Small Water, Big Bass
By John Thompson
"On this lake, it’s zero to hero,” says Cody Greaney, who often probes the clear, grassy waters of Lake Austin as a bass guide. It’s tough fishing, but the payoff can be unforgettable!
Gone are the days, though, when local anglers knew most of the other bass chasers they met at the boat ramp below the big red bridge on Loop 360, northwest of town. Recent years have seen big numbers of bass boats flocking to this 1,599-acre, constant- level ribbon of the Lower Colorado River that cradles the City of Austin between Lake Travis and Lady Bird Lake.
“Just because some guys began to catch a few big bass, look what is happening,” Greaney laments, as two other bass boats roar past in opposite directions. As if in explanation, he powered the trolling motor toward a particular dock hugging a steep shoreline and announced it was called “the 16-pound dock,” referring to the lake record bass winched from its shaded waters in 2011. That largemouth now rules the aquarium inside the nearby Cabelas in Buda. Produce that size bass, along with a boatload of others over 10 pounds, and the attraction becomes obvious.
Normally anglers who chase big bass look to newer impoundments still rich with nutrients, but just mature enough to give the growing fish time to reach such size. That certainly isn’t the case with Lake Austin—just hitting its stride after 74 years!
Most of the public’s notice concerning the monster bass in this little river-lake came during the 2011/2012 season when Lake Austin produced five bass in the Toyota ShareLunker program operated by Texas Parks and Wildlife. Taking bass weighing 13 pounds or more, this program has highlighted the lakes in Texas producing the trophy bass every angler dreams of catching. That same season, the traditionally dominate Texas lake for big bass, Lake Fork, produced only two entries. Get the picture?
To get some idea how this happened, inland fisheries biologist Steve Magnelia, who served as district biologist for Lake Austin and the area, beginning in 1997, explained it.
Lake Austin was producing a few really big bass then. It had an outstanding forage base, clear water and, thanks to the abundant milfoil grass beds, abundant cover. It also had the added bonus of cool water coming in from the deep Lake Travis, just upstream. Striving to make a good thing even better, Magnelia began an aggressive stocking program dedicated to increasing the Florida bass population in the lake.
“I had the idea this lake held the potential to be something special when it came to big bass, and that was right,” Steve relates. He began stocking the lake regularly with pure Florida-strain bass and noted other factors that contribute to their success. A really strong bream population, along with large numbers of red crawfish, offered lots of forage.
Though shad and sunfish represent the major, fast-food menu items for hungry bass, crawfish are their chocolate sundae. Not only do bass love these mudbugs, the little lobsters also help fish pack on the pounds.
Steve has now moved to another job at Parks and Wildlife, leaving Lake Austin’s management to Marcos de Jesus, but still fishes the lake regularly and offered up some tips on actually catching these titans.
He points to the fact that most of the successful anglers have a few tricks in common. Big baits for big bass seem to be a proven technique among Lake Austin’s better-known fishermen. One of this season’s brutes was a 14.28-pound whopper that went for a 17-inch, hand-poured, plastic worm. The angler wearing the big smile, Bennett Cowan from San Marcos, caught the fish at 2 a.m.
Night fishing is growing on Lake Austin for two big reasons. First, it takes fishermen out of the line of fire of most skiers, wake boarders and other recreational boaters, and, secondly, the cover of darkness also makes the bass easier to approach in the clear water.
Steve says the most popular lure on the lake these days is the large Senko, usually in some variety of watermelon or pumpkin seed color. Topwater lures also account for some of the heavyweights, with the most popular being hollow-bodied frogs. Frogs get the nod mostly in the summer months when fished over the thick mats of vegetation. Magnelia garnered the most enthusiasm for big swim baits, however.
“Large swim baits seems to be the favorite,” he says, “but they can be hard to find.” He also hints they may be on the expensive side—like somewhere north of $100 a copy.
All the locals agree this lake can be tough to learn. They suggest you fish with a local guide or someone who knows the lake the first few times out. It’ll boost your chance of success.
John Thompson has been an outdoor writer in Texas for more than 50 years, with stints at newspapers in San Angelo, Beaumont and Fort Worth. He and his wife, Joyce, live and fish from their home in Aledo, west of Fort Worth.