Keith Bunch pushed the throttle forward and his Evinrude motors launched the 22-foot boat out into the open water at Lake Bridgeport.
Wind gusts of about 15 mph churned up a few “sheep” on the water’s surface Monday morning. “Sheep” is a term for whitecaps that Bunch picked up from a client years ago – but Bunch doesn’t think it’s funny when the wind is too high. Lake Bridgeport gets windy, he said.
Nevertheless, he said it’s one of the best lakes around, and now is the time for some great fishing. Lake Bridgeport is a bit off the beaten path and Bunch said that is a big draw for some people. They come out because it is quiet.
“You don’t have to put up with the noise that you have to with Eagle Mountain Lake and Lake Lewisville,” Bunch said. “You come out on a weekday and we might be the only people out here. It’s nice. The fish are fat and happy.”Even when people do get on the lake with leisure craft, looking not for fish but fun in the sun, they keep out of the way of the fishermen. That’s a good thing for Bunch, because fishing isn’t just a sport for him – it’s how he makes his living.
Now a resident of Lake Bridgeport, Bunch has been a fishing guide for 17 years. While there are a few other guides who will come to Lake Bridgeport, Bunch is the only full-time guide on the lake. He specializes in helping his clients land hybrid striped bass, stocked here by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
“The hybrid striper is a genetic cross between a male sand bass and a female striped bass, so you get the best of both parents,” Bunch said. “You get the size of the striper and the attitude of the sand bass.”
Bunch hasn’t always been the only full-time guide on Lake Bridgeport.
When golden algae hit the Brazos lakes in 2000, there were 11 guides on Lake Bridgeport and it got hammered. When catch limits started getting hard to reach, they left.
He says he’s gotten into a good groove in the last decade and can really put folks on the fish. But even with all his experience and know-how, he won’t guarantee anything. Bunch called the hybrid bass “unpredictable.” Even so, under Bunch’s guidance, Adam Alexander of Arlington landed a lake record hybrid bass in April, with a total weight of 11.88 pounds.
“That is an absolute monster,” Bunch said. “Bass tournament guys like Lake Bridgeport because it’s a great bass lake, but it’s not like Lake Fork as far as size goes, usually. A lot of the bass guys love it here because of the number of fish they can catch.”
Bunch knows this too, because he was one of those “Bass tournament guys.” He and his wife Suzanne used to fish all the local tournaments – but those are becoming scarce.
“There used to be a lot of tournaments that came through here, but with the low water the bass guys are concerned and are moving some of their tournaments away,” Bunch said. “The low water has been hurting a little. For me, it’s convincing people who call asking if there is any water in the lake … that there is still plenty of water left.”
According to waterdatafortexas.org, Lake Bridgeport is down nearly 18 feet. That’s quite a lot, compared to the same time a year ago, when the lake was down less than 6 feet. But none of that concerned Bunch as he manuevered north under the U.S. 380 bridge.
“Lake Bridgeport has plenty of water and that is why we send it downstream. We still have 55 feet of water depth. At Eagle Mountain 30 feet is deep,” Bunch said. “The lake is designed to get on it even when it is low. The ramp I left from doesn’t show unless the lake is already 10 feet down.”
Bunch has fished on the lake as low as 25 feet below conservation pool level. It never bothered him, but he knows the lake very well. He said low water freaks people out. New sand bars, rocks and other debris suddenly start to break the surface – some of them remaining unseen until a boat comes over the top of them.
“That’s one reason people hire me,” Bunch said. “We do a lot of orientation trips. Go here and go there, don’t go there.”
The largest part of his business is taking folks out with their kids. It’s a turn-key operation – all the clients have to do is step on the boat with a license.
“I think it’s a time thing,” Bunch said. “Many people realize that for the cost of paying for a boat, and the gas, then coming out here and trying to find fish, and the trouble of putting kids on the fish, economically it’s cheaper to hire me once every couple of months and come out and catch all the fish you want, and the kids will have a good time.”
Bunch takes about 175 trips out onto the lake a year. One of his biggest months was June 2012.
“I did 35 trips,” Bunch said. “At the end of that run I didn’t even know where I was, because I was so tired.”
Bunch estimated that in a 12-year period he has caught about 30,000 fish.
“I can take six people out, but I prefer three to four at a time. That’s perfect,” Bunch said. “I had three kids and two adults the other day and how I left without a hook in me I’ll never know.”
He said some fisherman want to throw them back and some, especially people from west Texas, keep the fish. Some people just want to come out and see their kids catch a big fish.
“The way we fish is good for kids because it keeps them interested and they can catch something big,” Bunch said. “An 8-pound hybrid striper versus an 11-year-old girl is a fair fight. Put your money on whomever.”
Of course, not every fishing trip goes according to plan. On those days when the fish refuse to be caught, Bunch and the client can usually work out a deal for a makeup day. Most will catch fish, but for some there is no hope on a particular day.
“I had a guy who hit a grand slam,” Bunch said with a grin. “He caught a Led Zepplin concert T-shirt, a freshwater clam, a rock and a beer can. I was like ‘You couldn’t do that again if you had to.'”
This year the late cold fronts have kept water temperatures down and put fish habits off by about a month.
But if you know where to go, they are biting.