By James O. Fraioli
It is a balmy morning and the rising May sun struggles to burn the low fog off the world famous reservoir. I wait impatiently on the creaking dock for professional bass guide Larry Barnes to appear. A quick shiver runs down my spine from building anticipation and uncontrolled excitement of what I know to be the day ahead -- a great day to fish for trophy largemouth on Lake Fork, Texas.
Lake Fork is nationally recognized as the "Big Bass Capital of Texas" -- a true bass fisherman's dream. Its 27,000 constant-level surface acres contain vast amounts of standing timber -- ideal surroundings to sustain big fish. Combined with Lake Fork's aquatic vegetation, underwater creeks, lakes, ridges and humps, it's easy to see why, year after year, Lake Fork out-produces all other Texas lakes combined. Of the record largemouth bass catches in Texas, 34 of the top 50 largemouth come from Lake Fork. To get on this list, it takes catching a bass over 15 pounds. Larry Barnes, my guide for the next two days, currently holds the record for the fifth largest bass at 17.29 pounds.
When the lake first opened to the public in 1980, after the reservoir was filled, bass fishing was tremendous. Fishermen could go out and catch over a hundred bass daily. Although these were mainly small bass, the tone was set for Lake Fork. As the lake established itself and the baitfish multiplied, the bass grew larger. In November 1986, a state record bass weighing 17.67 pounds was landed at Lake Fork. This record held up until January 1992 when the current state record of 18.18 pounds was caught. Today, fishermen strongly believe that a new state record is still lurking somewhere in Lake Fork, just waiting for them.
Soon, I hear the distant murmur of a Mercury outboard, and then, through the rising haze, Larry's sleek 20-foot bass boat glides to the edge of the dock. The 58-year-old, with brownish-gray hair tucked under a fishing cap and a gold chain glistening beneath a tournament shirt, is right on time. A full-time guide on Lake Fork, Larry has appeared in numerous publications including Bassmaster, Texas Fish & Game and In-Fisherman Magazine. He has also made numerous television appearances. Larry sheds a smile, shakes my hand and invites me into his floating office. After my gear is stowed, we make a run to Larry's first secret hole.
Lake Fork is located in northeast Texas in the heart of Wood County, approximately 90 miles east of Dallas. Within the county are the incorporated cities of Alba, Hawkins, Mineola, Quitman, Winnsboro and Yantis. Many waterfront homes line the lake's sweeping shore, ranging from vacation cabins to grand estates that share the view with neighboring golf courses. Over 300,000 anglers and their families visit Lake Fork every year, giving the community a well-deserved $27.5 million dollar boost to the annual economy.
As we come off plane, I stand ready at the carpeted bow as Larry starts his visual triangulation process, an exact skill honed over thousands of days of practice. No bottom machine, no loran or GPS numbers are necessary, just a simple command in a southern tone, "All right, that ought to do it." He hands me a bait caster rigged with a watermelon-red creature bait -- a favorite among the locals. "Cast to the edge of the lily pads and bring 'er back slow," he says brimming with confidence.
The tackle is basic and I can feel my heart pound. A trophy largemouth -- perhaps the new state record -- could hit at any moment. That's what everyone, including myself, finds so exciting about Lake Fork. Anticipation and adrenalin is always with you. When I arrived at the Lake Fork Marina, I passed Lake Fork Taxidermy and a tackle shop that sells lures named after the lake itself. If those aren't signs that big bass live here, I don't know what is.
Ten minutes pass and we continue to work the edge of the pads. "One thing I'm sure of..." says Larry, who flips a double-bladed spinner bait into the floating thicket. "A big bait is the best way to catch a big bass." He explains that an 8- or 10-pounder requires more food, and the fish would rather get that required food from 1 or 2 meals than from 5 or 6. Just then, my rod tip jolts into the water! Squeals and giggles rise above the whining drag as I turn to Larry and announce, "Fish On!" as line melts off my trusty reel. Larry unleashes a smile and flashes me a thumbs up. The hunt is over, now the battle is joined.
I pump and wind, pump and wind -- trying to force what we believe to be a sizeable largemouth out of the dense vegetation. I've learned from fishing bass that once they get wrapped in the weeds, it's very difficult to pull them out. I've lost some big fish that way and I'm determined not to let this one have that advantage.
Finally and mercifully, the great fish rises from the shallows and I steer the lunker toward the boat. Larry leans over the gunwale and slips his meaty hands under the tired bass. "It's a fat one," says Larry, his eyes igniting as he hoists the fish onboard. A quick measurement and my largemouth weighs in at just under 8 pounds. The photo op is speedy and Larry does his obligatory resuscitation on the fish. Mission accomplished, the bass is on its way, no worse for wear and thanked for the memories. Although an angler can legally retain one bass over 24 inch per day, per person, most people who fish Lake Fork strongly recommend catch and release.
If this is not enough excitement to start the day, 15 minutes later in the same pocket of water, Larry hooks up and lands a big bass of his own. His largemouth tips the scales at 10.8 pounds! Personally, I think Larry knows all these fish by name and he can simply call them up on demand.
For the best chance of hooking into a 10+ pound bass, anglers should fish Lake Fork between December and May, with the prime big bass months being February, March and April. Nevertheless, Lake Fork is a great lake to visit anytime because, after all, it is Lake Fork, and you could hook into a trophy bass any month of the year.
Since it is only 9 am and we have already landed two nice fish, Larry invites me for a run up to Birch Creek, the reservoir arm in the northwest corner, and I naturally accept. The rest of the day will be spent fishing the huge expanse of marshy and tree-studded shallows -- a location where only veterans visit due to the profusion of submerged trees that make navigating virtually impossible unless you're familiar with this part of the lake. It is here where tranquility breeds and blue and white herons nest. Larry tells me the bass are dense back here because not many anglers attempt the tricky course, which has a reputation for eating boat propellers. Top water lures are the preferred choice at Birch Creek, although Larry likes to mix it up by bouncing a Lake Fork Zig Zag Worm or Ring Fry along the bottom. Fishing for bass in thick cover with wooded structure is a specialized game and Larry has proven over 20 years that he is the best of the best. Many of Larry's clients have caught double-digit bass, and hundreds, including myself, have landed fish over 7 pounds.
After two days with Larry, our final tally is 35 respectable bass -- all released. What I admire about Larry is that not only can he locate big bass, he makes fishing fun. Whether you are an advanced angler or just getting into fishing, you will receive first class treatment and helpful tips that will aid you throughout the day.
For those making a trip to Lake Fork, check out the Lake Fork Marina Motel located about mid lake on the west arm of Lake Fork, a convenient way to fish either up or down the lake. The accommodations are simple but perfectly situated at the water's edge. 34 rooms and 2 suites feature queen-size beds, color TV, outdoor electrical outlets for battery chargers, mini refrigerators and in-room phones. Covered boat slips in a protected cove, along with two launching ramps with plenty of parking spaces cater to those trailering boats. Also on the premises is Moser's Restaurant and Lake Fork Tackle, which carries a large selection of quality fishing tackle including the Lake Fork lures. There are also meeting rooms and an outdoor kitchenette for family reunions and large groups.
IF YOU GO
Larry Barnes Lake Fork Guide Service
Lake Fork Marina Motel
Lake Fork Trophy Bait & Tackle