In 1965 Tommy Martin was 24 years old, living and working in Lufkin, Texas, for the Southwest Investment Company. And he was miserable.
The cause of his misery centered upon the simple fact that he was homesick, missing the saltwater fishing that he relished throughout his youth, growing up in Texas City, Texas, on Galveston Bay.
But on May 8, 1965, Sam Rayburn Reservoir was formally dedicated, and Toledo Bend Reservoir was about to be impounded.
The creation of those two U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reservoirs was a watershed event in Martin’s young piscatorial career. And in short order, he was pursuing largemouth bass and relishing every outing on Rayburn, which lies only 15 miles east of Lufkin. A few years later, he made the first of many 55-mile journeys to Toledo Bend.
Initially he fished the upper reaches of Rayburn in the vicinity of Hanks Creek Marina, where he often spent his days wielding a purple Devil’s Horse and catching 100 or more bass an outing from around the plethora of flooded green trees. At some locales in the upper end of Rayburn, the flooded trees were so thick that it was a difficult task for Martin to maneuver his small aluminum boat through the maze. These massive canopies of trees, however, provided shade and cover for the bass, allowing Martin to catch them with his topwater presentations throughout the day — even in the intense sun and heat of summer that often bewilders Texas’ bass anglers today.
As Toledo Bend began to fill and develop, Martin made his virgin voyage there in November of 1967. It was an extremely foggy day, which allowed him to venture only 200 yards from White’s Fish Camp at Pendleton Bridge. Nevertheless he caught 88 bass by employing a chrome Cotton Cordell Red Fin around a massive tangle of flooded timber.
Martin’s insights about what has transpired at Rayburn and Toledo Bend across his four decades of fishing these two reservoirs are enlightening. In September of 2010 he spent a number of hours over two days reflecting about the changes, noting that the reservoirs’ habitats have changed, some of the seasonal locations of the bass have changed, and the way Martin fishes these waters has changed. Some of the changes have been dramatic, and some are still unfolding.
In the beginning both reservoirs were embellished with a labyrinth of flooded timber: about 127,000 acres at Toledo Bend and 24,000 acres at Rayburn.
Toledo Bend has 181,600 surface acres of water with an average depth of 20 feet and maximum depth of 110 feet. Rayburn contains 114,500 surface acres of water, has a mean depth of 20 feet and maximum depth of 80 feet. Rayburn fluctuates 6.7 feet annually, and Toledo Bend varies 5 feet.
Initially Martin spent his days plying Rayburn’s flooded trees only with topwater lures, and he caught bass with them until the water temperature cooled into the 50s. Back in those days, Martin fished in a little aluminum boat powered by a small outboard and a sculling paddle. And once the bass stopped being enticed by Martin’s topwater presentations, he stopped fishing until spring when the bass commenced feeding on top again.
Martin said that he and his fellow anglers from Lufkin didn’t have a clue how to catch the wintertime bass. He readily admitted that he was an extremely unsophisticated angler, noting that bass boats, trolling motors and sonars weren’t part of his bass fishing repertoire until shortly after he started guiding part-time in 1968. But during the winter of 1967-68 Martin and his colleagues’ perspective began to change thanks to the efforts of a group of talented guides who showed the Lufkin anglers that both reservoirs were great year-round bass fisheries. Glen Andrews and Ralph Giesow, both of Broaddus, Texas, were two of the Rayburn guides who were developing new ways for alluring wintertime largemouth bass. For instance, Geissow and Andrews on one December outing in 1967 plied some deep-water lairs and caught 50 bass that weighed nearly 200 pounds on a Dixie Jet spoon.
In January of 1968, Martin crossed paths with Ralph Giessow. They quickly became bosom pals, and Giessow showed Martin how to ply the deep-water haunts for wintertime bass, catching them as deep as 30 feet of water, with a Dixie Jet spoon, Little George, plastic worm, and jig and eel. Because many of the lairs were littered with flooded timber, Giessow showed Martin how to use either a heavy slip-sinker-and-plastic-worm combo or a 9/16-ounce black banana-shaped jig with a black bucktail and black pork-rind eel with a vertical presentation, which allowed him to effectively probe the bottom around the limbs and trunks of the trees. At times, they had to add a 1/4-ounce slip sinker on the line above the jig in order to get it quickly to the bottom and make an alluring deep-water presentation. Martin said that the guides cajoled the local jig makers to make heavier models, but three years transpired before heavier ones rolled off the assembly lines.
Besides initiating Martin into the guiding world, Giessow introduced him to bass boats, sonars and electric trolling motors, which improved his deep-water bass skills immensely. Until Martin became friends with Giessow, he was way behind bass fishing’s technology curve. ( It is interesting to note that Skeeter developed the first bass boat in 1948, Carl Lowrance manufactured the first sonar in 1957 and O.G. Schmidt invented the first electric trolling motor in 1934.)
Giessow developed his knowledge as a bass guide in the Ozarks on Bull Shoals, Beaver and Table Rock lakes. He was part of a coterie of Ozark bass anglers and guides, including Glen Andrews and Larry Nixon, who moved to Rayburn and Toledo Bend in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In addition, Al Eason and Marvin Baker were guides who were instrumental in developing and perfecting different methods for plying offshore lairs, which they called structure fishing. Al Lindner and Harry Van Dorn from Minnesota also spent several winters guiding there. Moreover, Larry Nixon was part of the Hemphill Gang that guided out of Pendelton Harbor on Toledo Bend, and that group also consisted of such notable anglers as John Torian, John Hall, John Dean, Bo Dowden and Harold Allen. All of them befriended Martin and helped him weather the many woes that can confound a young guide’s days afloat.
It’s interesting to note that Martin, at the age of 72, is the only one of the initial group of anglers who is still guiding and regularly fishing Rayburn and Toledo Bend.
Martin estimates that back in the early years more than 400 bass guides were plugging away on both reservoirs. But as bass populations began to decline and the stellar bass fishing waned, the number of guides plummeted. Now only a half dozen bass guides ply their trade on these two waterways, and most of today’s guides focus on crappie instead of bass. When Martin began guiding, he garnered $40 an outing. Currently it’s $400 a day, and instead of focusing on catching a boatload of bass and filleting them as he and his fellow guides did in the 1960s and early ‘70s, Martin’s aim is to catch and release the bass and teach anglers how, when and where to fish. Besides guiding, he has been a preeminent professional bass fisherman since 1974, touring on the Bassmaster and FLW circuits, as well as competing at scores of other competitive bass-fishing events.
Until the late 1970s, Martin said most bass anglers considered Rayburn and Toledo Bend to be primarily a timber and brush fishery. Those notions changed when hydrilla began to appear, and during the spring of 1975, Martin began finding hydrilla growing in 20 feet of water. When the hydrilla was in its prime, it reached depths of 30 feet, and in shallower areas it grew to the surface. Hydrilla edges, points and pockets quickly became the predominant offshore coverts for the bass to inhabit and anglers to ply.
Martin estimates that 20 percent of the timber has disintegrated – especially along the shorelines and in other shallow areas. Moreover, much of the timber that extended above the surface of the reservoirs has disappeared, but the lakes remain littered with thousands of acres of subsurface timber, which is obvious when the lake levels drop below their normal levels.
Nowadays Martin finds shorelines graced with coontail, milfoil, hydrilla, alligator weed, and American pondweed, as well as some stumps and laydowns, rather than trees and brush. But when the lake levels rise above normal, terrestrial vegetation, such as button willows, longleaf willows and variety of grasses become inundated. There are also about 400 surface acres of Torpedograss in the southern half of Rayburn and Toledo Bend. Since 2000, American lotus has become relatively widespread, and depending on the year and water levels, its coverage ranges from 100 to 3,600 surface acres at both lakes. As of 2010, 25 different species of aquatic vegetation have been identified in both waterways, including common salvina and giant salvinia.
From 1975 to 1995 the hydrilla flourished. Then it began diminishing from depths of 30 feet to 25 feet, then to 20, and then to 15. As of the summer of 2010, 10-12 feet of water was the deepest that Martin could locate it at Toledo Bend and 6 to 8 feet was the deepest he could find it at Rayburn.
Likewise Texas Parks and Wildlife has found that hydrilla coverage since 1990 has fluctuated from 3,000 to 18,000 surface acres (3% coverage to 16% coverage) at Sam Rayburn and from 1,500 to 25,000 surface acres (2% to 35% coverage) on the Texas side of Toledo Bend. Martin and the Texas Parks and Wildlife’s biologists are hoping that hydrilla will experience a resurgence.
Spawning season then and now
The spawning season ranges from March 1 to May 1 and first two weeks of April are the peak.
When the reservoirs were young, Martin found that the bulk of the bass spawned way off the shorelines on sandy humps in 4 to 7 feet of water. At these spawning sites, he primarily used a black 1/8-ounce Bass Buster Lure Company’s marabou jig with a 3” black plastic worm as a trailer, working it on spinning tackle and six-pound-test. This combo inveigled incredible numbers of spawning bass. He also used a green-and-white bucktail jig without a trailer. Neither jig sported a weed guard.
Now most bass spawn along the shorelines in 3 feet of water on sandy spots between various types of vegetation, and Martin finds that they are more difficult to inveigle than they used to be when they were spawning away from the shorelines. To entice them nowadays, he relies on a Zoom Bait Company’s 4” Baby Brush Hog in a watermelon-candy hue that is Texas rigged on a 4/0 hook with a 1/16-ounce slip sinker.
Post-Spawn then and now
The post spawn has always been a difficult bass bite on both reservoirs. But because there are fewer bass abiding in both reservoirs today, compared to the halcyon days of the 1960s and ‘70s, the post-spawn fishing is even more trying. The reason is that the post-spawn bass are often very scattered; some are milling about their shallow spawning sites and others seem to be slowly meandering to their deeper summer haunts. Sometimes the shallow pattern fails to materialize, and other times the deep one doesn’t occur. For instance, in late May of 2010, Matrin couldn’t catch many post-spawners around the spawning site ; instead he caught the bulk of them in 18 to 27 feet of water. Whereas in 2009, he caught most of them in shallow water until June 10, using a Baby Brush Hog on sunny days and a topwater bait on cloudy ones.
Summer then and now
Martin’s best summer patterns have always revolved around 18 to 30 feet of water. According to Martin’s monthly records the most fruitful summertime depths are 18 to 27 feet in June, 18 to 24 feet in July, 12 to 18 feet in August and 20 to 30 feet in September.
A Texas-rigged plastic worm with a heavy slip sinker has always been his summertime mainstay. In those deep-water environs, he used to use in the good ol’ days either a Creme Lure Company’s black Scoundrel worm or Stembridge Products’ FLIPTAIL worm. Nowadays, Martin works with a Zoom Trick Worm.
In the old days around the dams and lower portions of the reservoirs, there were unbelievable numbers of bass ( some weighing as much as 3 to 4 pounds) that schooled and foraged on shad on the surface all day throughout the summer, and at times the largemouth bass mingled with the striped bass. To catch the surface feeding bass, most anglers wielded a Cotton Cordell Lures’ Near Nuthin’ or Cotton Cordell Lures’ Boy Howdy, and occasionally they employed a Dixie Jet spoon.
Although the topwater anglers caught vast numbers of bass, ranging up to four pounds, Martin preferred to employ a worm in deep water and catch a goodly number of big bass, weighing as much as 8 pounds.
These days Martin works with four summertime outfits: a Texas-rigged plastic worm, a Carolina rigged worm, a 5/8-ounce skirted jig and twin-tailed grub and deep-diving crankbait that can scour the bottom that lies in water as deep as 20 or more feet. When there were patches of hydrilla extending into 30 feet of water, Martin focused on the edges of that deep-water hydrilla.
Around the deep-water edges of the hydrilla, Martin often employed his 5/8-ounce jig with nearly a vertical presentation. To accomplish that task, Martin would execute a 20-foot pitch, and as soon as the jig hit the surface, he stripped 10 to 14 feet of line off his reel, which allowed the jig to plummet straight to the bottom. Once the jig stopped falling, he would shake his rod to see if the jig was on the bottom or lying on some stems of the hydrilla. When he determined that the jig was on the bottom, he allowed it to lie there dead still for a few seconds. After that pause, he performed several shake-and-pause routines. If he didn’t garner a strike, he reeled in the jig and executed another pitch and bottom presentation at another spot along the edge of the hydrilla. He said that his main objective with this presentation was to keep the jig in contact with the bottom.
The demise of the hydrilla in 20 to 30 feet of water has caused Martin to ply the edges of tree lines, stumps or trees with massive root wads, humps and rock piles. He says that it is essential to focus on areas that are graced with some attractive pieces of structure and a bottom that gently tapers into 30 feet of water, noting that radical vertical drop-offs are not a summertime factor.
Autumn then and now
One of the most significant changes in the habits of the bass that Martin has observed began to occur about 20 years ago. This was when vast numbers of the bass began suspending from late August into early October. Martin surmises that the bass are milling about and foraging on the astronomical numbers of shad that are also suspended and moving rather pell-mell around vast expanses of open water. The bass also could be associated with pelagic maneuverings of some of the schools of young temperate bass. This phenomenon has made the bass fishing trying, and it doesn’t improve until the water temperature begins to cool. Once it cools, the bulk of the bass begin foraging near the bottom again, making them easier to pinpoint and catch. According to Martin, the best way to catch the suspended bass is with a topwater presentation.
Throughout the fall, vertical or radical drop offs have always been a critical element. During this time of the year, Martin explores creek and river channel edges in 15 to 18 feet of water that quickly plunge into 20 to 30 feet of water, and at some of the edges along the main river channel, the drop offs plummet quickly into 70 feet of water. A few of the best autumn lairs along the channels are associated with roadbeds or bridges. In order to keep his lure at the correct spot and depth along those sharp edges, Martin has found that a vertical presentation is the best option. In the old days, most anglers used a Mann’s Little George as a search bait, and once they found a concentration of bass they worked with a spoon or a green-and-white bucktail jig. A Texas-rigged worm with a heavy slip sinker was used with astonishing regularity.
Nowadays, however, Martin utilizes what he calls a power angler’s drop-shot rig, which he wields on casting equipment that is spooled with 12 to 14-pound-test line. This outfit is anchored with a 3/8-ounce sinker, and 18” above the sinker Martin attaches a 4/0 hook affixed to either a Zoom Trick Worm or Zoom Swamp Crawler. He also uses a 5/8-ounce skirted Oldham Lures’ football jig dressed with a Zoom Ultra-Vibe Speed.
Winter then and now
From December into early February, when the water temperature ranges from 48 to 52 degrees, Martin focuses on clean-bottom areas, such as a sandbar in 27 to 32 feet of water along the submerged river channel. A submerged roadbed is another effective location. It has always been either a feast or famine affair that pivots around the weather cycles. Instead of using a Little George, spoon, black jig and eel and black worm, as Giessow, Andrews and others used to employ, Martin now works with his power angler’s drop-shot rig, and at times he has successfully fished depths of 35 to 45 feet with this outfit.
Some winters are blessed with periodic spells of balmy weather that provoke the bass to mill around on sandy flats and humps in 8 to 12 feet of water. When that occurred in Geissow and Andrews’ days, they used to crank those locales with Bombers and Hellbenders. Now Martin wields a variety of medium-diving crankbaits in crayfish hues, as well as lipless crankbaits such as a Rat-L-Trap.
The winter of 2009-10 was the longest and most severe one that Martin can remember enduring. Even on March 1, 2010, which is the time of the year when many of the bass are normally exhibiting their pre-spawn and spawning behaviors, the water temperature was only 43 degrees, and none of the bass were in the mood to procreate. Martin also suspects that the long and cold winter of 2009-10 might have had an adverse affect on the hydrilla.
Nowadays Martin spends more winter days hunting or guiding hunters than he does fishing or guiding fishermen.
Now and the future
As he pondered his 48 years of pursuing Rayburn’s bass and 46 years of chasing them at Toledo Bend , he readily admitted the bass fishing is a mere shadow of its stellar past. Nevertheless, he says that the reservoirs haven’t aged and deteriorated as much as similar impoundments elsewhere
Martin suspects that if the hydrilla flourishes again, and if the Texas Parks and Wildlife continues stocking Florida largemouth bass, which began in 1975 at Rayburn and 1990 at Toledo Bend, both lakes will be delightful waterways to purse bass for years to come, and it’s likely that some angler will break Toledo Bend’s 15.32 pounds big bass record and Rayburn’s 16.80-pound record.
(1) Lures and presentation across the decades: Martin finds that topwater lures are still effective. One reason for that is there are more of them, and they are more alluring than the old-time ones.
Martin says spinnerbaits don’t catch as many bass as they used to catch – even when they are waked across the surface around the flooded grasses. Glenn Andrews was a master at employing a twin spin, which has been passé for decades.
Spoons aren’t as valuable as they used to be. And hardly a soul uses a Little George or similar tail-spinner. The drop-shot and Martin’s power angler’s drop-shot rig has replaced the Dixie Jet spoon and tail spinners.
Lipless crankbaits – especially the Rat-L-Trap – are extremely effective across some sandy flats and humps during a series of warm, sunny days from November through February.
Medium-diving crankbaits in a variety of crayfish hues catch an impressive array of bass during cloudy warm spells in January and February on sandy flats and humps.
The black banana head-jig or Glenn Andrews’ bucktail jig and a black pork eel or chunk has been replaced with a variety of jig heads and skirts that sport a variety of soft-plastic trailers, such as a 5/8-ounce skirted Oldham Lures’ football jig dressed with a Zoom Ultra-Vibe Speed.
For decades, a plastic worm has been Martin’s most productive lure day in and day out. Years ago he used a Teaxs-rigged black Creme Scoundrel worm or a FLIPTAILworm. Nowadays he has at least three worm rigs at the ready: one Texas-rigged straight-tailed worm to fish deep water, one Texas-rigged curly-tailed worm to fish shallow water, and one Carolina-rigged worm. When he plies shallow lairs with a worm, Martin also has another rod with a Texas-rigged creature bait, such as a 4” Zoom Baby Brush Hog.
The shaky-head worm has never caught on.
(2) Temperate bass: Rayburn and Toledo Bend have had recruiting populations with their white and yellow bass. Striped bass were stocked in both reservoirs in 1976-1979 and 1983. Wipers were stocked only in Rayburn during 1979, ‘81, ’82, ’85, 87, ’88, ’89 and from 1991 to 2000.
Todd Driscoll of Texas Parks and Wildlife says there are no stripers now in Rayburn, and there are only a few wipers. Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries stocks a limited number of stripers in Toledo Bend most years.
(3) Brush piles: Everyday that Martin is afloat on Rayburn or Toledo Bend , he sees at least one crappie fisherman sinking a brush pile, and many of these brush piles have become ideal coverts for bass to inhabit from June through December.
Nowadays Martin fishes brush piles a lot, but before he makes a cast, he always employs a side-scanning sonar to ascertain if bass are abiding in or around it.
One negative aspect of the brush-pile phenomenon, according to Martin, is that are so many of them that it scatters the bass; so instead of 20 bass abiding in one of the most attractive piles, there are only a half dozen inhabiting it.
Because there is so much flooded timber and debris in Toledo Bend, some observers contend that brush piles haven’t had the same effect on its bass population as the brush piles in Rayburn have. Despite that contention, Martin catches significant numbers of bass from Toledo Bend’s brush piles.
(4) Catch rates then and now: During the 1960s and much of the ‘70s, Martin and his fellow guides often tangled with 100 bass or more an outing. Scores of these bass were harvested.
Now on the best of days Martin tangles with 40 to 60 in the spring, 25 to 35 in the summer, dropping to 18 in September when the bass suspend, 25 to 35 in the fall, and 30 to 50 in the winter. And he releases all of the bass that he catches.
(5) Tommy Martin Enterprises Guide Service: Anglers who want to Martin about arranging a guide trip can call him at 409-625-4792 or 936-676-8394. He can be reached by e-mail at: email@example.com. The link to his Web site is http://www.off-the-hook-marketing.com/MTM/TMGuideService.htm
(6) Seeker Fishing Rod Company: Recently Martin helped Seeker Fishing Rod Company to design some S-glass rods for largemouth bass anglers. This year they introduced the Tommy Martin Signature Series of S-glass rods for wielding a jerkbait, spinnerbait and squarebill crankbait. For more information see: http://www.seekerrods.com/fishing-rods-view/react-pro/
(7) Walmart FLW Tour: At the age of 72, Martin will fish the FLW Tour in 2013, commencing with Lake Okeechobee, Florida, event on Feb. 7. Before Lake Okeechobee is off limits for FLW Tour competitors on Jan. 21, Martin hopes to spend five days there practicing.
Tommy Martin and his Seeker Rods USA wrapped Nitro boat.