Freshwater

 

 

2-23-12

South Louisiana’s Oil-field Bass

            Bubbling crude is not the only thing that rises out of south Louisiana’s oil fields.  Here’s how to strike it rich with black bass instead of black gold.

 

            After I moved to Buras back in 1968 I quickly became awe-struck with the great fishing for specks and reds which the nearby marshes offered. However, as I explored the area for new hotspots, especially down around Tidewater, I began to discover that the bass fishing was also excellent – far better than what I had experienced in the lakes around my folks’ home in Shreveport.

            Most of my early Plaquemines Parish “green trout” were taken on spinnerbaits intended for redfish, but by 1971 I realized that the opportunity they offered in certain spots warranted some concentrated efforts. One of those took place in a pipeline canal on the northwest side of the Venice Dome oil field – the “Wagonwheel” – and it led to some very rewarding trips.

            The particular section of that canal which I found so promising was isolated by wooden bulkheads set about a quarter-mile apart. That meant I had to carry a pirogue along in my bass-boat to access it – a little extra effort but one which led to the enlightenment that the canal was indeed loaded with bass and some pretty good ones, too!

            In late May that year the Sandy Point Fishing Fiesta was held. While this “rodeo” was created around the numerous saltwater opportunities the Delta offers, there was a division in it for bass. So I bought a ticket, fished for two mornings in the isolated section  of that canal, and won all three places in that division along with the “Outstanding Fisherman” award for the points those three places had accrued.

            And if that wasn’t enough, 11 days later I returned to that canal on another bass-fishing trip and caught a redfish weighing almost 15 pounds – on a fly-rod popper!

            Since then oil-field canals have provided me with fine action with bass, et. al., on both conventional and fly tackle. Admittedly, most of that action took place in the southeastern parishes prior to K., though during college years some canals in the Atchafalaya Floodway were regular haunts. Whatever, the productive patterns in one area proved to work just fine in the other, so they should work all across the state’s coastal zone. And while I have caught bass from these waters throughout the year, now is one of the best times to fish them.

            That is because in areas affected by muddy river run-off from the “spring rise”, oil-field canals can remain much clearer than nearby waters. Still, there are some particulars you should consider to enjoy the best of what they have to offer. The first is an understanding of the canals’ different purposes – in other words, why they are like they are, and how that effects their productivity.

            The first type of oil-field canal was dredged to lay one or more large-diameter pipelines from a “lay-barge”. These can be quite long, they are usually fairly straight, and they are typically isolated by wooden bulkheads or shell dams from other canals and bayous which are subject to tidal flow. In some areas these really shine; in others they stink. Nevertheless, no matter where they are found, if they boast reasonably clear water now, they are worth an effort.

            The second type is the access canal. These can also be long, though they may not be quite as straight as a pipeline canal, and they serve as access routes to the field and its drilling locations and production facilities. These see considerable traffic from tugs towing barge-mounted drilling and workover rigs, support vessels, and crew-boats which is typical of active inshore oil fields, and the water in them is usually roiled. On the other hand, the short location canals – the third variety – which lead off them to the individual wells often offer the clearest water around, especially if the well is inactive or has been plugged and abandoned.

            A pipeline canal sees little traffic. Besides helping to preserve the water’s clarity, that also aids in maintaining the original shorelines which, in turn, prevents the canal from filling in from bank-sloughing. This, to a degree, preserves the rather steep drop-off along the canal’s banks which, especially if it is overhung with grass, is the primary strike zone during Spring.

            All that, of course, is subject to slight variations. The banks of a pipeline canal are not actually straight but are comprised of a progression of mini-points and pockets, and here and there you will come across a spot where natural subsidence has caused a small section to slough into the depths. All those little irregularities constitute structure which can hold fish, and as I noted, the strike zone will be quite close to the bank.

            The banks of a location canal often exhibit much more sloughing than those of a pipeline canal, a result of wave-action from vessel-traffic. That creates a shelf of sorts which extends from the shoreline to the drop-off, the lip of which is the strike zone here. It has the same irregularities as the banks of a pipeline canal, but since they are submerged, you must fish them blindly. The point is, in a location canal the strike zone is normally further from the grass than it is in a pipeline canal.

            It is in the section of the canal that leads to the well, anyway. The back of the canal – say, from the well to the canal’s end – is not subjected to the erosive wave-action caused by boats servicing the well, since the boats idle down upon nearing the well, thereby breaking those destructive wakes. These banks remain similar to those of a pipeline canal and should be worked accordingly.

            In canals where the shoreline drop-off is abrupt and partially overhung, I prefer two tactics. One is casting fly-rod poppers into the nooks and crannies in the grass, the other is flipping a plastic worm into those same targets. In both cases the lure is light, and its impact apparently has no adverse effect on fish which can be quite nearby. Size 4 yellow and black poppers, and 6-inch worms Texas-rigged with no heavier than a one-eighth ounce sinker, are preferred; work them both very slowly.

            I began “flipping” in oil-field canals long before bass fishing in them had become fashionable. “Flipping sticks” weren’t even a pipe-dream yet, and in my case the technique was initiated as a counter to adversity – a spring gale.

            On that particular day I was working a spinnerbait along the overhung drop-off of a favorite and fairly new location canal. The reason I was not fishing a worm was that the wind was blowing so hard I could not retrieve it slowly enough and still hold the boat’s position by sculling (This took place in the days before trolling motors that were resistant to corrosive brackish water.). Even with the spinnerbait my boat would be blown across the canal while I was making a short retrieve. I would have quit and gone home had I not been catching an occasional bass.

            The solution, accomplished while sitting on the boat’s small bow-platform and sculling, was to maintain position under the lee of the shoreline about 10 feet from the overhanging grass. Then with my 5 ½-foot casting rod and about 6 feet of line hanging from its tip, I would flip the spinnerbait to those tiny targets and jig it slowly outward. Talk about an enlightenment when that first bass hit! Talk about almost getting yanked overboard when that first redfish hit!!

            We have it made in the shade these days with trolling motors that don’t self-destruct in 6 months, stout 7 ½ and 8-foot rods, and thin lines that don’t stretch – a great combination for flipping. I mentioned that experience – out-dated as it is – simply to relate how I discovered its effectiveness in a canal.

            A canal with shelves between the shorelines and the drop-offs can be a tough not to crack because of the inability to detect the shelf’s lip: you certainly can’t see it, and trying to graph it on your recorder is life-time guaranteed to spook every bass along it. In this instance “attention-getting” lures like buzzbaits and spinnerbaits (And fly-rod poppers!) are good choices. However, in many areas along the coast submergent grasses have appeared by now, and depending on the genre, those can be present either in random clumps atop the shelves or in a fairly thick bed paralleling the shoreline along the shelf’s lip. Without a doubt, bass can be taken off the edge of a “bare” shelf, but those with grass are usually much more productive, and most grass is found in areas with little traffic from oil-field vessels – in other words, in old or only lightly used canals.

            A very good illustration was a canal in the Caernarvon complex where my good friend, Capt. Bubby Rodriguez, and I ventured from time to time. It was a section of a pipeline canal, isolated by wooden bulkheads a half-mile or so apart, but a washout through the marsh from a nearby bayou provided access to it.

            Upon entering the canal, if you turned left, idled a short distance until the water cleared, and began fishing, you would encounter very little grass. It was still good-looking water, and we fished it every time it didn’t resemble a used bass-boat dealership, but I never took a fish from that stretch of it. Conversely, upon entering the canal and turning right, there was a nice grass-line along the edge of the left bank’s shelf. If we found that part of the canal unoccupied, we never missed taking fish from it.

            Generally, we both fished the Caernarvon canals with flies, usually poppers. Those were quite effective when worked tightly against overhung shorelines with sufficient water depth, atop bare shelves, and around random grass patches. They were not particularly effective when worked around the grass-lines found along the lips of the shelves. When those were encountered I would often move the boat across the canal and work different structure. Bubby, on the other hand, would swap his fly rod for one of the two casting outfits he always had along, each invariably rigged with a plastic worm – Texas style.

            While I worked the other bank with my popper, Bubby cast to the edge of the submergent grass-line and allowed the lightly-weighted worm to sink to bottom. Then he initiated a retrieve unlike any I have seen before. It consisted of a quick series of short and rather robust shakes of the rod – “trembles” which caused the worm to duck and dart but not move very far – then a pause to reel in slack, then a repeat. Bubby declared if he had to fish a worm the “conventional” way – creeping it slowly along bottom, he wouldn’t fish with them at all! I’d assume his method makes the worm look like a spastic leech; whatever, the bass were frequently quite impressed.

            Sometimes, though, it eventually became obvious that either they weren’t impressed or they were simply not holding to the base of the grass-line. If our poppers had also proven to be ineffective, it was usually best to try another canal rather than another lure.

            It’s strange how that works. You’d think that the fish in an almost identical canal less than a quarter-mile away would be of the same disposition as those in the canal you are fishing. Not! If you are working the shorelines and grass-beds in the aforementioned manners and are not getting bit, it’s time to change spots.

            Conversely, if you are enjoying fairly good action over a lengthy stretch of shoreline, do not assume that when the action stops – or should you reach a bulkhead, you must go try another canal. If no one has followed along behind you, re-trace your steps. Once you’ve gone a hundred yards or so – maybe even less – you might discover that the action is resuming. Some stretches of shoreline have more appeal to the bass than others – things you cannot detect. Still, I wouldn’t “cut trails” up and down a particular canal, even one producing some fairly consistent action, because the larger, wise-to-the-world fish quickly realize something around them (like the hum of your trolling motor) isn’t quite right and become reluctant to strike. One trip down a canal, then if it’s feasible one trip back up it, and then go find another canal.

            Oil-field canals offer structure other than deep, overhung shorelines, the lips of shelves, and grass-beds. It makes me wonder why, but I have never caught a bass around a well or its protective cribbing (Redfish? Oh, possibly a kazillion!). However, the supports for the well’s flow-line and, if necessary, its input gas-line are naturals, especially those found on the outside edge of the shoreline drop-off. Then there’s trash.

            Discard and rubble are not as common in inshore oil fields as they once were. I guess that’s best for the environment, and you do have to give the oil companies credit for really cleaning up their acts. Nevertheless, in doing so they have removed all sorts of excellent bass-holding structure.

            The first real butt-kicking I ever put on oil-field bass was along the back shoreline of an old location canal in the Venice Dome. During either drilling or workover operations a sizeable length of coiled “drill-line” ended up right against the shoreline’s drop-off. At the time I discovered it, the bass had a gang of minnows holed up in the coils, and every time one of the hapless little baitfish would try to escape – and every time my little spinnerbait was drawn across the edge of the coils – a bass would grab it. Every time for quite a while, too! Should you have the ever increasingly rare fortune of stumbling upon some old, undeterminable piece of iron laying along a canal’s drop-off, you would be wise to make a few casts around it.

            There are other forms of structure in a typical oil-field canal which should not be ignored. Those include the points where one canal intersects another, the corners – either at the back-end of a location canal or where a bulkhead crosses a pipeline canal, and any cuts where baitfish in the nearby marshes can be pulled into a canal by the falling tide. Simply put, there are a lot of places where bass can be found in these waters.

            And I feel I would not do them the justice they deserve without including the following. The canals which run through brackish marshes – and they don’t have to be all that “brackish” – can give you some of the best redfishing around!

            A pipeline canal near the old Venice Refinery gave me and my canoe my first double-digit red – along with a couple of others and lots of fish in the 5 to 7-pound class – while I was bass fishing with spinnerbaits. Or – after that first big fish – perhaps I was subconsciously redfishing and catching all those bass “incidentally”.

            The canal of my first “oil-field bass butt-kicking” has been a consistent hotspot for winter reds for almost 30 years, and the canal where I learned to flip always seems to give up one or two very nice reds along with its bass, especially from November through May. Incidentally, redfish have no aversion whatsoever to striking just about any lure you intend to use for bass, be it worm, spinnerbait, buzzbait, or fly-rod popper.

            And not so incidentally, the canal which gave me the bass that won all those trophies and the big red on the popper bestowed upon me a couple of other fish which were quite noteworthy at the time: my largest speck and my biggest fly-caught bass.

            Those two fish have fallen from their lofty pedestals now, but my largest fly-caught bass – in fact, my two largest fly-caught bass: 5-8 and 5-10 – were taken from oil-field canals, along with more bass than all the others combined which I have caught from lakes, and that’s a lot of bass, folks! Just goes to show how productive these waters are…

 (Game & Fish Publications 5-2000)

 

 

7-20-2011

Summer’s School Bass

It’s mid afternoon, and though Labor Day is history and autumn, at least officially, is only days away, the heat is sweltering. But the water skiers and jet boaters are gone; school has started, and most remaining vacation-time is being hoarded for the upcoming hunting seasons. The lake is practically deserted, its surface abnormally calm, shimmering in the hazy sunlight, and as I wipe the sweat from my eyes, I detect that the plastic worm has reached bottom, eight feet below. Taking up the slack line, I give the lure a long, slow pump and feel it tick the roots of the close-knit pair of cypresses that have “Bass right here!” written all over them. And a couple of rowdy minutes later a chunky 4-pounder, draped in a few pungent strands of peppergrass, comes aboard.

Behind me a half-acre opening in the trees suddenly erupts as a school of bass drives shad to the surface. Party time! But as I reach the disturbed water, the fish sound, and my hopeful efforts with a chrome Tiny Torpedo are rewarded only with a yearling. Back to the worm – Texas-rigged with an eighth-ounce sinker – this time cast to the open water of the pocket, and within half an hour I take three nice fish. Then another surface blitz, and the Torpedo gets a pair before they go back down. Yes, it’s hot, but so is the fishing!

The sun dips below the western tree-line as I work my way across a long point on the way back to the landing, and the temperature drops considerably. A familiar pair of rotting stumps – old friends that have given up a lot of fish over the years – warrant a prospective cast with a topwater, and I’m not too surprised when a 3-pounder tries to obliterate it. It’s been a long, hot, and crowded summer, and though the autumn extravaganza is still a few weeks away, action is improving noticeably.

By the end of summer the number of entrees on a bass’s bouffet table has decreased dramatically. Frogs are almost big enough to fight back, crawfish, though still on the menu, are skinny and very hard-shelled, little snakes have become big snakes, and the season’s hatch of bluegills and crappie are armed with formidable spines and are nearing filleting size. In most lakes across the lowland south, this leaves only one primary food source that is still small enough to eat and isn’t armed with stickers and pinchers: shad.

At this time, the water in these lakes is normally reaching its lowest level, its temperature reaches the annual maximum, and the growth of most submergent vegetation has peaked. Highest dissolved oxygen remains in the cooler depths, but matting grass-beds – like coontail, peppergrass, and hydrilla – create shady, cool, highly-oxygenated environments in much shallower water, so patterns for locating schools of shad – and bass – now become quite diverse.

In open-water areas bass that have spent the past two months relating to deep-water structure begin to either suspend over these bottom anomalies or free-range, actively seeking out the baitfish. These fish are the most difficult to locate, and unless an angler happens to randomly graph a suspended school or stumble across surface activity while he is under way, they should not be intentionally targeted. I mention them because they do represent a potential source of action at any time of the day practically anywhere on lakes with sizeable shad populations, and one should always be ready for an encounter with them.

Bass which are more accessible and easier to find associate to long, submerged points, the mouths of small feeder creeks, and, to a lesser degree, abnormalities in tree-lined channels. Prime ambush points are anywhere that a bottleneck can be placed on a passing school of shad. Generally they both – bass and bait – will be found near the “comfort zone” and not necessarily relating to cover. Pursued shad will flee to the surface, and they can be hemmed up most easily by the bass in the shallower water above the point or in the restrictions of the creek-mouth or the tree-line abnormality. Remember that although animal (fish) predators are not “smart” in our sense of the word, they readily acquire conditioning, and if they have found easy pickings near a certain spot before, they will remain near it, or return to it, again. Don’t be in a hurry to leave these types of structure after a hot bite has ended.

On calm afternoons I like to be on the water around two, and from the time I leave the launch until I return, the graph recorder is on, and I am alternating between watching it and watching the immediate surface area. Shad show up as large, irregular “blobs” on the screen, so there is usually no mistaking a large concentration of them.

Any sizeable school of bait should be speculated with at least a couple of casts. I normally don’t like to keep more than two rods rigged at one time, since I am prone to swapping out too soon if one lure doesn’t get quick enough results. Usually I have one rod armed with a surface lure and the other with a worm or a Rat-L-Trap, depending on the type of water I am working. In open, featureless water two or three casts around deep, bunched-up bait is usually enough to tell if any bass are in attendance. However, if the shad are on the surface, you can reasonably assume they were driven there, and a little more in-depth study of the area might be in order. But again, any open-lake fish that might be encountered are usually lagniappe.

Covering submerged points is usually best done in the following manner. Begin by graphing across it in a series of zig-zags from deep water into the shallows, extending each leg of the pattern well out into the deeper water adjacent to the point. Look for shad schools or numbers of fairly tightly-bunched bass in the off-structure water. Either will justify a thorough amount of prospecting.

Creek mouths and tree-line indentations are better explored with the lure than the depth recorder, since some of these structures are too small to allow adequate graphing without spooking nearby fish. If there is no visible bait, work the points outside of the opening with a deep-running crankbait before moving inside. In larger creeks it is usually best to work the “cut-bank” side of the channel, since this will be the deepest, and watch for breaking fish on the shallower “bar-bank”.

Unless a school of pursuing bass is unusually large, or they have the shad bunched up against a steep drop-off or some other form of structure that restricts their escape, topwater action is usually short-lived. Therefore it is necessary to get to the target area as quickly, and as quietly, as possible. Too many anglers race up to breaking water with the main engine, and the bass scatter. By working graphed shad near structure, and envisioning where the fish are most likely to surface – the top of the submerged point, the bar-bank of the feeder creek, or the very back of the tree-line abnormality – an angler should be only a quick trolling-motor run to the action. Again, don’t give up on a spot too soon after the fish sound; they were there for a purpose and are probably in the process of returning to their ambush points.  A few quick casts with the Rat-L-Trap or something similar after the topwater action ends can be well worth the effort.

There is one other scenario where school bass can be encountered, and in lakes with abundant standing green timber and profuse grass-beds, it can be the most rewarding. Since comfort levels remain quite tolerable throughout the summer in 8 to 10-foot depths where those two features occur, both shad and bass can often be found in large concentrations in these relatively protected waters. That’s a definite plus when an early-autumn norther has the open waters of the lake standing on end.

In the sloughs and brakes an angler can continue his summertime patterns of mid-day worm-wiggling and late-evening topwater-twitching for single fish. But here, too, the bass will congregate along structural edges where they will either herd or intercept schools of shad. In this case it is imperative to be on the lookout for surface activity while hunting the singles, since the depth recorder will be of little use in this relatively shallow, grassy water. Once a school is located and the initial bite ends, stay in the same general area for a while, working loners but keeping an eye on the previously “hot” spot. Likely as not, things will start popping there again real soon!

Somewhere around 1960 a grizzled old veteran of the schoolies convinced me that “matching the minnow” was not always the most effective method of taking these bass. While I worked topwaters and crankbaits – and caught a lot of bass doing so, he fished a worm, both during and after a surface blitz, deep underneath the school. Invariably he caught as many as I did, and his fish usually averaged considerably larger than mine. I still love to see a Tiny Torpedo get blasted, and an appropriately-sized Rat-L-Trap has often prolonged my action after the fish have sounded. But the worm trick has saved the day for me on many occasions, and it is something every angler should keep in the back of his mind while he is chasing late-summer’s school bass. He might be very pleasantly surprised at the results.

(Game & Fish Publications 9-1991)

 

2-2-11

South Louisiana’s Canal Crappie

Once upon a time, though not really all that long ago, some whiz-kid geologist convinced the folks in an oil company’s drilling department that petroleum just might be lying beneath a particular patch of south Louisiana marshland. The drilling department boys soon determined that the marsh was much too unconsolidated to support the weight of a drilling rig and its associated equipment, so they had a canal dredged from the nearest navigable waterway to the drill-site. The rig was then brought in on barges, the well was drilled, oil was discovered, and thus began a practice that was to become common across Louisiana’s coastal marshes for nearly half a century.

Once oil has been found in an area like this and several wells have been drilled into the reservoir to produce it, it is flowed through small-diameter pipelines to a processing facility. There, any associated water and gas is separated from the oil. The water is discharged overboard (Or injected into a “disposal well”), the gas is sent down a large-diameter pipeline to a gas plant, and the oil is pumped down another large-diameter pipeline to the nearest shipping center or refinery. Those large-diameter pipelines, unlike the smaller ones, required barge-mounted equipment to create and lay them through the marshes, so canals had to be dredged for that purpose too. Thus, two different types of oil-field canals are quite common in this area.

And those which are found in marshes with low salinity levels can hold astonishing numbers of both black and white crappie, along with other popular freshwater targets.

Drill-site, or “location” canals are typically the easiest to access. However, they are also commonly beset with some pretty grungy water. That is because the “nearest navigable waterway” in low-salinity areas is often a river, and at times those are subject to be turbid and affect the canal similarly. Almost invariably the clearest water in a location canal will be near its terminus – the point where the well was drilled.

On the other hand, pipeline canals can be comparably clear through their length. This is a fringe benefit of wooden bulkheads, or ”dams”, being built across them to isolate the natural bayous, ponds, and such which the canal intersected in fresher areas from high-salinity waters it may have traversed nearer to the Gulf. These days it is common to find a bulkhead washed out on one bank or the other, allowing access into the canal. The same goes with a cut through the canal’s bank which was caused by subsidence and erosion.

Crappie are not nearly as tolerant of salinity as other local freshwater types (i.e. largemouth bass). Therefore it is imperative that crappie-fishing is done in a canal that is fresh enough to support them. A good guideline is willows and elephant ears growing along the canal’s shoreline. Other types of vegetation such as delta duck potato can also be found along them – and along saltier ones, but those two don’t lie!

Once a prospective canal has been located, look for some form of fish-attracting structure. Generally, the most common forms will be beds of submergent vegetation, flooded trees, stumps, and blow-downs, small docking facilities, the well and its protective cribbing, and in pipeline canals small “riser” platforms.

The choicest of those are usually found just outside of the shoreline drop-off. Those, especially in pipeline canals where boat traffic has been minimal, may still be abrupt and quite near their original positions relative to the banks. Conversely, in location canals boat-wakes may have eroded the shorelines some distance from their drop-offs, leaving a fairly broad, sloping shelf between the present bank and the drop-off.

Throughout much of the year crappie can be found suspended just outside of a canal’s shoreline drop-off; any “structure” inside that point may look promising but seldom holds these fish. The key is to locate the point where the shelf abruptly falls off into the canal’s depths. This is easily done by fishing with a 2-inch cylindrical float positioned about 2 feet above a 1/16-ounce jig-head – the type of enticer affixed to it to be discussed later. In water which is not as deep as that setting, the float will be unaffected by the jig’s weight. However, once the jig reaches the deeper water just beyond the lip of the drop-off, it will come off bottom, and its weight will then cause the float to sit more vertically. Structure of any type found just outside that point is prime.

Bulkheads themselves can also hold crappie. In many cases they are reinforced on both ends with piles of clam shells. Those usually slope abruptly into the canal’s depths, and crappie can suspend against them. Here, though, the fish may be found at greater depth than they are along the shorelines, so don’t hesitate to speculate your enticer a little deeper if shallow efforts are unsuccessful.

Another form of productive structure which is occasionally found in canals is water hyacinths. These floating plants can form mats extending from the shoreline out past the drop-off, and they serve as home for a variety of prey. They also create shade, and during the warm months the water beneath the mat can be several degrees cooler than what is out in the sunlight. All that creates a crappie hang-out of the first order. Working your jig-and-float rig around the mat’s perimeter – now with the jig set no more than a foot deep – can lead to memorable action.

Canal crappie will strike a variety of enticers. In my experiences the most radical have been a “bass-sized” fly-rod popper and a crawfish-colored quarter-ounce fat-bodied rattling crankbait. Much more consistently-productive enticers are either live shiners (Or small cocahoes!) or small jigs dressed with soft-plastic tails which are normally 1 ½ to 2 inches long and in either tube or shad configuration. The fish that inhabit these waters are not usually very picky in their color preferences, but a variety of combinations will allow for better coping with different light and water-clarity conditions. Chartreuse and black, blue and white, and orange and purple, are proven.

Minnows are an excellent enticer and can be a day-saver when the water is dirty. Shiners can be bought at bait and tackle shops, but at times they may not be available. However, “cocahoes” – a variety of killifish that are sold for pursuing red drum and spotted seatrout in salty areas – are more common, and the smaller ones are fondly ingested by crappie. And in some areas, it can be awfully hard to beat live grass shrimp – again, if you can find ‘em.

Generally, a more consistent way of ensuring bait is to collect it yourself. There are numerous drainage ditches across coastal Louisiana, some of which are immediately adjacent to or are crossed by streets and highways. These waters are commonly inhabited by a creature locally known as the “ditch minnow”, resembling a baby bluegill and relished by crappie. They should be acquired on the day before a trip by baiting a standard minnow trap with shrimp heads and then placing the trap on the bottom of the ditch. Several gala festivities can then be enjoyed while you are collecting your supply of them. Indeed, an old friend once looked forward to the “launching of the minnow traps” as much as he did fishing.

One note concerning tackle. During the cool months, which are a favorite time to fish for south Louisiana’s canal crappie, there is a good chance for a run-in with a redfish – which doesn’t mind freshwater a bit and will eat a mini-jig or a ditch minnow in a heartbeat! Therefore it is recommended that you forget about the ultralight tackle and use a rod with a little more “umph” in it and a reel with a decent drag. I use a fairly stiff 8 ½-foot graphite fly rod, a 12-pound fluorocarbon leader, and a reel with a very good drag. Take heed – I once took a 12-pounder from beside a submerged stump that was a prime spot for sac-a-lait!

(Note: FYI, www.crappie.com is a website that is full of local information. The folks who post on it are as a rule very helpful – and they can be quite entertaining at times! Whatever, take a peek at it occasionally – it’s really good for updates on popular areas.)

(Louisiana Conservationist 3-2006)

 

1-6-11

Louisiana’s Coastal Cats

Louisiana’s coastal anglers are well aware of the fact that catfish inhabit the waters where they fish for specks, reds, flounders, and such. Not many of those folks who have fished here for very long have avoided at least a few punctures from the sea catfish – the ignoble “hardhead”. Likewise, a large percentage of them have assuredly been treated to a slimed-up line and leader, courtesy of the “sail cat” – the gafftopsail catfish. But not nearly so large a number of those folks are aware that both blue and channel catfish are also found in many of our state’s marshes and estuaries.

And they get pretty big there, too!

I was first made known of that in the early 1970’s. An apartment neighbor in Buras – who had grown a bit too rotund to continue duck hunting from his 10-foot airboat – desperately needed something to occupy the time that he once spent in that pursuit. He soon discovered that he could conquer winter’s low tides in the rather tiny craft and reach some deep tidal cuts in the marsh between Tante Phine and Tiger Passes. There, he set three trotlines – each with perhaps a dozen hooks, and baited them with thumb-sized pieces of common eel (I suggest you retain that piece of data, should you become inspired to fish for Louisiana’s coastal catfish! Chunks of common eel are superb enticers!).

Early on, the fish he caught were just nice-sized ones – 2 to 3-pounders or thereabouts. Then one morning he returned to the apartments soaked to the bone and with three fish in the bed of his truck. The smallest was over 30 pounds, the largest was 57! And the reason he was wet was from unsuccessfully trying to wrestle a much larger one into his boat!

That must have been a real hoss!

My first “hands-on” experiences with coastal cats took place not long thereafter in the Venice Dome oil field – the infamous “Wagonwheel”. Granted, those waters are directly influenced by the effluent from Red Pass and can become pretty fresh, but the field’s canals commonly hold redfish and flounders and seasonally host specks and occasionally even striped bass – or at least they once did. Whatever, a friend had taken a 17-pound blue one morning while we were prospecting for reds, and that fish – along with the smaller ones that we caught from time to time – led to the thought of trot-lining for them.

So one afternoon another buddy and I set an 18-hook line in three canals and baited them with crawfish that we had picked up alongside the Tidewater Road the night before. The next day we discovered that we had made a really good hit on the local redfish population, but nary a cat did we catch! So, greatly preferring to catch our reds on rods rather than trotlines, we moved the lines to some canals that appeared to be less appealing to the reds, baited them with chunks of rabbit-meat that we had acquired the previous season, and passed the night in eager anticipation of the morrow’s supper of fresh fried catfish fillets and hush puppies!

And it was some mighty good eatin’, too!

I relate that incident not as an inspiration for you to start spending your time running trotlines for catfish rather than fishing for reds, et. al., but to inform you that cats of the desirable types are present, often in good numbers, in places that are not especially known for them.

There are also some areas where logic would insinuate that they should be present, but it slips from your mind as you continue on with your primary objective. Then, occasionally, you can get a really sudden and quite forceful reminder!

That happened one day in Sawdust Bend – a broad area of broken and rather deep marshy ponds east of South Pass. A friend and I were “practicing” for an upcoming bass tournament and were chunking spinnerbaits along the edges of the emergent vegetation – and not doing too well, I might add!

Anyway, a tiny disturbance near the base of a small willow within the shoreline roseaus got our attention. My companion – who was fishing from the bow and nearest the target – made a slightly errant cast at it and fouled his lure in the canes. As we eased toward the bank to retrieve it, I made a short flip to the base of the willow, had a thump, set the hook, and then all sorts of merry hell erupted!

It didn’t take long for us to realize that the perpetrator was a big blue catfish – much too big for the net that was aboard. And since no gaff was present, my friend and I were forced to eventually depress one side of the bassboat to a point near the water’s level so that we could slide the fish aboard.

That is not, by the way, a recommended practice, as a small error in judgment can result in a huge amount of water, as well as the fish, coming aboard! Anyone who fishes in areas where there is even a remote chance of getting into it with a big cat should always have a gaff aboard! Even a small hand-gaff is much better than none at all! My fish weighed a bit over 24 pounds, and they get considerably larger than that! Be prepared!

And that includes understanding a few “particulars” about these fish that have chosen to live near the coast.

A lot of folks associate catfishing with nighttime. Assuredly – as in the case of my trotlining efforts in the Venice Dome – that does hold true in coastal waters. However, the fish eat during the daytime, too!

Winter, for instance, is a very good time to supplement your limit of redfish, bass, or whatever form of skillet-material you prefer, with a few nice cats. It’s been that way since “Day One” of my life down in the Delta, and it has become more obvious since I moved into Acadiana after Katrina.

Initially – and throughout the years I spent “down the river” – most of my cats were taken during winter and in the canals of the Venice Dome. Again, these fish were “incidentals” to redfish, though some of them were pretty big to be “incidental” to anything! Whatever, with the exception of the trotlined fish (Which were actually caught during August!), all the rest of those fish were taken on shrimp-tipped jigs suspended between two and three feet beneath a small weighted popping cork.

The significant difference, though, was that while the reds almost always struck when the offering was quite near the canals’ shoreline drop-offs, the cats were invariably taken after the rig had been drawn some distance from it. My trotlines, on the other hand, which accounted for fish weighing up to 8 pounds – were set right along the drop-offs!

So there’s a pattern. During summer – if you choose to make a night-fishing run to waters holding catfish of the desirable types – fish the shoreline drop-offs. You will probably do just as well with shrimp, though, so don’t feel that you need to use last-season’s rabbit-meat for bait! That’s almost a waste! One thing, though – keep your enticer well off bottom to prevent crabs and other undesirable creatures from eating it!

During winter, the suspended enticer still appears to be the best bet, as shown by the success of my old apartment-neighbor’s eel-baited trotlines and the number of cats that friends and I caught while redfishing on baited popping rigs. However, it is not the only way to do it!

That was plainly illustrated on a bright winter day last year when my friend Durel and I made a little redfishing sortie onto Vermilion Bay. Conditions were hand-made for working spinnerbaits along the shorelines, but after a couple of hours and having covered much of the north end of the bay, we were strikeless and had only blown out one fish. So we made a little run into nearby Weeks Bay, where Durel knew of some small tidal cuts where he had caught reds and some nice-sized croakers during past winters. And upon entering one of them, the screen of the depth recorder lit up! Skillet-material!

We then nosed the boat onto the bank and replaced our spinnerbaits with plain bare jig-heads, which we baited with dead shrimp of moderate size. Then we tossed them out into the 8-foot depths of mid-channel, sat back, and awaited a bite. And I am compelled to declare that every now and then low-keyed fishing like that is good for the soul!

It wasn’t long before I had a series of rapid taps, set the hook, and was shortly witnessing a catfish spinning on the surface as they are inclined to do. Thinking it had been awfully cold lately for there to be any hardheads still around, and never giving the first thought to anything similar inhabiting those waters, I was completely blown away to discover that it was a channel cat – the first of four that we caught there and without a sign of anything that even remotely resembled a saltwater species!

As an aside to that tale, once Durel and I had determined our saltwater efforts seemed destined to be futile, he suggested that we head over to the mouth of the Avery Canal and try our luck there for more catfish. We did, and there I got the largest of the day!

And those fish tasted every bit as good as the ones I had been catching in the Delta for so many years!

The Weeks Bay fish were at least in part the result of the very low salinity of Vermilion Bay at the time. However, the Intercoastal Canal runs between the bay and Weeks Island, and during winter that waterway is pretty fresh in this area as well as west of the locks at Intercoastal City. Therefore it in itself is a good target area, and it feeds the bay with both its fresh water and its fish right at the base of the island through a breach in the bank there.

On the other hand, the Avery Canal – a.k.a. the Delcambre Canal – receives discharge from both the Intercoastal Canal and points further inland. So while its lower reaches do produce good action with such species as specks and redfish when the salinity of the bay is high – typically in late summer and autumn, cats are year-round residents. Incidentally, the stretch of the Avery Canal just below the Delcambre draw-bridge is reputed to be a hotspot for reds in season and cats throughout the year!

While good catfishing is a definite probability in all of Louisiana’s coastal rivers and the estuaries they create, and while the Atchafalaya River and its Wax Lake Outlet are creating some opportunities that are world class, what is extremely difficult to argue as the best of them all is the Mississippi River Delta. Yeah, I guess I am a bit prejudiced, but that comes from experience! And that deserves another tale.

In case you are unaware, during late summer and autumn many of our coastal rivers get quite clear. That is the result of the “dry season” up north and the corresponding decrease of run-off into the rivers. That causes a decrease in current speed, and that results in the inability of the water to suspend the sediments that entered the river in the run-off. So they fall to bottom, and the water clears.

The decrease in current also allows saltwater to enter the rivers, making its way upstream along the river-beds for some distance and intermixing with the fresh water to varying degrees via up-wellings and eddies. With the saltwater comes a hoard of popular species, which join the residents to create a mélange of opportunities. On that note, it is possible to catch upwards of seven species of both persuasions on one trip. Indeed, I have caught that many on flies!

But I wasn’t fly fishing on that particular day of infamy. John – a brother-in-law from Missouri – and I were fishing gold Johnson “Sprites” for reds along the flats and their adjacent drop-off on the east bank of Grand Pass a mile or so below Venice. The water was gorgeous green, the reds had been thick recently – and I had even caught some nice specks on a surface lure a few days earlier. However, that day things were a little slow until we came upon a dark spot in the water that appeared to be a potentially bass-holding stump. So I tossed my spoon a bit past it on its up-current side. And as the spoon drew near, the “stump” turned and ate it! After that “things” sped up a little for a while!

And I was sure glad that I had learned my lesson about gaffs those years before, because there was no way ol’ bro-in-law and I could have suppressed my bay-boat’s side far enough to slide that fish aboard! Back at the marina it weighed just over 28 pounds. I have not caught a larger one.

Remember me mentioning something about an occasional sudden and forceful reminder of the presence of cats in coastal rivers? That was a good one there! Still, I wouldn’t go looking for one like it with a gold Johnson “Sprite”. Just remember the next time you are prospecting for reds with one in similar waters, if it happened once…

Much more consistent producers – and much less in conflict with personal tastes than rabbit flesh – are fresh shrimp. Big fresh shrimp. Dead cocahoes – also on the large side – are likewise recommended. That should be good to know, just in case you minnow-fishing folks have a few of them left over after catching your limit of reds, flounders, or whatevers. Cut chunks of mullet and pogy also work, but they don’t last very long after an undesirable creature starts gnawing on them. Neither do chicken livers and prepared canned stink-baits. But like I mentioned earlier, if you can’t catch any cats on a thumb-sized chunk of eel, then change spots, not baits, because they are not around!

Eels, by the way, can often be caught on earthworms on a hook about the size you would use for bluegill-fishing worked deep alongside docking areas and slips in the same river-systems you intend to fish for cats!

No matter how you intend to fish for them – or if you choose not to – just remember that there are cats other than gaff-tops and hardheads inhabiting our coastal waters, and they can get a lot bigger than the reds you usually catch. So I must reiterate that if you don’t already have one, keep a small gaff in your boat. One day, you might need it more than you could have ever imagined!

(Game & Fish Publications 7-2008)

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