Massive Reservoir Still Consistently Producing Big Bass
By John N. Felsher
Ask any largemouth bass enthusiasts to name their Bucket List lakes they would love to fish and most would probably rank Toledo Bend Reservoir high on that list.
The fourth largest manmade lake in the Unites States covers 181,600 acres. It runs about 65 miles along the old Sabine River channel spanning the Louisiana-Texas line near Many, La. With numerous creeks and coves, the massive impoundment offers anglers 1,264 shoreline miles. The lake averages about 60 feet in depth, but drops to 110 feet in places.
Always an excellent numbers lake since it opened in the 1960s, Toledo Bend gained a reputation for producing many double-digit bass after both Texas and Louisiana heavily stocked Florida largemouths into the system in the 1980s. Florida’s grow larger and faster than northern largemouths.
“Toledo Bend has become one of those destination places for people who want to catch a 10-pound bass,” quipped Darold Gleason with South Toledo Bend Guide Services (337-397-8860, www.GleasonFishing.com) in Many. “It’s one of the best public bass lakes in the nation. On any cast, someone might catch the bass of a lifetime.”
The area suffered a major drought in 2011. Willows, brush and other vegetation sprouted on the dry lake bottom. When the water returned in 2012 and 2013, that newly inundated vegetation provided outstanding cover for bass and other fish. In addition, the exposed, cracked lake bottom released nutrients, causing a plankton bloom when the water returned. Small fish gorged on the plankton. Bass gorged on the baitfish.
“We had a really good crop of bass after the historic low water event of 2011,” explained Villis Dowden, a biologist for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries in Natchitoches. “Bass gained a lot of weight after the lake came up again. From June 2015 to May 2016, the lake produced 139 bass over 10-pounds with quite a few in the 12- to 13-pound range and some over 14-pounds.”
While the big bass run of 2015-2016 peaked, the lake still offers incredible fishing. When work ended on the dam, rising water inundated entire forests containing millions of board feet of timber. Much of that cover remains in the lake, albeit under water now. Today, anglers can find practically every type of bass cover they might want to fish in a southern impoundment.
Anglers can catch big bass at Toledo Bend at any time of year, but for the giants, fish late winter or spring. From January to early March, bass stage in water 12 to 14 feet deep near drop-offs and main lake points.
“In early January, bass start moving into their staging areas at the edges of the grass lines,” Dowden advised. “Then, the fish should start hitting the shorelines and secondary points going into the coves around cypress trees and buckbrush.”
As water warms, bass use little ditches to move up onto the spawning flats and banks. Thick brush standing in water two to four feet deep create excellent spawning areas, particularly in the 1215 area just north of Pendleton Bridge on the Louisiana side. Highway 1215 once traversed this region. Much of the old roadbed still exists on the lake bottom bordered by small ditches on either side.
“February to May is the best time to fish Toledo Bend for both size and numbers,” Gleason recommended. “A lot of people fish the 1215 area just above San Miguel Creek and Patroon Creek. In February, I’d throw lipless crankbaits. As we get a few warming trends and the water temperature rises, fish move to the banks to spawn. That’s when people need to throw wacky worms and go sight fishing. I’d also flip cover.”
During the spring, bass feed heavily on crawfish. Many anglers flip the flooded brush with jigs tipped with tubes, craw worms or creature baits that resemble crustaceans. Anglers also run red Rat-L-Traps and crankbaits along the ditch edges. Anything in crawfish colors might work. Hot colors include red, red and gold, red and chartreuse or red and black.
The spawn usually starts in mid-February at the northern part of the lake and peaks on the full moons of March and April. However, on a lake as long and massive as Toledo Bend, the spawn could last months. Even in the same coves, not all bass spawn at the same time. Moreover, warmed by south winds in the spring, the northern half of a lake typically warms first. As the spring progresses, fishing gets better the farther south one goes.
“On reservoirs, water is usually dirtier and the lake is generally more shallow at the upper end,” explained Kevin VanDam, a four-time Bassmaster Classic champion. “Where a warm wind blows water into an area could be a good place to look for bass in the spring. I fish the windward bank if the wind is warmer than the water. If the wind is colder than the water, I fish the sheltered areas. Direct sunshine, even on cold days, helps pull fish up toward the surface and makes bass more aggressive. Even in cold water, bass position themselves to soak up sunshine.”
Frequently, the biggest lunkers come from the southern third of the lake because Texas biologists often concentrate their stocking efforts in Housen Bay and Six-Mile Creek. Eric Weems holds the lake record with a 15.32-pound bass he caught on a jig in Six-Mile Creek. Other top big bass honey holes include the Indian Mounds, Indian Creek, Mill Creek, Pirates Cove and Sandy Creek.
Into the Summer
As temperatures rise, big bass seek cooling comfort and an oxygen boost in thick weeds. In some years, nearly solid vegetation mats choke many coves by the summer, but the big lake lost some of its grass during the 2011 drought.
“A hydrilla boom started in 2014 where we didn’t have any hydrilla for the past several years such as Slaughter Creek and some other areas on the northern end of the lake,” Dowden recalled. “In March 2016, we had a big flood. We lost some of our aquatic vegetation and noticed less hydrilla in the lake. We’ve seen some recovery in the northern end of the lake around the Blue Lake area between San Miguel and San Patricio Creeks and around the mouth of San Patricio Creek.”
Many people run spinnerbaits or crankbaits around the grassy edges or probe pockets with Texas-rigged worms. Others punch through matted vegetation with heavy jigs, but no other lure can run over thick weeds like a plastic frog. Rigged with a 3/0 to 5/0 wide gap hook inserted into the body, a plastic frog looks, feels and sounds like a live prey jumping across the water.
“A soft-plastic Ribbit looks like a live frog as it runs on top of the water over virtually any cover,” remarked Lonnie Stanley, a five-time Bassmaster Classic veteran from Huntington, Texas. “A Ribbit Frog can go across thick, matted grass or lily pads. It can do what topwaters, buzzbaits and Texas-rigged baits can do, all in one package.”
During warmer months, anglers also fish deeper channels off main points with crankbaits, big Texas-rigged worms or Carolina rigs. Anglers find the deepest water down by the dam a good place to vertically jig spoons or work drop shots.
“The post spawn is a good time to catch good numbers of fish,” Gleason recommended. “The shad spawn is usually going on from late April to early June. People can catch a lot of fish on topwaters or shallow-running crankbaits around a shad school. In the summer, we’re chasing fish around the shore with topwaters or fish deep-water structure with crankbaits, jigs and Carolina rigs.”
In the fall, bass follow the shad as they head up the creeks and into the flats. In the right spot, anglers can find schooling bass attacking shad. Throw shad-colored topwaters or lipless crankbaits into the commotion.
Before You Go
Since Toledo Bend spans the Louisiana-Texas line, anglers can fish with a license from either state as long as they stay in the boat. Anglers fishing from the bank need the appropriate state licenses. For Texas fishing license information, see tpwd.texas.gov/business/licenses/online_sales. For Louisiana license information, see www.wlf.louisiana.gov/recreational-fishing-licenses.
Also, both states agree on regulations for largemouth and spotted bass. Each angler can keep up to eight bass per day. A largemouth must measure at least 14 inches long, but anglers may keep spotted bass of any size. Besides bass, Toledo Bend also offers outstanding fishing for catfish, bream, crappie and other fish.
Anyone fishing Toledo Bend who catches a bass weighing 10-pounds or more could receive a free fiberglass replica from the Toledo Bend Lake Association. See www.toledobendlakecountry.com/toledo-bend-lunker-bass-program. Anglers need to bring live fish to a designated facility. The fish will be weighed, measured, tagged and released back into the lake.
Anglers can also participate in the Texas ShareLunker Program. Anglers catching bass weighing at least eight pounds and donating it to the program for breeding could receive prizes. See texassharelunker.com.
On either side of the lake, visitors could rent cabins, homes, RV spaces, rooms and campsites. Many people stay at South Toledo Bend State Park or North Toledo Bend State Park on the Louisiana side. Also on the Louisiana side, numerous major fishing tournaments run out of Cypress Bend, (www.cypressbend.com) a golf resort, spa and conference center just south of Many. At the southern end of the lake, visitors can find accommodations in Leesville, La. or Jasper, Texas. For lodging, dining and other area information see www.toledobendlakecountry.com.
While in the Area
About 15 miles south of Many on U.S. 171 between Florein and Hornbeck, area visitors could walk among the flowers at the famed Hodges Gardens State Park. The gardens opened to the public in 1956, but the 700-acre site became a state park in 2007. For Louisiana state parks information see www.crt.state.la.us/louisiana-state-parks/index.
People looking for nightlife won’t find much around Toledo Bend, but they can reach Shreveport, La. (www.shreveport-bossier.org) about 90 minutes after leaving Many and enjoy the music or gambling in the casinos. Southward, anglers might head to Lake Charles, La. (www.visitlakecharles.org) about two hours away to sample some Cajun cooking or try saltwater fishing along the coast. Drivers could also reach Houston in three hours, Dallas in four and New Orleans in five.
About 30 miles east of the lake, area visitors could explore Natchitoches, (www.natchitoches.net) the oldest city in the Louisiana Purchase. Founded in 1714, it predates New Orleans by four years. People could stay in a bed and breakfast or visit the shops and cafes along the Cane River. Don’t forget to order a world-famous Natchitoches meat pie.
In the other direction, people could visit Nacogdoches, (www.visitnacogdoches.org) the oldest city in Texas. Spain established a mission there in 1716, but Native Americans lived in the area for thousands of years before that. People could walk the historic downtown area or tour the Stone Fort Museum.