The Fine Art of Creek Fishing
My first fly-caught fish – a yearling largemouth bass – was taken from a creek which meandered through the wilds of the Texas Hill Country. I do not remember the event; it was related to me some time later by my beloved grandfather who owned the ranch that was graced by that creek. He said I was 10 at the time – that’s well over half a century ago.
I do remember the pair of bass – much larger than the first – that I took from that creek on a Grey Ghost streamer one day during my thirteenth summer, and I remember the last one I caught from it on a yellow popper a year later. By that time fly fishing for bass in creeks had gotten into both my body and soul. To this day I would rather fish for them – be they largemouth, smallmouth, or spotted – in that setting than in any other, and I have had the great fortune of doing so in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri. Creeks are great fun to fish, they present a real challenge, and when you follow the rules they can give up a satisfying amount of action.
While some of these waters may bear the last name “River”, they are indeed creeks: fairly small, mostly shallow, clear, with only a little current, and possessing a firm sand, gravel, or rocky substrate. With the exception of periods of very high and un-fishable water, they cannot be floated. While within or alongside them, you are in very close contact with the fish inhabiting them; therefore, the first rule you must follow in order to learn the fine art of creek fishing is you must be very stealthy.
I found that out quickly on the Hill Country creek. Approaching a promising pool without alerting every bass in it of my presence first demanded walking very softly across the rocky banks. That prevented the audible “crunches” which were easily transmitted from the bank through the water. It also required taking advantage of any shoreline cover – vegetation, high banks, and large boulders – and I must stress the point that even if only my head and shoulders were silhouetted against the sky, or if my fly rod waved across the water, there would be no strikes from that spot! Crawling up to it and casting while kneeling brought consistently better results, though I still give Thanks that I met only a few copperheads while doing so. That aside, if the knees of your pants-legs don’t quickly become threadbare, and if you can’t make short, accurate roll-casts, then you won’t catch many bass.
“Creeping up” on pools and such is absolutely mandatory on creeks, no matter whether it is done from the bank or within the water, and it never hurts to wear that camouflaged shirt you bought for your September dove hunts while doing so. In the water you must wade slowly – again to prevent “crunches” on bottom but also to keep from making small waves which will radiate out ahead of you in the slow current and alert the fish. In your approach to a likely spot use every bit of cover available – shoreline vegetation or large midstream boulders or snags. Once you reach your casting position it always helps to kneel – yes, in the water if it’s feasible – before you cast.
It has been said that something like 90% of the fish inhabit 10% of the water. That does not apply to a typical creek, where more like 95% of the bass inhabit less than 5% of the water. That’s because spots which are suitable for them are often separated by long stretches of very shallow riffles. For sure, within a riffle you may discover a boulder or a snag which has been undermined by the current, creating a hole beneath it which is worth a cast or two. Also, you may occasionally encounter a fish which was chasing minnows in the riffles, though that one is not worth a cast since it probably saw you long before you saw it. The best water is in the small holes washed out against the shorelines by eddies, and in the pools, and it is always shaded.
Trouble is, that shade is created by either trees or a high bank. As mentioned, those make good cover for your approach, but once you are ready to cast they and the various underbrush found along the banks of most creeks become a handicap. That’s why the ability to roll-cast becomes so important, and that brings up the subject of the type of rod best suited for this purpose.
Without a doubt the finest I ever used for creek fishing was a first-generation graphite/composite model in 8-foot for 6-weight which in 1979 cost less than $30 at a local hardware store. It was so “slow” that it would load with very little line past the tip-top guide, so it cast quickly and quite accurately at the short distances normally involved. Years ago I gave away that rod (Dammit!); now I use a moderate-action 8 ½-foot for 5-weight and over-line it with a 6-weight bass-taper. That works okay, but it’s really too long, and my wife emphatically states we cannot afford a thirteenth fly rod. Whatever, it turns over a 9-foot leader tapered to an 8 or 10-pound tippet well enough on a 30-foot cast, and that, too, is important – and facilitated by the bass-taper line.
Once you have reached casting position – either by crawling or wading – pause for a moment to scan the target area. Very often bass will be visible in it, though if you have just moved from bright sunlight into deep shade, it may take a short time for your eyes to adjust to the point where you can see them. Don’t be in a hurry to make that first cast!
If you are able to see your fish, that’s ideal. Besides eliminating the “blind cast” which could line an unseen fish and spook it – and from its reaction spook all the others in the pool, too – it will also help you avoid a strike from one of the many other inhabitants of creeks.
That does not imply I don’t enjoy catching warmouths, green sunfish, rock bass, bluegills, yellowbellies, shadow bass, and a few other varieties of panfish which are common in these waters. I do. Let’s just say they can be so aggressive that they frequently beat the bass in the race for the fly. Once one has been hooked, the competitive bass can either spook from the small fish’s antics or follow it toward the bank – apparently trying to steal the fly from the little fellow – where your presence will be discovered. Precise casting to visible bass will deter that, but it won’t prevent it. Also, when conditions are such that you cannot “sight-fish”, the odds of it occurring can increase to the point where the panfish can become a real aggravation. However, there is some relief from that ailment, if not a complete cure for it.
That is to use flies larger than what many folks would consider proper for small water. I wouldn’t even think of using anything smaller than size 6, and size 4 is usually a better choice. Point is, leave those “brim bugs” and trout-sized nymphs at the house! Poppers in “frog” or yellow and black, and Muddler Minnows – both in size 4 – are often all you will need.
Presenting them to visible fish allows you to vary your retrieve according to how the bass is responding. With floating flies – which includes greasing the Muddler if you notice grasshoppers along the creek’s banks – a dead drift is often effective. If a fish follows and then appears to lose interest, give the fly one or two slight twitches. If the fish does not respond to that, give the fly a more robust twitch or a soft pop. In other words, try different techniques according to the actions of the fish – and I’ll let you figure out how exciting that can be!
If you must blind-cast, begin by working the water nearby, then extend your casts to cover the entire target area. Dead-drift your first cast to a particular spot; then if that one wasn’t smacked by a panfish, add a little action to the next. Also, before you move on, make a cast tight against the far bank – this is with the popper, let it sit for a moment, then retrieve it like this: four or five rapidly-paced soft pops, a 5-second pause, four or five more quick, soft pops, and another short pause. That mimics a small frog which has jumped into the water and is undecided about where it is going, and that retrieve has worked when all the other types didn’t. Remember, though, that it should be made on your last cast to a spot -–well, provided it hasn’t proven effective in previous spots,
I once tried it on a smallmouth creek in a fairly large pool I had worked unsuccessfully with quieter retrieves a half-hour earlier and caught six on almost-consecutive casts! I also once made a cast to a very nice, visible largemouth, and the fly – again a popper – landed on a cottonwood leaf and stuck fast. For fully five minutes while I tried to twitch it free, that bass swam around the leaf, sometimes nosing it, sometimes swimming off a short distance when I let the leaf lie motionless, then returning when I twitched it again – eventually more to watch the fish’s reaction than in hopes of freeing the popper. Needless to say, it was quite an experience! Finally, the bass apparently simply had to see what was causing the leaf to move and obliterated it. The fact that it missed the fly has absolutely no bearing on the value I place on that memorable event – which occurred well over a quarter of a century ago. The memory of it, and of other happenings on other creeks throughout my life, are real treasures. Practice the art, and creeks will provide the stuff that memories are made of for you, too.
Here’s an opportunity for good bass fishing that is not often associated with the bayou state.
I wouldn’t say that the river-rat within me has been manifesting itself more often than usual during the past couple of years. I’ve fished in rivers – mostly for bass – throughout my life and actually prefer them over lakes: they are more dynamic, more interesting, and more pleasurable to me. And if I can time my trips to them properly (On week-days, if you please), they are frequently almost devoid of competition. That allows me to more thoroughly enjoy both the fishing and the scenery within the river’s corridor which is usually quite appealing.
Admittedly, most of my river-fishing has been done while I was “wet” – or in waders – and much of it has taken place out of state. However, Louisiana has numerous streams, rivers, and bayous which are notable for their fishing, boating, and aesthetic pleasures, and in 1950 the Scenic Rivers Acts were passed by the legislature to protect them. Presently, the Louisiana Natural and Scenic Streams System is one of the oldest, largest, and most diverse state river-protection programs in the country with all or part of 49 waterways (at my last count) included within it. One of those, Bayou Dorcheat – some 20 miles east of Shreveport and the sire of LakeBistineau – has been a treasured part of my life since I was a teenager. And you don’t wade Bayou Dorcheat – not where I fish it, anyway! You float it.
You also float Bayou L’Outre – a “sleeper” of sorts which runs north and east of Farmerville and which Keith Cascio introduced to me last May.
I don’t recall just why I first rang Keith’s phone. He is the Scenic Rivers Coordinator for the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries; perhaps I was in search of some technical data on one of my favorites. Anyway, I mentioned to him that I’d be in Shreveport for a couple of days the following week, and he asked if I’d like to make a float on Bayou L’Outre while I was up there. Is a pig’s butt pork?
Here, I need to establish some parameters. First, I had never even heard of Bayou L’Outre before, so I did not know the best methods to fish it. Second, both of us were fly fishing – which actually is a pretty effective way of checking out a stream on your first trip there. And third, before I met Keith at a gas station at the intersection of La. 2 and La. 828 just east of Farmerville, I made a scouting run to the La. 33 crossing north of town and discovered the water there was sluggish and rather turbid, so I began the day somewhat discouraged.
After greetings – he is a personable young man who is very enthusiastic about his job – we drove north on La. 828 a short distance to P.R. 8811 – just before you get to the church, turned right and followed it around the church and through the hills to the L’Outre Road. There, we turned right again, descended the hill, and shortly ended up at the bayou. And I’ll tell you this: don’t try that road after a hard rain! It’s dirt, it’s steep, and you might have mortal hell getting back up it!
We launched his flatboat at the dirt “ramp” there, loaded our gear, and headed off downstream. Initially – and upstream – the water was still turbid. Keith said the bayou needed a good flushing due to the lack of recent rainfall, but he also said it would clear a good bit and the current would increase after we reached a braided section of streambed. That was encouraging.
It took around 15 minutes under small-outboard power to reach the head of the braids. On the way I marveled at the towering tupelo gums which lined the shorelines and gave a silent thanks to the timber company that owns the adjacent lands for allowing the bayou’s corridor to remain heavily forested. It is a pretty place, but the turbid water still cast doubt on the quality of the fishing we would experience.
I shouldn’t have worried. Upon reaching the braids – where the water did clear noticeably and the current increased to the point where it provided a good drift – Keith turned into the left channel and killed and tilted up the outboard. I then took a short paddle and assumed position on the bow-seat where I could both scull when necessary and fish. And in the three hours which then passed on that delightful spring afternoon, we caught six largemouths and several types of panfish by working our poppers around the bases of the flooded gums. Overall, it was a very enjoyable float. However, since casting the fly line became difficult at times in the relatively narrow and overhung waters of that particular braid, something like a Tiny Torpedo on a spinning outfit would have probably worked better. For sure, in long-ago years before I became such a fly-fishing fanatic, a Tiny Torpedo was a favorite for Dorcheat’s bass.
Like the L’Outre, this scenic stream is designated a “bayou”, but that is where most of the similarities between the two cease. Granted, both have long reaches with very slow current which are not conducive to effective floating; for several miles above LakeBistineau the bayou is wide and sluggish. However, above the I-20 bridges its gradient is enough to create decent current, and since much of its substrate above that point consists of pea-gravel, it usually has good clarity – the exception, of course, being after a heavy rainfall.
The banks are lined with cypresses – and the stumps of those of yesteryear – as well as gums. These provide excellent structure for the bayou’s bass. And the bayou’s corridor in this reach is quite appealing, varying from swampy backwaters to hardwood-topped high-ground. It is also less crowded here than in its lower reaches, and the further north you go, the better it gets.
This stretch is best accessed from the public ramp on the west bank of the bayou just north of U.S. 80 at Dixie Inn. Here (As on the L’Outre), a 12 or 14-foot flatboat powered by a small outboard is ideal. Begin by making your way slowly upstream; there are occasional snags and stumps in mid-channel, and their frequency increases with the distance from the ramp. Take your time; enjoy the scenery.
While you can make your way up the bayou for only 10 to 15 minutes and begin your float there – and expect action from both largemouth and spotted bass all the way back to the ramp, I prefer to go on, passing beneath the old railroad bridge and continuing on to “The Jungle” – a stretch of braided streambed – and beginning my float there. If you pass someone who is either fishing or simply paddling along soaking up the surroundings, drop back to idle speed and give him as wide a berth as the channel allows. That little act of courtesy just might be returned one day – or later on during the day of your trip.
Once you begin your drift – your “float” – there will be a couple of concerns which you should constantly be aware of. The first is the fact that the boat is always moving, whether you are adjusting its position with a paddle or not. While the current in these two bayous is not usually strong enough to pin your boat against a snag and capsize it – a real hazard during high water and on rivers with a strong flow, you can drift unaware onto a blow-down with a cottonmouth resting atop it or into overhanging branches with their occasional wasp nests. Always keep one eye on what is just downstream of you.
The other factor – one which will affect your angling success – is that this is short-range fishing; therefore you must keep boat-racket to an absolute minimum. A paddle laid noisily across a gunwale – or dropped onto the bottom of the boat – will alert every fish nearby of your presence. So will a trolling motor’s prop when it thumps a submerged stump. Leave the electric power at home and use the paddle – quietly!
As mentioned, small surface lures are usually hard to beat. Spotted bass will rise to them when they are worked around wooden structure away from the shoreline, and largemouths will clobber them when they are cast to the stumps and cypress knees (and the bases of tupelo gums) along the banks. But if the action on top is a little slow, then try a lightly-weighted Texas-rigged 6-inch plastic worm. One of those two lures should do the trick.
While there are numerous rivers in Louisiana which offer floating opportunities for both bass fishing and scenery scrutinizing, Dorcheat and L’Outre are two worth checking out. Try one this summer; you may discover there is a river-rat hidden within you. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with that!
If you find yourself really getting into floating Louisiana‘s rivers – or wading them – you should consider purchasing a copy of “The Roads of Louisiana”. This is an atlas of sorts which shows literally every road in the state – dirt to super-slab – along with their bridge-crossings and launch-sites. They are available at Books-a-Million, among others, for around 20 bucks – a very worthwhile investment.
(Game & Fish Publications 6-1999)
Louisiana’s Creeks – an Autumn Delight!
Now’s the time for the best that these out-of-character waterways offer.
I love October – and for more reasons than the cooling weather and diminishing possibilities of an unwelcome visitor from the tropics. Most of the good old boys are hunting instead of fishing, the kids are back in school, and the gals are no longer involved with cultivating their tans. That leaves the creeks that run through much of our state virtually deserted, and that allows much more enjoyment of the aesthetic pleasures these little jewels can offer.
It also makes for much better fishing in them!
Creeks present a delightful experience, no matter where they are found. I cut my fishing teeth on one and have been hooked on them ever since. Fact is, I have often forsaken the saltwater opportunities that were within mere minutes of my erstwhile home in Buras to travel to Missouri, North Carolina – and Varnado and Kisatchie! – to fish in creeks, especially during October.
From those found within our state, I have caught my two largest spotted bass, one of which had been recognized for almost 15 years as the biggest taken anywhere in Louisiana on a fly. I have also caught a number of very respectable largemouths, and on two extraordinary occasions I tallied a shadow bass (Ambloplites ariommus) – reclusive inhabitants of a few of these waters, apparently primarily in the Florida Parishes and a species few residents have encountered in our state. More recently I caught a longear sunfish that was colored more brilliantly than any of the thousand-odd others I have taken from creeks, lakes, rivers, and reservoirs in four different states. It was assuredly the most beautiful fish of any species I have ever set my eyes upon!
And it, like the shadow bass, was just a little lagniappe that a creek occasionally gives up – and that in itself another reason why creeks are so dear to me.
And would you believe that when I mention them to someone, more often than not the response I receive either conveys a complete ignorance of the genre hereabouts or compares them to the “coulees” with which the responder is familiar!
There is NO comparison!
The best of them flow with light to moderate current over a sand or gravel substrate – a few even sport reaches underlain by solid sandstone bedrock. That current, incidentally, is created by both the influx from springs and the creek’s gradient, which in a few extreme cases exceeds 10 feet per mile! That’s a serious gradient for even an Ozark stream!
The water is typically cool and slightly tannin-stained, though again, some of our creeks are quite clear. Many of them flow through pristine corridors, most support at least decent populations of various sunfish – spotted bass being of primary interest, and a large number of them are listed within the state’s Scenic Streams System and are therefore given a degree of protection by the System’s statutes. That’s good, because a lot of folks tend to abuse them, not realizing the fact that nobody makes creeks anymore.
Some of the System’s waterways are only fishable by floating them in a boat, a paddle-craft or johnboat powered by a small outboard being the preferred types. Bayou Dorcheat has been a personal October favorite of that type for decades, and Whiskey Chitto and the Tangipahoa have long provided noteworthy floating experiences. But those favor rivers more than creeks which – to deserve the name – should at least in part be wadable.
Although in warmer times virtually all of Louisiana’s creeks can be waded “wet”, during autumn waders are advisable. Those are not commonly worn by fishermen in our state’s waters, so I must offer a note on wader-safety. Wear a belt cinched up fairly tightly around your waist OVER the waders. That will create a pocket of air below the belt that will serve as buoyancy should you step off into water a bit deeper than what you were prepared for. I prefer waist-high waders in lieu of chest-high waders, since the latter type can get pretty hot!
While wading is a primary means of getting to the fish in creeks, it is also the cause of the main reason why so many folks catch so few fish in them – bass, anyway. That is expressly because they wade in such a manner that allows the bass to detect their presence – creating a very obvious silhouette as well as generating waves and “crunches” in the bottom sediments with each step. A nephew who once quite successfully fished a lovely little Missouri creek with me referred to such crass practices as “The Buffalo Wallow”, and that is a very good description of it! Wear dark shirts, fish upstream – against the current – if you can, keep a low profile or use shoreline vegetation to mask your presence, and don’t be in a hurry! It never hurts to pause for a few moments between the time you reach the position from which you intend to make a cast and making that cast. Take your time – enjoy the scenery.
No matter where the fish is found, a spotted bass’s diet consists in great part of crawfish. Therefore they most often feed along bottom, and that is typical of the fish inhabiting creeks. However, during autumn there are apparently enough terrestrials, frogs, and surface-oriented minnows “upstairs” to justify a bass keeping a watchful eye out that way. That creates a very worthwhile opportunity for the use of surface lures which are assuredly everyone’s preference for piscatorial entertainment!
There is also a pragmatic reason for their use here, and that is the abundance of submerged “structure” that is lifetime guaranteed to relieve you of many of your sub-surface lures. Fish topwaters – it’s productive and MUCH more fun!
While I have taken a number of creek-bass on such hardware as Tiny Torpedoes and 3-inch floating Rapalas, I greatly prefer fly fishing in them. Granted, the choice is basically a personal one, but I firmly believe that fishing with flies is the most productive method in these waters. I base that in part on the fact that my largest creek-caught spot, largemouth, and smallmouth fell to flies – expressly, poppers.
That brings up a fine point. An apparently popular belief is that small waters dictate the use of small lures. Assuredly, “bream bugs” will lead to a lot of longears, but they just don’t have enough appeal to a decent-sized spot to inspire it to leave its crawfish-hunting territory and make a foray to the surface. I prefer size 6 poppers in general with size 4’s often being the best choice along the broader and deeper reaches.
Another misconception about creek-fishing is that poppers should be retrieved with light twitches and pauses. If you happen to cast one near a bass that is already ‘looking up”, that does work. On the other hand, since many more of them will be “looking down”, you need to get their attention. I learned long ago that during autumn, a retrieve consisting of four or five moderately-paced soft pops followed by a brief pause does just that. When worked along shoreline structure the popper apparently thus mimics a small frog that has hopped into the water. Whatever, it may seem like such a rowdy retrieve in such small water will send every bass around scurrying in terror for cover, but it works!
Of course, for it to work you must first find a creek. That is best done by Googling the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries at wlf.state.la.us. At the top of the site’s home-page, point the cursor at “Experiencing Wildlife”, then slide the cursor down the list to Scenic Rivers. At that point another window will open to the right. At the bottom of it will be “Descriptions” – click on that for a list of the streams included in the System and the parishes in which they are located.
Once you decide which creeks you’d like to prospect, buy a copy of “The Roads of Louisiana” at your local bookstore or Google the Department of Transportation at la dotd. On their home-page point your cursor at GIS/Maps Online in the left-hand column, then click on “order maps…” and follow the steps to order the desired parish road-maps. Either of those references will show you the creeks and their respective bridge-crossing access points.
The odds are very good that you will have whichever one you choose to fish all to yourself, and creeks simply cannot get any better than that – personal places, and I say that in all sincerity. Get to know one – especially in October – and you’ll discover that there’s much more to fishing them than fishing. You’ll see what I mean.
(Louisiana Conservationist 10-2006)
Curing the Tail-tug Syndrome
Some of you may not have heard the tale of the old boy who was out in the local swamp beating his head against a big cypress tree. A neighbor from across the bayou happened along, stopped for a moment to watch the strange behavior, and then asked why his friend was doing so. “Because it will feel so good when I quit”, he responded.
My days of fly fishing with poppers for bass in creeks have seldom led to such self-inflicted headaches. Still, I must admit that at one time, a day or two of futile efforts felt exactly like I was beating my head against the proverbial tree, and I would continue to do so until the bass would once again begin responding to the popper. And eventually they would, and then the “headache” would go away. In the meantime, though, the pain that resulted could become especially intense, since the bass were almost always where they were supposed to be. Finding the fish in a creek is rarely a problem; making them strike a fly, though, can be. And while the particulars of the ailment involved smallmouths, I am absolutely certain that particular was only relevant because the water in which it all occurred was clear enough for me to plainly watch the goings-on.
What became known as the “tail-tug syndrome” manifested itself comparatively late in my creek-fishing career – a result, as I speculated earlier, of a particular stream’s relatively clear water and slow current. Once or twice a day a bass – usually a smallmouth – would rise to the popper, scrutinize it for a moment – even tug at its tail, and then lose interest and return to its rock where it would not respond to any further attempts to entice it. Not positively, anyway. Various manipulations of the fly made no difference whatsoever to the fish’s actions. I would then blame the incident on an uncharacteristically finicky fish, and traipse off – with the popper still tied to my tippet – to find another bass with a more normal personality.
At about the time I identified the syndrome, I had just plunged into trout fishing. Gearing up for that endeavor required rather large orders of dry flies and associated stuff, and that earned me regular monthly issues of the Dan Bailey catalogue. While leafing through those inspiring pages one day, it dawned on me that since my favorite little smallmouth stream was loaded with small crawfish and sculpins, perhaps imitations of sub-surface groceries (A real horror to a surface-fly fanatic!) might work when the poppers didn’t.
So I bought a dozen each of Muddler Minnows and Spuddlers, half weighted and half un-weighted, in sizes 4, 6, and 8, along with some un-weighted Marabou Muddlers in size 4 and weighted Marabou Muddlers in size 6. The following June I sallied forth back into smallmouth country, armed to the teeth against my creek’s temperamental bass and my psychological tree-trunk.
A plain-vanilla Muddler in size 4 actually did account for some respectable fish, along with a pile of smaller ones, but the creek’s clear water allowed me to witness numerous refusals – again! I soon had the thought that the bass I caught on the sinking fly would have probably struck a popper and given me the excitement of a surface strike.
Still, though not quite to the point of head-bashing, I persisted with the sub-surface patterns. And a weighted marabou version actually accounted for a real eye-opener – which was visible, very active, and would have likely struck a piece of rag threaded onto a bare hook! – but nary another decent bass ate it! The un-weighted marabou models proved to be instruments of destruction – on goggle-eyes and green sunfish, but they did not account for a single bass over a foot long. I don’t have a clue why they didn’t, since they looked great in the water – to me, anyway. And they would sort of “bloop” when given a few healthy twitches before they sank. The bass, though, were not impressed.
Within two seasons all the Muddlers and Spuddlers were retired to an emergency fly box in my vest where they remained – generally undisturbed – for the next decade. Their brief appearances to alleviate the headaches brought about by ongoing futile efforts with poppers were invariably wastes of good time. And as it might be expected, over the years the weighted and un-weighted versions became intermixed.
In retrospect, most of the days I spent on that particular creek were quite enjoyable. It’s a pretty place, especially in late spring and in October, and it really didn’t matter too much if every now and then I would pass several hours on it – at times even an entire day – without much smallmouth company. If I hadn’t put the hurt on ‘em recently, I was fairly certain that I would shortly. So if my poppers weren’t doing especially well, I didn’t get too worked up about it – that is, until I diagnosed the syndrome.
It’s much easier, though, to think than to act, and once that discovery had been made I did a lot of thinking about how cure that affliction but did little in an attempt to actually do so. One day in desperation I did try a size 8 grasshopper pattern, but the profusion of panfish in that creek took such a liking to that fly that I quickly abandoned it. The hopper experience, however, led to the brainstorm of greasing a big, un-weighted Muddler so that it would float.
On my next sortie to the creek I carried a tub of dry fly floatant and some reasonably intact specimens of the 10-year-old Muddlers and Spuddlers. I addressed the creek with great enthusiasm – and began fishing it with my poppers.
And I did take a couple of foot-long smallmouths and two respectable largemouths from it within an hour and with absolutely no evidence of the syndrome – or a headache. But the dreaded affliction finally manifested itself when a very nice smallmouth rose to the fly, circled it, tugged its tail, and then swam off – as did another, only slightly smaller one, a short time later. Now, stubbornly rapping my head against the tree-trunk, I fished my favorite long, rocky run without hooking another bass.
Finally – finally! – the thought of the big greased Muddler arose. Eventually I was able to weed out the weighted models by a simple process: they wouldn’t float no matter how much grease I applied to them! But while that did sort the floaters from the sinkers, the process also used up most of my small supply of light tippet material – small because it was rarely used. Nevertheless, though the 10-year-old flies quickly self-destructed from the combination of the grease and the fresh air, I caught five very nice smallmouths, including the largest I have ever taken! And I must say that after I received the rush-order I placed to Dan Bailey’s for replacement flies and tippet material, for the rest of that trip it’s a good thing for the smallmouths that I had decided long ago to no longer keep any of them! The tail-tug syndrome was almost completely cured – since a tug on a Muddler’s tail is much more likely to result in a hook-up than a tug on a popper’s tail – and the associated headaches quickly became a thing of the past.
On a somewhat technical note, I used three retrieve methods for the big greased Muddler: the dead drift, infrequent and very light twitches, and short series of light pops. And yes, you can pop a greased Muddler! The second method was by far the most productive, but if you use the dead drift – which was almost as effective, if you are able to see a bass rise to the fly and not immediately strike it, do not twitch it! Keep it dead – that’s what attracted the fish in the first place.
Bass will usually strike the greased Muddler with great gusto – and I love it for that! Still, every now and then I’ll get a tail-tugger that promptly receives a very rude awakening – and I love that even more! And like I said earlier, I haven’t had a head-bashing headache in a while. I still fish a popper religiously, and I still catch a lot of bass with them, but after one or two refusals – or tail-tugs – I know the cure.
And it feels so good!
The Three Clues
(Note: Although these lines focused on smallmouths in south-central Missouri, the particular techniques are entirely appropriate elsewhere. It didn’t take me long to find that out!)
It’s high autumn, and though the brisk winds of the previous day’s norther have diminished a bit, the sun is still glaringly bright in the azure sky. The weatherman on the country/western radio station has just mentioned that the barometer is over 30 inches, and the temperature will only reach the mid-fifties that afternoon. And as I descend the river’s bank, I find that the water is almost too good – low, crystal clear, and with only a moderate current. All that combines to make some awfully tough fishing conditions, but I had driven over 800 miles for this first autumn encounter with the brown bass, and I had a fair knowledge of the river, so the challenge was eagerly accepted.
Crossing the shoals below the first pool – a perennial favorite – I find that I can see almost every rock on the bottom of its 5-foot depths. Man, I think, these fish are going to be spookier than my daughter is on report-card day!
The 5-weight stick is already strung up, but I take the time to add a couple of feet of 3X tippet to the leader before starting to work the pool. The size 6 olive weighted Marabou Muddler is a proven producer, and I am convinced that the bright day and clear water will require probing the depths – such as they are. But though I can see several small fish magically appear to investigate the fly, only one – a baby smallmouth – takes. The good fish I know are present show no interest at all.
The quarter-mile stretch of knee-deep riffles and runs upstream are barren of all but shiners. That’s not surprising, but the tail-out of the next pool – a real super-spot – also is, and that’s disappointing. The pool itself looks very inviting, but its inhabitants are lockjawed and remain in hiding under their rocks. The Muddler doesn’t even get a look.
My efforts in the next pool are also un-rewarded, but just upstream at the tail of a long, fairly deep run and with the descending sun just beginning to cast deep shadows across the far bank, I get a bump at the edge of the shade. The remaining 150 yards of normally productive water generate only casting practice.
By now I have decided that if I am going to be skunked, the remainder of the day will be spent getting skunked with poppers. So I tie on a size 6 yellow and black model which has been quite effective during my regular June trips to the river and begin to slowly work my way back downstream.
A large rockslide on the shaded bank extends almost halfway across the streambed near the tail of the long run, and a slow, twitching retrieve across the jumble gets a rousing strike. Caught napping, I miss it. After resting the spot for a few minutes while I smoke my pipe and try to regain a little composure, I speculate a second cast. The bug lands softly against the bank, and after the small ripples from its impact have died away, I give it three light twitches – and a gorgeous 14-inch smallmouth tries to obliterate it.
After releasing the fish and re-tying the popper, I have another quick smoke and take a break from the intense concentration that encompasses me when I am fly fishing on a river. Streamside trees are now almost leafless, and the brush that encases the western ridge has died back, revealing limestone outcroppings I have never seen before. It’s a totally different world now – completely silent save for the subtle music of the downstream riffle and the squeal of a passing wood duck. No tractors, no ATV’s, no swimmers, in fact, no one at all – autumn solitude on an Ozark smallmouth stream.
Out of my reverie, I again sent the small popper across the shaded submerged rocks, and it is taken almost immediately. This fish, a spotted bass this time and a little smaller than the smallmouth, gives me a couple of good jumps before it is brought in and released. I find that my face is beginning to ache – didn’t know I was grinning that hard…
One more smallmouth – a crazy 12-incher that jumps all over the tail-out of the second pool – and I head back to the truck with numbing fingers and a couple of clues.
The next day – ignoring the “shaded water” clue – I am back on the river at noon. The clear, high-pressure weather remains, but as the afternoon wears on, an approaching cold front sends the wind to the south, and the temperature rises into the 60’s. I work the “thick jumbled rocks in 3 to 4 feet of water” clue with the popper for three hours before sticking the first decent fish – a largemouth from the edge of a blowdown… in the shade. Hello!
Carefully making my way back downstream, I begin to re-work the second pool which is now in total shadow. A long cast to the rocks at the base of the bluff arouses the interest of a small panfish, and I work the popper with a series of light pops for about four feet to get it away from the little pest. Again caught napping – never considering that such rowdy antics wouldn’t spook everything within 10 feet of the fly out onto the bank – a beautiful smallmouth makes a minor miscalculation in its attempted interception, and I am left with shaking knees. A half-dozen repeat casts to the same spot are futile – fish don’t get that big making the same mistake very often! But before I reach the end of the pool’s tail-out, and by working the popper in 3 to 4-foot spurts comprised of steady, soft pops – more action than I have ever put into a popper while fishing for smallmouths – I take and release two more nice fish. Clue number three is difficult to believe!
The front comes whistling across the Missouri prairie before daybreak, and for breakfast I am treated to spitting rain, 20 mph winds, and 48 degrees – a good day to take the wife shopping. But after a couple of hours of mall-hopping, I get a gut feeling that I might be missing out on something, and then the clues come together. By the time I get to the river it is almost two, and clearing has begun in the north, but here it is still miserable – to me, anyway: wind, rain, and 51 degrees.
In slicker and waist waders I approach the rocky pool, the thought of “What am I doing here?” crossing my mind more than once. However, the clouds and wind-ruffled water effectively mask my presence, and the first cast, worked across the shallow rocks in the same, abnormal manner as during the evening before, is blasted by a yearling. The second gets another, and the third is taken by a rock bass – the first of the trip. Something is about to happen…
A brief shower blows through as the wind increases – horrible weather! I miss a good fish at mid-pool, rest it for a few minutes, and it takes solidly on the next try – the best fish of the trip. During the next hour I take, lose, or miss nine good fish; the temperature has fallen into the mid-40’s, and wet fingers – and the penetrating dampness, has my reflexes out of tune. But I am not there to string a mess of fish, and each strike is relished. Then the clearing line passes, and they shut the door.
Wondering whether the hot bite was triggered by low pressure along the front or the combination of the “the three clues”, I am on the river for the last time early the next afternoon. The temperature has risen to 48 from a morning freeze and heavy frost, and high pressure is firmly entrenched. But as the evening shadows lengthen, the thick clusters of submerged rocks again give up their bass to the popper, worked in a manner totally out of character with the fish, the water, and the weather: seven fine smallmouths.
To me, there is nothing in fishing that is more satisfying than solving a mystery – finding the key that opens the box of more productive angling. Very often that key is more like a combination lock, and several factors must be met in order to gain success.
Smallmouths in the smaller, shallower Ozark streams are almost never out of reach of floating fly line, but under high-pressure/clear-water conditions – like those frequently encountered in mid to late autumn – they will become very reluctant to foray from their rocky hideouts during the bright-light hours. Though sunlit water may be a few degrees warmer than that which is shaded (It was in the low 50’s during the aforementioned days.), it is usually so clear that even the smallest potential dangers – like line shadows – are easily detected by the bass. That factor, in combination with the loosely consolidated gravel bottoms of many small Ozark streams, makes undetected approaches very difficult.
Cloudy, windy, and rainy weather – and shade – sufficiently lowers light intensity and gives the fish a degree of confidence to feed in the crystalline water. And their main prey – crawfish, sculpins, and small bottom-oriented minnows – are in greatest abundance in thick accumulations of rocks.
It’s possible that in conjunction with the first two clues which I discovered on that first October trip I ever made into the Missouri Ozarks, the Muddler Minnow might have been more productive than the popper. I’ll never know the answer to that, but I can reasonably assume that the active retrieve of the popper aroused the fish’s aggressive tendencies and triggered reflex strikes – I never saw any evidence of surface feeding in the four days I fished.
Reading and understanding “clues”, “patterns”, or whatever one might call them is extremely important as autumn waxes. But the fact remains that during this time – and in some awfully adverse weather I have experienced over the years since that first autumn trip, Ozark river-smallmouths will take surface flies. And so will spots in the creeks that are found here in Louisiana. All one needs to catch either of them is a stealthy approach, tackle a bit lighter than what suffices during the warmer months to cope with the clearer water, a basic understanding of the fish, and the knowledge to never disregard even the smallest hint that, either by itself or in combination with another, may open the door to some excellent late-season action.
(Game & Fish Publications 11-1991)
Spots Along the Pushe
A summer weekend is not a very good time for fly fishing a cool, clear, free-flowing and gravel-bottom stream. Then the local folks come out in droves to swim, sunbathe, cook, and drink beer near the bridge-crossings along it, and I knew that a particular Florida-parish creek would be pretty crowded that Saturday afternoon. But back then it was my favorite, and because of commitments (My daughter’s wedding the next day!), I had no choice: fish it then or not for some time to come.
Just upstream of the crossing where I parked my truck, two Bikini-clad young ladies were laid out on lawn chairs in a riffle at the tail of a consistently productive turn in the streambed, their boom-box on a nearby gravel bar blasting out some pretense of music. I waded past them, waved a greeting, and struggled momentarily to re-focus on the day’s purpose. However, once past the turn my thoughts returned to fishing, the racket quickly gave way to the melodic murmur of the riffles, and I was soon wrapped within the soul-soothing silence and beauty of that so special place. And it came to pass on that unlikely afternoon, four spotted bass rose from their lies to take my poppers, the last – and largest – coming from the turn where just downstream the “scenery” changed dramatically.
On hot summer afternoons crowds are indeed common on many of our small rivers. Better action, and a whole lot more privacy where the aesthetics of the streams and their corridors can be better appreciated, comes on weekday mornings. Then – and during autumn when they are at their annual lowest, clearest, and brightest best – truly “scenic” streams, they can be yours alone. And that is what founded and maintained within me for over a decade an endearment of Pushepatapa Creek.
The “Pushe” is about as uncharacteristic of Louisiana waters as a polar bear would be to the state’s native wildlife. Located in the northeastern corner of Washington Parish, its 16-mile course-length falls from elevations of 215 feet to 90 feet, creating an average gradient of 11 feet per mile! Its base flow is sustained by alluvial aquifers, and its water quality is rated as excellent – perhaps the best of any stream in the state. Most of its corridor is forested, though shoreline shallows and gravel bars facilitate walking and wading alongside it in many reaches. It would be a gem of a “warmwater” river anywhere, though its water is far from being warm, and it is a ward of the state’s Natural and Scenic Streams System coordinator, Keith Cascio – a good friend who I had the great pleasure of introducing it to several years ago. And it is without a doubt one of the finest spotted bass streams I have ever fished!
The spotted bass (Micropterus punctulatus) is one of the six species of black bass found in the United States and is indigenous to most of Louisiana’s rivers and bayous. In those waters which support large populations of crawfish, up to 80 % of an adult bass’s diet can consist of those crustaceans. Mudbugs are indeed a staple on the Pushe, nevertheless, from mid-spring into autumn the river’s spots will eagerly take small frogs, grasshoppers, and a variety of minnows from the surface. That’s why I almost exclusively use fly-rod poppers, and that brings up a very important point.
During the initial questioning of the guys who first informed me about the river, they related they fished it with “bream bugs” and trout nymphs and caught lots of panfish and small bass but nothing noteworthy. So I sallied forth on my first trip there with some degree of apprehension – and a casting rod. But in the 30 minutes I was able to fish before a rather wicked thunderstorm drove me back to my truck, I caught two of the biggest spots I had ever taken and lost a third – on a quarter-ounce crankbait! The moral? Offer ‘em a mouthful!
Transposing that into fly-fishing data, I almost exclusively used size 4 poppers in “frog”, yellow and black, and chartreuse and black. They were fished on 8 ½ or 9-foot 6-weight rods with a 9-foot leader tapered to a 10-pound tippet. That’s a pretty stout outfit for fish that will weigh under two pounds much more often than over, but it was needed to prevent the fish from diving into or around the blow-downs and mid-stream snags which create much of the fish-holding structure in the river.
Typically, any break in the current – and it is surprisingly strong – found in roughly two to four feet of water can hold fish. Shoreline blow-downs, and snags in mid-stream riffles, can easily have created washouts around and below them which meet this criteria, and there are plenty of them along the Pushe! There are also eddies in shoreline pockets which can hold fish. Add shade to any of those, and the odds of finding bass increase greatly. Catching them on the popper, though, requires following some strict guidelines.
Spotted bass usually hold closely to the streambed, searching for crawfish if they are hungry and keeping out of the main force of the current in any case, so you must shift their attention upwards if you want them to strike the popper. The best way to accomplish that is to give it one or two moderate pops immediately after its impact or at the point where it drifts into the anticipated strike zone. Around the washouts and shoreline pockets your presentations will be exactly like those you would make on other rivers, though you may need to make several to a spot to arouse a fish’s interest.
Fish can also be found along seemingly featureless banks – areas where I have taken many very nice spots, including what for some time was the state record fly-caught spot. Actually, they are not featureless. The presence of the bank itself serves as a current break for a short distance outwards, as a result the bass can be found within that narrow band of slower flow.
Due to the deep shade along these banks it is next to impossible to see anything below the water’s surface which might hold a fish, so blind-casting the bank in hopes that the popper will land or drift near a submerged log or limb is the drill. And that works, but it is often hindered by the current’s drag on the line, pulling the popper from the slower water before the bass can detect and strike it.
The only way I’ve found to effectively work these shorelines is to make short casts – no more than 30 feet or so – directly cross-current, placing the popper as close to the bank as possible. I then give it two quick pops, lift as much line as I can off the water without pulling the popper toward me and let it drift. Once it enters the main current I pick it up and repeat the exercise, placing it a few feet further upstream, and eventually cover the entire shoreline in that manner.
Any strike deserves several follow-up casts to the same spot. A friend once caught three fine fish on three consecutive casts to a spot that looked exactly the same as the rest of that particular stretch of shoreline. Perhaps there was a log on bottom there which we could not see because of the shade; the river’s corridor does become tunnel-like in places – but then, that is an enhancement of its scenic beauty more than a detriment to the fishing it offers.
For such a pristine and productive river, the Pushe is relatively easy to access. From Interstate 12 take US 190 north to its junction with LA 21 in Covington. Follow LA 21 north through Bogalusa, and you will cross the river a half-mile or so south of Varnado. This crossing has very good water above it, but it is a popular swimming and partying spot; the best fishing here is in early morning.
At the Seal Road caution light in Varnado turn right, then make another right on LA 436, and you will shortly come to another crossing. This one has some pretty steep banks near the bridge, but there is good water downstream. By initially turning left at the caution light and proceeding around 1 ½ miles, you will have encountered two blacktop roads leading off to the left (south); their bridges have good water both upstream and downstream. Finally, the Seal Road itself crosses the river about six miles from the light. Upstream of this bridge is very good water.
While I have enjoyed great action and very pleasant surroundings on the Pushe from late May well into October, I prefer fishing it in early autumn. Then no one is swimming or cultivating their tans, the kids are in school, and all the local “sports” are either fishing in saltwater or hunting. Then the river is usually deserted, and you can experience it at its absolute best.
And then you will see why it is such a special place.
(Louisiana Conservationist May 2003)
The Trip to Starving Possum Creek
Over the years I passed a lot of time studying road maps and topo charts, especially on rainy days while Barbara and I were on vacation in Missouri and I couldn’t go fishing. Once in a while I managed to find another access point on a nearby creek like that – new water and the promise that always accompanied it: we must go and check it out! And so it came to pass on a particularly dreary October afternoon that my nephew George and I set out to prospect my latest discovery: a not-so-favorite stream’s crossing by a semblance of a gravel road far back in the hills.
I had fished upstream reaches in that particular creek several times in past years but with only mediocre success. Still, it did show some potential, and several friends occasionally raved about it and the willing bass that dwelt within it. Perhaps I hadn’t been fishing in the same stretch that they had; maybe this was “their spot”. We turned off the familiar road well short of my usual access route and plunged expectantly into the unknown.
The new “road” was more like the track for the “Wild Mouse” that those self-abusive types ride at state fairs and carnivals than a modem for modern-day travel – something it had never been intended for, I realized, after passing less than a quarter of a mile over its twisting, roller-coaster surface. It quickly became quite clear that even the thought of grabbing any of the Bronco’s gears higher than third was suicidal, and if I intended to retain any of my lunch, I had best keep it under 40!
After topping one particularly sharp, stomach-in-your-throat ridge, we descended it on a serpentine, 10% grade to a bottom where a one-lane bridge crossed a stream. Apparently the state’s highway department once had more money than it knew what to do with, and in an effort to spend some of it placed a sign upon the bridge, denoting the name of the mere trickle that passed beneath it: ”Coon Creek”.
The road continued on – steep, winding, occasionally passing alongside very realistic replicas of depression-era farms where skinny chickens pecked at gravel in driveways behind rusty red ’49 pick-ups. The few cows we saw were so thin you’d have trouble getting two Big Macs off one. Even the corn, planted in the very few, and very tiny, patches of reasonably level ground was skimpy. It was pretty poor country, to say the least – the kind of stuff that can take the enthusiasm out of going fishing, even to a new spot.
It wasn’t long before I had to grab second again in order to top another ridge, then cautiously begin the hair-raising descent into what had to be another creek-bottom.
“Wonder what the name of this one is”, I muttered as I fought to get the right-front tire back onto the pavement.
This bridge – also one lane and with a blind curve just beyond it which conjured visions of an overloaded 18-wheeler about to appear heading our way – had no sign upon it. The stream beneath it was of such character that it made Coon Creek look like a raging torrent and therefore was apparently not worthy of even excess highway-department dollars. Anyway, it turned out there wasn’t a lurking 18-wheeler waiting to play chicken-on-the-bridge, and after George began breathing normally again, he offered this:
“Hungry Coon Creek?”
After grinding our way in second again up and out of the gorge, we came across a 50-yard stretch of road that was almost flat. On the left was a sheer limestone bluff; on the right – nestled between the road and the rock wall that made up the other side of the gap – was a farm.
It was especially representative of those we had already passed, and the dark and dreary day didn’t help its character a bit. The rusty red ’49 pick-up was sitting up on blocks; an ancient tractor was parked alongside, its hood up, revealing an equally rusty motor. There were no skinny chickens pecking about; in fact, there were no chickens at all, only a single, derelict cow. And the corn-patch – the entire one-eighth of an acre of it – had been picked, the stalks standing stark and barren against the leaden sky. Hopefully the guy had a job in town…
The house appeared as what might have been expected of a marginally-successful depression-era farm: an almost-square frame, two-storied model with large front windows and a tall chimney. But now, it looked like it hadn’t had a fresh coat of paint since the ’49 pick-up was new, and as we passed it I swear the figure who peered out at us from one of the front windows looked awfully similar to the banjo-picker in “Deliverance”!
Our hasty departure from that disturbing place was quickly slowed as the road wound, dipped, and climbed onward, creating the stuff that seasickness is made of, as well as animal fear for life and limb. We didn’t talk much, preoccupied with survival and, I guess, the sad state of the local population. Even as the prospect of fishing in new water grew near – the point where our enthusiasm normally reaches a rolling boil, silence pervaded the Bronco. Finally, in an effort to take George’s mind off thoughts of his impending doom – and maybe gain some moral support from the sound of his voice as I struggled with the road, I asked him what he thought the name of the next stream we came across might be.
He pondered that for a while – at least, he gave the semblance of it as we skirted a particularly sharp curve where the precipice was mere inches away. Actually, it would have been a strikingly scenic view – had he been looking. He wasn’t, and upon regaining a bit of color after we were almost sideswiped by a rusty red ’49 pick-up, he released his grip on the dash, took a deep breath, exhaled long and loudly, and proclaimed “Starving Possum Creek… where the times are lean!”
I thought that was pretty appropriate, considering how bad things seemed to be in these hills – bad enough for a possum to starve, and I had never heard of that happening before! Whatever, it turned out that the next creek we came across was the one we were looking for.
The gravel road that led from the “highway” to it was an excellent example of early-century rural civil engineering – totally absent. Still, compared to what we had just exited, it was almost a relief as we slowly spiraled down the side of the hill upon it. And shortly, we reached the stream.
The bridge across it was classic – a suspension-type typical of the 1930’s, and only a few of the planks that made up its surface were missing. Nevertheless, after a studious evaluation of its condition, we decided to leave the Bronco in a clearing a couple of hundred yards back rather than tempt fate and try to reach a turn-out just across the water.
While we really didn’t slay ‘em, the stream gave up a lot more action than one might expect from something with an otherwise apropos alias of “Starving Possum Creek”. One of the bass was a very respectable spot, a fish I thought would look very nice in a picture framed against the limestone bluffs alongside the deep, green pool over which the bridge crossed.
As I maneuvered George and the bass into position for the picture-taking, and it really was a beautiful setting, a rusty red ’49 pick-up with balloon tires rumbled out onto the bridge and stopped, its driver gawking in amazement at the two grown men who were standing in the creek – in a light rain! – taking pictures of a fish. So me being a fairly friendly sort, I waved and shouted a greeting.
“Pretty place here, isn’t it?”
“Got a nice spotted bass here and wanted to take some pictures of it. Any smallmouths down this far?”
“Nice truck. Had it long?”
Well, by that time George was mumbling something about the guy having probably dropped off some buddies back by the Bronco to check it out, and I swear I could hear “Dueling Banjos” somewhere off in the distance. Anyway, apparently the old boy’s attention span was somewhat limited, and it wasn’t long before he drove away. We got our pictures and then decided it might be prudent to return to the Bronco, just in case.
It turned out that everything was in order there, but by then both of us were more than ready to get the hell out of the boondocks. So we made the not-so-difficult drive to one of my mediocre upstream spots, caught a few nice bass there, had a very pleasant time, and returned home on a familiar, friendly road – where the times weren’t so lean.
Prospecting new spots is an integral part of creek-fishing, and it’s usually a lot of fun. And on rainy days I still occasionally pore over charts and topo maps looking for one – and occasionally I find one. Most have been good, some have been absolutely marvelous, but a “Starving Posssum Creek” – and the road to it – is always a possibility. It’s just part of the territory.
Those Sensational Spillways
Here’s a spring opportunity that’s not commonly considered by most fly fishermen, yet offers great potential with a wide variety of species.
I caught my first fish from a spillway on a fly while I was in high school. I don’t recall what it was, because the waters below that particular dam were loaded with a variety of both rough fish and gamefish (And I will avow that some of those “rough” fish were quite gamey, thank you very much!). Perhaps it was a skipjack herring – maybe a mooneye – but I am certain it was not one of my targeted species.
Eventually I did make contact with those – white and yellow bass, largemouth and spotted bass, and crappie, though it seemed the rough types, which included gou and gar, were dead set on preventing me from doing so. For the remainder of high school, throughout college, and on occasion for some time thereafter I enjoyed many days of fine fly fishing in spillways across much of Louisiana (And other parts of the lowland South!). Reflections of those days eventually led me to discuss an article about them with one of my erstwhile magazine editors.
“Sounds good,” he said, “got any pictures?”
“Uh – no,” I replied – it had been around 20 years since I had last fished a spillway.
“Gotta have pictures.”
So shortly thereafter on a trip north I phoned a good fly-fishing friend and lined up a day of spillway fishing in the hopes of getting some photographic support for the article. Notably, neither of us had ever fished the one he chose, and some rather violent weather caused us to get a late start and continued to threaten us throughout the afternoon. Nevertheless, we managed two small largemouths and three very respectable white crappie. One of those caught by my friend, Bill Stall, looked like it might make the top spot in its category within the fly-fishing division of the state’s fishing records, so we cut our trip even shorter in order to have it weighed and documented. Sure enough, it made the grade – and serves as fine illustration of just how productive these waters can be.
Warmwater spillways and their tailwaters can be found throughout the South, the Midwest, and in other lowland areas across the country. Some of them are found below very large dams across major rivers. These – like the waters below the dams of Texas’ Lake Livingston, Toledo Bend, and Florida’s Lake Seminole – also support good numbers of striped bass. Incidentally, the stripers found in the Apalachicola River below Seminole’s Jim Woodruff dam are naturally spawned in the Flint River – one of the lake’s two primary tributaries – and make their way downstream through the lake – and subsequently through the dam! – into the Apalachicola. Talk about a unique, though apparently fairly effective, way to stock a river!
Still, the waters below large dams like those remain major rivers. As such they are wide, deep, and often laced with heavy current. Some even have restricted areas immediately below the dams, prohibiting access to the most productive water. They are fly fishable, but barely.
Better for us are those found below the dams which have created smaller reservoirs from minor rivers, bayous, and such. Once “pool stage” has been reached, most of these serve only to carry off excess water which has entered the reservoir from run-off and the source-streams and flows over the top of the dam. While these spillways can be fairly wide, they are usually relatively short before they bottleneck back down to the width of the source-stream tailwaters, not too deep, and with minimal current, and in being so they are made to order for fly fishing. And would you believe I have never seen another angler fly fishing in one of them – well, except for Bill on the day of the big crappie.
The tailwaters below the best spillways flow into a major river. During spring – typically the “wet season” and the best time to fish them, provided the lake is not flooded – they serve in their “tributary stream” role as host to the spawning runs of several species, particularly white and yellow bass, which reside in the river. Once they begin ganging up below the dam where they join the spillway’s resident bass, crappie, etc., fishing can be outstanding for several weeks.
There are two specific areas in a spillway where I have experienced the most consistent action. The first is at the base of the dam; the second is where the waters below the dam funnel back into the original channel of the source-stream.
The dams are usually constructed either entirely of concrete, of large granite boulders, or a combination of the two with the boulders being on the downstream side of the dam. In the first case the downstream face of the dam can be nearly vertical. Here, and along any concrete “wings” which reinforce the spillway’s shorelines for a short distance below the dam, baitfish such as threadfin shad often hold quite tightly to the concrete walls. Any that might suddenly flush from this “cover” will often quickly meet their ends. Therefore, for the best results your fly should bump the wall, be allowed to sink to increasing depths until the strike zone is determined, then retrieved quickly but for only a short distance before the next cast.
On the other hand, where boulders are found they descend into the spillway at a much more gradual angle, creating a wider area of cover in the nooks and crannies among them for the minnows. In this case the predators may be found some distance downstream of the point where the boulders enter the water, so the fly should be retrieved accordingly before it is picked up for the next cast.
At the bottleneck I have found it best to stand on the points which are created on both shorelines here, cast slightly up and across the current, allow the fly to sink until the proper depth is discovered (Occasionally that can be just beneath the surface, but usually it is deeper.), and then retrieve it with short, moderately-paced strips as it gradually swings into the original channel. That point – where the wider spillway swages down to the channel – is where many strikes occur.
Do not become discouraged, wherever you are fishing, if action is a little slow in coming. The “resident” largemouth and spotted bass and crappie are often fairly localized and require some prospecting to locate. However, marauding schools of white and yellow bass – as well as sorties staged by various rough fish – can become evident at any second. The result is not unlike someone going from rags to riches in a heartbeat.
That is because of the presence of abundant prey species. Whether they are swept over the tops of the dams or they simply swim upstream from the river which the tailwater feeds, who knows, but they collect in spillways in large numbers during spring, making these waters prime feeding grounds for the predators.
While crawfish and various types of bottom-oriented minnows are usually present in a dam’s spillway, most often the primary prey is shad – either threadfin or juvenile gizzard shad. Therefore, white flies 2 to 2 ½ inches long are a good choice. Those I used back in my younger days consisted only of a small clump of white bucktail lashed to a live-bait hook – size 6, I recall. It would not sink very deeply in the current below the dams where I fished, but the skipjack herring – and the white bass during their times – loved it. Bill and I used size 4 chartreuse over white Clouser Minnows weighted with small brass hourglass eyes to catch those largemouths and crappie. Sure wish I had known about that fly back in the early 60’s…
Spillway fishing often requires some serious distance-casting to reach the productive waters near the base of the dam. If you can sling a Clouser like that one 70 feet or so with a 6-weight – and if you are not fishing in waters stripers are known to inhabit – then you should do just fine. However, I would recommend an 8-weight for those (like me) who are not such gifted casters. Even if stripers are not present, a reel holding 100 yards or so of 20-pound backing is good insurance against getting spooled by a big drum – a species well known for its ability to put the current on its tail and run like the proverbial striped ape! I would have two spools for it, one rigged with either a floating or intermediate sinking-tip line, the other with a Class III full-sinking line. And bring plenty of flies, because you will lose a few to bottom-structure as well as have a few more become mangled by the skipjacks and mooneyes, should you have the great fortune of making their acquaintance. Yes, like the drum they are “rough”, but man, are they ever fun! Sort of like the ladyfish of my present world.
To tell the truth, fly fishing in spillways is a lot like certain saltwater fly-fishing scenarios: there’s no telling just what might eat your Clouser on the next cast. To me that adds a little spice to the gumbo. Try it this spring; you could discover you have been missing a real treat.
For fisheries management purposes, the Missouri Department of Conservation has set the northern boundary of the Ozark Plateau at the Missouri River. That is an appropriate definition, as virtually all of the state’s blue-ribbon smallmouth streams lie between the Missouri and the Arkansas state line. However, it does not signify the northern termination of that state’s smallmouth habitat – particularly creeks.
I met Barbara while we were waiting for an English class at LSU to begin – appropriately enough, on Valentine’s Day. She was there on a scholarship and, I soon learned, she was from Missouri – and early on that never implied anything else. So without any inkling of possible “future fringe benefits”, a relationship quickly developed that deepened through the spring semester.
Early the following summer I rode a train north from Shreveport to visit her and meet her family, returning to Missouri toward the end of August to take care of the particulars that are required for marriage. We were wed in mid-September and settled in Louisiana where we would spend our lives together.
Except during vacations!
Having known of my fondness for creek-fishing from the get-go, on our first trip back north she introduced me to a stream quite near her family’s home in Fulton, that being about 20 miles north of the Missouri River! Even so it was pretty remote and required permission to access it from two adjacent land-owners, one in town and one who owned a farm alongside it. Both of them had no problems with allowing me to fish the creek – neither did another guy who purchased the farm a decade or so later. Perhaps they all thought that someone from so far away couldn’t cause them much grief.
Whatever, I did look forward to meeting and visiting with the first farmer on my initial spring trips to the creek. He was always friendly and well-spoken – and looked to be as tough as nails! He recognized me – even recalled my name – after a few years, even though I only fished the creek a few times each trip, and it seemed like he was always glad to see me. He had two well-mannered sons and a very pleasant wife – don’t know how she managed to keep that up, living at the bottom of a deep hollow like they did! But I guess they did okay, and I was really saddened when they sold the place – and much more so when I learned that he had passed away. Even though we never fished together and only visited briefly a time or two each year, I considered him a friend of sorts, and after a lot of years since I last saw him I still remember his name – Kenneth Holsman.
And I felt obligated to include that paragraph about him here, because without his contribution, there’s no telling what direction my creek-fishing career might have turned.
The stream – Crow’s Fork of the Auxvasse Creek – was the first of its kind that I was to get really involved with since my days in the Texas Hill Country. It met all the requirements of the genre, though it tended to be a bit slow and dingy much of the time, and it was badly silted in places. It was also a tight little creek, with one very promising and comparatively long reach passing closely alongside a vertical bluff some 50 feet high where roosting turkeys often scared the pee out of me as they flushed from almost directly overhead!
The generally slow current throughout the creek allowed waves to radiate out ahead of me as I waded along it a bit too carelessly, even while wading upstream, and it was subject to rapid fluctuations from a moderate shower. It also held a profusion of panfish – mainly quite aggressive green and longear sunfish – that were prone to snatch my poppers from an interested bass. And like I mentioned earlier, it was “tight”. All of those aspects of the stream’s personality made it pretty tough to fish.
Still, it was a creek, and it held bass – of three species, I would later discover. So I began fishing it – with size 8 “brim bugs”, because I had yet to learn that “small water” did not necessarily demand small flies.
Not surprisingly, most of the fish that those poppers accounted for were perch-types. Early on the only decent bass that I caught were largemouths that ate the popper as it drifted slowly alongside the base of the bluff near the long run’s drop-off. There was also some promising water between the point where I would leave my vehicle and that particular reach of the creek – the bluff run that later became known as “The Wonderful Pool”, but for two years none of it gave up a bass. And by that time I had yet to catch a decent smallmouth from it.
A job change at the end of Spring, 1970, allowed us to spend a bit more time in Missouri than we normally did. That permitted more time to fish, but on the first few trips to the creek, everything remained the same. However, that year the creek was abnormally low and quite clear, and at the lower end of the “bluff-run” – which was graced with an exposed boulder in midstream a short ways into it – I discovered a submerged jumble of big rocks just downstream of the boulder that the deeper, dingier water of past years prevented me from noticing. Now they seemed to be a bit too shallow to allow bass to forage comfortably around them, but if the creek happened to rise a bit…
I quit fishing early on the day of the great revelation, spending the next couple of hours fashioning a rock dam across the creek just below the run’s tail-out. Now, I hoped, the previously unknown rocks would soon be flooded to a point where the bass would feed, and dingy water or not, I now knew where that would take place.
The next morning I was on the creek before sunrise. Again, its promising stretches just upstream of my parking spot gave up nothing but panfish, but I arrived at the bluff-run to find it up a good foot from the previous day and still clear enough to detect the submerged rocks near its tail-out. And while standing on the bank nearby and casting across them, I caught the two largest smallmouths that Crow’s Fork ever gave up to me! And thinking back on it, the significance of it all was that much greater, since I caught them on the usual size 8 “brim bug”! “The Wonderful Pool” indeed!
Now – after learning better – I cannot advocate damming a creek in order to create or improve a fishing spot, even if the “dam” is nothing more than a crude semicircle of assorted rocks that pass almost as much water through them as over them. The reason is assuredly not because such a dam hinders fish-movement but because it can alter the streambed below or above it – or both – and cause local degradation that can have residual effects a surprising distance from the structure. I’ve seen it happen.
However, during the following decade I could detect no long-reaching effects – good or bad – that were caused by my creation. I did catch a couple more nice smallmouths that trip with the water a bit higher than it had been initially, but the following spring’s floods had blown out one end of the dam. That indeed changed the flow-pattern of the creek a bit at that point, but as I said, not to any detriment. Or so it seemed.
The larger of the two smallmouths I caught that memorable day remained my best one for 10 years; the lesson learned from the creation of the Great Crow’s Fork Dam was that the bass would often feed with a sudden rise in water-level. Initially that was not especially a good thing to know, as it led to some pretty hairy experiences with rising water caused by a bit too much lightning-illuminated rain. But lighter showers often triggered a short bite, and I occasionally profited from the lesson.
Throughout that time, though, Crow’s Fork – even its “Wonderful Pool” – served more to sate my creek-fishing appetite than to offer lessons, and it did so during a period when there was no other like it in my life. I eagerly anticipated my days on it during upcoming spring vacations, reveled in it when I caught a fair one, and despaired appropriately when I didn’t – already thinking of some new and improved tactic that would outwit the brown bass. It gave my daughter Christi her first fish – though not a bass and, sadly, not on a fly, but still, at age seven, her first fish. And it provided the means for me to experience a couple of delightful autumn afternoons, sight-fishing for smallmouths in its increased seasonal clarity. That’s really neat stuff! But by that time I had discovered a lovely little high-Ozark stream an hour’s drive or so south of the house and had begun spending virtually all of a vacation’s fishing time on it.
Compared to that one – even in later years after it had begun to suffer badly from silting – Crow’s Fork was second-rate. At least, that comparison can be drawn now, many years after I last set foot into it. And I caught a few of its bass that last day – on a popper, though one that was much different from those I once used there! And that served to prove the other lesson I learned – indirectly, I assure you, but still a lesson learned – from Crow’s Fork: little water does NOT necessarily demand little flies!
Like with the Hill Country creek, I was very fortunate to have had that tight, rather sluggish, and usually a bit dingy stream in my life. I still dream about it occasionally. Creeks can get into your soul – even “second-rate” ones.
Five of a Kind
Louisiana is blessed with a diversity of water-bodies. Most of them offer at least decent fishing for any number of popular targets, both freshwater and saltwater. One of my favorite freshwater inhabitants is the spotted bass.
The spot is indigenous to a riverine environment throughout its natural range. True to its character, the fish is found almost statewide in waters that vary from sluggish and rather grungy bayous to clear and lively up-country “creeks” as well as in impoundments of such waterways. But it is in our creeks where I prefer to pursue this favorite fish, and there is good reason why!
Besides having taken my two largest spots from such water – one of which held the top position in the state’s fly-fishing records from 1992 until quite recently, creeks offer an aesthetic appeal that cannot be found in lakes, bays, and the Gulf of Mexico. They are usually pretty as well as productive! Their substrates – typically sand and pea-gravel – are easily waded. Their waters – though perhaps stained a bit by tannin – are comparatively clear, and their currents are just strong enough to add a little challenge to the exercise. Finally, their corridors can be quite pristine, as a number of these streams flow through sections of the Kisatchie National Forest.
If there is a problem with these little jewels – even though most of them are listed and therefore protected within the state’s Natural and Scenic Streams System, it is access to them. The streams themselves may be public, but the land alongside them – even in forest-lands – may be private. And even within those forest-lands, there are usually few state, parish, and forest-service roads that allow an angler to gain these waters at their bridges.
However, in southern Vernon Parish there is a slight anomaly to that dilemma that provides abundant opportunities!
Those arise not particularly as a result of numerous access points to a certain stream but because of a number of streams within a fairly small area. Beginning just west of Elizabeth some 10 miles west of Oakdale and moving west from there, first is Tenmile Creek. Then just beyond Pitkin is Sixmile Creek followed by Whiskey (Ouiska) Chitto, Drake’s Creek, and Bundick Creek. Here, you can prospect a couple of promising reaches on one stream, then, with LA 10 being the primary route between them all, make a short drive to another and give it a try. All are shown on the DOTD Vernon Parish South Section road map which can be purchased for roughly two bucks through the Department’s website at www.dotd.louisiana.gov. Click on “maps” and then follow the steps. Once your map arrives, it’s a good idea to trace the streams’ courses with a blue felt-tipped pen. Then the various roads’ bridge-access points will become much clearer.
While each creek has its own personality, they can all be fished in the same general manner. Although herein that effort is directed towards spotted bass, I feel I should make note of something very special that these particular streams have to offer.
That is apparently the result of all of them being within the rather isolated drainage of the Calcasieu River system. This seems to have allowed some genetic changes in another of the streams’ inhabitants the longear sunfish. While these somewhat diminutive but quite aggressive panfish are considered extremely colorful throughout their entire range, during summer spawning time the males become colorful beyond description in these streams! Without stuttering a bit I avow that I have never seen another fish – anywhere! – that was as beautifully colored as these can be!
Okay, that’s just a little lagniappe – though it’s something you can look forward to. Now it’s time for the actual fishing part, and here I must admit that I have never prospected any of these five creeks with anything but flies – usually poppers! And there is more to that preference than simply personal politics!
After fishing creeks for well over half a century, I have become convinced that fly fishing is the technique that, overall, is the best suited for them. If, however, you are not reasonably capable at it, do not try to become so on your initial trips to them. First learn the water, then learn the drill, and then put them together!
During the warm months two conventional-fishing lures can cover almost all of the bases. The first is a spinnerbait built around a gold size 3 safety-pin spinner, a 1/8-ounce jig-head, and a 2-inch soft-plastic “shad” in black over pearl. You can vary the color of the “shad” if you must, but don’t change anything else! This lure can be worked from the water’s surface (“Buzzed”) down a foot or so and with a slower retrieve, but avoid bottom, as that’s snag-city!
The second lure is a “Tiny Torpedo” or likeness thereof, also in some shad-color. That’s it! Anything else will shortly be living on borrowed time because of the timber on bottom.
For fly fishing, use size 4 poppers during what appears to be normal water levels and size 6 when it’s a bit low or very clear. Both are big enough to appeal to the bass, yet not too large to deter the belligerent longears! Yellow and black is a good all-round color. I serve them on a short 5-weight stick that is over-lined one size, since casts are often quite short and accuracy is most important! Leaders in the 8 to 9-foot range and tapered to a 12-pound point are adequate. With poppers mono is preferred over fluorocarbon.
Begin by working upstream – against the current. Take your time and scrutinize the water ahead of you closely. The best water is from generally two to four feet deep, protected somewhat from the current, and SHADED! Remember those three parameters, and prospect any water that suits them.
Typically it will occur in turns in the streambed, with the outside of the turn being deepest. That’s good water if it isn’t too deep; so is the shallower stretch just downstream of the point on the inside of the turn. Also, the abrupt changes in depth found at both the upstream and downstream limits of these “pools” make good feeding stations for the bass. Work the fly in such a manner as it drifts with the current through these areas.
Midstream snags that have been washed out to the appropriate depths by the current are another form of structure that should be prospected in these streams. So is the up-current edges of “log-jams”, especially those that are foamy and have collected odd-and-end pieces of debris. Actually, those seem to be no-brainers, since they also collect different forms of prey, and the bass know it. Drift your popper into such a setting – wiggling it occasionally as you do – and you are almost guaranteed a strike!
On the other hand, short sequences of moderately soft pops with brief pauses in between them are the standard drill. These fish eat more crawfish than most Cajuns do, and since crawfish are most often found on bottom, you must draw the fish’s attention to the surface. The “occasional twitches” suggested for working the log-jams are not generally effective otherwise!
If there is one rule for fishing creeks – anywhere they are found – it is that if the bass knows you are around, it won’t strike. Period! Take it to the bank! Therefore you should wade slowly to prevent making waves that will alert the fish, and in reaches that permit it, get out of the water entirely in order to approach and prospect a good-looking spot. Use shoreline cover whenever possible – and wear the camouflage shirt you normally wear for September dove-hunting. Finally, if your cast is a bit off-target, don’t immediately snatch the fly back for another try; that will spook every fish nearby! Instead, allow the current to drift the fly a short distance away from the spot – 10 feet or so seems adequate. Then pick it up and try again. All of that is to keep the fish from becoming suspicious that something just ain’t quite right!
And believe me when I declare that arousing a creek-dwelling spotted bass’s suspicion is all too easily done!
But then, that’s one of the things that makes catching them such a hoot!
Follow the rules, and you stand a very good chance of enjoying that reward on any of these five creeks. One of them – Sixmile – has had such a noted population of these fish that it was the source of a scientific study by Wildlife and Fisheries biologist Dudley Carver. Another – Whiskey Chitto – has long been proclaimed as one of the best float streams in the state; its upper reaches make a fine wading creek, too! And if you want a real challenge, Drake’s Creek will assuredly fill the bill. It’s pretty small, but it’s pretty, and it has some pretty spots in it!
And the prettiest longear sunfish I have ever seen!
Whatever ones you choose, remember they are basically five of a kind. That’s a hard hand to beat, both in poker and in creek-fishing!
(Game & Fish Publications 6-2007)