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Lake O' the Pines bass record falls twice Big Bass Season

By Jon Dustin Brooks jbrooks@marshallnewsmessenger.com
April 10, 2010 at 7:06 p.m.

COURTESY PHOTOS
James E. Hollis displays the 13.2-pound largemouth bass he reeled out of Lake O' the Pines on March 20. The fish set a lake record until Carl Clark of Marshall snatched up a 15.13-pounder out of the lake on March 26.

Jon Dustin Brooks

jbrooks@marshallnewsmessenger.com

LAKE O' THE PINES - The flurry of fish being plucked out of lakes across the state this spring is easily evidenced by the events that occurred at Lake O' the Pines in late March.

A body of water that had yet to enter a fish into the state's lunker program since its 1986 inception, the Piney Woods reservoir remained a blip on the statewide bass radar for many years.

Then James E. Hollis and Carl Clark came along, setting lake records six days apart from one another.

Hollis grabbed a 13.2-pounder March 20, breaking a two-year lake record, before Clark nabbed a 15.13-pounder March 26, shattering Hollis' newborn mark before it even had time to settle.

The near week-long ordeal pushed The Pines back into the spotlight.

It also helped it become one of only a few state lakes to set two records during one lunker season, which runs annually from October 1 to April 30.

With Hollis' and Clark's help, The Pines had splashed, cannonball-style, back onto the state scene.

"Lake O' the Pines was way overdue to produce a ShareLunker," said Tim Bister, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Inland Fisheries biologist who manages the fishery on the lake. "One of the reasons we're seeing these fish is the prey fish present in the reservoir. Largemouth bass have an abundance of threadfin shad, gizzard shad and various sunfish species as forage. The reservoir also has a lot of submersed aquatic vegetation."

The translation, as Bister later put it, "Largemouth bass grow fast in Lake O' the Pines."

The lake was stocked with Florida largemouth bass in the 1980s. Recognizing the potential for the lake to produce trophy-sized bass, officials began stocking it again last year.

Fishing an area well-known to local anglers, Hollis and Clark were the first to capitalize.

Near the 155 Bridge is where it happened.

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"The 155 Bridge and Alley Creek," said Roger Belk, creator and president of the Texas Bass Club. "That's the two biggest hot spots for big fish (on Lake O' the Pines)."

The 42-year-old Belk, who lives in Hallsville, should know. He spends almost every weekend in his boat somewhere in the Lone Star State.

The Atlanta native said it was The Pines' history that first drew him to the lake after his job relocated him to Longview about eight years ago.

After a bit of exploration, he soon discovered the 155 Bridge, where the serious East Texas-bred bass fisher ventures when skimming the nearly 17,000-acre freshwater lake.

"That boat channel jumps straight out to about five to six feet deep," Belk said of the area near the bridge. "Any time you have deep water running into shallow water like that, that's where you're going to catch your bigger bass."

Belk added that the abundance of hydrilla on that side of the lake offers an enticing environment to bass.

"The bass just love to sit there," he said. "The hydrilla does two things. It filters the water and it puts oxygen in the water. It gives (the bass) good cover. And there's not a lot of logs in the water. It's just some brush and some shallow water."

The 155 Bridge itself is a modest structure that stands on the outskirts of Ore City, crawling out above the lake's black waters.

A tiny, two-lane, concrete-topped link between Marion and Upshur counties, the bridge's metal traffic rails outline its edges, guarding each side from the murk below, while tightly closing its grip on incoming drivers.

Guided along by the road's yellow and white stripes, a glance through a car window presents a rushing view of the Big Cypress Bayou reservoir - another name for The Pines - its horizon line overwhelmed by the rich copper of thriving timber.

Shades of lime, deep forest, pea and shamrock blend together with the chocolate trunks and khaki branches, creating an abstract of leaves and bark. Islands of dirt, brush and trees push up through the wind-brushed waters on the bridge's northwest side.

Within those shady island channels is where the bass like to relax.

"Most of the time, the wind's blowing so hard, you wish you could get into those shallow coves anyhow," Belk said. "The 155 Bridge has produced some pretty big fish there."

Belk conceded that on most days, weather conditions and other outside factors play a large role in where the trophy fish are found, however.

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During a recent trip across the bridge just after 4 p.m. Thursday afternoon, a turkey buzzard soared overhead, stretching its wings across a cloudless blue sky.

The brown-feathered fowl had its pick of perches among the thousands of trees that towered around the lake's borders, settling instead on a nearby telephone pole that thickly rose from beneath the water's surface on the bridge's southeast side.

The lake was quiet. Only a few boats gingerly floated within view of the bridge, each of which carried at least two people, some sitting in chairs, others standing erect. Shiny fishing line connected each person to the lake, sprawling out across the water like silk from a spider's web.

A northwest breeze was cooling down the air, offering a brief preview of a chilly night that lingered a few hours away.

Five vehicles - three extended cab trucks and two SUVs, one of which was a black Chevrolet with an Arkansas license plate - were parked at the nearby Twin Cypress Marina, a cabin-style motel/campground/boat launch area the occupies five acres of land just under the nose of the bridge's entrance.

A large tree wrapped in a Chinese wisteria vine, purple flowers dangling down like soft-petalled grape clusters, anchored itself into the blackish-brown dirt below the marina's sign, which hung on the tree's trunk, spelling its name in green block letters, outlined in black, on a gold background.

Dorothy Dishman has been running the marina since 1983 and knows a thing or two about life on The Pines.

Although neither Hollis nor Clark launched from Dishman's marina, the 77-year-old said buzz circles quickly around the lake's banks when a large fish is caught, like early-morning fog dancing its way across a pond top.

"It makes everybody want to catch a bigger one," said the Northeastern transplant, who described herself as a "Jur-zee girl that likes (her) caw-fee."

Dishman said business has picked up since the two catches. To a Pines' veteran, that's code for: The bridge is active.

"I'd like to go across the 155 Bridge right now," said Trey Peavy, whose job has him stationed far away at the moment, in Ohio.

The 53-year-old Peavy knows The Pines well, though. He has a house on the banks of the lake, just near Johnson Creek. Until last month, he was the lake's largemouth bass record holder, with a 12.74-pounder he nabbed March 28, 2008.

Where did his record catch come from?

Near the 155 Bridge is where it happened.

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Fishing on a cold, bleary, damp morning, Hollis grabbed the largest fish of his life on only his third cast, at about 7:15 a.m.

"I had just looked at my watch to make sure the time was right and she hit and I just started trying to keep her head up where she wouldn't get in the bushes," said the 72-year-old, who fishes to keep himself in shape.

"Jumping up and down in one of them boats all day, that'll keep your joints loosened up," he said.

The previous night, Hollis and his wife camped out at Johnson Creek Recreation Area on the north side of the lake. Hollis' fishing partner C.J. O'Neal had tried to reserve a campsite at the same place, but instead had to settle at another lake because Johnson was fully booked.

The pair still launched early that morning. Competing in a Sportsman Bass Club tournament, they were trying to get in some quality casts before an expected cold front was to hit the area later in the day.

The strategy paid off.

Using a lizard bait in five feet of water in the 155 Bridge area, Hollis, a Hallsville High School graduate, plucked up the 13.2-pounder from his red Skeeter boat.

"She fought real good," he said. "She went under the boat and then came out and then my partner netted her."

The fish measured 25.25 inches in length and 20.5 inches in girth.

It was the first bass weighing more than 13 pounds on record at The Pines, breaking Peavy's previous lake best. It was also the first fish from The Pines that was eligible to be entered into TPWD's Toyota ShareLunker program, which only accepts bass weighing at least 13 pounds.

Despite the significant earmarks, neither Hollis nor O'Neal immediately realized the magnitude of the catch.

"I guessed her at between ten and twelve pounds," Hollis said. "Then we put her in the live well and said, 'That's a good start.'"

Carried by the momentum of Hollis' catch, O'Neal netted an eight-and-a-half pounder later in the day. The duo then stubbornly sat through the front that pushed through by mid-afternoon on their way to first place in the tournament.

"I don't think either one of us knew what to expect with the weather coming through like it was," said O'Neal, a semi-retired educator who teaches algebra and coaches golf at Longview's East Texas Charter School. "Then that front started blowing through and it got kind of rough. Then the rain and the cold hit. By the end of the day, it was pretty nasty. I was ready to get out of there and get some dry clothes. It was worth waiting, though. It was a pretty neat ordeal."

O'Neal, who moved to Longview four-and-a-half years ago, first met Hollis through his part-time job at ETCS, where Hollis' grandsons attend. It was only the third tournament the pair had fished together.

"It's been a lot of fun," O'Neal said. "I guess what I'm enjoying most is being able to go out with somebody and just fish. Trying to come up with strategies and then come up with a game plan and that sort of stuff."

Because Clark's catch came so soon after his own, Hollis' bass was never officially certified as a new lake record. Although Peavy's catch was certified, the utilities commission contractor who once fished for 56 straight days can relate to having a record broken.

"That poor guy didn't even get his name on the Web site," Peavy said.

But Hollis - who said he "got out of the Navy in 1960 and hasn't stopped fishing since" - insists he remains satisfied with his accomplishment.

"Of course," said the Longview resident. "That's the biggest one I've ever caught. It made it special because I fish the lake with a bunch of guys that fish the lake all the time and it was the biggest one they ever saw too. It was a good feeling."

Hollis said he can also take solace in the fact that his catch was The Pines' first-ever to be entered into the ShareLunker program.

"I guess it's a little bit of prestige there," he said. "I'm well-pleased because, 'How many people catch a 13-pounder? Especially out of Lake O' the Pines.'"

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Clark's good friend Shane Harp and brother-in-law Hayden Martin arrived at The Pines around 11 a.m. It was sunny with a mild temperature, an all-around ideal day for fishing.

Clark was planning on being with them, but an apprenticeship class through his job at Eastman Chemical Company in Longview held him up longer than expected.

Once class dismissed, the Marshall native bee-lined out of there like a giddy elementary-aged kid on a Friday afternoon.

He immediately made his way to the water, arriving between noon and 1 p.m.

Settling in an area that "he thought he might try," Clark fished for about 15 minutes with a spinner bait before turning to a red Rat-L-Trap. Shortly thereafter, he hooked his trophy, in about five feet of water.

Since he began bass fishing at the age of 10, one of Clark's goals was to one day haul in at least 10 pounds worth of fish. Once the 34-year-old pulled that 15.13-pounder out of the water near the 155 Bridge, he knew he'd just achieved that standard.

"I fought her around the boat for about ten minutes, going back and forth from the front to the back of the boat and I finally got her up and she looked like she might've been about ten pounds," Clark said.

With his net still in his rod box, Clark had to reach into his supply area to retrieve it while still maintaining pressure on the fish.

"I was just nervous," he said. "I had to mess with her a little bit more and tire her out a little bit and then I reached down in the rod box and got the net out."

Eventually, he took the slack out of his line and brought the fish up before netting it.

"Once I put her in the boat, I knew she was bigger than ten pounds. I seen how big a belly she had," said Clark, a Jefferson High School graduate.

The fish measured 22 inches in girth and 25.25 inches in length.

Being a resident practical joker, Clark had trouble convincing his friends he'd actually lured in a double-digit catch, though.

"We was close enough to where I can hear him hoopin' and hollerin' when he caught it," Harp said. "But when I heard him, I thought it was just another one of his jokes at first."

Clark added, "I was hollerin' to my buddies and stuff and they kind of looked over at me and then just went back to fishing."

A portion of his friends' skepticism stemmed from the fact that Clark had only been out on the water for about 30 minutes before he hooked his prize.

"I imagine it was about four or five casts before he had that fish," Harp said.

His attempts at yelling spurned, Clark had to let them know he was serious. A change of strategy was needed. So he broke out his mobile phone.

"You're lying, man," came the response on the other end.

"Man, I ain't lying," Clark pleaded.

"Man, you are breathing kind of heavy and stuff."

With that, Harp and Martin were on their way to see if the catch was legit.

After arriving at Clark's boat from their position about 400 yards away, Harp and Martin knew at once it wasn't a joke.

"When we got over there, he was up in the front of his boat, shaking," Martin said. "He was all nervous."

"Man, why are you shaking so much?" one of them asked him.

"I said, 'Man, this fish is big,' and I pulled it out of the live well and they both said, 'Boy, you just beat that record,'" Clark recalled.

As of now, Clark's record has already lasted longer than the one he broke.

He's hoping it will stay intact for much longer, like the record catch before Peavy's, which held up for nearly 20 years after being set in 1990.

"I figured his would stand for another few years," Clark said of Hollis' record. "I got lucky. I was in the right spot and the right time and now I hope it holds for a long time."

Even if it doesn't, at least Clark got his name on the Web site.

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