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The Lure of Lake Fork

Fish stories from the Bass Classic competition

For the second year in a row, the Toyota Texas Bass Classic will be held in April at Lake Fork, the state’s premier bass-fishing lake. Our report on last year’s event is below, along with details of the 2008 event. If this story doesn’t whet your appetite for a day on the lake, nothing will!           

6:30 A.M, April 15, 2007

Predawn turns the sky from black to deep purple inching to blue. The final five teams, dressed in bright jackets, weave through officials, photographers and camera crews down to the floating docks where they load into day-glow boats and layer on cold-weather gear and life preservers. Floodlights on the bank catch fog on the water. It hangs eerie and yellow, hardly stirring. The whole scene looks like a movie set. A CBS-TV helicopter clips the air above the docks, cutting an arc over the small harbor.

It is the final day of the first Toyota Texas Bass Classic at Lake Fork outside of Quitman and 30 minutes to start time. One hundred sixty top anglers from all over the country have gathered at this legendary fishery in East Texas. Divided into 40 teams, each led by a designated captain, only the top five teams have advanced after two days of competition. A top team prize of $250,000—part of a million-dollar purse—hangs in the balance.

Tournament of Firsts

This Toyota Texas competition was a series of firsts. It was the first major bass competition to be held at Lake Fork and the first tournament of its size to waive entry fees for anglers.

It was the first to employ a team format and to introduce a new method for scoring and fish care. It was the first major tournament to be sanctioned by the Professional Anglers Association and the first bass competition, ever, to be nationally televised.

“The event was set up to showcase the lake, but also to change the way competitions are done,” said J.C. Fassino, president of the Texas Bass Classic Foundation. “We thought this was a tremendous success.”

Part sporting event, part expo, part concert and part carnival, the three-day event attracted more than 26,000 fans, despite a sudden and brutal cold front that arrived on day two.

“To go to a tournament like that with no entry fees is unheard of,” said professional angler Terry Scroggins, whose team took first place. “I’ve always fished against everybody and fished alone. To get to fish with some of your buddies and learn from them year to year is really something. Especially on what is probably the No. 1 trophy lake in the country.”

Success of Good Management

To call Lake Fork a top big bass fishery does not do it justice. While its national status is hard to measure, it is by far the dominant fishery in the state. The lake boasts not only the current state record largemouth (a 25 1/2-inch, 18.18-pound monster caught by Barry St. Clair in 1992), it is also the source of the second-, third-, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-place fish. It accounts for 15 of the top 20, and a full 70 percent of the 50 biggest bass ever caught in Texas.

The success of this fishery is a result of 25 years of sound management. The lake, managed by the Inland Fisheries Division of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Sabine River Authority, has a strict slot limit. This means that any bass between 16 and 24 inches (the “slot”) must be immediately returned to the water. In addition, there is a one-per-day limit for fish over 24 inches.

Although these limits have proven successful in creating a vibrant fishery, they have been less successful in attracting fishing competitions. When asked to temporarily suspend these restrictions for the sake of tournaments, TPWD declined. And so, despite its fame among anglers and a national reputation as a premier lake for trophy bass, Lake Fork had never before hosted a major bass tournament.

Minding the Slot: A New Tournament Format

Conceived by co-founders Dan Friedkin and Donato Ramos and developed by TPWD, the Toyota Texas Bass Classic was designed to respect the lake’s slot limits and show that a strict adherence to conservation methods is not at odds with fishing competition.

“We’re here to honor the lake and show what solid fisheries management can do,” said TPWD Program Director David Terre. “But what this tournament is really about is trying to send a message of conservation. We hope to show the world some progressive fish-care strategies.”

To ensure proper care of every fish caught during the competition, a trained official is assigned to each boat. The official’s job is to measure and weigh each catch above 14 inches before returning it to the lake. Only the top five from each angler are counted toward the team’s score. Contestants may temporarily retain one fish over 24 inches. Because competition rounds are only four hours, time in a livewell is limited. Once on shore these monster fish are placed in the care of TPWD staff, transported in custom tanks and ultimately returned to the lake.

While honoring conservation strategies, the tournament format also was created with the goal of making a fishing competition more compelling—both to television and tournament audiences. To ensure constant action throughout the day, the four-person teams are divided—two fishing a four-hour morning heat and two fishing a four-hour afternoon heat. While not fishing, the anglers mix with the audience, conduct seminars and sign autographs.

Before and after heats, teammates meet in a designated space by the docks for (televised) strategy sessions and travel to the stage in a convoy of Toyota Tundras—sometimes with big catches. Scoring—measured in total weight of fish caught per team—is reported in real time to a giant scoreboard screen next to the stage and to dozens of plasma screens inside sponsor and VIP tents. To create suspense, real-time fishing scores are frozen for part of the final heat.

Lest there be a lapse in excitement, a lineup of country music stars performs throughout the competition and following the afternoon heat. Headliners in 2007 were Clay Walker and Tracy Lawrence. Still more entertainment is provided through dozens of activities. Last year’s highlights included archery for kids, a jet ski simulator, a tractor-trailer filled with “over 20 of the largest trophies ever collected” (stuffed deer heads), a video booth where you could make (and star in) a professional-quality commercial for Toyota trucks, and an obstacle course track where you could test drive a Tundra.

“You could never buy publicity like that,” said Martin Edwards of the national broadcast of the tournament. As owner of The Minnow Bucket, a 24-year institution and source for all things fishing and fishing related, he has seen a marked rise in out-of-state fishers at Lake Fork since. “We’ve had people out of Indiana and Kentucky that have mentioned seeing [the broadcast] directly. And a lot of others. And it’s going to be bigger and better this year.”

2007 Wrap-Up

The winning team, captained by Terry Scroggins, included Chris Daves, Frank Ippoliti and James Niggemeyer, and took the top prize of $250,000 for a total catch of 54 fish weighing 244 pounds, 12 ounces.

The tournament’s largest single catch, an 11-pound, 2-ounce specimen, earned John Sappington of Willard, Missouri, the Lucchese Toyota Tundra Big Bass Award and a big dose of Texas—custom Lucchese boots, a Stetson hat and a Lucchese edition Toyota Tundra truck.