Autumn's Lunker Bass
September 28, 2010
A fact not widely known is that Louisiana possesses some of the best bass-rich waters in the country. We review a handful of the very best options in the state for large fall bass.
Angler Joe Nolan unhooks a nice Louisiana bass that nailed a soft-plastic creature bait.
Photo by John Felsher
By the time September arrives, many Louisiana sportsmen have put away their fishing tackle, bought a ton of ammunition and are starting to plan their next hunting adventures. However, as largemouths gorge themselves on shad to prepare for the coming winter scarcity, autumn can produce excellent bass action. An angler might land a 5- to 7-pounder in just about any of Louisiana's better bass waters, a few of which offer a legitimate opportunity to target a double-digit largemouth. And some lesser-known lakes, curiously overshadowed by other nearby trophy waters, can deliver lunker bass at times.
Starting in northeast Louisiana, D'Arbonne Lake spreads out through 15,250 acres southeast of Farmerville in Union and Lincoln parishes. Formed when Corney Bayou and Bayou D'Arbonne were dammed in 1964, this impoundment shaped like a leaning "Y" drains much of north-central Louisiana. It gained a reputation for producing giant bass in February 2000, when Ed Stellner twitched a gold and black suspending rattling rogue in Bear Creek and landed a 15.31-pound bass to establish a new lake record. Stellner's fish holds seventh place in the state record book, the only top 10 bass caught in a year beginning with 20 instead of 19. The lake has also produced several bass in the 10- to 12-pound range.
"Bass fishing is super and has been maintained that way for several years," said Mike Wood, a Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries district biologist in Monroe. "We haven't seen any more 15-pound bass, but the lake has some major potential to produce large bass. Our sampling shows that the lake is in great shape. I've heard of several bass in the 11-pound range since 2000. It's not uncommon to see a 10- or an 11-pound bass with lots of 2- to 5-pound bass."
During local club tournaments, the big bass usually weighs about 5 to 6 pounds; occasionally the top fish will reach the 10-pound range. For the past several years, the state has stocked approximately 150,000 Florida bass fingerlings into D'Arbonne Lake each year to produce trophy fish.
The lake averages about 9 feet in depth, but some holes in the old channel near the dam, much of which runs in the 20- to 30-foot range, drop to more than 35 feet. In the upper arms, the lake becomes more riverine, narrow and shallow, and in the fall, that's where anglers find the most bass.
"It's almost as if D'Arbonne Lake is separated into a couple lakes with relatively shallow arms that neck way down at the upper ends," Wood noted. "The upper ends of the lake are especially good for bass in the fall. Anglers get the benefit of some current, which improves water quality."
In the fall, bass feed heavily on threadfin shad, panfish and small darters called "log perch" that, tiger-striped and cigar-shaped, grow to about 4 or 5 inches long. In the upper arms, bass often feed at the mouths of numerous small creeks and other tributaries that used to flow into the impounded bayous.
Besides creek mouths, anglers fish grassy flats and timber in the upper lake arms. On the flats, run spinnerbaits or crankbaits parallel to grasslines. Since bass feed heavily on shad and log perch, long shad-colored crankbaits or fire tiger-colored jerkbaits should work. Several tributaries contain holes at the outside of channel bends. Water flows more swiftly around the outside of a bend, scouring deep holes.
Here, anglers drop worms and jigs or work the edges with deep-diving crankbaits. "Cypress trees and grass are the dominant cover in the upper lake," Wood said. "In the main lake, anglers find more wide open areas and deeper channels. In the lower lake, bass hang around old snags and logs that fell down. People fish a lot of decaying wood, trees and grass. The channel edges also form dominant structure for holding bass."
Where creeks merge with main channels, bass chase schools of shad in late summer through fall. When schooling bass erupt unexpectedly, anglers toss topwater baits, lipless crankbaits or white spinners into the fray. "In the fall, the lake has a lot of schooling activity," Wood observed. "Schooling bass may pop up anywhere in the lake, but generally, they relate to channels or other structure. Many fish relate to the channel edges in the main lake. Over these channels, anglers fish deep-diving shad-colored crankbaits. Many people also drop Carolina rigs into the channels."
In September, many anglers fish at night. The state has added lights on the state Highway 33 bridge specifically for anglers. Crappie fishermen mostly use the lights, but bass anglers also fish the bridge and nearby lighted docks with black spinnerbaits or worms.
Anglers wishing to make a trip might stay at the D'Arbonne Motel on state Highway 33; they can also launch at ramps along that same road. Others might prefer to stay in a cabin among the piney hills of the 655-acre D'Arbonne State Park. Five fishing piers allow landlocked anglers to fish without boats. For more information, call Wood at (318) 343-4044. For info on the state park, see
CANE RIVER LAKE
The Red River cuts a swath through northwest and central Louisiana, offering great fishing over much of its path from Shreveport to Simmesport. In the fall, people catch many bass up to 9 pounds along its length and in numerous oxbow lakes off its course.
However, the Red River left a part of itself near Natchitoches. The Red River began changing course in 1825, threatening to leave Natchitoches, the oldest town in the Louisiana Purchase, without any significant water routes. In the mid-19th century, the U.S. Army began clearing the "Great Raft," a massive logjam extending hundreds of miles along the Red River.
Delayed by the Civil War, clearing work resumed in the late 19th century, and the unclogged river changed course. In 1936, engineers built a dam to stabilize the water level in the by-then-landlocked ribbon known as Cane River Lake. Today, this remnant meanders peacefully for 35 miles, part of which passes through downtown Natchitoches.
"Cane River Lake probably has more bass in the 5- to 7-pound range than most of our other lakes," said Ricky Moses, an LDWF district biologist in Pineville. "It's a phenomenal lake in terms of pounds of bass per acre. Some bass tournaments with five-fish stringers take more than 24 pounds to win. Cane River is a very fertile, produ
ctive system with a good forage base."
The state introduced Florida bass into the system in the early 1990s to increase the size of trophy bass and control forage. Now, about one-third of all fish in Cane River Lake exhibit some Florida genes.
"Cane River Lake is a phenomenal fishery," Moses said. "It has a lot of bass in the 2- to 7-pound range, with some in the 11-pound range. It has a tremendous forage base with lots of shad. The problem is that fish don't have to work very hard to get full. We've had bass anglers fish a bank and claim there's no fish there. We go behind them with our electrofishing boats, and they can't believe what we find."
The lake's history as an old river channel reveals itself in various ways today; from Natchitoches north, the lake runs shallow, while the southern end remains fairly deep. The lake averages about 11 to 12 feet deep, but some holes drop to more than 25 feet. Usually completely landlocked, it sometimes reconnects with the Red River during floods, which restocks the lake with more fish.
"In the fall of the year, a lot of bass begin moving to deeper water," Moses offered. "Lily pads and boat docks form the dominant cover. In early mornings, anglers catch fish around the lily pads and shorelines with topwater baits. Later in the day, they switch to spinnerbaits and plastics. They also use worms and jigs in deep water. In September and October, bass start bunching up in fallen treetops. Any trees blown down in 12 to 15 feet of water will hold bass."
Many anglers fish the area near Shell Beach Launch halfway up the lake on east bank, south of Natchitoches. Several launches in Natchitoches provide access. Before people can operate boats on Cane River Lake, they must obtain boating safety cards from the Cane River Waterway District by passing an approved boating safety course. For more boating information, call Cane River Boating Safety at (318) 379-2700 or (318) 379-2878.
About 12 miles east of Natchitoches, Saline Lake lies between the legendary bass waters of the Red River and Caney Lake. At 13,500 acres, Black Lake often overshadows this smaller neighbor, but the 8,400 acres of this impounded swamp can still surrender excellent bass catches. "Right now, someone could catch a 10-pound bass in any of our central Louisiana lakes," Moses said. "In the last week of March 2005, we had two bass slightly over 10 pounds and an 11-pound, 14-ounce bass caught at Saline Lake. One bass over 12 pounds came out of Saline Lake about two years ago."
The cypress-studded lake averages about 7 to 8 feet deep. A natural depression supplemented by a dam to regulate water levels, the shallow lake supports abundant grass between the cypress and tupelo gum trees. Most people fish Texas-rigged soft plastics or spinnerbaits around the flooded trees or grasslines.
"Anglers are going to catch a lot of fish," Moses said. "Before we started stocking the lake with Florida bass, people caught a lot of 1 1/2- to 2-pound bass. Starting with 1998, we stocked Saline Lake heavily with Florida bass. They have done very well, because we are starting to see a lot of big bass coming out of the lake. It still has many small bass, but there's no doubt that the 10-pounders are a result of the stockings."
In the shallow, weedy waters, bluegills and crawfish make up the prime forage species. Therefore, any lures with chartreuse, red or gold might work. Buzzbaits run across grasstops could produce exciting action in September. Also, try throwing shallow-running crankbaits in fire tiger, chartreuse and blue or red. Craw worms worked at the base of trees might well entice a bass of a lifetime. For more information about fishing at Cane River or Saline Lake, call Moses at (318) 487-5885.
In western Louisiana, most bass fanatics fish Toledo Bend Reservoir along the Louisiana-Texas state line. The sprawling 186,000-acre lake does produce excellent catches of bass up to 15 pounds. However, just about 20 miles from the Toledo Bend Dam, 4,200-acre Vernon Lake, in Vernon Parish near Leesville, can produce bass exceeding 13 pounds.
"Vernon Lake reminds me of a miniature Toledo Bend with sandy points that drop off into the creek channel," remarked Bobby Reed, a LDWF district fisheries biologist from Lake Charles. "It still has a lot of old hardwood timber that rotted off at the waterline and plenty of vegetation for cover."
Since 1991, the state has stocked more than 2 million Florida bass fingerlings into Vernon Lake, averaging about 100,000 per year. Managed by the state for quality bass, lake regulations allow anglers to keep only eight largemouths per day. Anglers must immediately release all fish between 14 and 17 inches, but they may keep up to four bass per day exceeding 17 inches long. This rule does not apply to spotted bass, fishing for which follows state regulations.
"All these years of stocking are paying off with big fish starting to show up on a regular basis," Reed said. "I know of one person who caught a 13.5-pound bass in October 2004. That's the largest bass from Vernon that I'm aware of. In the spring of 2004, I know of two 12-pounders that came out of the lake. In the winter of 2004-05, we sampled the lake and found several bass over 8 pounds, one about 9 pounds and one almost 11 pounds."
Vernon Lake can support large fish with plenty of places where they can hide. The lake averages about 9 feet deep; some holes drop to more than 50 feet deep in the creek channel near the dam. Much of the channel near the dam holds water in the 30- to 40-foot range.
"Some of the most important subsurface features in Vernon are the little hills and humps along the creek channels," Reed said. "Those are just natural features of the geography before the lake was impounded. A lot of bass fishermen like to fish those humps that come up within eight to 10 feet of the surface."
In September, many bass hold on the tops of humps or suspend near the sides of humps along the thermocline, which runs about 10 feet deep in the summer. At the thermocline, bass find cool water and oxygen. In deep water below the thermocline, the water remains cool, but bass find little oxygen, at least until the thermocline breaks up in November. In early fall, many anglers fish the humps or the creek channel edges with jig-and-pig combinations, worms, deep-running crankbaits or spinnerbaits.
"Lake Vernon produces a lot of fish in the fall," said Dane Thibodeaux, a bass pro from Lake Charles. "It's primarily a spinnerbait lake, but we also throw wacky worms and other plastics. I like darker colors like junebug or redbug. There are some really big fish in Vernon. It's not uncommon to catch a fish over 8 pounds."
Wacky worms dropped near duck blinds may entice lunkers. Anglers also run white and chartreuse spinnerbaits parallel to bottom structure or around cover that might hold bass. The lake also contains a sizeable population of yellow bass, so gold-tinted lures might work well. Bass also feed heavily upon bream species.
In the fall, action heads up as bass chase threadfin or small gizzard shad over the
humps. Schooling bass may explode anywhere, but the open water near the dam usually produces the most schooling activity in September.
"The cold part of the fall is a good time of year for Lake Vernon," Reed said. "Anglers catch a lot of 5- and 6-pound bass, particularly along the northwest shoreline. The face of the dam is always a good bet when the wind allows. It's hard to fish the dam area on a north wind. If anglers can catch a day without a north wind, they can catch a lot of fish along the rocks at the base of the dam. In the Anacoco Creek branch of the lake, which goes under U.S. 171, fishing the humps in the fall is usually a good bet. That's where a lot of anglers traditionally catch a lot of the 10- and 11-pound bass."
Anglers may launch at Bivens Landing on north end or Lakeview Landing near the spillway. For more information about Vernon Lake, call Reed at (337) 491-2575.