Guide to giant bass

Over the past three decades, literally dozens of lakes throughout the nation have produced largemouth bass weighing more than 10 pounds. And, as fisheries personnel continue to learn more about trophy bass management, more are added to the list each year.

Far fewer lakes, however, continue to produce big bass on a regular basis year after year, which is really the true measure of a trophy fishery. Given the unpredictable nature of the largemouth bass, even the very best lakes sometimes go through a "drought period" in which 10-pounders seem to disappear. However, the following seven lakes offer some of the best chances in the United States to catch a truly big bass.

The first thing many anglers will notice is that none of the famed San Diego-area lakes are included here. Even though several 20-pound fish have been caught in these waters, the lakes' small size, very heavy fishing pressure and limited access preclude listing them.

Lake Hodges, for example, which has produced fish heavier than 20 pounds, contains 1,234 acres and is open just three days a week (sunrise to sunset) between early March and late October; most of the other lakes are much smaller and operate under schedules just as confining.

Compare these lakes to Clear Lake, Calif.; Toledo Bend, Texas; and Rodman Reservoir, Fla. — all much larger and open day and night year-round so pressure is more spread out — and each of which has given up bass in excess of 15 pounds. Studying these statistics, your chances of catching a big bass may actually be better on the larger lakes.If you do decide to visit any of these lakes, take the time to plan your trip very carefully. On virtually all lakes, there are good, better and best times of the year to visit.

Even in ideal weather, trophy bass fishing requires a great deal of patience and a willingness to go for hours or days with just a few strikes. If you intend to hire a local guide, reserve your days with him as far in advance as possible.

Clear Lake, Calif

This 43,000-acre spring-fed lake, located approximately three hours north of San Francisco near the city of Clearlake, has produced bass topping 17 1/2 pounds, along with many in the 8- to 13-pound range. Characterized by a mixture of weedy shoreline cover, boat docks and deep water, Clear Lake is the largest natural lake in the state.

The majority of trophy bass are caught between March and June, and again in October and November. Sight fishing is popular and productive in the clear, spring-fed waters during these months, but during the summer, anglers must share the water with crowds of water skiers and pleasure boaters.Favorite big bass areas include Lakeside County Park, with its hydrilla, rocks and tules; Redman Slough, the lake's only tributary; and Konocti Bay, where the bottom contains not only scattered vegetation, but also gravel and rock. B.A.S.S. pro Byron Velvick won the California Western Invitational in this area in April 2000, with a record catch of 15 bass weighing 83 pounds.

Velvick used one of the famous California swim baits to catch his fish, but equally impressive hauls are made with tube jigs, plastic worms, buzzbaits and even crankbaits.Additional information is available from the Clearlake Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 629, Clearlake, CA 95422; (707) 994-3600.

Lake Perris, Calif.

This 2,600-acre lake, located about 70 miles east of Los Angeles, undoubtedly ranks as one of the state's premier trophy bass lakes. Some have described Perris as the best lake in the United States for bass in the 12- to 15-pound range. Interestingly, this is the lake California famous for its trophy spotted bass fishery, which flourished, then faded after Florida largemouths were introduced.What makes Perris such an excellent fishery is the combination of water quality, abundant forage, deep breaklines and variety of cover. Depending on water levels, anglers here can often choose between laydowns, tules, isolated rockpiles and boulders and even artificial tire reefs. Locally famous trophy bass fishing areas include Allessandro Island, Rock Climber Cove and Rock'N Hole. Each of these spots features rocks and drop-offs into deep water.

Most trophy bass are caught between November and April, which corresponds to the state trout stocking schedule. Naturally, swim baits that imitate trout produce well, as do large plastic worms (often fished on 12-pound line with a 1/8-ounce sinker), jigs and deep diving crankbaits.For additional information, contact the California Dept. of Fish and Game, 1416 Ninth St., Sacramento, CA 95814; (858) 467-4201.

Lake Casitas, Calif.

This scenic 2,800-acre lake near Ventura has produced fish heavier than 21 pounds, and some feel it could produce the next world record. That's because unlike many other trophy lakes in California, Casitas offers a lot of shallow water with excellent cover. Casitas also has excellent deeper structure, as well as heavy autumn/winter stockings of rainbow trout.

The majority of big bass are caught between December and March, and many of them come from Orchard Point, Arrow Island and Deer Slope. Each of these spots offers not only shallow spawning flats, but also fast falling drops into much deeper water.Without question, swim baits rank high on the list of popular lures here; both trolling and drifting them along the edges of the drop-offs are productive. Other lure choices include plastic worms, tube jigs and deep crankbaits.For additional information, contact the Lake Casitas Recreation Area, 11311 Santa Ana Rd., Ventura, CA 93001; (805) 649-1122.

Lake Fork, Texas

No lake in recent years has received as much publicity as this 27,000-acre impoundment north of Mineola. Opened in 1980 and managed specifically to produce trophy bass, Fork has been an unqualified success, having produced seven bass over 16 pounds, including the state record of 18.18 pounds; and at least 30 other fish topping 14 pounds.

Much of this success can be attributed to strict management that includes a protective slot limit of 14 to 24 inches, a strong catch-and-release ethic among local guides, and abundant cover. Until 1999, Lake Fork had a heavy growth of hydrilla that provided almost year-round cover for bass; that vegetation is now beginning to return, and it should be thick and plentiful by the spring of 2002. The lake is also filled with standing timber and brush.

Key fishing areas include some of the various tributary streams flowing into Fork, many of which continually produce the largest bass year after year. Included on this list are Caney, Birch, Mustang, Little Mustang and Blade Creeks.

February, March and April are popular fishing months because bass are spawning, but May and June can be excellent because bass tend to gather in larger schools off deep structure. September and October often produce schooling action near the mouths of some of the creeks, with big fish starting to appear again in November and December.

The most popular big bass lure on Fork is a 1/2- or 3/4-ounce jig, but spinnerbaits, plastic worms and lizards (on a Carolina rig), and deep diving crankbaits have all caught big bass.For more information, contact the Lake Fork Sportsman's Association, P.O. Box 126, Yantis, TX 75497; (903) 383-3304.

Toledo Bend Reservoir, Texas/La.

During the three-month period between late January and late April 2001, at least 17 bass weighing more than 10 pounds were registered at different marinas on Toledo Bend. The largest fish recorded tipped the scales at 14 pounds, 11 ounces — proof that this massive 186,000-acre lake on the Texas/Louisiana border is ready to take its place among the nation's trophy bass producers.

Never before in its 35-year history was Toledo Bend known for trophy bass. It has always been a "numbers lake," producing tons of bass in the 4- to 6-pound range. Now, however, extensive stocking of Florida bass by Texas and Louisiana is finally beginning to pay off.

Anglers familiar with the lake also point out that despite its age, Toledo Bend continues to offer excellent habitat, water quality and fairly light fishing pressure. That's due in part to its size - the lake stretches 65 miles from end to end and contains more than 1,200 miles of shoreline — and its remoteness from major cities. The water is full of stumps, hydrilla, ditches and channels, submerged ridges and sharp depth changes.Jigs are probably the top lure choices here; in fact, the first "grass jigs" were developed on this lake. Other popular and productive lures include crankbaits, spinnerbaits, Carolina-rigged lizards, and Texas-rigged worms and tube jigs. February through May are prime months, but double-digit fish also are caught in the fall.

Additional information is available from the Toledo Bend Tourist Information Center, 15091 Texas Hwy., Many, LA 71449; (800) 259-5253.

Rodman Reservoir, Fla.

This 10,000-acre Oklawaha River impoundment near the city of Palatka has been producing trophy largemouths for more than 25 years, and despite heavy pressure, it continues to give up numerous big bass every year. In March 2000, a 17-pound, 2-ounce fish was caught here, and a few days later, a 15-2 was brought in.Although just 13 miles in length, Rodman is filled with standing timber and stumps as well as several different types of vegetation — including hydrilla, bulrush and hyacinth. Forage, especially golden shiners, is also abundant, and the Oklawaha channel offers deeper water adjacent to the cover.

Trophy bass fishing in Florida lakes, of course, centers around the use of live shiners, and Rodman is no exception. During the prime November to March season, shiners frequently have to be reserved in advance at area bait shops. Those who use artificials catch most of their big bass on plastic worms, lizards and soft jerkbaits hopped and crawled along the edges of the vegetation.

For additional information, contact the Putnam County Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 550, Palatka, FL 32077; (904) 328-1503.

Stick Marsh, Fla.

Located approximately 25 miles south of Melbourne near the small town of Fellsmere, this catch-and-release fishery has made more than a few trophy dreams come true. Numerous bass in the 12- to 14-pound range have been caught here.Stick Marsh and the adjoining Farm 13 (which together total 6,700 acres) are actually water retention reservoirs designed to correct siltation problems in the St. Johns River, but after being stocked with Florida bass in 1987, they soon began producing exceptional fishing.

Essentially, anglers here are fishing a flooded forest, swamp and former citrus grove. While trees and brush dominate the landscape above the surface, a surprising number of submerged canals and deeper holes can be found below the surface. Hydrilla and other vegetation is also present.While giant bass have been caught on lures, most guides focus on live bait. For whatever reason, whenever the bass are on a shiner bite, artificials like plastic worms and lipless crankbaits seldom get a second look. November through March are considered the best months, although big fish are caught throughout the year.

For additional information, contact the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, 620 S. Meridian St., Tallahassee, FL 32399-1600; (850) 488-4676.

Other trophy fisheries

There are, of course, many other impoundments across the nation where anglers have a better-than-average opportunity to catch a bass weighing 10 pounds or more. Such a list could easily include lakes George, Rousseau, Toho and Istokpoga in Florida; Ray Roberts and Cooper in Texas; McGee Creek Reservoir in Oklahoma; and certainly, some of the San Diego-area lakes like Murray and Hodges.In Mexico, lakes El Salto and Comedero are producing exceptional action for trophy bass; Comedero has produced fish topping 18 pounds, and at El Salto, some anglers have caught two or more 10-pounders in a single day. Comedero contains approximately 27,000 acres; El Salto about 12,000, and American outfitters offer complete package trips for each lake.

Clearly, the opportunities for anglers to catch the fish of their dreams are better now than ever. It still requires time, skill and a certain amount of luck, but the fish are definitely there. And thanks to the widespread stocking of fast-growing Florida-strain largemouths, they're getting bigger by the year.

Steve Price's new book, Big Bass! In Search of Trophy Largemouth, details the techniques used by guides and trophy bass experts who regularly catch big bass in California, Texas and Florida. The book is available for $19.95 from Fishing Hot Spots, P.O. Box 1167, Rhinelander, WI 54501; (800) 338-5957; >

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