Legislators in a small flotilla of boats that wended its way down the Sabine River, across the Gulf of Mexico, up the Atchafalaya River and finally up the Mississippi River to Baton Rouge in 1960 had one goal in mind: convince newly elected Gov. Jimmie Davis to support the building of the Toledo Bend Reservoir.
Davis didn’t want the massive reservoir, but a savvy Toledo Bend supporter handed the governor a jug of Sabine River water emblazoned with the words “Let’s build Toledo Bend”just as a newspaper photographer snapped a photo.
When that image appeared on the front page of the newspaper the next morning, Davis was unable to disown the project. And that was one of the early major steps toward the construction of the nation’s largest reservoir built without federal funding.
At the time, no one—not the most-ardent supporters and certainly not Gov. Jimmie Davis —could have envisioned the impact the 186,000-acre Toledo Bend would have on the local communities in Louisiana and Texas, and the country. For nearly 50 years, it has produced environmentally friendly hydro electricity while attracting untold numbers of anglers to its fish-filled waters.
And this year Toledo Bend, which is producing double-digit fish in numbers unimaginable by the reservoir’s founding fathers, was named the No. 1 bass fishery in the United States by Bassmaster Magazine.
But there’s more to the story of how Toledo Bend rose from simply being the largest man-made body of water in the South to a trophy fishery that annually draws thousands of anglers from around the country.
“That lake wouldn’t have gotten built if God didn’t just put his hand in there,”Toledo Bend Lake Country’s Linda Curtis-Sparks said.
Curtis-Sparks, who since 1989 has championed the reservoir that stretches 76 miles along the border of Texas and Louisiana, doesn’t use those words lightly —she truly believes the makings of today’s heralded bass fishery received divine intervention.
A prime example is the fact that the lake bed is studded with the skeletons of 150,000 acres of forests originally slated to be chopped down before water levels rose.
“The former landowners retained the timber rights,”Curtis-Sparks explained. “They were supposed to go in there and take out all that timber.”
However, divine intervention came in the form of a 14-inch rain in 1967 that swamped the region and shot the lake up to an elevation of 147 feet —14 months before flooding had been planned.
“It’s that structure that helps make the lake so productive,”Curtis-Sparks said.
Those who have grown up on the lake understand the importance of all the standing timber.
“This is a very unusual lake by the very nature of what it is,”long-time guide John Dean Jr. told a reporter in the 1990s. “It’s a flooded forest.”
The lake chugged along for the next 20 years, consistently ranking as a top fishing destination among traveling anglers who enjoyed a vibrant fishery. Hundreds of tournaments were held annually, and even national circuits including Bassmaster and FLW made regular stops.
But the move from a great fishery to the nation’s No. 1 fishery really began in 1990, when the Sabine River Authority of Louisiana, the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife, and the Toledo Bend Lake Association began pumping Florida-strain largemouth bass fingerlings into the massive reservoir.
The stocking program, which to date has introduced more than 28 million Floridas into the reservoir, was taken over completely by the TPWD and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries in 2010.
The effectiveness of placing fast-growing Florida bass into the lake can be seen in the numbers of double-digit fish entered into the TBLA’s Toledo Bend Lunker Program, which offers free replicas to every angler who catches a bass larger than 10 pounds, enters it into the program and agrees to release it.
In 1993, 10 double-digit bass were recorded. In the first seven months of 2015, 86 bass weighing at least 10 pounds were registered as part of the Lunker Program.
Since the Lunker Program’s founding in 1993 through July 2015, 691 double-digit bass have been caught, entered into the program and released back into the lake to continue the trophy legacy. An astounding 453 of those bass were caught between 2005 and mid-2015.
Those early years of stocking were pushed by Toledo Bend pioneers such as Toledo Bend Lake Association members John Dean Sr., Glynn Carver, Noe Garcia and Cal Bowlin. In 1990, they convinced the SRA of Louisiana to begin stocking Florida bass and SRA of La and TBLA were instrumental in the building of three nursery ponds in which Florida bass fingerlings donated by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries were raised and released into the lake.
From that point, TPWD also contributed millions of fingerling to the stocking effort.
The SRA of Louisiana, the TBLA and the LDWF cooperated in the running of the ponds on the Louisiana side of the reservoir. Two of those ponds were operated for five years, with the third pond being abandoned in 2007.
That’s when LDWF really cranked up their production of fingerlings for the stocking program.
For four years beginning in about 2006, the Toledo Bend Lake Association also stocked 6-inch Florida bass fingerlings that have much higher survival rates.
By 2015, the total number of Florida-strain largemouth bass released into the sprawling border lake by both states, the SRA of Louisiana and TBLA had topped 28 million.
Again, however, there’s more to the reservoir’s success than stockings.
In 2011, the lake began bottoming out. Marinas closed because boats could only launch at a handful of sites. And, once anglers finally got on the water, it was tough navigating because stumps were a danger even in the boat lanes.
Water levels fell to a mere 155 feet mean sea level —less than 10 feet above the reservoir’s initial height.
Then Mother Nature stepped in, dropping enough rain to send water levels soaring to the normal operating level of more than 168 feet.
The natural drawdown exposed the shoreline and allowed vegetation to grow, and fisheries managers encouraged anglers to be patient because great things were going to happen when the lake returned to normal.
“The biologists told us it would be almost like a new impoundment,”Curtis-Sparks said.
And, just as predicted, the fishery exploded when the drought broke and water levels soared.
Trophy bass began showing up almost immediately. In 2012, the year the lake refilled, 29 double-digit bass were recorded. That number more than doubled the following year, with 59 bass topping the 10-pound mark registered into the Lunker Program.
Sixty-five lunkers were landed in 2014, and 86 had been caught in 2015 as of the end of July.
It’s that production of 10-pound-plus bass that caught the eye of Bassmaster Magazine, culminating in the naming of Toledo Bend as the nation’s No. 1 bass fishery.
But Curtis-Sparks said the trophy fishery would not have been possible without the dedication of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife, SRA of Louisiana and generations of volunteers with TBLA who ensured work never stopped.
“You didn’t have the same drivers all the way through this,”she said. “People just caught the passion. It was a constant effort, and new people just continue stepping up.”
Toledo Bend factoids
Year lake flooded: 1967
Size: 186,000 acres
Length: 76 miles
Year stocking began: 1990
Number of Florida bass stocked: 28,347,020
Number of double-digit bass (through July 2015): 691
Lake record: 15.33 pounds