There was a time beginning in the 1970s when Lake Palestine was the best bass fishing lake in North Texas, maybe the state.
It was a different era. The lake had recently been expanded to 25,000 acres. Lake Fork was still on the drawing board. Florida bass were still in Florida, making native Northern bass the only target. State of the art bass boats were about 15-feet long and powered by 70-horsepower engines. Tournaments were typically bass club events. Daily bag limits were 10 per day with a minimum length of 10, inches and at the end of a tournament the daily catch was fried or put on ice and taken home.
Lake Palestine was covered up with tournaments, including local clubs and those traveling from Dallas-Fort Worth, Waco, Austin and others. Combined with local fishing pressure and the liberal limit, it did not take long before the luster was off Palestine.
Toledo Bend, Sam Rayburn, Falcon and for a time Amistad became the big dogs, attracting not only the amateur events, but becoming regular stops on the pro circuits. And then Lake Fork, even with or because of its catch-and-release restrictions, started drawing pro tournaments almost annually.
That all changes when Major League Fishing holds its 2021 Redcrest tournament on the lake Feb. 21-25. The tournament with its $791,000 payout is the MLF Pro Tour’s top event. It will feature 40 fishermen who qualified during stage events including Kevin VanDam, Ott DeFoe, Jacob Lee and Mark Rose along with Texans Takahiro Omori, Alton Jones, Alton Jones Jr., Jeff Sprague and Todd Faircloth.
The tournament was originally scheduled for Grand Lake O’ The Cherokees outside of Tulsa. However, a first-ever MLF extravaganza scheduled alongside the tournament was cancelled because of COVID-19. Officials decided to postpone the event in Oklahoma until 2022 so it could be held in conjunction with the extravaganza, opening the door for Palestine to step onto the big stage.
Even though Lake Palestine is a plan B for the tournament, it does show how the lake has turned around since the 1980s when it was better known for hybrid-striped bass, catfish and crappie, and among some acquired the nickname of the Dead Sea.
The return to a quality lake did not come quickly. It started with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department enacting a 5-bass, 14-inch limit in 1986 and really gained traction after the hefty stockings of Florida bass between 2004 and 2012. With no other significant changes at the lake in the form of habitat over the years, that combination has led to more consistent bass fishing and bigger bass coming off Palestine.
Reportedly the heaviest 5-bass tournament stringer on the lake is a 40.08 stringer caught in a Media Bass tournament in early March 2013 by Billy Ferguson and Sonny Booth. Their stringer included a then-lake record 13.14-pound fish. That mark was topped a year later when Casey Laughlin landed a 13.22 in a February tournament.
“What I have seen in the last 10 years is that the wealth has been spread out around the lake. It has consistently stayed good. Catching at 35-pound stringer still possible, but the thing that is different is that you can do it on the lower end of the lake,” said Tom Mayne, a life-long fisherman, tournament competitor and part-time guide on Palestine.
Mayne said there was a time when it was a cinch that a winning stringer was going to come from the upper end of the lake where there has always been more habitat. However, there were always fishermen who fished the more open south end below the Highway 155 bridge.
Since the announcement of the tournament moving from Oklahoma to East Texas, Mayne has been visiting with a number of the participating pros. In recent years he has made mapping cards of boat lanes on Lake Palestine (http://www.lakepalestinefishingguide.com/) and pros unfamiliar with the lake have been ordering them to download to their onboard maps.
While Palestine’s record stringer and lake record came in early March and February respectively, Mayne said the catch-and-release Redcrest will be weather dependent.
“In mid-February if we have a warming trend lead up to the tournament, the numbers are going to go up. If we have a cold front and they are fishing on the backside of it, they are going to go down,” he said.
The Redcrest event will be hosted out of The Villages. The format will include all 40 fishermen competing the first two days before a cutdown to 20. Ten of those will fish the third day and the others the fourth day. The top five from each of those days will advance to the championship day. The winner will take home $300,000.
Fans are welcome to watch fishermen on the water, but should keep a respectable distance away.