Where Are Our Coastal Bass?

Coastal freshwater fisheries still feel the effects of hurricanes Rita and Katrina. As is the case with many of south Louisiana's aquatic species, the largemouth bass population is in recovery mode. (April 2007)

Clint Ward is seen fishing for bass in a weed-choked pool at Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge near Lake Arthur.
Photo by John Felsher.

Things look glum now, but bass anglers in coastal Louisiana could find some of the best fishing of their lives in coming months.

For the past year and a half, bass anglers in coastal Louisiana saw nothing but devastation. Hurricane Katrina hit the Mississippi River delta in August 2005, and Hurricane Rita smashed into Cameron Parish in September 2005; the twin monsters left a huge path of destruction. In terms of freshwater fisheries, Rita and Katrina obliterated most of the prime bass habitat in southwestern and southeastern Louisiana. Biologists found few fish east of the Mississippi River, and even fewer in southwest Louisiana south of Toledo Bend.

"East of the Mississippi River and around Venice were the areas most affected by Hurricane Katrina," said Joe Shepard of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries in Baton Rouge. "The entire area east of the Mississippi River was covered in salt water. We lost just about all of the freshwater resource in the area east of the Mississippi River and in the Florida Parishes. We had fish kills in the Pearl River as far north as Bogalusa. Katrina did not impact much west of the Mississippi, but Hurricane Rita destroyed about one-third of the resource in the Atchafalaya Basin. Many areas in southwestern Louisiana were totally wiped out. Many water-control structures were destroyed."

Salty storm surges wiped out freshwater habitat, killing millions of fish and other species. Katrina and Rita ripped leaves from trees and stirred up tons of organic debris. Decaying organic matter consumed oxygen, leaving fish and other creatures to die by suffocation.

The same thing happened when Hurricane Andrew churned up the Atchafalaya Basin in 1992. Fortunately, just three years after Andrew hit, anglers found Basin bass fishing much better than before the storm. Barring any other major storms or unforeseen catastrophes, the fisheries in coastal Louisiana will do the same.

Nature rebuilds much more quickly than humans can. Both southeastern and southwestern Louisiana have already started showing signs of recovery. In the marshes near Caernarvon and Venice, some bass escaped the rising salt waters by fleeing to one of the largest sources of fresh water in the continent -- the Mississippi River. As early as the spring of 2006, people started catching bass near the Caernarvon river siphon and in places around Venice.

"It was months before we could get a boat into the Caernarvon area and sample it," Shepard said. "We didn't find much at that time. Once the river siphons started pumping fresh water back into the Caernarvon marshes, we started finding fish again, some in the 3- to 4-pound range. It's possible that they came through the siphon from the river once we established some freshwater habitat in that area again.

"From a fisheries perspective, Hurricane Katrina didn't cause nearly as much damage as we expected in the Mississippi River delta. The river was a nice sanctuary for those fish. Bass started filtering back as the habitat returned."

On the plus side, a catastrophic fish kill removes many major predators and rough fish from a system. With few adult bass or other predators eating them, young bass' survival rate is better than normal. And the state concentrated stocking efforts in the hardest-hit areas. Instead of fry, biologists began stocking more Florida bass in the 6- to 8-inch range. Since fewer things can eat an 8-inch bass than can devour a 1-inch bass, more of these "phase 2" fish survive to adulthood.

Largemouth bass in Louisiana grow to about 8 to 12 inches in one year. Therefore, by this spring and summer, many bass born in the empty waters of 2006 should grow large enough to provide excellent recreation for anglers. Anglers in hurricane-ravaged areas might catch a few big fish, but shouldn't expect many monsters this year. However, in two to four years, people could find some giant bucketmouths in places where they never caught big bass before.

"Pockets of fish survived," said Howard Rogillio, an LDWF fisheries biologist in Lacombe. "The surviving fish moved out into available habitat. We put some adult fish in Caernarvon as broodstock. They should start spawning and filling in some of the voids.

"This is a good chance to put more Florida bass in some waters. We might be more successful in adding the Florida bass genes into some systems than we've had in the past. We've been stocking Floridas for years, but they have had a lot of competition. The fish that we stock now might see a little better survival rate."

After the hurricanes, many anglers participated in Operation Jump Start. After tournaments in the relatively untouched Atchafalaya Basin, anglers donated fish to LDWF biologists, who then released the fish, including many large breeders, into waters nearly devoid of fish. These Basin bass fanatics repaid a debt to southeastern Louisiana anglers who released fish from the Manchac area, Pearl River and other places to re-establish bass in the Atchafalaya Basin after Hurricane Andrew struck the area in 1992.

"The areas we are really concerned about are the ones with no riverine influence," Shepard said. "We stocked adult fish and fingerlings in the Caernarvon area. That area will recover fairly quickly. Fish in the Pearl River can come down from the upper reaches of the river. East of the Mississippi River, we did not see much of spawn in 2006, because those areas had so few fish, but we should have a good spawn in 2007. We should see good production in the affected areas. People should catch a lot of small fish in 2007."

With an influx of fresh water, river systems should see their fish populations recover quickly. While the hurricane destroyed the fisheries in the lower parts of the rivers, such as the Pearl, Tickfaw, Amite and others streams, survivors in the sweeter upper reaches can move down to restock empty available habitat.

"We're starting to see some improvement in the rivers of the Florida Parishes," Rogillio said. "Usually, it takes two to three years for fish to recover in an area. Nature will do a pretty good job of restocking the waters, but we'll try to aid the recovery by supplementary restocking of bass, bluegill, catfish and other species. Before the hurricane, people caught some 10- to 11-pound fish in the Caernarvon area. I know of some 9-pounders that came out of Bayou Lacombe and Pearl River.

"With more Florida bass in the system, the potential for producing a 10-pound or better largemouth bass greatly increases. In a few years, some of those areas restocked with Florida bass might start producing some really impressive fish."

The same should occur along the rivers in southwest Louisiana. The state recorded severe fish kills from salty water and low oxygen levels as far as 50 miles upstream in the Sabine, Calcasieu and Mermentau rivers. A wall of salt water covered everything for more than 20 miles from the coast, destroying most freshwater marshes and impoundments in southwest Louisiana. Sabine National Wildlife Refuge between Calcasieu Lake and the Sabine River closed to boat traffic because of debris in the water.

"All freshwater fish populations in southwest Louisiana took a severe hit from Hurricane Rita," said Bobby Reed, an LDWF biologist in Lake Charles. "The coastal marshes were hit particularly hard. In November 2005, we sampled, and it was zeroes across the page. The Calcasieu had fish kills as high as Oakdale; the Sabine had no fish all the way up to Deweyville and Starks, almost up to Toledo Bend. The Sabine didn't have a lot of saltwater intrusion, because most of the storm surge was to the east. Most of the salt water went up the Calcasieu to above White Oak Park and up the Mermentau as far as U.S. 90 at Lake Arthur."

Because the storm surge moved eastward, and because the salt water could spread through vast tidal marshes along the Sabine River, the lower portion of the river suffered less damage than had been originally thought. Water with low oxygen levels, not salt water, destroyed much of the Sabine River ecosystem north of Interstate 10, because high winds blew leaves into the river. These decaying leaves robbed fish of vital oxygen. In the treeless marshes, though, more bass survived.

"In the spring and through early fall of 2006, fishing was wonderful on the Sabine River south of Interstate 10," said Ron Castille, a bass angler and fishing outfitter in Lake Charles. "People could catch all the small bass they want.

"The storm surge spread through the marsh and left with the tide. In many places, people could catch bass, redfish, speckled trout, flounder and other fish in the same spot. During bass tournaments, anglers sometimes had to move because they were catching too many speckled trout. Above I-10, people couldn't catch any fish."

In the spring of 2006, the state sampled the Sabine and Calcasieu rivers, but found few fish. By the summer, though, they found more fish of all kinds, although way below normal levels. However, both the Sabine and the Calcasieu enjoyed huge bass spawns in the spring of 2006. Free from predators and with little competition, those fry should quickly repopulate the river. By October 2006, some bass had already reached 8 inches long.

"The rivers are already on their way back," Reed said. "On the Sabine and Calcasieu rivers, we saw the best spawns in 20 years during 2006. We've seen higher largemouth bass numbers than in 20 years. A lot of the garfish, bowfin and other big predators are gone so smaller fish can survive.

"We were planning to stock the Sabine and Calcasieu rivers, but with the numbers already generated by Mother Nature, it will be hard to justify stocking the rivers. In the summer of 2007, people will have a lot of fun catching a bunch of small fish. By 2008 and 2009, people will see some of the best fishing they've seen in years."

The Calcasieu River began producing a few bass before torrential rains struck the area in October 2006. A good flood creates long-term benefits for a river system, flushing out organic matter and debris and redistributing fish. Undoubtedly, raging waters washed some bass from the upper reaches of the Sabine and Calcasieu Rivers into areas with few fish.

Marshes east of Lake Charles suffered mostly from salt water. The storm surge demolished the Big Burns Marsh. Salt water also poured over the levees of the 16,000-acre Lacassine Pool on Lacassine NWR near Bell City. Historically one of the best places in south Louisiana at which to land a double-digit bass, Lacassine Pool previously produced many lunkers in the 10- to 11-pound range, some nearly hitting 12 pounds.

The shallow, marshy impoundment averages only about 3 feet deep, except in several perimeter canals. Hurricane Rita demolished the water-control structures and topped the perimeter levees with salt water. Salinity levels ranged from 2.5 to 4 parts per thousand -- but largemouths can tolerate surprisingly high levels of salinity.

"In February and March 2006, we sampled Lacassine Pool with gillnets," Reed said. "At that time, we found plenty of broodstock. We caught some fish over 5 pounds in the nets. The hurricane didn't kill everything. Nature finds a way."

The drought of 2006 harmed Lacassine Pool more than the storm. The pool normally opens to public fishing from March 15 through Oct. 15 each year. With the state gripped by drought, the pool closed to boat traffic in June 2006. Before the rains hit the area and refilled the pool in early fall 2006, little remained of the once-vibrant marsh except the perimeter canals.

The hurricanes didn't affect the marshes between the Atchafalaya and Mississippi rivers as much as they did other areas. Some areas experienced isolated fish kills, but overall, fishing remains relatively normal in the Lake Salvador, Lac des Allemands and lower Atchafalaya Basin areas.

The 5,000-acre Henderson Lake area between Lafayette and Baton Rogue did suffer a major fish kill, said Jody David, an LDWF fisheries biologist in Opelousas. Here, Rita stirred the bottom and caused oxygen levels to drop, killing many fish. The ensuing drought dropped water levels, causing more problems with deficient dissolved oxygen levels.

"We lost quite a few fish, but we've seen some come back slowly," David said. "We've seen a lot of reproduction in 2006. It will eventually come back, but it's going to take time. It's almost like a new lake. The fish that did survive will come back strong. The fish what we stocked will do well. The lake will be in a lot better shape in 2007 than it was in 2006."

In 2006, the state stocked 80,000 Florida bass fingerlings into Henderson. In addition, some fish dropped into the deeper waters of the canals and natural lakes to escape the drought. Some holes in these waters drop to more than 20 feet deep. These fish will offer a breeding remnant that should quickly refill the bayous, flats and lakes of the Henderson area.

"Henderson Lake has a good forage base," David said. "The bass will grow quickly. In the spring of 2007, people will catch many young fish. It's going to be a bonanza in this lake in the next couple of years. Some adult fish will always survive by staying in good areas. The lake produced some bass in the 4-pound range since Hurricane Rita. In the past, it produced bass almost up to 10 pounds."

While things don't look that great now for bass anglers in many parts of coastal Louisiana, we could see some of the best fishing in years, as systems improve daily. For now, break out the ultr

alight tackle and enjoy catching a bunch of small bass.

Find more about Louisiana

fishing and hunting at:

LAGameandFish.com

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