The Red River promises to force 51 of the world's best anglers to dig deep into their tackle boxes of tricks when they compete in the Feb. 20-22 Bassmaster Classic out of Shreveport-Bossier City, La.
By the first day of competition, each of the Classic qualifiers will have been given four days of official practice time on the water, Feb. 13-15, and a final look Feb. 18. At that point, many competitors might believe they have the Red River's bass figured out. But if the Red River changes, as it has been known to do overnight, every Classic angler would be pushed back to square one.
And that's why the Red River is a perfect Classic fishery. To be in contention for the $500,000 first-place prize, competitors will have to find answers to questions that can change daily. Heavy upstream rains that fell days before can swell the river, suddenly creating easier access to bass-rich backwaters. A drop in water levels even by an inch or two can cut an angler off from a spot that produced lunkers just days before. Water clarity changes with current velocity. And, of course, February weather, as well as temperatures of both air and water, are unpredictable.
To understand what the anglers will be up against, Classic spectators might find that a bit of Red River background comes in handy.
The river's headwaters are in the Texas Panhandle, where the water begins to collect red-clay soil that gives the river its name. Joined by an Oklahoma river, the Red flows eastward, forming the Oklahoma-Texas border.
About halfway along the border, almost directly north of Dallas, the river flows into vast Lake Texoma. After its stint in the reservoir, the water curls back into a ribbon and heads east. Leaving Texas-Oklahoma, it shoots through the southwest corner of Arkansas, then falls south into Louisiana and winds its way across the state, where it finally merges into the Mississippi River.
The Red River in Louisiana is not tamed by the water's long journey. It takes dams to do that five dams, to be exact. They're part of the $1.9 billion Red River Waterway Project authorized by Congress in 1968. Dam construction began in 1977 and was completed in 1994, according to the Red River Waterway Commission.
The dams make navigation safer for commercial traffic as well as for recreational boaters. But most important to anglers, the dams have created a great bass fishery. The waterway project turned the Red "from a wild river to more like an impounded, semi-reservoir-type habitat with better water quality," said Mike Wood, head of statewide fisheries management with Louisiana Wildlife & Fisheries.
"Without the flow that it takes to keep solids suspended, it becomes beautiful, fertile water, and a bass fishery has developed that's just out of sight," Wood said. "We sample the Red River, and we're very impressed with the trends of largemouth bass growth. It's just a really good fishery."
Classic competition waters are Pools 3, 4 and 5. The main channel of the pools runs 118 river miles and averages in depth from about 16 to 19 feet, according to the Red River Waterway Commission.
Anglers will launch their boats at Red River South Marina, which is in a large oxbow of Pool 5, about 14 miles north of the Joe D. Waggonner Jr. Lock & Dam No. 5. From the launch site, Classic anglers can run north toward Shreveport-Bossier City. They can elect to go south. They can lock through to Pool 4, and again through a second lock into Pool 3.
While lunkers have been taken from all three pools, Pool 5 claims big-bass honors at 13 pounds, 8 ounces, according to Red River Waterway Commission records. However, Pools 3 and 4 are popular among local anglers in terms of quality and quantity, according to Wood.
There's no doubt the Red River in Louisiana is fast becoming known for big bass. While the native black-bass fishery of largemouth and spotted bass is healthy and growing, Florida strain largemouth have been stocked to enhance it, Wood said.
"The native fishery just boomed with the change in habitat," Wood said of the river's state after dam construction. "Reproduction was good. In addition to that, Florida bass were stocked into the pools in an effort to increase the potential for larger bass. We're trying to take advantage of this very good habitat."
Wood said that in February water temperatures could rise enough to push bass into pre-spawn mode, Wood said.
"Particularly in areas outside the channel, if the weather warms, bass will be moving in shallow," he said. "They may not be actually on the nest, but we certainly will see shallower fish if we get some warmer weather."