The Bassmaster Elite Series kicks off season at Sabine River

ORANGE, Texas — Many anglers don’t seem to know what to expect on the water during the Bassmaster Elite at Sabine River presented by STARK Cultural Venues in Orange, Texas, March 19-22.

They’re bracing for a tough, competitive tournament when a couple of keeper bites could make the difference between a big check and a middle-of-the-pack finish.

But whatever happens, history says plenty of fans will be there to see it unfold.

When the Elite Series last visited Orange in March 2013, records were shattered with 33,650 people attending the event over four days. The mark smashed the previous attendance record of 17,920, set in 2011 in Decatur, Ala., by a whopping 15,730 fans.

“We’re expecting even more this time,” said Ida Schossow of the Greater Orange Area Chamber of Commerce. “We’ve added several more events to the Orange County River Festival (held in conjunction with the tournament), and we’re hoping for excellent weather. We really believe this tournament will top the last one.”

On the fishing side, expectations are a little less certain.

Todd Faircloth – who lives in Texas, but had never fished the Sabine River prior to the tournament – won the 2013 event and its $100,000 first-place prize with a four-day total of 49 pounds, 6 ounces. He finished just ahead of Arizona angler Dean Rojas (42-12) and Florida pro Terry Scroggins (41-1).

Anglers needed a three-day weight of only 10-15 (an average of 3.6 pounds per day) to make the Top 50 and earn a check. It took a three-day weight of 26-12 (8.9 pounds per day) to make the Top 12 and fish among the finalists on Day 4.

Things could be every bit as tough this time around.

“It’s a system with a lot of fish in it, but fish that meet that 14-inch minimum length limit are hard to come by,” said Todd Driscoll, district fisheries biologist with Texas Parks & Wildlife. “An angler who catches a 9- or 10-pound bag could really have something.”

Driscoll said anglers should encounter a prespawn/spawn situation, meaning most of the bass will be in the shallow bays and bayous that anglers worked so hard to access in 2013.

To catch his winning weight during that event, Faircloth targeted fish in an area he described as a “bayou off a bayou” off the Taylor River. He worked one 3/4-mile stretch for four days where he believed fish were probably bedding, even though he couldn’t see the beds.

Faircloth believes recent heavy rains in the area will play a role in this year’s tournament.

“We won’t know until we get down there, but I expect some dirty water,” Faircloth said. “I also expect the river to be rolling pretty good. I think the weights could be a little higher than last time, but it’ll still be a tough tournament.”

Driscoll said the cold winter in southeast Texas has kept most bass from spawning so far. But that could change quickly if the weather stays warm between now and the Elite Series event.

“Very, very few bass have spawned in this part of the world because it’s been so cold,” Driscoll said. “The fish will be up in those backwater areas looking to spawn. That’s where they’ll have to go to find them. I know of very little fishing that’s actually being done on the lower Sabine River itself right now.”

Journeying into the bays and bayous could make for a repeat of the equipment destruction some anglers suffered during their last trip to the Sabine River. Several anglers damaged or destroyed the lower units on their outboards when they slammed into underwater objects, and New Jersey angler Michael Iaconelli’s boat sailed onto the bank when he lost control after hitting a partially submerged log.

Tennessee angler Brandon Card broke the prop shaft completely off his boat during the second day of practice, trying to reach a hidden backwater area he had located on Google Earth. He was forced to travel six miles downstream to the nearest boat ramp with his trolling motor, but returned successfully to the backwater area all four days of the tournament and notched a Top 10 finish with 31-10.

“I haven’t even been down there to do any pre-fishing because I feel like I know the lay of the land pretty well,” Card said. “With so much fishable water down there, the most important thing is picking a spot and fishing it hard. You can really waste a lot of time looking if you don’t commit to an area.”

The 2013 event in Orange also broke the record for single-day attendance at an Elite Series event, with 14,950 fans turning out for the Saturday weigh-in. The previous record was 14,050 at the Decatur event in 2011.

Launches are scheduled for 7:10 a.m. CT each day from the City of Orange Boat Ramp with weigh-ins also set for the ramp each day at 4 p.m. CT. Launches and weigh-ins are free and open to the public.

Total purse will be $638,000, with $100,000 going to the winner. Anglers will also earn points toward the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year title and qualification for the GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by GoPro, which is scheduled for March 4-6, 2016, in Tulsa, Okla.

A complete schedule for the Orange County River Festival, along with shuttle times for weigh-in parking, is available at www.orangetexaschamber.org.