50 years of B.A.S.S. and Toledo Bend

toledo_bend.jpg

Andy Crawford

MANY, La. — You might say that B.A.S.S. and Toledo Bend Reservoir grew up together as siblings in shaping the history of bass fishing. 

In 1968 Ray Scott’s crazy idea of forming an organization for bass fishermen — including a professional tournament circuit — took off with the launch of B.A.S.S. The following year the equally as crazy idea of what dreamers envisioned as “the greatest tourist attraction in the South” opened on the borders of Texas and Louisiana. 

Scott’s idea was in fact logical because it was driven by a business and marketing plan. All he needed to do was rally the already growing base of bass fishermen around the B.A.S.S. shield. Success came quickly through the pages of Bassmaster Magazine and the Bassmaster Tournament Trail.

The story behind Toledo Bend was much more complex and would be an epic project of gargantuan proportions. Supporters dreamed of harnessing 65 miles of the Sabine River for 181,000 acres of lake with a 650-mile shoreline. The result would be the largest manmade lake in the South. At eventually 186,000 acres what they didn’t envision was Toledo Bend becoming the fifth largest manmade lake in the nation. 

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers initially shot down the idea after a feasibility study said it wouldn’t work. In retrospect that had just as much to do with the project taking off. The Sabine River Authority of Texas — and then of Louisiana — were formed to take charge of finding economic, conservation and flood control purposes for the river. The unified idea was moving forward with the project. Support groups formed, politicians got involved and the project took off in 1964.

Unplanned circumstances during the construction process would play a huge part in jumpstarting what the founders wanted in the greatest tourist attraction in the South.

Part of the trade off with landowners losing their property to the lake was giving them timber rights to their land. Divine intervention interrupted the timber harvest after an epic 14-inch rain swamped the reservoir footprint. The lake shot up to an elevation of 147 feet just 14 months before manmade flooding was planned.

The result became the lake’s signature inundated forests. Boat lanes had to be cut through the timber so boats could access the river and lake from the shoreline. The lake was a peculiar sight with green leaves still on the trees above the surface. 

Below magic was taking place. Submerged timber provided habitat for the entire aquatic food chain and especially at the top. The trees provided nursery habitat for fingerling bass and ambush points for their predatory parents. The bluegill population exploded and so did the bass population.

Meanwhile, Scott was searching for trophy lakes where he could build up the B.A.S.S. hype and attract tournament anglers. Mission accomplished on Jan. 29-31, 1969, with the 14th event of the fledgling organization. Mike Bono won the Toledo Bend Invitational with 94 pounds, 4 ounces. Since then the Bassmaster Tournament Trail has made 18 stops at Toledo Bend. By all accounts the idea of bringing bass fishing’s biggest stage to a lake with the biggest bass has succeeded and continues to do so. 

Tournaments were only a small part of establishing Toledo Bend as a premier bass fishing destination. In 1969 an oil boom was underway in East Texas and offshore along the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana. Oilmen were becoming rich and needed a place to spend their money. They found that place at Toledo Bend, where fish camps blossomed around the lake, catering to high rollers who came up from the major oil centers of Dallas, Houston and New Orleans. Guide businesses took off and 100 bass days — per angler — were the norm. Motels and guides were booked solid during the spring and summer months. The economic impact of bass fishing alone was staggering.

The lake chugged along for the next two decades, consistently ranking as a top fishing and vacation destination. Hundreds of tournaments were held annually. Vacationers came from far away to experience the fishing. Life was good in Toledo Bend country.

It would get even better. Next on the list of the dreamers was bringing unparalleled legitimacy to the lake as the undisputed best bass fishery in the nation. Another crazy idea turned real when the Sabine River Authority, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Toledo Bend Lake Association began pumping Florida-strain largemouth into the massive reservoir.

The stocking program, which has introduced over 29 million trophy candidate largemouth into the reservoir, was taken over completely by TPWD and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries in 2010. That was a win-win because of the powerful fisheries science and management resources of both agencies.

The effectiveness of stocking the fast-growing Florida largemouth into the lake can be seen in the numbers of double-digit bass entered into the Toledo Bend Lake Association Lunker Program. It offers free replicas to anglers catching and releasing largemouth weighing more than 10 pounds. A staggering 910 anglers have earned lunker replicas since the program began in 1992.

A dark moment occurred in 2011 when prolonged drought dropped water levels to historically low levels. Marinas closed, boat ramps became inaccessible and navigation was difficult. Yet again, as it did in 1968, nature came to the rescue with a historic rain that raised the water level back to normal.

The natural drawdown allowed vegetation to grow on the exposed shoreline. When the water came back up it was like 1969 all over again. The lake was like new with the bass using the vegetation as nursery habitat to protect their young. In 2012, the year the lake refilled, 29 double-digit bass were recorded. The following year the number doubled to 59 largemouth caught and released weighing over 10 pounds.

Through the years B.A.S.S. and the lake developed a symbiotic relationship. As both grew, the lake and organization unknowingly developed a powerful union. 

“B.A.S.S. played a tremendous role in the growth of Toledo Bend, and continues doing so,” said Linda Curtis-Sparks, director of the Sabine Parish Tourist Commission.

She should know. The growth of the tournament trail prevented stops at lakes unable to provide the needed services for 200-plus boat tournaments. That was the case at Toledo Bend. Repeated pitches for tournaments were turned down in the early 1990s. 

“B.A.S.S. wanted to come, but we didn’t have the hotel rooms or facilities for a weigh-in,” she explained. 

Tourism leaders took to heart the rejection. At the time only 204 hotel rooms existed on the entire lake. B.A.S.S. need as many in the same location, along with meeting space for over 400 people. A large weigh-in facility, multi-lane boat ramps and parking for 200 boats was a tall order. Fortunately, it was already in the planning stages at Toledo Bend. 

“B.A.S.S. simply put it all in high gear,” she added. “We did more to make sure we got them back.”

The original 100,000 acres of uncut timber had by then rotted and the tree lines of the natural boat lanes had all but disappeared. Navigation was tricky. The SRA responded by designing stump-cutting barges built to cut 12 feet below the surface. About 500 miles of boat lanes were mowed throughout the lake with buoys placed to mark the way. At the time only 136 buoys existed on the lake. Now there are several hundred thousand smaller PVC pipe buoys to make navigation safer and easier. 

More work happened at what is now Cypress Bend Park and resort. A weigh-in facility was built that would be the model of the future. 

“B.A.S.S. approved the plans because we not only wanted them back for the long term, but we respected their experience,” she said. “So B.A.S.S. really gets credit for pushing the history of our lake along.”

The sibling-like relationship between Toledo Bend and B.A.S.S. then came full circle, when Bassmaster named the lake the nation’s top bass fishery. Best of all, there is more to come from B.A.S.S. and the lake. The duo has shared a parallel path with for 50 years now and counting.