Nov. 26 marked a milestone in Texas bass fishing history.
It was on that day —the eve of Thanksgiving in 1986 — that a 42-year-old Lake Fork fishing guide named Mark Stevenson reeled a state record largemouth bigger than most Texans had ever seen. Students of the sport will agree the 17.67 pounder is single-most important fish ever caught from Texas freshwaters. “Ethel” also is the most famous.
Not only did Stevenson’s bass supplant the 16.9 pound Earl Crawford bass from Lake Pinkston as Texas’ heaviest bass at the time, it also kicked off Texas Parks and Wildlife’s Toyota ShareLunker program with a bang.
Having a new state record handed over as its inaugural entry didn't spell instant success for the program, but it certainly gave organizers the jump-start they needed to help sell the concept to fishermen at a time when "catch and release" was just beginning to get a toe-hold in Texas fishing circles.
Obviously, the sales pitch worked. The program has since taken in more than 600 entries weighing upwards of 13 pounds.
Furthermore, word of Stevenson's catch spread like wildfire and helped lure millions of visitors to a lake that eventually became known as the best in America for heavyweight bass.
The big bass explosion at Fork resulted in an economic boom while driving real estate sales through the roof. A 1996 economic survey indicated the lake generated about $26 million annually for local economies.
Even though the fat bass Stevenson nicknamed "Ethel" no longer ranks as the state record, it still ranks as the biggest Texas bass ever caught by an angler who was actually targeting bass with an artificial lure.
Just so you know, the current state record weighing 18.18 pounds, was caught in Jan. 1992 by Barry St. Clair. A cattle rancher at the time, St. Clair reeled in his record catch while crappie fishing with some buddies near the Lake Fork dam. He was using a gold aberdeen hook tipped with a live shiner for bait.
I recently caught up with Stevenson to talk about the anniversary of his former state record catch. Now 77 and still guiding full-time, he couldn’t help but chuckle when asked if he is surprised that his record-by-artificial is still standing 35 years down the road.
“Yep,” Stevenson said. “I really can’t believe somebody hasn’t caught one yet. Personally, think we would have seen a completely different scenario on catching those really big fish had it not been for the largemouth bass virus that hit Lake Fork in 1999. Somebody would have done it by now. We still catch a lot of big fish at Lake Fork, but those genes we had in the lake back then were pretty special.”
Recollecting a Record
Plenty of water has passed beneath the bridge and lots of giant bass have found their way into Stevenson’s boat over the last 3 1/2 decades. Even so, he still remembers the events of that fateful Thanksgiving eve like they happened yesterday.
According to Stevenson, a significant cold front had pushed through eastern Texas two days earlier, leaving blue bird skies and high pressure in its wake.
"The lake was in great late fall shape," he recalled. "The water had about 2 1/2 feet of visibility and the surface temp was about 58 degrees.”
Stevenson said he had two guide clients in the boat that day -- Galand Poe and Hildi Westbrook, both of Dallas. Outside temperatures were in the upper 20s at first light, so they waited until about 8:30 a.m. before leaving the boat ramp.
“The fish were biting pretty good that morning,” Stevenson recalled. “They were holding tight to cover with the high pressure, so I felt like the best bet was to fish down, slow and easy."
Stevenson said he was fishing in Garrett Creek at around noon when he pitched a 1/2 ounce black/brown/pink Stanley Jig and plum craw into a flooded bush. The bush was situated on a small point that formed where the main creek channel intersected with a smaller secondary channel. The water was about 14 feet deep on the creek bank and 22 feet deep in the channel bed.
"She was on bottom and she grabbed it on the second lift - there was no question it was a bite," Stevenson said. "I was using 20 pound monofilament and luckily everything went just right. She swam out of the bush instead of back into it and we put her in the boat. As soon as we netted her we knew she had to be a new lake record. She was huge."
The guide said he and his clients fished for a while longer and caught a few more solid bass before curiosity took over. Poe was the owner of a lakeside bait shop/convenience store called "Vals" at the time and he had set of certified scales on the shelf.
"That's where we took it," Stevenson said. "When we found out she was new state record, that's when things really got exciting."
Just months after Ethel had been in a display tank at TPWD’s now-defunct Tyler Fish Hatchery, Stevenson opted to send her to Bass Pro Shops headquarters in Springfield, Mo., as part of a lease agreement. There, the monster bass lived out the rest of its life finning around in a giant aquarium for millions of fishing fans to see. Ethel died at the age of 19. She weighed about 20 pounds.
An estimated 20 million visitors came to see the fat fish from Lake Fork during its eight years at Bass Pro Shops headquarters. Ethel was so popular with visitors that Bass Pro felt compelled to give her a memorial service when she died there in 1994. Hundreds of people attended, including company founder, Johnny Morris, and dozens of journalists.
Morris' appreciation for the big bass extended well beyond the 1994 memorial service. In 2004, he provided a $650,000 challenge grant to aid in the construction of a $2 million classroom/conservation center at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens.
Fittingly, the contribution was dedicated in Ethel's name.
Matt Williams is a freelance writer based in Nacogdoches. He can be reached by e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org.