LINDALE, Texas — Lake Fork is undisputedly the top largemouth bass lake in Texas, maybe in the world. But until this year it has been notably absent from the national bass fishing tournament schedule due to stringent slot limits.

April 13-15, the Toyota Texas Bass Classic brings to these waters 160 professional anglers and a $1 million purse. The three-day event will feature activities for the entire family and $250,000 in proceeds will benefit Texas Parks and Wildlife Department youth fishing and outreach programs.

As is true elsewhere in Texas, on Lake Fork anglers can keep five bass per day. But while much of the rest of the state requires only that bass be a minimum of 14 inches, on Lake Fork anglers may retain only bass under 16 inches, or one fish per day over 24 inches as part of their total bag.

Other tournaments have requested variances to the lake’s slot — currently 16-24 inches — and been denied. The Toyota Texas Bass Classic instead worked with TPWD officials to design a tournament that worked with the existing slot limits but was more than a “paper” event like the ones popular with local bass clubs.

In the Toyota Texas Bass Classic, all fish above 14 inches will be weighed and the top five caught each day credited to each angler. Fish falling within a 14-24-inch size range will be weighed in the boat by a certified and independent observer, then returned to the lake immediately.

Each contestant will be allowed to keep one fish larger than 24 inches, which will be weighed at lakeside weigh-in scales, then turned over to TPWD for proper handling.

Fish over 24 inches that are brought in on the pro boats will be met at the dock by a specially equipped Toyota Tundra pickup with a purpose-built, aerated tank installed in the bed.

The fish will be transported to the live weigh-in under the watchful eye of a TPWD fisheries technician, and after weighing either returned to the lake using a large, live release boat provided by the Lake Fork Sportsman’s Association and restocked immediately following each weigh-in event or placed in a special tank for monitoring and rehabilitation.

Fish over 13 pounds — those qualifying for the Budweiser ShareLunker program — will go into one of two special trucks and be taken to the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens to spawn and help pass on their superior genes to a new generation of Lake Fork fish.

In addition to adding their weight to team totals and being contenders for the tournament big bass prize, fish donated to the ShareLunker program also earn anglers the usual prizes, including a Budweiser ShareLunker jacket and a fiberglass replica of the fish.

“If you take 160 of the world’s best bass anglers and put them on the world’s best bass lake when we know the bass will be in all stages of spawning, the odds are pretty darned good you’ll see at least one lunker bass,” said Dave Terre, regional director for TPWD’s Inland Fisheries Division.

“Normally, tournaments on slot limit lakes turn into big bass competitions because the slot limit minimizes for all practical purposes the effect of entering multiple fish,” said Gene Ellison of the Professional Anglers Association. “In this tournament, having the independent certified observer on each boat and weighing the fish in the boat means that each contestant will be able to have five fish of various sizes count towards their competitive total.”

Anglers and observers will emphasize careful handling of tournament fish — fitting for a lake that owes its legendary status in large part to longstanding and innovative fisheries management policies.

Consider that the current Texas state record, from Lake Fork, trails records from only two other states (and one of those is the world record). Of the 50 biggest largemouth bass caught in Texas, 35 came from Lake Fork. The smallest of those was 15.2 pounds and was larger than the state records of 37 other states.

TPWD biologists estimate that more than 15,000 bass weighing 7 pounds or more are caught in the lake each year.

“What’s also impressive is that over 15 percent of those fish are heavier than 10 pounds,” said Terre. “Through the Lake Fork Trophy Bass Survey, which we’ve been conducting over the last three years in cooperation with Lake Fork anglers and local businesses, we have confirmation that our special size limits are working.”

“This tournament will showcase the excellent fishing on Lake Fork that has resulted from innovative fisheries management strategies that have been strongly supported by our friends at the Sabine River Authority,” said Phil Durocher, TPWD’s Inland Fisheries director. “Anglers who have fished the waters of Lake Fork have been enjoying the results of this partnership for years.”

The lake was designed, literally from the ground-up, to support great fishing. TPWD and SRA biologists and managers worked together before Lake Fork was impounded to ensure that prime fish habitat was preserved and the larger and faster-growing Florida-strain largemouth bass would predominate.

TPWD has stocked more than 8.1 million Florida largemouth bass fingerlings in the lake. Angler support of the lake’s slot limit as well as a pervasive catch and release ethic has helped bolster the fishery.

The contestants, all of whom are qualified members of the Professional Anglers Association, will be arranged in four-man teams for the tournament’s first two days on Friday and Saturday, with five of those teams qualifying for the finals on the tournament’s third day. The four-man teams will consist of two pairs of anglers, one pair fishing in one boat for four hours each morning and the other pair in the afternoon.

With 160 entries, 40 boats will be actively fishing on the lake in the morning and again in the afternoon. As the morning competitors return to the dock, they will put their heads together with the second pair in strategy sessions to share tips and info on what they have learned about the lake and conditions that morning, and where the afternoon pair might be more successful.

The first place team prize is $250,000 and the angler who catches the biggest bass of the tournament will win a 2007 Toyota Tundra pickup. Any angler who beats the current state record — an 18.18-pound fish caught on Lake Fork in 1992 — will also win $100,000 and a new boat.

It’s the richest no-entry-fee tournament in history.

“This tournament is different and is going to be a lot of fun for the contestants because it puts a premium on teamwork,” said Gary Klein, chairman of the tournament committee and one of the leading competitors on the tournament circuit. “It is attracting top level professionals to compete on Lake Fork, one of the best bass lakes in the U.S., and will take advantage of the slot limits to demonstrate the depth and diversity of the lake’s bass population.”

The idea for the tournament came about after touring bass pro and PAA member Kelly Jordon escorted TPW Commissioner Donato D. Ramos on a visit to the lake. Ramos enlisted the help of Commissioner T. Dan Friedkin, and the Toyota Texas Bass Classic became a reality.

“Our goal for this tournament is to create a premier fishing event that will support Texas Parks and Wildlife’s youth fishing and outreach programs. It is also a tremendous way to celebrate Lake Fork’s 25th anniversary,” said Friedkin.

The tournament’s format is designed to appeal to spectators, and includes kids activities, live music and a Jumbotron showing continuous action to the audience. Weigh-ins morning and afternoon will assure high levels of activity during the day. While half of the anglers are on the water fishing, the other flight of anglers on shore will be giving clinics, signing autographs and interacting with the public.

The Toyota Texas Bass Classic is sanctioned by the PAA with technical assistance and support from TPW Inland Fisheries Division. Title sponsor for the event is Toyota, presenting sponsor is Enterprise Rent-A-Car and the City of Lindale is the official host city.

Entertainment for the tournament will include Clay Walker, Tracy Lawrence, Danielle Peck, Zona Jones, Kacey Musgraves and Todd Fritsch.