Still Waters

1998 in the north reservoir at Freeport’s Garden Island Bay sulphur mine – “still water” at its absolute best.

And now gone forever.

 

6-9-2013

Warm-month Warmouths

            Here’s a summertime freshwater fishing opportunity that’s hard to beat!

 Gog

            The time for some fairly slim pickings for many anglers across the South is rapidly approaching. The sac-a-lait (crappie) have long since finished their annual spawn in the shallows and moved back into much deeper water where they can be difficult to locate. Likewise, the chinquapins (redear sunfish) have disappeared back into wherever it is that they hide for 11 months every year! Assuredly, bluegills will provide at least some action for a while longer, but in many cases the best of it will wind down shortly.

            Bass, catfish, and a few other species can offer some pleasures now, though to me they lack a bit in culinary appeal compared to the others – the larger ones, anyway.  There’s always the option of making a speck-run to the coast – but that’s a big trip for a lot of folks. However, there is another opportunity available to folks virtually statewide, and it offers both plenty of fun and some tasty skillet-material: warmouths. Or perhaps more commonly, “goggle-eyes” (Lepomis gulosus).

            Warmouths are quite attractive fish, with coloration resembling redear sunfish to some extent but with much larger mouths and thicker backs, the latter characteristic making them easily fillet-able! They tend to average a size that facilitates that practice, too. And on that note, I must avow that – at least to my pallet – any strong or “muddy” taste that has been occasionally attributed to these fish can be eliminated by filleting them, then skinning the fillets, and then soaking them in milk for an hour or so before fast-frying them in a beer batter. YUM!

            My tummy and I have been well entertained by these fish since I was a child. The first came from an artesian spring-fed creek that ran through my maternal grandparents’ ranch in the Texas Hill Country. More came from Caddo, Bistineau, and WallaceLakes near my old home in Shreveport as well as the “flats” of Upper Grand River, FalseRiver, and the pits adjacent to Half-moon and Two O’Clock Bayous during college. Some readers might be blown away by the fact that a very large percentage of my total tally came from a pair of canals near Tidewater! Goggle-eyes may not be everywhere, but they’re close!

            Generally, they provide a very good warm-month opportunity – in my experiences with them that being from roughly mid-May into October. They are aggressive, often to the point to total disregard of nature’s inherent survival instincts. They will unabashedly strike bass-directed lures that are almost as large as they are; perch-colored Devil’s Horses and 6-inch purple plastic worms having accounted for many of them.

            Still, “gogs” are more commonly found in catches of bluegills, having been enticed by earthworms, crickets, grasshoppers, and various wasp larvae, among others. In my younger days I even caught them on well-chewed bubble-gum fashioned into small worm-like shapes. Simply put, their diets are not discriminatory. That, combined with their aggressiveness, makes them an excellent fly-fishing target, especially with poppers!.

            However, no matter what your lure or bait of choice might be, there are some hard-and-fast rules for enjoying these fish to their maximum potential in the fun department just like there are the ones I mentioned earlier for the fillets department. First of all, warmouths are partial to two forms of structure, wood and grass.

            “Wood” comes in numerous forms on any given lake or bayou. Pier-pilings and standing green timber are two – and they are possibly the least productive of all! There is an exception, though: a ring of “knees” around a big cypress tree. Warmouths will hold close to the inside of the ring, apparently waiting either for some insect to fall from the tree or for some form of aquatic prey to enter the ring in search of food or haven. Never pass up such a spot, especially if it is in less than three feet of water, that being a very important part of the overall pattern.

            Dead timber is typically the best form of structure. Well-aged stumps – the bigger the better – in such depths are almost guaranteed to produce at least one fish, possibly more. Jumbles of logs on bottom are also good bets. And there are two factors that greatly enhance the potential of both.

            The first is the presence of submergent vegetation, coontail and peppergrass being of special note. Indeed, these fish can also hold near an open pocket within – or along the edges of – thick, shallow-water accumulations of these grasses where wood is not present. The second is shade. Ever since Day One on that crystalline Hill Country creek, the importance of  low light to these fish has been emphasized to me. They simply don’t like sunlit water – in fact, they tend to avoid areas that are normally bright during a particular time of day on occasions when those areas have become dark during that particular period. In explanation…

            One of my former long-time goggle-eye honey-holes was the canal along Interstate 55 just south of Ruddock. It was ideal for fishing from my canoe, and its western shoreline was littered with ideal structure for these fish. And of course, in late afternoon it was deeply shaded. On the other hand, during the rest of the day it was brightly sunlit!

            However, on a particular mid-afternoon trip there it was quite dark – the result of some prolonged and rather violent thunderstorms, complete with hail! After waiting that unpleasantness out in my truck, I began fishing around four. But although the canal never saw the first hint of sunlight that entire afternoon, it was well after six before I caught my first gog – the first, I recall, of a very nice mess.

            That event may be a bit extreme, but it does illustrate the low-light factor nicely. And let me stress the point that low light appears to be much more critical with warmouths than with bass, crappie, and the like. So if you have your heart set on fresh goggle-eye fillets for supper, don’t get discouraged from a lack of action and go home early, even if the afternoon has been cloudy or even rainy! Fish as late as you possibly can, and feast tomorrow!

            Although I have caught plenty of gogs on various “bass-sized” lures as well as natural baits, most have fallen to mini-jigs fished some two feet beneath a small cylindrical perch-float. And while I have fished that rig on a light spinning outfit with success, I prefer using a fly rod for several reasons.

            First, I can “jig-fish” with a fly rod in one hand while controlling the boat with a short paddle in the other. Can’t do that too well with a spinning outfit! Also, flipping with the fly rod seems to be more accurate than casting with the spinning rod, and placing the jig very near a piece of woody structure is usually the desired end. However – and I’d bet some of you might have already guessed it – the fly rod allows me to substitute a popper for the jig when the time seems right for some rowdy surface entertainment!

            The poppers I have relied on for decades might seem a bit large for a variety of “bream”, but the aforementioned incidents with gogs and the Devil’s Horses convinced me long ago that these fish will eat (Or try to eat!) some pretty big prey. My favorites are products of the late and great Tony Accardo of Baton Rouge: size 6 “Feathertails” and “Spooks”, both in either yellow and black or chartreuse and black. Gogs love ‘em!

            With poppers, as with bait or jigs, you should concentrate on woody structure – preferably with grass nearby – in deep shade late in the afternoon. After impact give one a soft pop, then let it sit for 10 seconds or so, then give it a little twitch, continuing the sequence until the fly is out of the assumed strike zone. And take your time! A second cast to a promising target is recommended, no matter if the first one got a fish or drew a blank, but after that you should try another spot. You’ll find ‘em!

            And they will provide you with some grand entertainment!

            And if you just can’t wait until tomorrow for some of those fast-friend fillets for supper, give Momma a ring on the cellphone and ask her to grease up the skillet. Later that evening you are going to treat her to a great meal, complements of the wonderful warmouth!

(Louisiana Conservationist 5-2006)   

 

2-26-13

A Spring Gathering

                                           

            Here’s an opportunity guaranteed to please – provided you follow the rules.

 

            Ah, spring: the glorious beginning – the promise of another cycle – the time when a young man’s fancy turns to … well, maybe. But maybe not for some of us. There’s just too much to be doing during spring, especially if we like to fish – and have been married longer than we care to admit.

            That’s not being Chauvinistic at all – at least, I don’t think it is. I’m still a hopeless romantic, praising the angelic white of high-country dogwoods against the still stark and leafless ash and maples.

            I happily welcome the willows – the harbingers of the new season near my home – as they leaf in lowland swamps, gleefully inhale the essence of honeysuckle which saturates calm evening airs, and continue to shred the hide on the backs of my hands – just as I have every spring since I was a child – on the thorns of berry bushes. And after almost 46 years I still love my wife, Barbara, and tell her so every spring. But aside from that, I must admit the “aesthetics” of the season which I just mentioned have each become associated with a fishing event.

            The dogwoods, for instance, are symbolic of one-time May trout-fishing trips to the mountains of western North Carolina. Near my home in south Louisiana the first green on the willows signifies the beginning of the bass spawn; by the time they are fully leafed, it’s about over.

            The blossoming of the honeysuckle along the backyard fence means it’s time to start prowling the surf for spotted seatrout – and stocking the medicine cabinet with antihistamine tablets. And the berries, besides creating some delicious cobbler, signal the gathering of the redears.

            Redear sunfish, that is – or shellcrackers, or chinquapin bream, or stumpknockers, or several other aliases which might apply across their range of influence. Whatever you choose to call them, now is their time, and besides being suitably susceptible to a variety of natural baits, they make an excellent fly-fishing target.

            Redears (Lepomis microlophus) are native to streams and naturally-occurring lakes throughout the lowland southeast as well as Indiana, Missouri, and Texas. They have also been widely introduced into western waters. They can be readily identified by their greenish or olive-colored back and yellow, brassy sides which are liberally covered with dark brown specks. There is a large black dot on each operculum, the trailing edges of which are rimmed with deep scarlet swaths on the males, yellowish-orange on the females – hence their names.

            Compared to bluegills, their mouths are larger, though not as much as a warmouth’s. They are more streamlined than bluegills, yet typically much thicker across the back, and in my experiences with them wherever I have caught them, they average much larger in size.

            That is possibly because throughout much of their range, they completely disappear for about 10 months out of the year. No kidding! Well, what probably happens is they descend into the depths or deep into shallower submergent vegetation where most bream-fishermen don’t fish for them. But during spring – say, from early April through early June, depending on your latitude – they move into much shallower water, seeking the company of their kind in preparation for spawning. For this brief time, the gatherings of these fish can approach the point of disbelief.

            However, especially if you have begun to entertain visions of non-stop action with “watch-bream” (those whose lengths span the distance from your fingertips to the band of your wrist-watch), along with the promise of their succulent fillets, freshly fast-fried in a cast-iron skillet, you may have missed a fairly important point: you have to catch them first. For fly fishermen, especially, that can be a very large snag.

            Prior to very recent experiences my fly-fishing successes with redears can best be attributed to blind, dumb luck. Historically I have fished in freshwater almost exclusively with surface flies, bugs, and poppers. When – if – I could visibly locate a concentration of these fish in very shallow water, I could catch them thusly. But when I could not – as was usually the case, since they frequently “gather” in water too deep for me to see them, very few would rise to my offerings. Then I’d feed ‘em bait, usually quite effectively.

            That worked because redears are basically bottom-oriented, their diet consisting of small shellfish, crawfish, larval insects, freshwater shrimp, and the like. They’ll eat earthworms, too, as well as cut strips of mussels where that is allowed, but baby crawfish and freshwater shrimp are well-established enticers.

            Now I’d known about all that for a long time, but as I mentioned, relatively few years have passed since my freshwater flies began to intentionally sink. And in having them do so, I have enjoyed some fine redear-entertainment during recent springs. So, having been fairly accomplished at catching them on “natural attractors” (Bait!) for several decades, and having lately become a minor authority on taking them in more puristic ways, let me share my knowledge with you.

            To begin with, this is still bream-fishing, so I feel I must stress the point that if you get too scientific about it all, you will assuredly lose some of the fun-factor involved with it. Sure don’t want to do that! Now, with that said, let’s go find them.

            That is best accomplished by following a list – in order – of specifics most suitable for these fish – and for fly fishing for them

            First of all, the water must have good clarity. That’s an important general factor and one especially so for successfully working sub-surface flies. It can be difficult to find now due to run-off from feeder creeks. Look around; bottom should be plainly visible in depths up to 3 feet or so. Broad areas of roughly that depth are best.

            A lot of that area will often be only marginally productive at best. Eliminate it by concentrating on finding a hard bottom – sand, pea-gravel, or shells. Here, the fish will gather near flooded live cypresses, tupelo gums, and willows, along with rotting stumps and sunken logs. Finally, if there is any scattered coontail, peppergrass, or hydrilla nearby, there almost has to be fish present.

            While casting to the edges of the grass may result in a stray every now and then, it’s best to target the timber; redears are called “stumpknockers” in some places for very good reason! And if you happen to detect a sudden, very sweet aroma, work the area thoroughly; you can safely bet it isn’t coming from some farmer’s watermelon patch! Let the fly sink to the point where bottom or submergent vegetation permits, and retrieve it with short, slow strips.

            Here, I must bring up a point that you might feel is uncommon in bream-fishing. In clear, relatively shallow water redears are skittish. If they see you, they may not spook, but they may become reluctant to strike, particularly if you are fishing with flies. So work your target at a distance – 30 feet or so, and if possible, maintain a low profile.

            As far as flies go, on recent trips a small grass shrimp imitation I had made up for use in the brackish areas near my home was productive. I don’t believe I matched a hatch, but apparently the fly was symbolic enough of a form of the local protein. A friend who I fish well up the country with and who ties much prettier flies than I do did well with  trout nymphs and a “One-feather Fly”. In truth, I believe almost any well-established trout pattern in size 6 or 8 should work, as long as it’s worked in the right area and in the right manner. Getting too scientific here can really lessen the fun-factor!

            But the right gear can enhance it to the max. I usually use a 5-weight outfit since the flies I use are relatively bulky, and I prefer working them on a long line to prevent alerting the fish. That’s not a bad idea even if you choose to fish with bait, and it’s a lot more fun than fishing with a heavy cane pole!

            The result of all that fun fries up to something equally as good, and in any given location where these fish are found, keeping a mess of them is almost always better in the overall scheme of things than putting them back. In a few weeks they will all disappear again anyway, and if you are like many of us, after that you won’t be able to catch one on a dare! Enjoy them while you can.

(Warmwater Fly Fishing)       

 

1-23-2012

Winter Bass the Right Way!

                                               Complements of Bubby

            No matter how much confidence I had in my buddy, Capt. Bubby Rodriguez, being able to put us on some bass that morning, the feeling that everything wasn’t quite right arose again. I knew the feeling wasn’t valid, since Bubby and I had done well several times in similar settings, but a lifetime of conditioning can be difficult to overcome.

            We soon pulled into a bulkheaded section of a pipeline canal where the water quickly became much clearer than it was in the main drag. I then ascended the bow-platform, dropped the trolling motor, shook out some fly line, and began working the popper around small mats of water hyacinths along the canal’s shorelines. Everything was just right about all that – “Standard Operating Procedure”.

            Well bless Pete, it wasn’t long before a pot-bellied largemouth weighing more than four pounds engulfed the popper, strutted its stuff nicely, posed patiently for a few pictures, then showed a little indignation by splashing Bubby with a face-full of water as I released it. Everything just right about all that, too.

            Feeling pretty smug, I stood, enjoyed a luxurious stretch, unzipped my insulated coveralls, gave Bubby a big grin, and…

            Whoa, do I detect the philistines’ shouts of “That ain’t right!”, proclaiming that bass are simply not caught in Louisiana on surface lures of any type, much less on fly-rod poppers, when insulated coveralls are proper attire? Oh yes they are! And believe me, even though the wind had turned to the east several hours before the aforementioned trip, it was still mighty chilly that late-January morning!

            The opportunity to catch bass while fly fishing in the dead of winter is indeed present in several areas of extreme south Louisiana. However, though the fish found in most of those may be abundant, they typically don’t reach very large size. The canals where Bubby and I were fishing are a distinct exception. (Note: The specific site may no longer be as available or productive as it was in the late 1990’s, but the events I related  finely illustrate the opportunity.)

            Those rather old oil-field location and pipeline canals are found in the marsh south of the settlement of Caernarvon on the east bank of the Mississippi River below Chalmette. The entire area, as well as the fishery, has developed into a real success story. Initially, the freshwater diversion project located there has stopped the degradation of the local marshes caused by saltwater intrusion and has even begun to build new marsh in places. The diversion system also served to supercharge the waters of the canals with nutrients from the river, and the bass fishery that was already there improved dramatically. This did not go unnoticed by fisheries biologists within the Department of Wildlife & Fisheries.

            Howard Rogillio was one of those. He took particular interest in the area and in 1994 began a program of stocking Florida-strain largemouths into the canals. After three years a genetic comparison was made on 100 bass caught in the area, and it was discovered that 87% of them were still natives, so the number of Florida bass stocked annually was increased dramatically. Nevertheless, even though an excellent big-bass fishery had been established, another genetics comparison of 100 bass sampled from the canals in 2001 revealed that 82% were still northern largemouths.

            That year the Department quit stocking fry and phase one fingerlings, as their survival rate was apparently not acceptable. It was then decided to compare the survival of phase two fingerlings, and late that year over 11,000 four to six-inch bass were released into the canals. Rogillio also anticipates at least 5,000 and hopefully 10,000 more will be stocked in late 2002. The cost of raising fish to the larger size is significantly more than that required for the phase ones, but that cost can be justified if the survival rate of the larger fish is noticeably better than that of the phase ones.

            It should be. I know for certain that enough phase ones survived to give me my two largest fly-caught largemouths – a 5-10 and a 5-8 – as well as some big ones taken by Bubby in like manner. If those fish could make it, it ought to be a breeze for the phase twos to do the same. Or do better!

            So there’s the description of the general fishery. Now let me offer my thoughts on how and why the fly-fishing part of it evolved.

            It begins with the character of the canals. In many cases subsidence and erosion caused by both the one-time saltwater intrusion and the wakes from oil-field service boats and the like have caused the shorelines to recede from the canals’ original drop-offs – a typical “weathering” of coastal oil-field canals. This has created shelves along the banks which extend outward several feet and can reach a depth of two feet or more before reaching the drop-offs. The outer edges of these shelves – and any patches of submergent vegetation found along them – are primary feeding areas for the bass.

            And during winter’s high-pressure days after a screaming nor’wester has blown through the area, those shelves can be as dry as Highway 39! Well, almost.

            The key to fly fishing the Caernarvon canals in winter is going on the right days, and those do not include the days immediately following the passing of a cold front, even if it’s not a very cold one. The combination of high pressure and offshore winds drive the tide out, exposing the shelves and forcing the bass to do any feeding in the canals’ depths. However, let the wind turn onshore and the barometer fall to a more reasonable level – say, 29.95 inches or a bit less – and the tide rises and subsequently floods the shelves. And then here come the bass again.

            A good fly-fishing day will have southeast to south winds of 12 to 15 knots. Those winds will bring Gulf moisture ashore, so expect cloudy skies and be prepared for early-morning fog and daytime showers. Those conditions may be a little less than desirable for the fishermen, but they are what create this winter fly-fishing opportunity.

            Finally, to develop a fishery you have to have someone practicing the exercise. That would probably have been Bubby; he passed it along to others, but on our trips together we never saw anyone else following suit – the result, I am certain, of the erroneous conditioning folks have that bass won’t strike fly-rod poppers in winter.

  Basic bass-bugging techniques are all that are required. I use a 6-weight outfit with a bass-taper line, an 8-foot leader tapered to a 12-pound tippet, and size 4 Peck’s Poppers in either yellow and black or orange and black, the latter being preferred on darker days. Either one should be retrieved as follows: a short pause after the popper’s impact, two or three soft pops, another short pause, another series of pops, and so on until the popper has been drawn out of the strike zone. Do not attempt the very slow retrieve with infrequent light twitches and soft pops which you may use during summer – it doesn’t work now. Target areas are the outer edges of mats of hyacinths along the shorelines, any submergent vegetation found along the shelves, and shorelines with grass overhanging water at least a foot deep.

            The easiest and quickest way to access the Caernarvon canals is from a pair of concrete back-down ramps beside Dean’s lift-boat yard on LA. 39 in Caernarvon. They are free of charge, compliments of Mr. Lynn Dean; parking is across the highway alongside the levee.

            Upon departing the launch area, idle through the lift-boats, then run down the canal to a point where you notice a parallel canal begin on your left. Take that canal to the first intersection, turn right, and follow that canal across the south end of Big Mar – a broad, very shallow bay. Once you have passed that, a couple of canals leading off to your left are productive when they are clear, and the first canal to your right leads into the “Crow’s Foot” complex which is a good bet on weekdays. There are numerous other canals, but you will need a chart of the area to locate them and a little time spent and outboard motor oil burned to find out how to access them.

            Much of this area is owned by the Delacroix Corporation. While they don’t seem to mind fishermen in the canals, don’t tempt fate by wandering off into the ponds. Also, the marsh is prime winter duck habitat and is leased for hunting, so for the duck hunters’ sake, don’t fish here until after the season has closed.

            That will still give you plenty of time to sample this opportunity. Yes, you will probably get the feeling that it all isn’t quite right – at least initially. But when the day’s first bass plows into your popper, you will have no doubts that you can successfully fish for bass during Louisiana’s winter “the right way”.

(Louisiana Conservationist 1-2003)

 

5-18-11

The Hegemony of Hyacinths

Its overpowering presence may be a problem at times, but at others this plant is the source of some great fly fishing action!

The water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) was one of the first noxious alien aquatic plants to infest southern waters. There are differing tales of its introduction into our country. One is that it was imported from South America for an exhibit at a late 19th century World’s Fair; another is that some sweet old lady saw a picture of it, became enamored with its lovely lavender blossoms, and had some shipped to her home. Whatever the case, the damn things escaped, and they now blanket thousands of acres of once prime southern waterways.

Being made up of roughly 90% water, they are worthless except as food for nutrias – a South American rodent which was subsequently imported to control the hyacinths. Notably, this animal apparently found the local vegetation much more tasty than the hyacinths and has itself destroyed countless acres of valuable wetlands, so it, too, has become a noxious alien, though there is a market for its fur, and alligators (And certain rotund New Orleans chefs) take delight in its flesh. But the rats aside, I have read that as many as 10,000 plants can originate from a single individual in one year. They cannot be poisoned, burning does not get all of them, and a hard freeze only knocks them back a bit for a while. The only way to control them is to spray them with a super-charged fertilizer which makes them grow to death – really! – and that is expensive.

Fortunately, across much of the south there are one or two decent freezes every year or so that help keep them in some degree of check. Depending on the intensity and duration of those freezes, the hyacinths survive as “mats” rather than “blankets” and persist as such for several months thereafter. During this period they serve as excellent structure for a variety of warmwater gamefish.

There are two reasons for this. Primarily, the root systems of hyacinths are fairly dense and hang several inches below the buoyant part of the plant, thereby providing cover – and probably nutrients – for several types of prey species. The second reason is that a mat of hyacinths – especially one which has become “anchored” in place along a shoreline, around a stump or snag, or by some other means – serves to insulate the water beneath it. During the heat of summer it is quite common to find largemouth bass, crappie, warmouths, and others which are normally found deep at this time happily gorging themselves within two feet of the water’s surface. That makes them very fly-fishable at a time when they are often too deep to be taken on flies in areas where this “pestilence” is not present.

Besides serving as nutria-chow – and manatee-chow in places where they are found – hyacinths are excellent water filters. You may arrive at your favorite lake, bayou, or river to find it discouragingly turbid, but you can be assured the water beneath and around the perimeter of a mat of hyacinths will be much clearer. That, and the fact that the fish which are present will not venture far from the mat to feed, dictates your flies should be worked as closely as possible to the mat’s edge.

Any little nooks and crannies along the edges of the mats are good targets. Your fly should be cast to the back of these “pockets”, allowed to sink a couple of feet, and then slowly retrieved parallel and immediately adjacent to their edges. If you don’t snag a “lily” occasionally, then you are probably not working the fly close enough to them.

An old conventional-fishing trick can be modified for fly fishing when a large, anchored mat with fairly even edges is found. Here, the conventional angler will anchor his boat near the mat, gently remove a laundry basket-size wad of hyacinths with a garden rake, and immediately drop a mini-jig or shiner into the newly-created “pocket”. The main purpose of this act is to disrupt the prey species holding near the roots of the wad, in effect “chumming”. Once the initial activity ends, another wad is removed, and the action begins anew.

The fly fisherman can quietly move along the mat’s edge, casting parallel to it ahead of him but also removing small wads of hyacinths alongside him every 15 feet or so with his paddle. This creates irregularities in the mat’s edge which he can return to and work a few minutes later. If this is done with stealth, the fish which are present nearby will be none the wiser, and the prey will still be in the disrupted state which draws the predators to those new pockets in the edges of the mat.

These tactics work very well around mats anchored along shorelines and extending outward a short distance over depths of roughly six to eight feet. However, some often quite sizeable anchored mats can be found in those same depths and are not affixed to the bank. Those are usually held in place by the tops of submergent grass-beds, and they can require a more thorough coverage of the water column.

If no submergent grass is apparent around the perimeter of the mat, work it just like you would if the mat was along a shoreline. If, however, grass is apparent outside of the mat’s edges, then you must presume the grass itself is the primary form of structure and work your flies more deeply around it. Then there are the mats which are well away from the shorelines and are held in place by some form of timber.

These can be the best hyacinth-structure to be found. The plants provide cover for the prey – and slightly cooler water beneath them, and the timber serves as a base for the predators. A friend and I recently came upon a setting like that – a mat no larger than a twin-size bed held in place by the top of a stump in about six feet of water – and took 20 fine crappie from it. And those fish struck at a depth of no more than two feet!

While mats of hyacinths can be the sources of fine action from spring through summer and into autumn, an all-too-common (For me, anyway) summer event can make fishing them an experience you will not forget. This involves the close proximity of a tropical depression or a weak tropical storm and takes place in relatively small, tree-lined rivers, bayous, and canals. And I must stress the point that it does not include full-blown hurricanes and broad expanses of open water!

Several summers ago I had three straight July afternoons of unbelievable fly-fishing action with bass, crappie, and warmouths in a local canal while a depression which had parked itself just off the coast lashed the area. The cloudy, cool, low-pressure days triggered a feeding binge, the trees along the shorelines helped break the wind – allowing the hyacinth mats to remain basically intact, and it seemed everywhere I dropped my fly along the mats’ edges there was a fish waiting to grab it. Yes, it was very short-range fishing, and I frequently had to hastily paddle my canoe back to the road where my truck was parked to take refuge from a passing squall, but it was some experience – and not the only time a storm has generated great action along the lilies. Incidentally, on the fourth day with the depression gone and the weather having again become calm, hot, and sunny, I did not draw a strike; it took almost a week for the “normal” summer patterns to return, even around the hyacinths. Goes to show even an opportunity as fine as the one these plants offer is not fool-proof.

Still, in conditions typical of a particular season it is quite reliable, and a variety of flies will produce action. In areas where grass shrimp are abundant and redear sunfish are common, a size 10 scud pattern in olive or pink can be a very good choice. Just don’t get too heavy-handed with that big bass you just hooked on it – like I once did – and straighten that hook!

One of my favorite patterns is a bendback of sorts about 1 ½ inches long. It is tied on a size 4 hook with either pink or green-over-white “fly fur”, a smattering of Krystal Flash ™, and small bead-chain or very small brass hourglass eyes. And in the lengthening shadows of late afternoon I simply can’t resist working a size 6 popper close to the edges of the mats, just to see what might eat it. Besides the bass and the warmouths which really seem to appreciate that effort, I have taken more popper-caught crappie in that setting than anywhere else. A 5-weight outfit and a 7 ½-foot leader tapered to an 8-pound tippet is appropriate – well, except for fighting the gales of a tropical system!

In many areas and during many years, water hyacinths are indeed a pestilence, rendering numerous waterways throughout the south completely un-navigable. On the other hand, there are times when they can be the salvation of a fishing trip – or the primary target for a day of great action. Take advantage of what they offer during the times they appear as mats instead of blankets, and you will find yourself praising them more often than you cuss them That’s guaranteed!

Oh, by the way, those lavender blossoms really are pretty…

(Fly Fish America 6-2005)

 

2-24-11

The Annual Redear Reunion

I don’t see how anyone could resist fishing for redear sunfish, aka chinquapins, mason bream, shellcrackers, and patassa in Cajunese. They are quite attractive creatures, every one of them you catch seems to be bigger than the average bluegill, they resist capture vigorously, and they grace a skillet with the best of ‘em. The only problem I have with them is that throughout most of the year, I couldn’t catch one on a dare!

But during April it’s another story!

During mid-spring I have actively sought out redears across much of our state since I was in my early teens – still do, too. My first encounter with them took place in the bayou that runs alongside King’s Highway in Shreveport – that also led to the biggest one I’ve ever caught. I have delighted in them in Seven-Acre Pocket on Wallace Lake, Bistineau’s Pin Oak Flats, Caddo Lake’s Big Green Brake and a slough off Jeem’s Bayou near Tree City, in the gravel pits alongside Bayou Dorcheat, and atop those lovely little flooded-cypress islands in Corney Lake. I have also caught them in the bar-pits alongside Two O’Clock and Halfmoon Bayous in the West Atchafalaya Floodway and in the canals along I-55 near Ruddock and I-10 west of La Place. And though you may find this somewhat difficult to believe, one day while sight-casting spinnerbaits at redfish, I came upon a school of them on the flats in the center of the Venice Dome oil field – the infamous “Wagonwheel”! That really blew my mind – and it led to the immediate cessation of the search for redfish! And I did manage to catch just enough of them for a decent fish-fry by sticking an inch-long piece of plastic worm onto a double hook I had removed from a spinnerbait and flipping it at them! There isn’t much that takes priorities over redear sunfish with this boy!

Nevertheless, inch-long pieces of plastic worm are not recommended for consistent successes with them. Better baits will be discussed later; first of all, you must find these fish before you can catch them.

The annual spring redear reunions are basically spawning aggregations. At this time the fish move out of their deep, highly vegetated, or whatever sort of hideaway they inhabit for most of the year and ascend the shallows. That is often less than two feet deep, and if it is clear enough it allows the fish to be quite visible – the “no-brainer scenario”.

Since I now exclusively fly fish for them, I look for water a couple of feet deep – they can reunite deeper if all else remains constant, but that’s usually the best fly-fishing depth for them and is also just fine for conventional techniques. A firm bottom – sand or pea-gravel appears to be best – with scattered patches of submergent grasses and flooded timber being a desirable supplement. If you cover enough water of that description, you should find a concentration of them either by looking, prospecting, or sniffing. And on that note, if you suddenly smell watermelons, some of them are almost assuredly nearby.

One setting you should never pass up is a large, lone cypress tree surrounded by a wide ring of numerous knees and standing in water of the aforementioned depth. I have frequently found redear reunions within the perimeter of the knees of such trees, and in every case I was able to sight-fish for them. That’s a bonus wherever it occurs, as it adds a lot to the fun and games of the overall exercise.

Another setting you should faithfully prospect is one that has produced fish for you in past springs. A good example is a cluster of three small cypresses on an otherwise barren stretch of shallows on Bistineau’s Pin Oak Flats – a favorite spot during my late teens. Over 25 years had passed since I had last fished there, but when I finally returned I pointed out the trees to a friend and suggested we prospect them. Man, was I ever proud we did!

Finally, if you notice several boats fishing in a fairly localized area, you might join them, just keep a respectable distance from them. After all, fishing for redears is a rite of spring that a lot of folks take really seriously! Company is not normally minded – just keep your distance!

Once you’ve located a concentration of them, the next step is to quietly secure your boat. An important note here is that in shaded areas, if you don’t raise a big commotion while you are catching them, you can be right on top of them and they still won’t pay you any mind. I have often had fish so close to me that I had to present my fly to them by “handlining”!

I recall a friend and I fishing inside the cypresses on a flooded hilltop in Corney Lake. We were fly fishing – at VERY short ranges – and catching a bunch of them while this guy in a small flatboat was trying for them unsuccessfully around the outside edge of the trees. We eventually invited him to come in – quietly! – and pointed to the spot where he should secure his boat. Then we all had a grand time with them. Funniest thing, his twin brother joined us inside those same trees the next morning for more great fishing, and we didn’t know the difference for two hours! Those guys must have had a great intelligence network! (Hey Stall, you remember that?).Whatever, while fishing – and “catching” – in shallow, shaded water, I have often had redears around the boat almost within grabbing distance. On the other hand, if you must position your boat in sunlit water, it’s best to do so a short distance from them. In both cases, though, keep the boat-noises to zero!

Redears may not be particularly picky about what they eat, but they do seem to have some preferences. Their alias “shellcracker” denotes their fondness for shellfish. Indeed, those first redears I caught from the bayou alongside Shreveport’s King’s Highway were taken on pieces of cut-up mussels which I had dug from the bayou’s firm bottom. Small crawfish are favorite enticers for many folks; so are grass shrimp, but redears will also take crickets and earthworms, especially so when their reunion is large and the competition is fierce – at least that’s how it appears.

Redears do not seem to be as vulnerable to fly fishing as bluegills or even warmouths are, but in the right setting – like a really big reunion – they can be caught on flies in good numbers. If submerged grass and timber does not present a problem for sinking flies, size 8 or 10 trout nymphs and scuds are effective. Normally poppers are only marginally so, though they will often entice a loner or help in locating a larger group. However, a floating size 10 “sponge spider” has proven to be a real killer when the reunions are being held in clear, shallow water. If you find such a gathering, you’d best have plenty of those flies with you, because the redears will destroy one in short order! Finally, use a short, light rod – something like an 8-footer for a 5-weight line – just in case you find them inside a cypress brake. They seem to really like gathering in such places.

I doubt there are many lakes – either natural or man-made – in our state that don’t have at least a decent population of these delightful fish. They are native to much of the Mississippi River’s drainage system and have also been widely stocked in other areas. Our own Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has stocked them successfully in several waters in south Louisiana to rebuild populations lost to fish-kills caused by tropical systems. I must also note that Caney Creek Lake, east of Jonesboro, which was once infamous for producing outsized largemouth bass has recently been turning out redears of goliath proportions!

I don’t know how one of those brutes would taste, but I’m absolutely certain that I sure would look good with one in the state’s fly-fishing record book! But that aside, fish in the 9 to 10-inch range are absolutely delicious when filleted, skinned, and fast-fried in a beer batter. Makes my mouth water just thinking about it! And don’t feel guilty about keeping a mess of them, because they are prolific breeders, and if you are like many of us, in a month or so you won’t be able to catch one on a dare either! Enjoy them while you can!

(Louisiana Conservationist 3-2005)

 

2-9-2011 

Of Cypress Brakes and Bass

With all the present hype about Louisiana’s various excellent saltwater fly-fishing opportunities, many anglers forget – or overlook – the state’s potential for very noteworthy action with freshwater species. Largemouth bass – both native and Florida-strain – are abundant in swamps, sloughs, marshes, ponds, lakes, reservoirs, and rivers virtually statewide. While most of those waters are best known for “average-sized” fish, others are managed as “quality” or “trophy” waters. For the latter, special regulations are imposed to produce big fish.

Two rather old, large lakes near Shreveport are fine examples of both fisheries. Caddo Lake – northwest of the city and shared with Texas – has been heavily stocked with Florida-strain largemouths and is managed as a quality lake; no bass between 14 and 17 inches in total length may be retained. Southeast of the city lies Lake Bistineau which until fairly recently held only native northern largemouths. I have fished both of these lakes regularly since I was a teenager, though I admit to having a special fondness for Bistineau, which was the source of my biggest fly-caught bass for several years. Both of these lakes have given me many days of great action, but they offer me something else which, apparently, keeps me returning to them – Bistineau especially: scenic beauty.

That arises from the countless cypress trees – both the bald and the pond variety – found within them. Here and there you may encounter a single large tree – or the stark skeleton of a towering, centuries-old sentinel, but most are found in relatively thick stands or “brakes”. Those range in size from that of a small backyard to several acres and – like the single trees – can stand in water depths of up to 10 feet or more. And besides being quite appealing in their fresh spring dress, any one of them can harbor a hungry largemouth, especially as April wanes and the fish begin to recover from their post-spawn blues.

That does not imply great action can’t be experienced beforehand. As a teenager and during periods of moderate weather in early to mid March – pre-spawn time – the bass have gleefully destroyed my weekly allowance’s allotment of poppers in very short order. I seriously doubt that pattern has changed, though I haven’t enjoyed it for several decades, opting to fish here after the cypress leaves appear.

If you have never fished a cypress-studded lake before, then you may be rather intimidated at your first impression: “Where do I fish among all that lovely-looking structure that all looks exactly the same?” Ah, but it isn’t all the same.

First of all, eliminate those trees standing in more than six feet of water. During spring most fly-fishable bass in these lakes will be found in depths of 2 to 4 feet, and that kind of water will be fairly close to a shoreline. Next, look for something different.

Large single trees make inviting targets, as they are something different in the surrounding open water. However, there can even be differences in those individuals. For instance, that one over there has a wide, irregular base at the waterline, whereas those two over here are fairly uniform for some distance up their trunks. Work the former.

Likewise, there are also unconformities in the trees making up a brake. One may have a large root-wad at the waterline while the ones around it don’t. A very tight group of 3 or 4 trees is a much better target than those 6 to 8 feet apart. One which is leaning a good bit is better than the one beside it which is vertical. A large limb which has broken and is partly submerged is better than the tree itself, and so on. Once you have seen a few of the more obvious differences in the trees, you will be able to recognize those which are a bit more subtle, yet still warrant thorough prospecting.

On that note, most of my bass fishing on these lakes has been done with yellow and black size 4 poppers with long feather tails and rubber legs. I am sure that size 1/0 Dahlberg Divers would also produce good action, but I am unable to cast those with my 6-weight sticks – which are entirely adequate in these waters for bass up to 5 pounds and a little more – so I stick with the smaller popper. The bass don’t mind a bit. If you prefer to use the bigger fly and an 8-weight outfit, then knock you lights out. Just remember this is short-range, precise casting, and a fast-action boom-stick simply won’t get the job done.

Whatever your preference in outfits, the fly should be presented as closely as possible to the target area, and if it bothers you to have to retrieve it occasionally from overhanging branches and extended roots, then you’d best find another place to fish. Watch your back-casts, too!

And keep a close eye out for wasp-nests in the areas of both your forward cast and your back-cast, just in case either goes slightly awry.

I prefer to allow the popper to sit for about 5 seconds after impact, then give it two soft pops, then let it sit for a few seconds before giving it another pop or two. That’s a little faster than some folks would work it, but it’s effective. If it doesn’t work for you, then you might slow it down a bit, but your best bet would probably be to work different forms of structure. Some days the bass seem to prefer the large single trees, on others they hold to the irregularities in the smaller brakes, and yet on others they will be more active in the big brakes. Try them all until you discover the day’s productive pattern, and remember the shaded side of the tree is almost always the best.

The easiest way to reach Caddo Lake is to take LA. 1 north from Shreveport. At the foot of the bridge crossing the lake you will notice the Drift-In Landing (318-996-7719). It offers two concrete ramps, ice, and drinks, but no fuel. Across the lake you will see a sign directing you to the Earl Williamson Park (318-929-2806). This is owned and maintained quite nicely by Caddo Parish, and besides providing launching facilities, it offers camp-sites and RV hook-ups. You would be wise to call for a reservation rather than just showing up and hoping you will get a spot.

Reservations are required for one of the cabins or RV sites at the Lake Bistineau State Park (318-745-3503). This is operated by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, and it is a popular and very pretty place. The Camp Joy Marina (318-987-3100) is another option on Bistineau, offering overnight accommodations, a restaurant, and all your boating needs (but as with all the rest, no fly-fishing equipment). Camp Joy is best reached by taking LA 527 east off of U.S. 71 at Taylortown past LA 157 to the Camp Joy Road, which will be on your right in the little settlement of Koran. To reach the State Park, continue on LA 527 to its junction with LA 163, turn left, and follow LA 163 for a couple of miles before turning right at the sign.

Both Bistineau and Caddo are beautiful and productive lakes. The odds are very good that after a spring day of fly fishing on either one of them, you will have experienced both pleasures.

(Note: For several years now (2011) Lake Bistineau has been the site of a major battle against an invasive aquatic plant, giant salvinia. While progress against the plant has been made in certain areas, some of it remains, and if left unchecked it will again spread rapidly. In order to prevent introducing this noxious alien scourge to other waterbodies, ensure that none of it is attached to your trailer – or your boat – or your truck! – after you pull your boat from the water!

Also, the information about the access points is a bit dated. A phone call prior to a trip might be a good idea.)

(Fly Fish America 1-2000)

 

1-26-11

The “Other” Bass Bugs

When surface flies don’t produce the action with bass that you had hoped for, try a slightly deeper alternative.

(L. To R.: Bunny Leech, Muddler Minnow, Spuddler, Marabou Muddler, Krystal Bugger, “Minnow”)

I fondly recall a cool, dreary, late-winter morning that I had dedicated to amassing a mess of crappie fillets. I also recall that I didn’t do too well in accomplishing that goal, but I did catch my biggest largemouth of the year, and it was a VERY nice fish – 21 inches long. The relevance of it herein is that I caught it on a fly, most importantly a sinking fly!

During late winter and, say, the first half of spring, fly fishing for bass is a time-honored tradition for many southern anglers. Indeed, I have fervently participated in the rite for a bit over a half-century and still get my bells rung when a pot-bellied bigmouth engulfs a popper – my fly of choice at the time and that of most of my counterparts. However, there are instances – some of them arising for reasons that are apparently known only to the bass – when surface flies such as poppers will not gain the interest of these fish.

Being a relatively rapid learner, it didn’t take but perhaps 40 of those 50-odd years for me to discover a way to regain that interest, since during that time I firmly believed that a lack of action was the direct result of my fishing where the fish weren’t. So I continued along searching for wherever it was that they were on that particular day – still with a popper! And that, by the way – is a very logical thought that occasionally did lead to some fish.

More often, though, it didn’t!

The revelation occurred on a day with a fly-fishing buddy in some canals where experience from previous trips indicated that the bass should be very willing to eat our poppers. They weren’t, even though conditions were favorable and from time to time we noticed fish actively feeding against shoreline vegetation. So they were where they should have been in order to be handily fly fishable – shallow and in reasonably clear water – yet they had absolutely nothing to do with our poppers! And I promise that can become really aggravating!

Finally – on a “wag” (wild-ass-guess) more than a studious estimate of the situation – I replaced my popper with a size 4 “Spuddler”. That’s a sculpin imitation originated by the late Dan Bailey to dupe the outsized brown trout inhabiting Montana’s rivers. And the fact that I knew there were probably about as many sculpins as brown trout in that particular canal had absolutely nothing to do with my decision!

Yet by casting the fly to the edge of the vegetation, allowing it to sink for no more than five seconds, and then retrieving it with short, moderately-slow strips, I quickly caught a fair one. My friend immediately threatened mutiny if I didn’t give him one of those flies (Not surprisingly his fly boxes contained none of the pattern!), and we ended up having a fun and productive day.

Notably, I tried a popper again a couple of hours later, just to see if the fish had changed their minds. They hadn’t!

Things like that would blow my mind if I did not accept the fact that bass are fish and I’m not, therefore there are some things they do that I don’t understand, even after over 50 years of trying! On the other hand, some of their particulars are fairly well known – like their dislike of bright light.

You’ve probably been here/done this. During the period between roughly a half-hour before sunrise to an hour or so thereafter, the fish were very appreciative of your poppers. But around then it seemed like someone flipped their circuit-breaker! You can be assured that all the bass that had obviously been quite active did not get their tummies filled by that particular time. The growing intensity of the sunlight simply caused them to shift their focus away from the water’s surface. By swapping your popper/diver/slider for a sinking fly, you may discover that the fish had not turned off, just shifted that focus downward a bit.

Conversely, if you begin fishing a bit before the sunlight has begun to lose its intensity in late-afternoon, try a sinking fly first. Assuredly that can be more difficult to do for the most devout of us popper-pitchers, but it will lead to more fish.

Then one day you get caught in an unexpected rain – not a deluge, just a steady sprinkle. During the warm months that can be a blessing for southern bass fishermen, triggering a bite as well as creating more comfortable temperature for the angler. Still, my experiences have shown that although bass often bite well during a light rain, they also become averse to striking surface flies. And that includes the times when they are feeding in water that is ideal for fishing with poppers!

My only thought as to the reason for this mystery is purely speculative – the fish have trouble locating the fly amid the audible pitter-patter and the masking rings created by the raindrops. Or maybe not, but whatever, on far too many lovely dark and dismal days when the fish seemed hell-bent on destroying every popper in my box, a sudden light shower put a remarkably fast end to the action!

Yet by switching to a sinking fly instead of trying to tough it out with the popper, that action often resumed. Occasionally it even resulted in the day’s largest fish! Word of warning, though: that graphite fly rod should be stowed immediately if any lightning accompanies the rainfall!

One of the reasons sinking flies lack the popularity of poppers is that while there is comparatively little difference in the latter type, the former include a pretty wide variety of imitative patterns. When you get right down to it, a size 4 popper with rubber legs and a long feather tail can depict a chartreuse frog or a red-and-white bluegill – and a whole lot in between! On the other hand, a black bunny “leech” is intended to mimic just that!

And I guess a “Spuddler” depicts something appealing to the bass that is a lot more common in southern lakes and canals than sculpins. Whatever, a summary of a few sinking flies that have been historically productive for me – and how to best work them – is now in order.

One of the most generally effective sinking flies is an offshoot of sorts of the infamous “Woolly Bugger” – another pattern that was originally intended for trout. This fly can be taken for many of the creatures normally included in a bass’s diet. Besides therefore being a fly that covers many bases, its long marabou tail pulses and wiggles temptingly from relatively short, moderately-paced line-strips, and its ice-chenille body glistens just like the scales of several prey species. Finally, being fairly lightly weighted, it sinks slowly and therefore stays in a fish’s face, and that – with it flashing and pulsing all the while – is very conducive to generating a strike. Those with the flashy bodies are often called “Krystal Buggers”, and in sizes 4 and 2 and either purple or black they are fine choices!

Another “wiggler” that has justified its existence in my fly boxes is the “bunny fly”. It is a bit larger and more heavily weighted than the Bugger, so it gets down quicker. Known commonly as the “Hare Worm” it wiggles and pulses seductively, and in being tied “weedless” it can be made to crawl over and across all sorts of underwater structure that may be serving as cover for a bass. It’s a great fly – also in purple or black – but it has one major drawback: it is mortal hell to cast! Whereas I almost exclusively use a 6-weight outfit to work both my poppers and all other sinking flies, the bunny fly requires an 8-weight – and a good degree of care to prevent an unintentional body-piercing! But the results that the fly can generate can be well worth the effort!

One variety of sinking fly that I have used with fine success – off and on! – for many years is the Muddler Minnow. Like the Spuddler it is a sculpin imitation, and I must admit that the fly – favored in size 4 – performs best in creeks. And since bass do inhabit creeks across the entire south – and since bass fishermen do pursue them there with flies, I feel I should make a few comments on the use of sinking flies in these waters.

First of all, don’t! By their very nature – normally reasonably clear and comparatively shallow – creeks are made to order for poppers. Sure, I’ve caught a lot of creek-bass on Muddlers and Spuddlers, but I firmly believe that with only one exception, all the fish that struck them would have eaten a popper. And if you don’t know why most folks prefer catching bass on floating flies over sinking flies, then you shouldn’t be fishing with either one of them!

The exception was a recurring reluctance of the bass – normally in spring – to fully commit to striking a popper. They would rise to one, perhaps circle it, and then very gingerly grasp it by its tail – all of which was plainly visible in a particular creek’s crystalline waters. Not all the bass were then so tentative, but so many of them were that the frustration and downright aggravation that they caused could seriously undermine what would have otherwise been a delightful day.

So on an inspiration one afternoon I tied on a big Muddler, greased it with dry fly goop so that it would float, and when one of those tentative tail-tuggers tugged that Muddler’s tail, it got a real surprise! I don’t recommend greasing Muddlers to float for use in lakes, but you might remember the possibilities of doing so, just in case! Fish ‘em on a dead drift or with barely perceptible twitches – that way it apparently looks like a grasshopper that’s not in the best of health.

Whatever, way back yonder some ingenious fly-tyer modified the plain vanilla Muddler, and the result mimics – well, whatever the fish’s imagination might allow! It is the “Marabou Muddler”, and one of its type accounted for the bass I mentioned at the beginning of these lines.

The Marabou Muddler began its existence in my fly boxes in size 6 olive versions that I hoped would work a little better than the plain vanilla Muddler on the bass inhabiting some local creeks. It didn’t, but it did account for a handful of very creditable ones. Therefore I’ve been unable to bring myself to trash them, even though they are presently well over 25 years old! Maybe I’ll need them one day…

Anyway, the yellow size 8 versions that led to the aforementioned bass were nothing but pure speculation for an upcoming trip after crappie – a species that I have been consistently incompetent with throughout my lifetime! But that aside, the fly accounted for some nice ones – along with a VERY nice one – besides the big bass!

On the negative side, it is designed to ride with its hook-point down – the reverse of the Bugger and without a weed-guard like the bunny-fly. That makes it subject to fouling, and I lost plenty of them that spring to odd-and-end structure. So, if you tie your own, tie ‘em weedless; if you don’t, then buy plenty! You might also try some in white and in size 6 as well as size 8.

The patterns just mentioned – along with the Spuddler – should be worked in the aforementioned manner and around the same types of structure that you would target with a popper. The next pattern, though, is intended more for open-water exercises – bass schooling on shad and the like. Granted, in that instance a plain white popper may generate all the action you can stand – sometimes! On wind-ruffled waters, though, this fly has been consistently more productive!

It is also as generic as they come, roughly imitating shad, herring, shiners, and so forth. Different companies market it under different names – as do fly tyers in different parts of the south.

Whatever name it is tagged with in your area (“Minnow” seems appropriate), the fly should be around three inches long and basically some shade of green over white on a size 4 hook. It should also have obvious eyes and ample sparkle along its sides. Finally, it should be worked a bit faster than the other patterns, though an occasional short pause may trigger a bite from a reluctant following fish.

That brings up some important points concerning technique. Poppers can be and often are worked reasonably well with twitches of the rod’s tip, and strikes are met by raising the rod sharply. Sometimes that actually succeeds in getting the fish stuck. On the other hand, neither practice is recommended for sinking flies!

After the cast, drop your rod’s tip towards the water and on a straight line toward the point where the fly just landed. Then, after the fly has sunk to your desired depth, retrieve it with line-strips. In other words, allow no slack line sagging between the rod’s tip and the water – easier to feel a strike that way. When you get bit, set the hook with a short but firm line-strip, NOT by raising the rod! Once you feel the fish’s weight, then you can do whatever else you want to do.

I have mentioned my preference for a bass-fishing “outfit”. The reason is two-fold: for sinking flies the rod must be heavy enough to cast them, yet the combination of rod and line must be light enough to easily detect often subtle strikes. So in effect that selection is a compromise. When it comes to leaders, though, there should be no compromises!

For sinking flies the best selection for your class tippet is ALWAYS fluorocarbon. On the other hand, if there is a chance you will be doing some rapid switching between those and poppers/divers/sliders, then stick with mono. It’s your choice on strength, though I’d err on the stout side! Generally, floating lines with slow-sinking tips are best, though a full-floating version is a better choice if poppers may also be used.

While I must reiterate that I am rather partial to poppers when it comes to fishing for bass with flies – especially during spring, the use of sinking flies goes back a long way. Fact is, my first fly-caught bass fell to a ragged semblance of a Grey Ghost streamer – another “trout fly” that found its way into a bass-fishing world. And I sure am glad it did! Otherwise I would have assuredly missed out on some great action with those fish over the years – and a VERY nice one that I caught a little while back!

(Game & Fish Publications 5-2007)

 

1-6-11

Sac-a-Lait!

It’s common for popular species of fish to have regional aliases. For instance, in Louisiana crappie are called white perch – at least they are in the northern part of the state. In the south where there is Acadian influence, the fish is referred to as sac-a-lait – sack of milk – denoting its sweet white flesh. It is Louisiana’s state fish, and it is indeed a popular one, especially during its spawning time of late winter into early spring.

In that time these fish move into shallow habitat, both actual shallows and near the surface of deeper water. There they assume their most “active” mode, though that is much less aggressive than what many other species display during their spawning time. Those two factors combine to produce some of the year’s best action with them.

Habitat – or structure – in lakes and reservoirs across the state is generally woody in nature – flooded brush, thick clusters of cypress, tupelo gums, and willows, and pier pilings to name a few. Here, vertical jigging with either live shiners or mini-jigs is the preferred conventional technique. “Dapping” is an effective fly-fishing presentation, placing the fly within or close to the structure, allowing it to sink around one to two feet, and then barely moving it. True, that doesn’t involve “fly-casting”, but it’s fly fishing every bit as much as dapping pocket water on a trout stream is, and a strike indicator is every bit as kosher here as it would be above a San Juan worm!

Sac-a-lait often strike very gently, so close attention must be paid to the strike indicator or the point where the leader enters the water. Frequently only a slight movement in either will be detected – no tug or tap whatsoever. Here, trying to set the hook on a hunch is much better than not trying to set it at all! Once a fish is hooked bring it in as quickly but as smoothly as possible, since it has a very fragile mouth that tears easily.

I doubt there is a lake in Louisiana larger than five acres or so that doesn’t hold at least a decent number of these fish. Some of note are Larto south of Jonesville, Caddo northwest of Shreveport, Toledo Bend on the Louisiana/Texas border, Cypress Bayou north of Bossier City, Poverty Point near Rayville, Chicot north of Ville Platte, Darbonne at Farmerville, and Old River between New Roads and Simmesport. And the sloughs and bayous in the Atchafalaya basin can be red-hot – on falling water! There are numerous access points to these waters, and the towns and cities nearby offer all the accommodations  necessary for a multi-day trip.

Another opportunity for these fish arises as spring waxes and might appeal more to a fly-“caster” than dapping. It occurs in spillways below the dams which have created smaller lakes and reservoirs.

While spawning does play a role in this fishery, the concentration of crappie which can take place immediately below the dam is more a result of an abundance of various prey species which have made a seasonal migration here from larger downstream waters. Generally the best action takes place after the lake has made a little rise from a recent rainfall and is in the process of falling. Assuredly, some fish will hold to the dam, any reinforcing rocks just downstream of it, and its “wings” just like they do to wood in lakes, but don’t neglect the open water of the spillway itself. There the fish can suspend at any depth, so speculate various count-downs before beginning the retrieve which – like anywhere else these fish are targeted – should be SLOW!

With a single exception, many years have passed since I last fished a spillway. That exception was north of Bossier City below the Cypress Bayou reservoir’s dam, and it paid off nicely. Others I have fished may have changed somewhat over time, so to prevent possibly being misleading, I won’t mention any others specifically. The point is there are several of them, and should you find yourself near one – and the lake’s water is barely spilling over the top of its dam, prospecting it could lead to some eye-opening action!

In freshwater areas of south Louisiana where the sac-a-lait reigns supreme, another opportunity is now available: canals. These are plentiful, being created by petroleum companies to lay pipelines and to access drilling and production locations in swamps and marshes. They have also produced more of these fish for me than all the other types of water combined! You may realize the significance of that statement when I note that was accomplished during a period when around 95% of my fishing trips involved saltwater targets, and none of those trips involved sac-a-lait by-catch!

Canals are possibly the easiest waters to fly fish for sac-a-lait. Their shorelines are usually graced with wind-breaking trees, bushes, and grass, and the drop-offs along their banks are almost exclusively the strike zone. That latter factor prevents wasting time and effort working unproductive water.

While some fish are occasionally taken along seemingly featureless stretches of the drop-offs, any unconformity along or just outside of them is a better bet. Submergent grass-beds, the occasional stump, and blow-downs from shoreline willows are common. So are wooden bulkheads which were created to isolate certain sections of a canal or its intersection with another waterway. All can be worked by either casting or dapping, just be sure that the fly is presented CLOSE to the target! Extensive canal complexes are located near Morgan City, Houma, Larose, and Venice.

Sac-a-lait will strike a variety of flies, but I usually rely on two. One is a size 4 Clouser Minnow in either olive over white or chartreuse over white, the other is a size 8 imitation of a – well, uh – a tube jig! It is tied with a 12-pound mono weed-guard, very small weighted eyes positioned “Clouser-style” so the hook rides point-up, a marabou tail, and an ice-chenille body. Effective color combinations can be quite radical (Orange and purple is a favorite.), as these fish like lots of color and different ones on different days, so tie plenty of combinations. Or just before your trip you can phone the guy at the marina and ask him what color tube jigs they’ve been striking recently, then tie your flies accordingly. Again, tie plenty, because you will lose some, even in their weedless configuration, if you are presenting then close enough to structure.

That said, go get ‘em. Louisiana’s waters are full of them, and the upcoming weeks are the best time of the year for practicing a little catch-and-keep on them with a fly rod. Fast-fried sac-a-lait fillets – man, that makes my mouth water just thinking about it!

(Note: You may find some inconsistencies a couple of paragraphs up with the description of the “Tube-jig Fly” on the “Flies” page. This article was created long before the one in “Flies”, and in the meantime I made some modifications. For sure, a marabou tail works fine, but I would seriously consider losing the weed-guard! It is not worth the effort.)

(Fly Fish America 2-2003)

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