Death and Rebirth at Lacassine NWR

Death and Rebirth at Lacassine NWR

Drought devastated this once-fantastic bass fishery, but all was not lost -- things are definitely looking up for 2004.

By John N. Felsher

Even though March 15, 1999, fell on a Monday, more than 450 boats entered the 16,000-acre Lacassine Pool as a new bass season opened.

To provide a seasonal sanctuary for visiting waterfowl, the pool normally closes from Oct. 16 through March 14. Levees enclosed marshland and old farmland years ago to create the pool on the 34,886-acre Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge near Lake Arthur. Weirs normally hold water levels in the rain-fed reservoir at about 3 feet deep.

Inside the pool, vast stretches of matted grass, canes, reeds and water lilies provide cover for hungry bass. Canals ringing the perimeter and a few boat trails offer water as deep as 6 feet. Stocked with Florida bass and other species, the entire system has created a fish paradise of clear water and dense cover in which a rich variety of abundant food helps to fatten the lunkers up.

Each spring, many anglers arrive to take advantage of big bass that haven't seen lures in months. Without pressure, these lunkers lose some of their wariness and respond well to lures in the days after the pool reopens. During past tournaments, some five-bass stringers weighed more than 31 pounds.

Since the impoundment offers one of the best places in southwest Louisiana for landing a double-digit largemouth bass, hundreds of anglers might line up hours before opening time on the roads leading to the two public launches. Some people camp in their vehicles just to get an early jump on the competition racing to the best spots.

"In past years, we've had quite a few bass in the 8- to 11-pound range," said Wayne Syron, a refuge biologist. "It's not unusual to see 300 trailers lined up on opening day."

This nice bigmouth fell to a noisy topwater plug in Lacassine NWR's marshes. Photo by John N. Felsher

LUNKERLAND!
In the spring and summer of 1999, the pool was in prime condition for growing lunker-grade bass. Years of Florida bass stockings had begun to produce enormous, pot-bellied fish, some up to 11 pounds. Some people reported catching fish larger than 12 pounds. But it's Harris O'Blanc, said Lacassine NWR manager Vicki Grafe, who holds the official refuge record.

By most standards, Harris and his father Wilford had already enjoyed a wonderful spring day of fishing on March 22, 1999, one week after the pool reopened. The pair drifted over grass flats and worked lures among the thick reeds. They worked over several holes in the grassy cover, enticing occasional strikes from hungry largemouths.

Before noon, they had already boated and released four or five bass in the 5-pound range and some smaller fish. Sweltering under the murderously bright midday sun after their successful morning, they considered calling it quits; then Harris landed another largemouth bass, a 4 1/2-pounder. Moments later, in sparkling-clear water, he noticed a shadow on the bottom, about 4 to 5 feet deep, near a mudflat.

"I threw a black and blue lizard with a 3/16-ounce weight about five or six times at her before she hit," he recalled. "We missed her the first time with the net, and I started cussing. Then she came around again. We thought she was about an 8-pounder until she turned sideways. Then we realized she was bigger than that. It was the biggest bass I ever caught."

And it was certainly the biggest bass that anyone had ever caught at Lacassine Pool. At 11.62 pounds, the goliath of a fish edged out the old refuge record, held by an 11.56-pounder caught in June 1996. One impressive thing about this bass: She had already spawned. She might have weighed more than 14 pounds a few days earlier!

In June 1999, Al Mouton and Larry Landry were fishing in an afternoon bass tournament and pulled in three fish that weighed 21.07 pounds, thus topping the previous three-fish record, set only one week earlier, by about 3 pounds. With a 9.56-pound largemouth anchoring the stringer, they figured that they'd won all the money.

However, Danny Demary and Doug Logan greeted them at the boat launch with a three-fish stringer weighing - 23.07 pounds!

On that hot summer evening, Demary and Logan had been using 3/4-ounce gold weedless spoons sweetened with No. 11 pork frogs bounced over small silver-dollar lilies. Logan landed an 8.06-pounder and a 7.10-pounder, and a 2-pounder was lipped to complete a solid three-fish tournament limit approaching 18 pounds - which only three weeks earlier would have been good enough just to approach the record.

However, at about 8 p.m., another bucketmouth blasted Demary's spoon - a 7.91-pound specimen. Not wanting to press their luck, the pair quickly released the 2-pounder and raced back to the landing.

Demary and Logan only enjoyed their bragging rights for one week. The three-fish stringer record was broken for the fourth time in 11 weeks when Troy Brown and Rod Richard landed 25.14 pounds' worth of bigmouths, Brown landing a 9.76-pound lunker and Richard contributed a 9.45-pounder and a 5.93-pound fish. Their three fish averaged 8.37 pounds! A sudden summer thunderstorm may have aided their success by cooling the shallow, heated pool.

"We caught these fish in about 20 minutes right after a thunderstorm passed through," Brown explained. "After that, the fish shut down. That thunderstorm really helped us a lot. It dropped the barometric pressure and cooled the water drastically. They came out from under the cover. We were in the right place at the right time."

Brown and Richard fished one of three big, slightly deeper pockets on the western end of Lacassine Pool. Like the other anglers, they bounced heavy weedless spoons tipped with pork chunks over thick, matted vegetation to entice their bass.

"Those fish just blew up on that spoon," Brown said. "We really didn't need to set the hook, but just hold on. They didn't play around with it."

"We both dropped some big fish there before because we just couldn't get them out of the vegetation," Richard observed. "I lost another one that was easily as big as my 9.45-pounder before I caught that one."

DROUGHT ENDS THE PARTY
After the thunderstorm that helped Brown and Richard in July 1999, Lacassine Pool didn't see much more rain for the next two years. Even while anglers enjoyed fabulous success during the long, hot summer of 1999, the dying pool began to feel the ravages of a two-year drought that had just begun.

By the time the pool closed for the season that October, many anglers couldn't reach some of their prime honeyholes; they would kick up mud in the usually deep boat trails. In fact, the fishing probably exceeded all expectations, because the shrinking pool concentrated fish into fewer areas.

The water in the pool had reached a critically low level by the spring of 2000. Except for the perimeter canals, the pool shrank from nearly 16,000 acres to a few hundred acres, and most of those remained choked with vegetation. Refuge officials cancelled the traditional March opener, but allowed bank-fishermen to probe the perimeter canals.

With the fish corralled into the shallow canals, the bank-anglers landed many a lunker, some bringing in bass in the 5- to 7-pound range, a few catching specimens exceeding 10 pounds. With water levels dropping each day, refuge officials encouraged the bank-anglers to keep anything they caught.

"We watched people pulling out fish all up and down the bank," said Maurice Fontenot, who caught an 8-pounder on opening day that year. "We saw stringers of 10 bass averaging 3 to 4 pounds. It wasn't uncommon to catch 40 or 50 bass."

The extremely shallow water remaining became unbearably hot, and lacked dissolved oxygen; it caused the fish to jam themselves into constricted pools in which trophy bass became easy prey for turtles, raptors, minks, raccoons, cormorants and other predators. Vegetation thickened in many normally wet areas, turning parts of the impounded marsh into practically dry prairie reminiscent of something one might see in Kansas.

"It's extremely low," Grafe said in 2000. "We have the lowest water we've seen historically. Now, the pool averages about 1 foot deep. When the water was pulled down to a few deep areas, the alligators, birds and otters cleaned up. I imagine we had some fat critters out there."

By the time rains refilled the pool in late 2000, little more than a ring of water remained in perimeter canals. On May 7, 2001, Lacassine Pool reopened to boaters after 19 months; the water level stood at about 3.8 feet. Refuge officials delayed the March opener to give the surviving bass more time to spawn without interference.

However, most of the giant bass had disappeared. During the worst of the drought, refuge biologists saw hundreds of dead fish, including many huge bass, on muddy banks, and an untold number were devoured by predators in the preceding year and a half. So it was that in 2001, Lacassine Pool anglers had to release everything they caught immediately.

When the rains again filled Lacassine Pool, state and federal officials began an intense restocking program. First they released bream to serve as forage fish; then they stocked hundreds of thousands of pure Florida bass fingerlings, and annual stockings continue. They also stocked catfish, crappie and redear sunfish (better known in south Louisiana as "chinquapins").

"We are decimated out there," Grafe said in March 2001. "We did a two-day shocking effort and only found six bass; the largest was 13 inches. Most of the bass were in the 4- to 5-inch range. In a similar shocking in 1998, we found 78 bass ranging up to 11 pounds."

In May 2001, concerned bass fishermen using private funds stocked more than 50,000 pure Florida-strain largemouth bass fry into the pool. However, it takes years to grow an 11-pound bass.

A few monster bass survived, growing fat by eating their trapped brethren. In 2001, anglers reported catching an occasional bass in the 4- to 8-pound range. However, most fishermen had to work hard and cover plenty of territory to land three or four bass in a day.

RAIN, AND A NEW BEGINNING
By 2002, anglers had again started catching 20 to 30 bass in a morning. These fish probably averaged about a pound; a few broke 2 pounds, and occasionally, a lucky angler found a lunker as the bass continued spawning, reproducing - and growing.

In 2003, refuge officials again delayed the opening until April 28, again to allow more bass to spawn without pressure. When the pool opened, anglers could keep anything they wanted in accordance with state regulations, except for largemouth bass, all of which still had to be released.

Bream and crappie anglers enjoyed a banner year. Faster-growing than largemouths, and much more prolific, many huge bream now inhabited the canals and deeper channels of Lacassine Pool. Without as many big bass to prey upon them, they thrived in magnificent numbers.

Bass stocked in 2000 or 2001 continue to grow. In 2003, people could take good numbers of 2- and 3-pounders and an occasional fish in the 4- to 6-pound range; a few caught fish breaking 8 pounds, and some even claimed to have hooked double-digit bass, but because of the catch-and-release rule, they couldn't bring them to certified scale. There were even reports of anglers bringing in 50 to 100 bass in a day, although most barely reached 12 inches. But plenty of small fish indicated that the pool had started to regain some of its former health and splendor.

Which brings us up to the present - and barring any major natural or artificial disasters, Lacassine Pool should again produce good numbers of fish in the 2- to 5-pound range during 2004. With the catch-and-release rules, the pool didn't receive the pressure in 2003 that it did in 1999; indeed, many people grew out of the habit of fishing the area. Moreover, the catch-and-release rules discouraged bass tournament organizers from conducting events at the pool.

WEEDLESS BAITS ARE IN
With fewer boats running the pool, thick grasses and lily pads have choked boat lanes. Marsh grasses sprouted during the dry period, taking over many former bass honeyholes. So now, even more so than in 1999, bass anglers need to use weedless baits.

"If I could only take five baits into the Lacassine marsh, I would choose a 1/4-ounce or 3/8-ounce baby bass spinnerbait with willow-leaf blades, a gold spoon with a green and white pork chunk, a red shad Texas-rigged worm, a pumpkin pepper frog and a white buzzbait," said Dane Thibodeaux, a Lake Charles bass pro.

Many anglers toss Texas-rigged soft-plastic jerkbaits, shiners, lizards or frogs. Often, anglers use no weight, so that these light and lifelike lures can flit over grasstops easily. Sometimes a tiny split shot or a slightly heavier hook can provide enough weight for making longer casts. In the shallow, clear rainwater of the pool, anglers often need to make long casts to avoid spooking fish.

You can use an unweighted soft-plastic jerkbait or lizard in one of two ways. Method 1: In thick cover, throw baits past holes in reeds or silver-dollar lilies and twitch or skitter them across the grasstops; bass often explode through the vegetation to eat them. Since they feel soft and lifelike, don't set the hook immediately. Let the fish take it for a second. After feeling the fish on the line, set the hook - hard!

Method 2: Let baits fall temp

tingly through broken cover or scattered vegetation into any tiny pockets among the lilies. After baits fall a foot or two, like a sinking wacky worm, pull them over the vegetation again. Don't hesitate to let a bait rest on top of a lily pad - bass can see silhouettes on pads and may erupt through vegetation to gulp the bait. Hot colors include pumpkin pepper, golden shiner, black and blue, green pumpkin or black and chartreuse.

Just as was the case in 1999, weedless spoons tipped with pork chunks still entice big fish. Most anglers use 1/4- to 3/4-ounce baits. Use lighter spoons on bright or calm days and heavy spoons in thicker vegetation or on dark, windy days. A silver, gold or black spoon will usually work. On cloudy days, use a black spoon with a yellow pork chunk.

Many dragonflies swarm over the humid wetlands. In gin-clear water, bass watch dragonflies land on reeds and then jump from the water to snatch them - an activity that telegraphs lunker ambush points. Throw a 1/4-ounce black and yellow spoon past the point at which a bass grabbed the dragonfly. Dance it along the surface in front of the honeyhole until an aggravated bucketmouth blasts it.

As the water heats up, bass try to escape into deeper ponds, boat lanes or perimeter canals. Anglers will encounter slightly deeper water in the North Pond and the South Pond, two areas that retained some water during the drought. For deeper bass, throw Texas-rigged worms or lizards. Hot colors include red shad, moccasin, watermelon, green pumpkin, pumpkinseed or black and blue.

With so much vegetation, anglers usually go to stouter lines, many resorting to 17- to 25-pound-test, some using super-strong braided lines to yank bass from thick cover.

Boaters may not use motors larger than 25 hp inside the pool. In 600-acre Unit D, boaters may only use paddle power or electric motors. During open season, anglers may fish from one hour before sunrise until one hour after sunset.

For complete rules, call the refuge office at (337) 774-5923. For fishing reports, call O'Blanc's Bait Shop at (337) 622-3348.



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