Trio of big bass add to project numbers… and we’re still counting

Nicholas Smith of Baton Rouge with the 11.16-pound lunker he landed on March 7 at Toledo Bend.

Toledo Bend’s fantastic spring continues, even though it wasn’t even officially spring when three more largemouth bass of 10 pounds or better were being boated, bringing to 41 the number of fish qualifying for the Toledo Bend Lunker Bass Program. And almost surely, there will be more.

The recent action has got fishermen excited, especially compared to recent years. In the 2021-22 season, only 32 fish qualified. In 2020-21, it was 25. The year before that, 39. You have to go back to the 2018-2019 season, when anglers weighed in 42 double-digit fish — and the 2022-23 season still has more than two months remaining.

Nicholas Smith of Baton Rouge led the way last week with an 11.16-pound fish caught on March 7. Todd Castledine of Nacogdoches, Texas, and Marshall Hughes of Hemphill, Texas, checked in on Saturday, March 11, with lunkers weighing 10.41 and 10.00 pounds.

Smith’s late afternoon lunker

Smith said that he and a friend had been talking around the first of March about every bass fisherman’s bucket list item: catching a 10-pounder.

“We said we just wanted to catch one over 10 pounds,” he said. “That’s like on everybody’s bucket list in the bass world. My biggest was 8.”

Until March 7, when he crushed that personal best, fishing with his father, Randy. Fishing the mid-lake area with 5 p.m. approaching, Smith said he and his father had been jumping around all day, fishing different coves.

“My dad had switched over to a Senko and started having some success,” he said. “I hadn’t thrown one all day, and I said, ‘Lemme give it a shot.’ So I tied on a Magnum Trick Worm in watermelon red. We were fishing the back of this cover, and on about my 10th cast, I threw back at a point, and there she was.”

Set the hook

Smith had wacky-rigged his worm, and when the fish sucked it in, he set the hook.

“There was no ‘bump-bump’ or anything; she had it and she was going with it,” Smith said. “I set the hook pretty good. The first time she came up, I couldn’t really tell how big she was. The second time she jumped, we both freaked out. I was thinking that she was going to come up and jump a third time, and if I could get through that third jump, I should be okay.”

The fish surfaced a third time, but Smith’s 4/0 hook held, and his father netted the big bass.

“I knew as soon as we got it in the boat that it was over 10,” he said. “I could have fit three fists in its mouth. I said, ‘We gotta go weigh it. We gotta get it out of my boat and back in the water.’”

Finding a weigh station

Smith has a camp on the Louisiana side, in Yocum Bay, and he was fishing on the Texas side. He ran to Fin & Feather Resort, but it was closed, so he decided to run back across the lake and find an official weigh station for the Toledo Bend Lunker Bass Program — but it was starting to get dark.

“I knew I had to make it back across the lake; I was not gonna let that fish die,” he said. “We ran back with it getting dark, and once I got to the Louisiana side, I got on the phone to find a weigh-in site. Buckeye Landing had a 24-hour (telephone) line, and I called. By that time it was 5:30, and they said they’d be open another 30 minutes. I told ‘em I was on my way with a 10-pounder.”

When Smith got to the scales, he found that he’d underestimated the size of his fish. On the scales, it weighed 11.16 pounds, at 27 inches long and 19½ inches in girth, with nary a mark on its tail to indicate any interest in spawning.

“I threw about 10 yards off the point, in 7 or 8 feet of water; she had to come up and get it,” he said. “There was no red at all on her tail.”

Smith’s fish was the 38th of the 2022-23 season to qualify for the Lunker Program. He is not surprised, he said, based on what he’s been seeing on the lake.

“The grass is coming back, especially on the Texas side,” he said. “I found some in Indian Mound, and Housen is full of it. But we’ve still got a ways to go on the Louisiana side.

Practices makes perfect for Castledine

Lunker No. 40 in the Toledo Bend Lunker Bass Program was this 10.41 pounder caught by Todd Castledine of Nacogdoches, Tex.

Castledine only fishes Toledo Bend when he’s planning on fishing a tournament, so with a Bassmaster Open approaching in late March, he decided on the spur of the moment to head to the big lake to practice and find some fish.

“I hadn’t been on Toledo Bend for a while, and we decided at the last second to go (March 11),” he said. “I was strictly sight-fishing, but I never found any sight-fishing. I kept moving up the lake, all the way up, and at our last stop, I stopped trying to sight-fish.

“I saw a couple of fish busting, maybe 8-inch fish, and right away, I caught an 8-inch fish, then a 2 ½-pounder. I really started casting around, and about 10 casts later, I hooked the big one.”

Castledine, the head of product development for Strike King lures, said he was cranking shallow water when the fish sucked down his lure around 1:30 p.m.

“When it hit, I knew it was big, and it came right to the boat,” he said. “I didn’t think it was fighting like a bass. Then, it took off and jumped. I knew I had to punch the (free spool) button. Once she got to the boat, she took off 30 or 40 yards in one direction.”

Landing the fish

Fishing with his son, Michael, Castledine eventually got the bass to the boat, landed it and put it in the livewell.

“My son had caught an 8- or 9-(pounder) two days before, and I didn’t have any scales in the boat to really weigh it,” he said. “So I put a set of scales, Snail Trial, and in the boat, she weighed 10 pounds, 6 ounces.”

Castledine ran to Keith’s Toledo Bend Tackle, where the fish weighed 10.41 pounds — almost identical to what she’d weighed on his portable scales — and measured 25 inches long and 19 inches in girth.

“She was really clean,” he said. “She had a little, bitty mark on her tail, but I don’t think she’d even been thinking about (spawning).”

The fish was Castledine’s third to qualify for the Toledo Bend Lunker Bass Program and the 40th of the 2022-23 season. And it had something in common with his biggest Toledo Bend giant, a 12.6-pounder caught in 2015.

“I was practicing for a tournament that day, a Costa tournament, and I caught this fish and noticed it was tagged,” Smith said. “I called Texas Parks & Wildlife and they said it had been caught the year before, on the same day, by a good friend of mine, Steve Johnson. He had caught it 20 miles south from where he weighed it, and I was fishing 20 miles north of where it was released when I caught it.

“I caught this last fish 50 or 60 yards from where I caught the other one — and it’s not even a place that I fish all the time.”

Ten pounds, by just that much

Marshall Hughes of Hemphill, Tex., with the 10-pound bass he caught during a Fishers of Men tournament on Toledo Bend on March 11.

A worm weight that weighs 1/8-ounce is a tiny little piece of lead. It’s just about equivalent to one one-hundredth of a pound, .01.

But Hughes of Hemphill, Texas, can appreciate what .01 means.

Fishing in a Fishers of Men tournament on Toledo Bend on March 11, Hughes caught a huge bass. When he and partner Cole Stewart weighed in that afternoon, they took second place overall with a 5-fish limit weighing in excess of 19 pounds. And Hughes’ big fish, at 9.99 pounds, won big-fish honors. The partners wound up carrying home checks totaling close to $5,000.

But with the fish needing to weigh 10 pounds to qualify for the Toledo Bend Lunker Bass Program (and free replica mount), Hughes decided to get his fish weighed a second time, this time on the certified scales at Fin & Feather Resort — where the tournament weigh-in had been held.

“I said, ‘We’re going to re-weigh him,’ and I took him up the hill to the scales at Fin & Feather,” he said. “They put her on the scales, and he weighed 10.04, and I got excited. But she started flopping around, and she pooped a little in the basket. I was thinking, “Man, don’t do that.’ But when it settled down, it was 10.0 pounds.”

Hughes, a pro fisherman who has a number of double-digit bass to his credit, had none certified at Toledo Bend before his latest catch.

A great spot

Smith was fishing with Stewart on the lower end of the massive reservoir at about 9 a.m. when he cast a Texas-rigged Senko (watermelon red) up on a piece of hard bottom in about 12 feet of water.

“There’s a little break there — it drops off to about 16 feet — and this little hard spot, and they pull up and get on it. They like to get on it and sit there,” he said. “I’d caught a couple of fish there the day before, but no size. I never thought I’d catch a 10 there.”

Saturday morning, Hughes was talking with Stewart, dragging the Senko along the bottom, when he felt the line get heavy. He lifted the rod tip and set the hook, and, in his words, “All hell broke loose.”

“She came up and jumped, and I said, ‘Wow, that’s a big one.’ We were high-fiving and all that, but I didn’t think she was 10. She looked like she might be 8½ or 9. She mainly pulled real hard. When I got her to the boats, we netted her, put her in the livewell and kept on fishing.”

At Fin & Feather, Hughes’ fish measured 25 ¼ inches long and 18 ¾ inches in girth. He said she was clean, with no signs that she’d moved up to spawn — or was even thinking about it.