On a cold January morning, when the wind chill factor is below fishing, a good spot to warm up and talk about crappie jigs and submerged brush piles is the Southern Delight Restaurant in Boyd, northwest of Fort Worth in Wise County.
The popular cafe is owned by crappie tournament fisherman George Nelon, who sometimes helps crappie guide Larry Middleton when the bookings are too large for one boat.
The pair have certificates on the wall, some handmade jigs behind the counter, and a prized mounted crappie proudly displayed above the booths. And, the daily special is meat loaf for only $6.99.
Actually, the Southern Delight is the de facto fishing office for Middleton’s Lake Bridgeport Crappie Guide Service.
It is a bit of a unique business, given that for all the 11,959 surface acres of the lake, there is one makeshift boat ramp that is accessible.
The rest are simply concrete slabs that come to a muddy end long before the water begins. The ramps at the dam, the Wise County Park and on the north side of U.S. 380 are closed.
It isn’t an uncommon situation for the scenic lake that was built at the beginning of the 1930s. Bridgeport area residents are in a constant boil over the lake’s wide water fluctuations.
Everyone understands the effects of what seems to be a never-ending drought, but the folks up here are convinced their lake is just a siphoning pool for the more popular and heavily used Eagle Mountain Lake farther down river.
The facts back them up: Bridgeport’s water level is 20.68 feet below normal; Eagle Mountain is 6.45 feet down.
“We have the advantage here in Boyd,” Middleton said about the water debate. “The river runs right through the town here and we can see when they’re letting water out of Bridgeport. We know when it’s happening.”
The Tarrant Regional Water District, which controls the lake levels, admits that its primary responsibility is to provide water to its customers and most of them are downstream, not up in the northern county.
Still, Middleton, who has been guiding for nearly two years here, and before that at Lake Fork, said the crappie fishing on Bridgeport is still good. Certainly, the lake isn’t overfished. There is only one other guide who regularly works the lake, and he primarily zeroes in on the hybrid stripped bass the lake is known for.
“We’ve been all over the state,” Middleton said of himself and his fishing partner Nelon, “and I put the numbers of crappie on this lake up there with any place. There are quality fish in Bridgeport; they just might be a little harder to come by.”
When he’s not guiding on the Wise County lake, Middleton divides his time between his cabinet-making business and traveling to crappie tournaments throughout the state.
He and Nelon are members of Crappie Anglers of Texas, better known as CAT, and when they head out to the tournaments, they go in tournament style with the spider rigs that spread multiple rods across the bow and stern of the boat, and they are equipped with the latest in side-scan sonar.
For a lot of the old, cane-pole and bobber crappie fishermen, tournaments are an abomination; the ruination of simple, slow fishing where the time on the water is as valuable as the numbers in the live well.
Both Middleton and Nelon discount that notion, saying that tournaments help thin out the population, but don’t destroy it. They say the lakes where tournaments are held often come back quickly with even larger fish because of less competition for the food supply.
They have the trophies to prove their point.
“I don’t use the spider rigs when I take others out on guided trips,” Middleton said. “I know a lot of people still like the experience holding the pole of watching that one line and anticipating the tug on the end. It is a more exciting way to fish; with the spider rigs, you just wait until you see a rod tip dip and you grab it. It’s not the same thing.”
Low lake levels and erratic weather patterns have slowed the crappie guide service, Middleton said, but by spring, and through October, Bridgeport Lake will give up good numbers of crappie from lakeside docks and hidden brush piles. He’ll be there fishing with his own plastic injection baits.
“I don’t fish with anything I don’t make,” he said. “I’ll let my customers fish with them, and when the day is over, I’ll probably give them a couple packages to take home with them.
“Right now, the guide service is in the beginning stages and it supplements my cabinet-making work. But I’ll stay with it because I love being on the water, and I love taking people fishing.”