May 25

By David A. Brown
Texans know the Angelina River as the largest tributary of the Neches River. They further know the Angelina’s massive impoundment as the champion big-bass factory the Lone Star state’s east side. The first weekend of June, all will know what big sacks of big bass look like when the final shoot-out of the Texas Team Trail’s 2018 season, presented by Cabela’s brings two days of top-tier competition to the incomparable Sam Rayburn Reservoir.

This 114,500-acre lake sports a pair of major arms — Ayish Bayou and Mill Creek — at the southeast end and reaches roughly northwest to a split between the Angelina and Attoyac rivers. Throughout its nearly 750 miles of shoreline, Rayburn boasts abundant shallow habitat from flooded hackberry and willow trees, to towering cypress trees and scattered buck brush. The Championship, however, will most likely see more competitors prospecting Rayburn’s deeper bass mines.

Phil Marks, who along with partner Tim Reneau won the regular-season event on Rayburn, Feb. 10, favors this type of fishing, so he’s looking forward to what he expects to be a classic June offshore bite. For him, it’s going to be a matter of remaining alert for the sudden hero window, but planning more for the diligent grind.

“I think ultimately, someone will find a school of fish and have a 15- to 20-minute flurry that will consist of some really big fish that can lead to a 30-plus-pound bag,” Marks said. “Over two days, you’re going to have to have more than one of those types of spots.”

As far as the specific types of spots on which an offshore team might score, Marks said that will vary from the natural, to the manmade. The former will mostly include humps and ridges with large stumps, but the latter provides more isolated, yet more numerous options.

“A lot of guys will be targeting brush piles and there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of brush piles sunk by crappie fishermen,” Marks said. “You see people out there in pontoon boats all the time sinking brush piles in 25-40 feet of water.

“Those same brush piles will hold some of the biggest fish in the lake. Guys who target that kind of stuff might find two or three hot brush piles and go 30-30 over two days.”


For those humps and ridges, Marks wants a Strike King 8XD 10 XD, a 3/4- to 1-ounce Strike King Denny Brauer Structure Jig and a 10-inch Strike King Rage Anaconda on his deck. Bonds agrees and adds a football jig and a heavy Carolina rig to the big profile baits he expects to work offshore.

“We’ll just go to work and try to figure out what they want early, midday and late,” Marks said. “June is a fantastic month to crank. It gets a little better when they’re pulling water, but who knows what they’ll be doing during the tournament. They had been pulling it pretty hard (recently), but I think they kinda shut that down because they got the lake just below normal pool.”

Anglers targeting manmade offshore brush piles will play a game very different from how anglers target shallower brush. Rather than flipping jigs, wiggling dropshots and dragging big worms past the bases, the deep water game is all about the penthouse.

“Crappie anglers tend to stand their brush piles up, because they want to catch the crappie out of the top,” Marks said. “So, a lot of times, if you know that pile is built like that, the top might be 15 feet down. You can pull up and throw a Strike King 8XD to tick the top of that brush pile and catch suspended bass.

“A brush pile might be planted in 35 feet of water and there’s no life at the bottom. You’ll find four or five giant willow or sweet gum trees standing up and that technique works really good.”


“There will be plenty of fish up shallow; there are still a few bushes in the water, there’s a lot of peppergrass and hay,” Marks said. “Your froggin guys will get plenty of bites, but I just don’t think it will be won shallow.”

A possible wildcard, Bonds said, could be an early morning shad spawn. Rayburn is likely seeing the tail end of this scenario, but anglers who dial in this daybreak occurrence could enjoy a furious rally that provides a jump start to their day. The biggest impediment, Bonds said, could be the lingering effects of recent water fluctuations.

“Coming into March, the lake was stable but then we got a couple of rains that brought the lake up 4-5 feet over pool,” Bonds said. “They were pulling the lake every day, so that has something to do with it. These fish don’t want to be shallow when that water is dropping. They don’t want to get up there in the flooded bushes, because as fast as they get up there, the water is leaving them.”

The standard rule of thumb for impoundments like Rayburn is clear water in the deeper dam area and stained water closer to the river. Bonds says that’s probably a little more relevant right now in the wake of the recent water level fluctuation. On the upside, recent heat has warmed the water to normal pre-summer levels.

“In mid- to late-April I thought the water was pretty cool,” Bonds said. “Then all of a sudden, we started getting these days with high temperatures and no wind and that water got up there in the mid- to upper 80’s.”


Both Bonds and Marks are estimating that the 2-day winning total will be somewhere north of 50 pounds. As Marks noted, this is definitely the time of year when someone could find themselves graphing a big school of “ready” fish.

But it’s not only a matter of quantity; this lake’s packed with quality fish. Since 1975, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has stocked Rayburn with Florida strain largemouth bass. Now, the dominant species, these mossback monsters give every cast day-making potential, while the opportunity to bust a mega sack remains ever present.

Bonds, for example, weighed 64 pounds in a 2-day event a few years back. That was a fall tournament, so the fish were fatter than the postspawners most will encounter in a June event. Nevertheless, big fish are grouped up this time of year, so magic can happen at any time.

“I can’t say that it will take 60 pounds to win, but I expect five, six, seven teams to weigh in 25-plus the first day and maybe more than one team will have 30,” Marks said. “If a team catches 30 and backs it up with 25, that’s 55 pounds. I’m saying 52-54 pounds is what I expect to win. That’s what Tim and I will be doing — trying to figure out how to catch that kind of weight.”