Dog-Day Bass Fishing in Louisiana
September 28, 2010
It's hot out there — oppressively hot — ridiculously hot! But that doesn't mean the bass aren't biting somewhere. Try these waters for bass when it boils.
By John McQueen
Late summer might well be right at the bottom of a basser's favorite times of year to fish. The searing heat of the season tends to drive bass deep - and to send anglers trying to figure those bass out off the deep end. Things are far easier in the spring, when bass are shallow and aggressive.
Nevertheless, no tried-and-true bass angler is going to let a little heat and humidity get in the way of his fishing - that would be downright un-American. Even the scorching days of July and August are bearable if you can get out there and catch a few bass. The trick, of course, is knowing where to go and what to do when you get there.
And that's what we're here for: to take a look at some of the better options for catching bass during what can be a very challenging time of year.
EVEN THE BASS ARE UNCOMFORTABLE "The thing about bass is they're a lot like people," said Mike Walker, area supervisor of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries in New Iberia. "When it's hot outside, we don't feel like doing much. Bass are much the same way, and it can make for a very tough bite."
With that in mind, the aim for anglers should be to find water that makes things at least tolerable to bass. Deep water and moving water will increase your odds of putting bass in the boat on those days when merely venturing outdoors risks heat related illnesses.
The New Orleans area would seem a very unlikely place to find the depth of water needed to satisfy the bass' needs for comfort. The vast majority of the water surrounding the world's fastest-sinking city is overwhelmingly shallow. Swamp and fresh and brackish water marshland dominates the terrain in the entire southeast part of the state. The area around the state's largest city is no exception. Our saving grace at this time of year is the Mississippi River, which, once again, provides both moving water and deep water.
Deep water is sometimes the answer for locating summer's lethargic largemouths. Photo by Tom Evans
The catch of it all is the color of the water coursing along the nation's longest river. While bass fishermen do not necessarily shun muddy water in certain applications, the Mississippi normally brings murk to a rare level, especially during the spring thaw, which also brings the water temperature far below cool and comfortable.
Late summer, however, typically sees river levels at yearly lows. New Orleans levels of 5 feet or so mean a much slower current rolling towards the Gulf of Mexico, allowing much of the sediment to settle and clearing the water considerably around the Venice area. Bass fishing in the marsh down river can be positively spectacular at this time of year despite the heat.
The ponds, bayous and canals in the vast marsh below Venice are home to some of the best bass fishing in the entire nation. The constant flow of nutrients moving down the river makes it an ideal area for all things to grow. The bounty of the nearby Gulf of Mexico effectively doubles the amount of forage in the area and creates an astounding melting pot of light tackle species finning about in the brackish water.
TWO WAYS TO GO In late summer, there are two ways to go about catching bass in the lower delta of the Mississippi River. One of these involves making the long boat ride to the Delta National Wildlife Refuge or the Pass-A-Loutre Wildlife Management Area to fish the marsh. This tactics has made Venice one of America's hotspots for taking numbers of good bass. The other option involves fishing the river proper.
Not only does the river lose much of its flow during low-water periods, but the tidal influence of the adjoining saltwater takes hold as well. The river itself can become quite salty. A saltwater wedge - a combination of the river's clearer freshwater flow and the saltwater - moves up the river as far as the water level will take it, creating an incredible habitat along the river's riprap just below and oftentimes above Venice.
Tossing crankbaits along the rocky shorelines of the Mississippi River can produce bragging-sized catches of bass, but only if you're willing to put up with a wide variety of other predators in between bass bites. Redfish, speckled trout and native striped bass compete with bass side by side along the rocky structure in the river, and they'll give you many moments of curiosity as you wonder which species has grabbed your bait.
"It's really amazing that a body of water that is so muddy and dangerous at most times of the year can be so fertile when the water goes down a certain bit," says Cecil Dufresne, a longtime area bass angler. "When the river's right, it's nothing to catch 30 or 40 bass in a day."
Dufresne says that number of fish would at least double if it weren't for the enormous presence of other game species. This is a fact that calls for special provisions when taking on the river.
"You've got to beef up your tackle a bit for these fish," says Dufresne. "There are a ton of fish out there, but it's not like they bite nonstop. There are certain 'bite windows' that you've got to take advantage of.
"If you're in a good area and get on a good bunch of fish and a big redfish comes along, you may have a 15-minute fight on your hands if you're using 10- or 12-pound line. Those big fish get in that current, and you can be missing out on a lot of quality fishing time wrestling with that thing - not to mention trying to get your five-dollar bait out of its mouth."
Dufresne makes a good point about the redfish's mouth. The crabs that constitute one of the species' main food sources are impersonated very convincingly by shallow-running crankbaits. Upon striking, the fish immediately takes a crab to the crushers located in the back of its mouth in order render it fit to digest. It's an interesting on-the-water lesson, but not one that any bass fisherman wants when football-shaped 3-pounders are coming over the side of the boat with regularity. A couple of pairs of good-quality needlenose pliers are a must for this type of fishing, along with a good number of crankbaits and a healthy dose of patience.
Much of the river's riprap shoreline will look the same in the summer, but there are subtle differences concerning eddies and underwater structure. Concentrating on things that look different can be the difference in a good day of fishing and a great day of catching.
CITIZEN CANE For a mor
e traditional day of bass fishing, the ponds and canals of the aforementioned public land areas are outstanding for bass in the face of the season's high temperatures. The tides have as much to do with this fishing as anything, along with the presence of an astoundingly effective structure known as roseau cane.
"It not only acts as great cover for keeping the water cooler, it does a great job of clearing the water when the tide starts falling," says Dufresne.
Roseau cane - which looks much like bamboo or sugar cane - is the overwhelming choice of the state's waterfowl hunters as a blind material, with its long, sturdy makeup. It's also fantastic bass cover for the same reasons. The canopy lowers the water temperature - not a lot, but it's certainly noticeable - and acts as a filter when the tide begins to fall, suddenly creating a trifecta of water factors - cool, clean and moving - that can send bass into a feeding frenzy.
"During a rising tide, you can catch some fish buzzing a spinnerbait over some grass in areas where there's always clear water, but the magic happens when you get into the falling tide for a few hours and the clean water comes out of the canes," says Dufresne.
Flipping or pitching soft plastics and jigs are overwhelmingly the favorite tactics for this type fishing, and darker colors are most often the way to go. In keeping with the Venice theme, heavy tackle is the rule rather than the exception. Mono or braid up to 50 pounds in strength is often needed to horse these stout fish out of the tangled masses of canes.
THE ATCHAFALAYA BASIN Moving westward, low summertime river conditions also mean ideal conditions for bass in the Atchafalaya Basin. The nation's largest overflow swamp is teeming with bass and provides very tough fishing during the late winter/early spring spawn when the silt-laden water floods the banks, sending the spawners up into the woods where few fishermen can or are willing to chase them.
The tables are turned, however, when the area experiences low water. Even though late summer conditions are often ideal-looking, catching can be another matter, according to Walker.
"You've got a lot more fish concentrated in a much smaller area in low water, but you've also got to remember that the forage fish are more concentrated as well," he says. "A bass fisherman's lure has got a lot of competition out there and a lot of satisfied fish. It can be hard to get the fish's attention when they're so well-fed."
Walker says the best areas for anglers to try are the ones nearest the main channels. The Atchafalaya is mainly a shallow-water fishery and one must find a source of cooler water in order to find the concentrations of bass.
"Because of the relatively shallow water (2-8 feet) of the Basin, the fish undoubtedly migrate to the cooler water spots," says Walker. "It's very different from Toledo Bend, which is a fairly deep body of water. The fish there are able to migrate vertically in order to find their comfort zone."
"Bass will travel a good distance from the middle of the Basin to the areas where there is at least some water movement," said Walker.
Some of those areas on the west side of the Basin include the Blur Point Chute toward Little Bayou Long and the Twenty One Inch Canal and Bayou Boutte. These areas are more towards the western border of the Atchafalaya, bordered by the river of the same name.
Walker also reminds anglers not to forget the dead-end canals near moving water, as they will be deeper.
There's no question that the bass are present at this time of the year when the water level is down. Getting the bass to bite one's lure is another thing entirely with such a large amount of forage fish in the water.
"You've got a ton of shad concentrated in the same areas along with the crawfish coming out of the woods and the bream that are spawning that time of year," said Walker. "Everybody knows that a hungry bass is going to bite much better than a satisfied bass."
Walker theorizes that many of the strikes from bass at this time of year are reaction strikes rather than lunges at prey by actively feeding fish. "You drag something in front of him - he's a predator and he's got a brain the size of a pea - you've got a good chance at making that fish strike," he said.
BLACK LAKE It's the predatory instinct and the same preponderance of forage that make Black Lake in the northwestern part of the state such a popular choice, according to LDWF regional supervisor James Seals. "The schooling bass action is very popular among anglers in late summer. There's tons of shad in the lake," he says.
Anglers position their boats near the deep-water areas of the lake and wait for the bass to choose the time to attack the huge schools of shad by driving them to the surface. What this presents is an ideal topwater fishery for anglers in need of some excitement after several months of deep-water worm fishing. The bass are usually able to keep their prey on the surface for a few minutes of frenzied action before the shad regroup. Taking fish is simply a matter of firing a chrome or shad-colored bait into the school and working it back.
There are a few ways to maximize the action on these schooling fish. Jerry Johnson looks forward to the yearly phenomenon and is happy to share a few tricks of the trade in taking as many fish as possible from a school.
"Popping lures are good at drawing strikes, but can really be a problem when the fish are hitting it and (the angler) is jerking it simultaneously," said Johnson. "Poppers have a bad habit of fouling themselves, and that can get very frustrating when you know you've only got a short period of time with which to draw a strike."
For that reason, Johnson prefers walking type baits that are retrieved in a more rhythmic fashion. "These baits cast a mile and have a great action, even in choppy water," he said.
Johnson also likes to throw a lipless crankbait when fishing for schooling bass. "Those types of baits can cover a lot of water, and you're able to burn them back to the boat easier when you see a fish surface and need to make another cast," he says. "Plenty of times another school will pop up that has aggressive fish in it." When that happens, it pays to be fishing a bait that allows you to make lots of long casts.
Johnson has another trick for getting that extra fish out of an active school. Mashing down the barbs on his front treble hooks helps out tremendously when unhooking a fish. That's when seconds really count.
"A bass will usually get hooked by both sets of hook, with the back set almost always hooked in the cheek or in the body," said Johnson. "These are the easier hooks to get out, so I keep the barbs on the back set. The barbless ones up front make it much easier to get them out of all of the cartilage in their mouth.
In Johnson's view, the best situation is when the bass manages to shake free of the barbless hook in its mouth, leaving the back set firmly in place and its mouth free to be lipped for easy handling.
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There you have it: a cure for the summer doldrums. Plenty of fluids and sunscreen will be a must, but late-summer bass fishing at these unique Louisiana hotspots can prove well worth the effort.
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