Some of the nation’s top bass pros, including eight Texans, will be on Lake Fork on Nov. 5-8 for the $1 million Toyota Bassmaster Texas Fest benefiting the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. It’s the final derby of the year for Bassmaster’s top-tier Elite Series circuit. With several Bassmaster Classic berths and the coveted Angler of the Year title on the line, the stage is set for what could turn into a good ol’ fashioned shootout with fireworks right down to the very last cast.
It’s noteworthy that Texas Fest falls on opening weekend of the upcoming white-tailed deer season, but the timing is hardly by choice. The tournament was originally scheduled for June 5-8. It was one of many sporting events postponed and rescheduled as the result of a pandemic that stunned the world last spring.
Admittedly, Keith Combs had much rather be manning a box blind than the casting deck of his Ranger bass boat when dawn falls on opening day of another Texas deer season. But business is business, and the Huntington bass pro has plenty to tend to.
Combs is 51st in the league’s all-important AOY points race. The position puts him if danger having to sit out the 2021 Bassmaster Classic scheduled for March 19-21 on Lake Ray Roberts near Denton.
The ‘Classic is frequently called the Super Bowl of bass fishing. The 2021 field will include 53 anglers, but only the Top 40 finishers in Elite Series AOY points qualify unless someone double qualifies through a different circuit. The ‘Classic winner takes home $300,000.
Combs needs to step up his game at Fork to secure a spot in his ninth ‘Classic. A Top 10 finish might do it, but he had rather leave no doubts.
“Win Texas Fest and you’re automatically in the ‘Classic,” Combs said. “I’m fishing it to win.”
Combs has the richest history at Lake Fork of any Elite Series pro. He won the 2014 Texas Fest when it was still called the Toyota Texas Bass Classic. His winning weight was 110 pounds — a tour-level world record for three-day events that he called a testament the lake’s great bass fishery.
Texas Fest returned to Fork in May 2019, where Combs finished 7th under a four-day format. South Carolina’s Brandon Cobb won the event with 114 pounds — a 5.7 pound average on 20 fish.
Like Combs, Clark Wendlandt has much to gain from a stellar performance at Fork.
The consummate pro from Leander is currently third in the AOY race. Wendlandt is a shoo-in to make the ‘Classic, but has some lost ground to make up to win the AOY title and the $100,000 bonus that comes with it.
Most pros consider the AOY title the most prestigious in bass fishing. It hinges on consistency and goes to the angler who accumulates the most points by the end of the season. The title is great bait for reeling in sponsors.
Wendlandt is well aware of the value a AOY title can mean to a resume. He won it three times during a decorated 22-year run on the FLW Tour. In 2000, his picture appeared on the cover of millions of Kellogg’s brand cereal boxes.
Likewise, he also knows the competition in fierce in a watery world where one bad tournament can cost you dearly. Wendlandt is living that nightmare right now.
The 54-year-old pro led the 2020 Elite Series AOY race for several tournaments before the wheels fell off at Tennessee’s Lake Chickamauga last week. He weighed in only one bass and finished 81st out of 85 anglers in a super tough tournament that Lee Livesay of Longview won with 20 fish weighing 58-2 pounds.
The late season tank sends Wendlandt to Lake Fork trailing the new AOY leader, David Mullins of Mt. Carmel, Tenn., by 16 points, and Minnesota’s Austin Felix by 11 points. He believes he still has a shot to win the title, but says the chips are going to have to fall just right for it to happen.
“It would mean the world to me to win AOY,” Wendlandt said. “But at this point I’m behind, so I won’t go into this tournament fishing defensively. I’ll be fishing it to win.”
It is anybody’s guess how much weight it will take to claim the Texas Fest trophy and handsome pay day that comes with it. Fork is widely known as a bass factory steeped in big fish lore. It is a special place with a restrictive limit to protect 16-24 inch bass from harvest, or being hauled to tournament weigh-ins in livewells.
Texas Fest gets around the “slot” limit with a catch-weigh-immediate release format designed to minimize stress on fish. Anglers are paired with judges who weigh each bass 14 inches or longer before the fish is released.
The five heaviest bass each day count towards the anglers’ accumulative total. Anglers are allowed to bring one fish over 24 inches to the daily weigh-ins at the Sabine River Authority’s lakefront headquarters.
Some believe Fork might produce a catch that rivals Cobb’s 2019 total of 114 pounds, but Jake Norman doesn’t think so. Norman is the inland fisheries biologist who oversees the 27,000-acre lake for TPWD.
“I think Texas Fest is going to be a very interesting event, but I’d temper the usual expectations folks have when it comes to the pros fishing on Fork,” Norman said. “All of the previous BASS and Bass Pro Tour events have taken place between March and late May — prime time for patterning the giants in Fork. The fall fishes completely different.”
The biologist says it won’t be a surprise if it takes less than 80 pounds to win. “That’s not a knock on Fork, but a reality of fall fishing on southern reservoirs,” he said.
Triple-digit weights or not, the top finishers will leave with plump checks. The winner earns a $125,000 pay day and the angler who catches to heaviest bass wins a new Toyota Tundra pick-up.
TPWD constituents also come away as big winners, courtesy of Gulf States Toyota.
Since 2007, GST has donated more than $3.25 million from tournament proceeds to TPWD. The money is dedicated for youth fishing and outreach programs.
Matt Williams is a freelance outdoors writer based in Nacogdoches, Tx. He can be reached by e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Toyota Bassmaster Texas Fest Fan Highlights
* Fans are advised to maintain proper social distance, avoid congregating in large groups and adhere to local mask mandates.
* When and Where: Nov. 5-8, Lake Fork
* Daily Takeoffs: SRA headquarters, 6:40 a.m.
* Daily Weigh-ins: 3 p.m., SRA
* Weekend Expo: BASS sponsor vendors, seminars, TPWD booths, boat/motor demo rides. Opens at noon, Nov.7-8, free admission.
* Military and First Responder Appreciation Day: Nov. 7. Show your military ID and get a free Bassmaster hat.
* Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster High School All-American Team Tournament: Nov. 7, 12 anglers compete on an undisclosed lake, weigh-in on Elite stage.
* ShareLunker and Hall of Fame Presentations: Nov. 7, 2020 ShareLunker donor replica presentations and $5,000 Bass Pro Shops shopping spree drawing. Shane Wilson of South Padre Island inducted to Texas Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame.
Waterfowl outlook appears bright for Texas duck hunters
From TPWD Reports
Experts say things are looking good for Texas duck hunters this fall as the birds are expected to begin migrating south in large number in coming weeks on the heels of a banner nesting season.
“Duck production in North and South Dakota was reported to be exceptional this past summer,” says Kevin Kraai, waterfowl program leader with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “We always see a nice increase in hunter success when the flock is made up of a lot of young ducks.”
The special youth-only waterfowl season begins in the High Plains Mallard Management Unit on Oct. 24, followed by youth-only waterfowl season in the South Zone on Oct. 31 and the North Zone on Nov. 7. Regular duck season in the High Plains Mallard Management Unit opens Oct. 31, in the South Zone on Nov. 7 and the North Zone on Nov. 14. More information on season dates, including those for “Dusky” duck, and bag limits can be found online in the Texas Outdoor Annual.
“We are already hearing good reports of birds building in many of flooded rice fields and coastal marshes along the Texas coast,” Kraai said. “Texas duck hunters will have the most opportunity for a fruitful season when hunting in east Texas and along the coast. Most successful hunters will be mobile as conditions will vary throughout the state.”
East Texas has seen above average rainfall throughout the summer and late summer rain events from tropical storms have helped to further prepare the landscape for the arrival of migrating ducks. Soil moisture is high and any new rainfall this winter will begin to pond. These conditions, along with river flooding events, are important to duck populations in the region. Reservoirs are higher than normal for this time of year and the shallow shorelines and river mouths will be a big draw to ducks.
Coastal Texas has seen three tropical storm events in 2020 and storm surges have impacted many of Texas’ coastal marshes and estuaries. Salt water has reached further inland impacting the fresh water submergent vegetation that ducks love. Rainfall, however, is still needed to help freshen those systems and save those important food sources. Further inland, landowners are continuing to manage rice prairies and moist-soil wetlands that provide a significant food source for ducks. TPWD biologists suggest that ducks will concentrate on these locations, making for ideal hunting conditions.
Reports from Canada suggest that the Arctic goose hatch was poor this past summer. Juvenile snow geese will be in short supply, compounding issues with an overall old and declining population. Light and dark goose season starts in the East Zone on Nov. 7 and Nov. 14 in the West Zone. The light geese conservation order season begins in the East Zone on Feb. 1, 2021 and on Feb. 15, 2021.
In addition to a valid Texas hunting license, waterfowl hunters must have their HIP Certification and migratory bird endorsement and hunters over 16 years old need a Federal Duck Stamp.