BROOKELAND, Texas – After a day of waiting out the wind, crisp winter weather met the Southwestern Division anglers at of the opening Toyota Series Presented by Phoenix Boats event of the 2023 season. As is often the case, the fishing season is kicking off in the pines of east Texas, with over 190 pros and Strike King co-anglers ready to duke it out on Sam Rayburn.
Sam Rayburn has a reputation as a phenomenal bass fishery and a giant in the tournament world. At more than 114,000 acres, it’s the largest reservoir contained entirely within the borders of the Lone Star State. The Angelina River feeds Rayburn, which sprawls out into a typical Texas lowland impoundment that features timber, bushes, submerged hydrilla, plenty of bank vegetation, and, of course, lots of legendary Texas “drains” or ditches that are renowned for producing giant bass.
The lake is a flood-control impoundment, so it does experience high- and low-water years, fluctuating roughly 7 feet throughout a typical season.
Rayburn is an easy 20-plus-pound lake, where limits that weigh in the upper 20s are common, and 8- to 10-pound bass frequently make it to weigh-ins.
January on Sam Rayburn can offer extreme highs, with 40-pound bags as a distinct possibility. Still, for most of the field, most of the time, January is a bit of a grind. This year, there is notably more grass in the lake than usual, which four-time Southwestern Division Angler of the Year Todd Castledine thinks is a challenge.
“There’s more grass than there’s been in 10 years, so it’ll be a good thing in two or three years,” said Castledine. “We didn’t have any grass for a couple of years, and those fish get used to not using the grass. They didn’t grow up in it, they don’t live in it. So, when it comes back, if they’re out there in the lake, deep, they have zero reason to come back shallow. A lot of us 100 percent believe it.
“Can you catch fish in the grass? Yes,” the lanky Texan said. “You can probably make a Top 10 in the grass. But, I don’t think you can solely win in the grass. I don’t know if you can solely win out deep either, you’re going to need to mix it up.”
On Rayburn in the winter, key offshore hard spots and brush piles produce plenty of fish. So do the legendary drains, stretches of grass, and these days, with forward-facing sonar, just open water.
The idea that mixing patterns will be important was echoed by Nick LeBrun.
“It’s been a very mild winter. The water has been in the 60s forever. Usually when the water hits 55 (degrees) and stays consistent there is a big group of fish that get up in the drains and winter there, but I just don’t know that a lot of fish have done that yet, this year,” LeBrun said.
“Like the BFL, I think we’ll see a lot of junk fishing in this tournament,” LeBrun went on to say. “I’ll have a ½-ounce Bill Lewis Rat-L-Trap tied on – that’s always a huge player on Rayburn – and I’ll also have a ¾ -ounce Buckeye Football jig and some Texas-rigged plastics tied on if I decide to play the deep game. I don’t really think about it often, but an umbrella rig could definitely be a player this time of year as well.”
Castledine also believes we’ll see a little of everything Rayburn has to offer in this one.
“In the Top 25, there will be eight to 10 guys throwing lipless baits and catching them, a Strike King Red Eye Shad or a Rat-L-Trap,” said Castledine. “There will be five or six guys LiveScoping, probably five guys throwing a ChatterBait, and then the rest of them throwing a Carolina rig. Everything I said, all those guys will have a 6-pounder, or bigger.”
Though fishing historically isn’t off the wall on Sam Rayburn during January, there are some recent examples of big weight being needed to win. Of course, Derek Mundy is responsible for a lot of that, as he totaled 70-11 to win in January of 2021, with over 39 pounds on Day 2. Second in that event, Jason Bonds tallied 50 pounds over three days, including a stinker on Day 1, when he caught only two keepers.
“It’s January, it’s never good in January,” said Castledine. “Everyone sees all these big bags, and a big bag randomly, but they misconstrue that for it being good. We catch 25- to 30-pound bags throughout the year, but other times, multiple people do it. I think 27 pounds will make the Top 25, easy.”
As far as winning weights go, with only two days in play now, a lot of the pros are around the same ballpark, with Castledine pegging it at 43 pounds.
Dakota Ebare also thinks it may be a little tough.
“The lake is fishing pretty tough right now as far as quality,” he said. “Big ones are hard to come by it seems. I think 41 pounds might get it done unless someone finds something special and has it to themselves.”
LeBrun is also a little down on the fishing, figuring that 38 pounds might get the job done considering the conditions.
Weight aside, the winner will come out on top of a stacked field, with the likes of Keith Combs, Mundy, Castledine, Aaron Johnson, Ebare, Spencer Shuffield and more in the mix this week.