The Athens Review
It seems like it happens just about every year, usually sometime around the Christmas holidays. A crappie fisherman heads to Lake Fork in hopes of catching a few fish for the freezer and winds up hooking into a pot-bellied largemouth bass way too fat for Santa to stuff in his fluffy red bag of goodies.
The trend started years ago and is showing no real signs of slowing down. The biggest bass ever reported in Texas was hauled into a boat occupied by a group of Lake Fork crappie fishermen.
Barry St. Clair caught the fish - an 18.18 pounder - in January 1992. He and some friends were soaking live shiners in deep water in the vicinity of the dam when St. Clair's line went taunt under the pressure of the heavyweight bass. It took some doing, but he eventually managed to land the huge fish. It has ranked as the Texas state record ever since.
Gary Sims of Gunter is the latest panfisherman to join the Lake Fork lunker club. He probably won't be the last.
Sims, 63, said Dec. 12 started off cold and blustery at Lake Fork but he and John Holland decided to bundle up and give the fishing a whirl anyway. It turned out to be one of the best decisions they have ever made.
Sims got the opportunity to square off in a light tackle battle with a lifetime bass, and won. Holland, meanwhile, had a ringside seat to all action.
A retired football coach, Sims said it was hardly football weather when he and Holland dumped their boat into the water that morning.
“The last time I looked in the truck the outside temperature read 21 degrees,” he said. “It was cold early that morning, but it turned out to be a really nice day once the sun got up good.”
Typical of nice weather, Sims said the crappie didn't bite exceptionally well. He said they had boated only 11 keepers by lunch time.
“We caught quite few undersize crappie and just about as many bass, but overall it was pretty slow out there,” he said. “We were marking a few fish on our electronics, but nothing like it will be after some more cold weather. That's what makes those fish stack up in the deep water.”
Perhaps the fish weren't biting so well because there was a monster prowling around in their house.
Sims said he and Holland were bumping their 1/8 ounce Rocky Top jigs along an underwater ledge in 24-32 feet of water when his line suddenly felt mushy. When he lifted the eight-foot Pro Angler crappie rod to set the hook, Sims said it felt like he had tied into a cinder block.
Holland looked back and saw Sims' rod bent double. “Whatcha got?” he asked.
“I told him it felt like a big catfish,” Sims said. “We have hooked and landed several 40-50 pounders on our crappie gear over the years.”
Several minutes into the battle Sims had made very little headway towards landing the fish.
“She pretty much stayed vertical, just bulldogging the bottom,” he said. “She'd pull drag and I'd push the button and let her run. Then I'd gain a little line back. I don't know how long that that went on, but it was for a while.”
Sims said he eventually worked the fish close enough to the surface that Holland caught a glimpse of a dark silhouette as it darted beneath the boat.
“After that John told me he wasn't a sure what it was, but he could tell it wasn't a catfish,” Sims said.
The mystery ended moments later when the big fish rolled over on its side within arm's reach of the boat. Sims grabbed it by the lower lip and hoisted it aboard.
“My gosh, what a bass - that about all either of us could say,” he said. “I caught a 13.80 pounder out of Lake Ray Roberts back in 2002 and I knew this one was every bit as big. That's when the adrenaline and the ol' heart started pumping.”
The two men raced the bass to Oak Ridge Marina where it weighed 15.02 pounds on certified scales. That's when Sims made the call to the Toyota ShareLunker program headquarters in nearby Athens.
Turns out Sims bass had been to Athens before. Biologists identified the fish as the same one that was caught from Lake Fork in 2011 by Ed Carter of Broken Bow, Okla. Carter reportedly caught the fish, then a 14.25 pounder, using a black/blue lizard during the month of March.
The angler said he was extremely disappointed when he got the phone call from TPWD telling him is 15 pounder wasn't genetically-fit for ShareLunker.
“You bet I was disappointed,” Sims said. “I was a biology teacher. I know how genetics work. There was something about that fish that allowed it to reach 15 pounds. Was it inferior genetics? I don't think so.”