "I weighed-in both of those fish."
Tietje didn't have enough luck to make the Top 50 cut. He finished 81st with 21-13. That was less than three pounds from 50th place. Everyone predicted there would be many 10- to 12-pound bags in this tournament, but the final number was remarkable. It ranged from Rick Morris in 46th place with 24-15 to Jason Willamson in 96th place with 20-1. In other words, almost half the field averaged 10 to 12 pounds a day.
Tietje's luck hadn't run out. It just changed from fishing to hunting. He drove home to Louisiana on Saturday and immediately jumped on a private plane to Topeka, Kan., to shoot a turkey hunting episode for "On The Road," a Sportsman's Channel TV show.
"I'd never been turkey hunting in my life," said Tietje.
Not only had Tietje never been turkey hunting, this was to be a bow-hunting show. Shooting a wild turkey with a shotgun is hard enough, when your heart feels as if it's about to burst from your chest. At least Tietje had a wealth of bow-hunting experience for deer to guide him. And that proved to be good enough. He killed two gobblers in two days.
"It was pretty neat," Tietje said.