The fairy tale fishing stories continue to surface on lakes across Texas. Two of the most recent unfolded at Lake Tawakoni near Greenville, courtesy of veteran fishing guides Noel Ibarra and Michael Littlejohn.
Ibarra and Littlejohn are multi-species experts who specialize in going after whatever happens to be biting best at the time. Both have steered clients to some truly remarkable fish over the years.
Blue cats get plenty of play at Tawakoni, and Ibarra has connected with some big ones. In February 2020, one of his clients caught an 80 pounder that was among the heaviest reported from the 38,000-acre fishery that year.
In 2019, Ibarra guided youth anglers to a pair of heavyweights in the 60-pound class. Brayden Rogers of Cisco reeled in the biggest. Rogers’ 67 pounder ranked as the youth angler state record until March 2021, when fishing guide James Evans put 12-year-old Cade Childress of Pickton on a Tawakoni bruiser weighing 72.4 pounds.
On March 4, Ibarra made an ordinary drift across a main lake point that produced another extraordinary fish.The guide said the wind had just pushed the boat off the end of the point into deeper water when something gobbled up the big chunk of gizzard shad he was using for bait. Ibarra’s clients were already battling fish, so he snatched the rod from the holder and set the hook.
Ibarra said he had been fighting the fish for about a minute when he realized he was tangling with something really special. It wasn’t the biggest fish in the lake. As looks go, however, it had to be among the coolest cats finning around out there.
“The first time it rolled on the surface it was maybe 35 feet from the boat,” he said. “It stayed there long enough for me to get a good look at it — maybe 2-3 seconds. When I saw the color — all the white —I was like ‘oh my God, I’ve got an albino.”
Ibarra handed the rod to one of his clients to finish the battle while he went for the net. When he scooped the fish he realized it wasn’t an albino like he had originally thought.
The skin on the 26-pound catfish was mostly white with a few bluish-grey splotches mixed in. The technical name for the condition is piebald. It’s a natural pigmentation mutation that can occur in all sorts of animals.
It’s very rare, too, according to Jake Norman, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department fisheries biologist who oversees Lake Tawakoni and a host of other lakes across northeast Texas.
Norman evaluated the photograph and called Ibarra’s catch “a cool fish out of Tawakoni, for sure.”
“That’s the first picture of one I’ve seen since managing East Texas reservoirs, and likely the third or fourth ever,” Norman said. “I have seen both channel and blue catfish display the piebald pigmentation trait, but it is still a very rare occurrence overall.”
Norman added that the factors that cause the condition in catfish and other wild animals are not fully understood.
“It is without question a genetic mutation that causes a variation in the natural pigmentation of the fish, but the base cause of the mutation is still unknown,” he said.
The same could be said for a melanosis in largemouth bass, which results noticeable black splotches in odd shapes and sizes to appear at random locations on the body.
Like Norman, TPWD Senior Scientist/Aquatic Animal Health Inspector Greg Southard says piebald catfish are extremely rare. The scientist pointed to a 2014 research paper from the Lower Mississippi River Conservation Committee summarizing nearly two decades of collection data.
The paper says research scientists sampled more than 30,000 catfish, including more than 22,000 blue catfish. In 17 years of sampling only three piebalds were documented.
“I have never had a piebald submitted to our lab in 22-plus years, but that’s not to say piebald couldn’t be the cause in this particular fish, either,” Southard said.
The biologist says other possible causes of the depigmentation could be a result of an unknown genetic abnormality that affects melanin production or a parasitic infestation. Aggressive biting by other catfish is another possibility.
Southard said the aggressive biting is likely not happening in a lake the size of Tawakoni, but says it can’t be ruled out without actually examining the fish.
That’s not a possibility. Ibarra released the fish.
“I had people tell me I should have contacted Bass Pro Shops about putting in on display in an aquarium,” he said. “I was like, nah, I released her back into her home. That’s where she belongs. It was a beautiful catfish.”
Interestingly, Ibarra’s piebald catfish may not be the only one finning around in Lake Tawakoni. Littlejohn said he has seen a couple of others over the years.
“Neither of them was that big, though,” he said.
Like Ibarra, Littlejohn has put his clients on some whopper cats, including Jody Jenkins’ 2014 lake record rod and reel blue weighing 87.50 pounds.
Littlejohn, owner of Lake Tawakoni Guide Service, was up to his old tricks on March 17. He guided Mark Williford of Deer Park to a St. Patrick’s Day heavyweight that tipped the scales to 72 pounds. The fish hit a fresh chunk of gizzard shad drifted on a main lake point in 14 feet of water.
Littlejohn said the catfish is the heaviest brought to the scales at Open Water Lodge in 2022.
Matt Williams is a freelance writer based in Nacogdoches. He can be reached by e-mail, [email protected]
Lady angler Renfro joins elite company with 13.27 pounder
(Girl and guy with bass) Kellie Renfro (left) is of the few lady anglers to turn in a Legacy Lunker in the 36-year history of the Toyota ShareLunker program. Renfro was fishing with her husband, Brandon, when she reeled in the 13.27 pounder. (Courtesy Photo)
By Matt Williams
Kellie Renfro of Lufkin joined some elite company when she reeled in a 13.27 pound Toyota ShareLunker on March 10 at Lake Nacogdoches.
Renfro’s fish ranks as the heaviest Legacy Lunker reported by a lady angler since 2010 and one of only a few Legacy Lunkers turned in by women in over the 36-year-history of the program.
Legacy Lunkers are Texas-caught largemouth bass weighing 13-plus-pounds that are eligible for loan to the state for spawning and genetics research at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens. Anglers who catch qualifying fish between Jan. 1- March 31 are encouraged to contact TPWD by phone to arrange for transport to the TFFC. Anglers who loan fish receive a free fiberglass replica of their catch and other goodies.
Only four other lady anglers have caught Legacy fish over the years — Stacy Spriggs Wade, 13.06, Sam Rayburn, 2018; Renee Linderoth, 13.80, Conroe, 2009; Flo O’Brain, Lake Fork, 16.63, 1999; and Bobby Gayle.
Gayle, of Plains, has caught more Legacy Lunkers (3) than any woman. The list includes a 13.05 in 2000, a 13.69 in 2002 and a 14.0 in 2010.
Testing reveals DNA on Toyota ShareLunkers
Genetics testing performed on tissue samples from 12 of the 20 Legacy Lunkers entered in the 2022 Toyota ShareLunker program through March 18 indicate four of the fish have pure Florida DNA; eight are intergrades with varied percentages of northern bass influence. None of the 12 female bass were found to be direct offspring (daughters) of previous Legacy Lunkers.
Three of the pure Florida bass are Possum Kingdom lunkers weighing 13.06, 13.38 and 13.20 pounds. The fourth was a 14.13 pounder from Lake O.H. Ivie.
The eight intergrades include seven O.H. Ivie bass and a 13.48 pounder from Lake Daniel. ‘Ivie’s list includes fish weighing 17.06, 15.03, 14.92 14.79, 14.48, 13.34 and 13.37 pounds. The 17.06 pounder is the biggest bass reported in Texas 1992.
ShareLunker DNA testing is performed at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s A.E. Wood Fish Hatchery in San Marcos by staff geneticist Dijar Lutz-Carrillo.
Carrillo says testing is carried out in three steps to learn the genetic strain of the fish, parentage and relatedness to determine if there are secondary relationships beyond parent/offspring among the ShareLunker entries. The relatedness phase of testing on all 2022 entries will take place after the spawning phase the program ends on March 31, Carrillo said.
Genetics testing results on other 2022 Legacy entries are forthcoming.