Sizing up the Sabine

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Gettys Brannon

ORANGE, Texas — So far this week “fishing small” is the buzz phrase used by anglers to describe how the tournament waters are fishing at the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Elite at Sabine River presented by Econo Lodge.

Using the Sabine River exclusively in the tournament title is a misnomer. That title would grow to a paragraph by listing the full tournament waters. From the launch site in downtown Orange to the far western boundary is about a 3-hour boat ride.

The area extends roughly from the north up the Sabine River at Toledo Bend Dam, to south and west toward Surfside Beach, near the city of Freeport. Included are sections of the Neches and Trinity rivers, Trinity Bay and Galveston Bay, otherwise known as gateway to the Houston Ship Channel. The vast area easily covers hundreds of square miles of fishable water.

But is it all really fishable? The answer is yes and no, but mostly the latter. The reason is the tolerance that largemouth bass have in saline waters. Record flooding from Hurricane Harvey and runoff from springtime rains expanded the survival area, with a catch.

“During practice the saltwater line looked to have been pushed back,” said Brandon Palaniuk. “That also expanded the coverage area where bass could survive, to spread them out even more.”

The bass have more places to live and getting to them is the challenge. Inside the bayous and backwaters is a labyrinth of gnarly swamps that can be inaccessible to bass boats. 

That makes solving the riddle of where salinity levels are acceptable for bass survival one of the greatest challenges of them all this week.

“You can’t tell just by looking at the surface, looking around an area, whether or not there could be bass living in it,” said Alton Jones Sr. “Part of it is a guessing game.”

The guessing is reduced, of course, by choosing to avoid the gray areas. The Sabine, Neches and Trinity rivers continuously pump fresh, bass-rich water into the tournament waters. So do canals fed by creeks and other freshwater sources.

An example is Taylor Bayou, stocked since 1986 with Florida largemouth. The bayou is located within the Sabine River drainage near the city of Port Arthur. Chris Lane and Todd Faircloth won previous Elite Series tournaments there.

The sheer size of the fishable area is another handicap. So is the process of time management during the tournament hours.

“You have areas of freshwater that hold bass that are separated by large expanses of saltwater where they cannot live,” explained Jones. “So if you make a long, one-way run you can’t just easily double back and rebound.”

You just can’t run into the next creek around the bend, like you can in a lake, and recover there if the fish aren’t biting where you started,” he added.

Jones said taking fewer chances and not straying too far from a dependable freshwater source like a river is a wise move this week.

“If you run too far you loose time, and this week keeping a lure wet is a much better idea than gambling on a long run,” he said. “You won’t know whether or not it was worth it until it’s too late to turn back around, try something different.”

Another influence on the bite is the tide, and not in the textbook way you might believe.

“Early this morning water clarity was good, because everybody went to their best spots and stayed until midmorning,” said Greg Hackney, currently in the lead with 16 pounds, 3 ounces. “Then when everybody started running around it muddied up the water on the incoming tide.”

Normally, an incoming tide is preferred due to the influx of clearer water, but just the opposite occurred in Hackney’s areas.

“The river is fishing small because of the pressure,” said Hackney. “The boat traffic added to the challenges by stirring up the mud.”

During practice the same area where Hackney found quality fish was muddied as the water returned.

The tournament water might indeed fish smaller, and so is the legal minimum size limit for a tournament keeper. That is a good thing. For most Texas waters the minimum length limit for largemouth is 14 inches. A 12-inch zone applies to tournament waters within the Texas counties of Newton, Orange, Jefferson, Chambers and Galveston.  

So what you lose in fishable water is gained with the chances of catching a 5-bass limit. The only hitch will be upgrading to those 14-inchers.

The tidal swings, salinity level and the off limits of Louisiana waters are wrapped up into the same package of challenges for the 108 anglers. Perhaps Skeet Reese said it best.

“All I’m trying to do this week is survive, get the AOY points,” he said.