That no state represented in Bassmaster magazine’s “100 Best Bass Lakes” list for 2019 has more waters in the ranking than Texas comes as little surprise to most of the state’s bass anglers or, for that matter, those in the rest of the nation.
Texas has over the last half-century built a well-earned reputation for the quality and quantity of its bass fisheries, specifically its largemouth bass fisheries. And that is of significant interest to the 20 million or so American anglers who have made the black-bass family of fishes, led by largemouth bass but including nine other cousins such as smallmouth and spotted bass, the most popular sport fish in the state and the nation.
If there is any astonishment among the million or so Texans who target black bass, it comes from seeing the state having “only” 10 entries in the list of “100 Best Bass Lakes,” leaving it tied with California for the most waters on the annual ranking appearing in the eponymous magazine’s July-August issue.
After all, California, despite having several man-made lakes that produce huge largemouth made that way by a steady diet of hatchery-produced and stocked trout, is not exactly a state that conjures the traditional image of bass and bass fishing. Perhaps as galling, black bass aren’t even native to that state, having been introduced there over the last century or so. At least black bass are native Texans, with three species — largemouth, Kentucky spotted and Guadalupe — having finned in the waters of what now is the Lone Star State for 10,000 or so years.
And how, Texas bass anglers might well wonder, could some Yankee water — the St. Lawrence River in New York — supplant our state’s Sam Rayburn Reservoir from the spot it held this past year at the top of Bassmaster’s ranking?
Such provincial backlash is understandable. Texas is home to more bass anglers and what well may be more premier bass fisheries than any other state. This is especially true for what many term “high quality” bass fisheries — waters where largemouths weighing 10 pounds or more are a very real possibility and fish weighing 4 to 6 pounds are almost expected. More than 70 waters in Texas have produced largemouth bass weighing 13 pounds or more — fish heavier than the state-record largemouth in 28 states.
And big bass are, for better or worse, one of the metrics by which many anglers gauge what fisheries are “best.” Certainly, it played a role in the Bassmaster rankings.
Those rankings, the magazine explained in a news release trumpeting what has become a very popular annual piece in the official publication of the half-million-member B.A.S.S. organization that defines and largely molded bass fishing’s rise in popularity, are decided by an amalgam of information. It includes polling state fisheries agencies’ staff who are asked to rank their state’s bass fisheries based on “stocking efforts, catch rates and angler access” as well as any big-bass program such as Texas’ ShareLunker that states have in place. Then B.A.S.S. officials look at the results of thousands of bass fishing tournaments held on lakes across the nation.
All that information is parsed and debated by a “panel of fishing industry insiders,” who come up with the final rankings.
Those rankings are fairly predictable, given the admittedly limited measures used to quantify bass fisheries and the invariably subjective bias that creep into such things.
Sam Rayburn Reservoir slipped to third place in the Bassmaster ranking, behind the St. Lawrence River and Alabama’s Lake Guntersville. Lake Fork ranked fifth. Those two lakes gave Texas as tie with New York and California for the most lakes in the top 10.
Texas dominated the list of the top 25 bass lakes in the Central Region ranking, accounting for 10 spots, all in the top 20. Rayburn ranked first, Fork second and Toledo Bend fourth. Other Texas lakes on the list were Falcon (6), Conroe (7), Caddo (9), Lake LBJ (11), Ray Roberts (15), Texoma (16) and Lake O’ The Pines (19).
The 10 Texas lakes on the list can and do provide good, even great, bass fishing, and they deserve their places in the spotlight. But, as with any list professing to rank the “best” of anything, it is necessarily limited by the criterion used to measure “quality” and, frankly, a conceit of supposing things such as catch rate and average weight of winning stringers in bass tournaments are important factors for anglers or define the merit of a fishery.
They do, of course. Up to a point. But all bass anglers — all anglers — have personal biases and preferences in what they look for in a fishery and the experiences that give time on the water pursuing a favored fish value.
There can be, and usually is, a difference between “best” and “favorite.” The best meal a person has had might well have been an expensive dinner at a posh restaurant. But their favorite— the meal they remember, enjoy the most and return to again and again — may be something as basic as a No. 1 combo plate at some hole-in-the-wall Tex-Mex place.
Bass fishing is like that for many of us. It is not so much the quality of the fishing as it is the quality of the experience. And each angler gauges that by their standards. For some, it is the number of fish they catch. For others, it is the size of those bass. For some, it is the setting and the scenery or where a favorite fishing method works best. Some prefer quiet, out-of-the-way waters, where they see few if any other anglers. Others are attracted to the energy and competition of fishing on a huge, popular reservoir.
The state holds more than 500 public lakes and reservoirs, almost 150 of them covering 1,000 surface acres or more and topped by 185,000-acre Toledo Bend and 115,000-acre Sam Rayburn. Their diversity is unlike anything found in other states, ranging from the shadowy, cypress-and-Spanish-moss swamp of Caddo Lake to Amistad Reservoir on the Rio Grande, where sun-blasted anglers pitch jigs into Caribbean-clear blue water around flooded creosote and mesquite trees surrounded by the Chihuahuan Desert. They can fish for bass in rocky, deep lakes such as Travis and LBJ in the Texas Hill Country or work topwaters through a field of water lotus in a quiet cove on Murvaul or Athens or any number of East Texas lakes rimmed with tall forests of pines and oaks.
Then there are the rivers, streams, bayous and creeks — the original homes of Texas’ native bass and the places Texas anglers fished for them long before the contrivance of man-made reservoirs.
Those rivers — bass fisheries mostly too small or shallow or otherwise off limits to metal-flake bass boats with 300-horse outboards and holding too few mutant-giant bass to be of interest to the big-fish-obsessed fishing tournament contingent — never will make a list of the “best” bass waters as gauged by the metrics used to decide the “100 Best Bass Lakes.” But those rivers can be magical places that many come to love as favorites.
Texas has a wealth of such riverine bass fisheries. The bayous, sloughs, oxbows and backwaters of the Sabine, Sulphur, Neches, Trinity, San Jacinto, Angelina and other East Texas rivers. The Llano, Medina, Sabinal, San Saba, Nueces, Guadalupe, Colorado, Brazos, Devils, Pecos and other spring-fed rivers of Central, South and Southwest Texas, where jewel-like Guadalupe bass hold in the riffles and runs and eddies, and largemouths of surprising bulk lurk in the deep, shadowed pools rimmed with water willow and pondweed.
Those low-profile bass fisheries, perhaps as much or maybe even more than the more widely known and more accessible reservoirs, are the places that become dearest to the Texas anglers who discover and fish them.
All of this is the real beauty and value of Texas bass fisheries. Every angler has a rich world from which to find and rank his or her best bass fisheries based solely on personal preferences and experiences. And doing the research to develop that list is, happily, a lifetime enterprise.
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