Pete Cooper Jr.
Louisiana’s Natural and Scenic Rivers System contains flowing waterways ranging from slow and turbid low-country bayous to brisk and bright upland creeks. Somewhere in between those extremes lies northwestern Louisiana’s Bayou Dorcheat — a jewel in its own right.
It originates in southwestern Arkansas and ends at the Lake Bistineau dam where Loggy Bayou carries its effluent from the lake to the Red River. During most of the year, its current is slow at best, its waters stained with tannin but with very good sub-surface visibility. And it supports fine populations of popular game fish, particularly largemouth and spotted bass.
However, before we get into the catching part of those fish on this lovely waterway, I feel compelled to relate a bit of its history.
Sometime before the 15th century, a “Great Raft” of logs was formed on the Red River, causing it to deepen and its tributaries — like Dorcheat — to enlarge. During the 1700s, white settlers arrived, and by the early 1800s, this meandering and comparatively small bayou was supporting a thriving shipping industry.
River-boats made their way from the Red up to points near Minden to pick up cotton that had been grown throughout much of the northern part of the state and shipped there by railroad and also gravel that had been mined nearby, and then returned with their loads downstream to Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
The wrecks of some of those boats are still being discovered during periods of low water and supposedly include a Union gunboat that the Confederates sunk near the bluffs along the east side of what is now Lake Bistineau. By around 1873, the “Great Raft” that had prevented the Red River from being used for river traffic had been removed. Dorcheat then lost its value as an industrial waterway, and some 60 years later, the first dam was constructed on it to prevent extensive spring flooding.
For more in-depth historical data, visit the lake’s Web site — www.lakebistineau.com — and follow the links to “Lake History.”
I first encountered Bayou Dorcheat in the late 1950s on the way to Boy Scout camp on Caney Lake north of Minden, and from the U.S. Route 80 bridge that crosses it at Dixie Inn, the view inspired vivid visions of lunkers holding tightly to the bases of those majestic shoreline cypresses.
I’m sure those daydreams were at least a part of the reason I eventually asked my parents for an 11-foot wooden duckboat in lieu of a class ring for my high school graduation present. For several years thereafter, that dear boat and I passed many delightful days on Dorcheat.
And I caught a bunch of bass there, too!
Those days were usually spent within a half-mile of the Route 80 bridge. I preferred to head upstream, paddling as far as my enthusiasm to fish would allow before I began to drift back downstream, probing the shoreline and mid-channel “structure” with an H&H, Tiny Torpedo or plastic worm.
That’s ancient history now, but the pattern continues to be productive on the trips that I still make there. These days, most of those are in the company of my friend, Keith Cascio, who is the coordinator of the state’s Scenic Rivers System. We go in his aluminum bateau, motoring upstream — quite cautiously, I might add, due to the occasional “wheel-inspectors” found in mid-channel — until we reach the “jungle,” where further progress becomes next to impossible. Then we float back down on the current.
An exception to that pattern took place last year, when Keith announced he would like to try a stretch of the bayou east of Cotton Valley and north of the state Route 160 crossing. The area there is remote and undeveloped, but there is a place on the east bank just beyond the bridge where you can slide a canoe or a small flatboat into the water and park your vehicle nearby.
On that trip the bayou was low, clear, and with almost nonexistent current. We putt-putted upstream a ways and continued on in that direction using the trolling motor. And my fishing log indicates that we caught seven bass that evening — six largemouths and a spot.
Another reach of the bayou that I have fished in recent years is below the Interstate 20 bridges. Again, after launching the boat at the public ramp in Dixie Inn, we idled downstream for a half-mile or so below the Interstate and began working the shorelines as we drifted farther along. There were a few cuts in this reach that lead into excavation pits where gravel had been mined, and they can provide some good action when the water in the bayou is a little too fast or too turbid for your liking. You won’t catch many spots in the pits — at least I never did — but the largemouths seem to average a bit bigger there than they do in the bayou.
Finally, a big exception to the old pattern is that for the past 15 years, I have fished Dorcheat exclusively with fly-rod poppers — mostly size 4 Peck’s Poppers in yellow and black. And I must declare that such flies seem to be made to order for Dorcheat, especially early and late in the day.
No matter what lures you try, there are a few hard-and-fast rules that apply, both here and on any other similar stream. The first is that the bass are almost invariably holding very close to the woody structure — live trees and their “knees” as well as blowdowns and snags. An exception to that usually takes place during late summer and early autumn and is the result of bass attacking schools of shad in mid-channel. I have witnessed this well above the Route 80 bridge, but it is most common in the bayou’s wider, slower reaches below the Interstate.
The next rule — excepting the mid-channel blitzes — is that no matter how good a piece of structure looks in direct sunlight, it will be better when shaded. Always work the shaded bank.
You will encounter some relatively long stretches of bank with similar structure — for instance, green cypresses and their knees. For sure, work as many of them as you can, but do it fairly quickly. Concentrate on irregularities within them — anything different, like a laid-down log between two clusters of knees or a drain entering the bayou from an adjacent swampy area.
A “suggestion” rather than a rule is if you motor upstream i
n order to drift back down on the current, once you reach the point where you turn around, wait a few minutes for the water to settle down before you begin fishing. Much of the bayou is quite intimate, and the bass are usually reluctant to strike for a short time after an outboard has putt-putted past them. Obviously, this does not apply to fishing from paddle-craft, but even then, a bit of stealth is almost always worth the effort.
The final “rule” for fishing Dorcheat applies to the competition that you are likely to encounter there. Be courteous to them. Slow down to dead idle — even kill the outboard and use the trolling motor — to pass them. And do so for some distance below and above them. Yeah, that will take some time, but like I said, the bayou is intimate in places, and that favor just might be repaid one day!
Besides the public ramp at Dixie Inn and the Route 160 crossing east of Cotton Valley, there are a few other crossings that may provide opportunity for paddle-craft if not for an outboard-powered flatboat. Potential spots are the state Route 164 crossing at Sibley, the state Route 2 crossing west of Shongaloo, and the state Route 157 crossing east of Springhill. I am unfamiliar with the lay of the land at those three spots, but remember that Dorcheat is a Scenic River and therefore public water, and if you can access it from public rights-of-way — like the sides of a bridge — then you are within your legal rights.
Finally, a word of caution. During periods of high water, the current in Dorcheat can be pretty strong. That can cause a real problem if you are concentrating on fishing and not passing an occasional glance at what you are about to flow through, near, under or around. You can get pinned against a snag and even swamped if you aren’t conscious of what’s just downstream of you. Be aware!
Bayou Dorcheat is a pristine stream — still wild in much of its course-length but guarded only by those majestic shoreline sentinels. Enjoy its beauty, catch a bunch of bass from it, but care for it, too.