By Kinny Haddox
About two decades before Bill Burns was even born, there was a popular television show called Have Gun, Will Travel. Its protagonist was a gunslinger-for-hire (played by Richard Boone) who went by the name of Paladin. A suave fellow despite his profession – a calling card with a chess knight for a logo was his mysterious introduction – he’d load up his six-shooter and go wherever he was summoned to root out the bad guys and take them down.
Bill Burns is a lot like Paladin, but his victims aren’t bad guys: They’re largemouth bass. He’ll pack his weaponry – his tackle – onto his horse – an 18-foot bass boat powered by a 225-hp outboard – and head out to wherever the bass need catching. His calling card: his love for fishing.
OK … well – maybe that’s a stretch. Anyway, the 25-year-old native of Gauthier, Miss., who earned his engineering degree from the University of Mississippi, is kept pretty busy in north Louisiana by his day job at International Paper in Bastrop, but he still manages to make time to chase bass all over the Bayou State.
“I learned to love to fish because of going with my dad,” Bill said. “We fished every chance we got, and when I went off to college, I had an old 14-foot aluminum boat. I still fished every chance I got.”
Bill started off bream- and crappie-fishing. Eventually, he moved on to a bigger challenge – Mr. Bass. Today his fishing has a twofold aspect. He loves to just go fishing, but he also loves tournament fishing. It’s the tournament fishing that has taken him from one end of the state to the other. The most important thing about fishing, as far as he’s concerned, is that it’s just still plain fun.
“There’s just so much out there to learn about fishing,” he said. “That’s why I love bass fishing.”
Even though he hasn’t been around as long as some of the state’s veteran anglers, he’s picked up quite a bit of knowledge, and more than his share of experience. January in Louisiana is somewhat unpredictable. Some years see it cold and wet, with rivers and lakes high and muddy; other years see it almost like spring – dry enough to plant cotton, and the water just right for the fish’s spawning instincts to start stirring. Either way, we’ve asked him to share his seven top bets for January bassin’ in Louisiana.
You can take the boy out of Mississippi, but you can’t take Mississippi out of the boy. So when it comes to Bill’s favorite January spot, it’s a place that isn’t too far from the area he once called home. The Pearl River is located in the toe of the boot, so to speak – far in southeast Louisiana, just above Lake Pontchartrain. It’s almost in Mississippi!
The two towns nearest to Bill’s favorite stretch of river are Pearlington and nearby Slidell. There are several good ramps for putting in. Bill’s favorite is near Pearlington, just off Highway 90.
“What happens there each year is that the coastal areas are a bit warmer than the northern areas of the state,” Bill said. “The water is a little warmer, the vegetation is growing a bit quicker and the fish are ready to move in and start looking for a place to spawn much earlier than up north, especially on the reservoirs.”
The key to finding largemouth bass is to stay in areas with plenty of grass. Areas where you can stay outside the current, especially during higher water, are best. Look for bayous that run east and west off the river. They’re somewhat protected from the colder north wind, and they catch more sun. The grass is more abundant, and so the bass follow.
“That’s the thing you have to look for,” he said. “Normally unless the weather is real bad, you can start catching fish moving up shallow pretty good. They key is to look for the best vegetation. A lot of that depends on the summer conditions. There are areas that sometimes have a lot of saltwater intrusion during the summer. If that’s the case, the grass won’t be growing. You have to go further north up the river for good early fishing.”
If the Pearl surprises you somewhat as the top selection, wait until you hear the two best baits recommended by the angling engineer. “I’d pick the anise worm – the floater – as the top choice followed by a Snagless Sally and then a small 1/8-ounce flippin’ jig,” he said. “I’ve caught them on those baits since I was a kid, so why change now?” Bill said. Dark-colored worms are good, with the black and yellow worm being one of his favorites. The slower the better on presentation, especially if the fish are up in the grass. A purple Snagless Sally works well. Fish it with various retrieves and see which ones the fish prefer. Usually, if the weather is warm, you can reel it in pretty fast, but on colder days you have to slow down the retrieve. As for jig color, he recommends pumpkinseed. Fish it in the thickest part of the grass, or around laydowns and trees.
One thing that keeps this spot atop Bill’s list is the recollection of trips years ago on which his father and he caught 40 to 50 bass a trip. It isn’t always that good, and there’s a lot more pressure these days, but it isn’t unusual to catch a good limit of fish there in January.
“People usually talk about Caernarvon and Delacroix like one area, but there are really two big expanses of fishing area there,” he said. “It’s really a challenge to fish because of the run, and everything down there looks the same. But it’s worth making the trip. Caernarvon is the better of the two, mainly because of the work they have done to divert fresh water through the area and stock fish. It’s probably the best fishing spot for bass in the state, but the further north you go, the less you hear about it.”
Burns says that even if you’re adventuresome enough to give this area a try, it’s good to get some local advice before venturing out. At the very least, get a good map and a GPS unit. As he says, it all looks the same; the best way to describe some of these areas is the old joke to the effect of “You can’t get there from here.”
The water-diversion project, known as the Davis Pond project, restores freshwater flow to many of the estuary areas and has created a super fishery in the area. According to Bill, the best way to start there is go to some of the common areas like Crowfoot, Moss Lake, Spanish Lake, Lake Lery, Grand Lake and Big Mar, which are some of the most popular areas. And even though they are fished heavily, Mother Nature restocks them on almost a daily basis.
Bill’s favorite bait is the lizard. For some reason, smoke blue has really produced the last few years early on. Spinnerbaits are also popular, especially if you have to move away from the grass and fish the deeper holes in the canals and bayous.
“What I look for is areas with a lot of different types of vegetation. The bigger areas of grass and vegetation seem to produce the best. Again, the east and west canals and cuts work best early, because they are somewhat protected most of the time,” he adds.
There is one thing that will mess up fishing here in a hurry – mud! If the Mississippi’s extremely high, or there have been heavy rains, the mud will shut down the fish. But it isn’t all bad. If you’re willing to look, there are always some places where the water stays clear, he says.
OK – now that’s a change. For this pick, Bill comes closer to his new home in northeastern Louisiana, where this oxbow lake is, lying right on the city limits of the town bearing the same name. One reason Bill knows Lake Providence is that his home bass club, the Bussey Bass Club, almost always has their first tournament of the year there in January – and they always catch some really big stringers of bass.
Providence is a good cold-month lake. Its 2,800 acres are full of cypress trees. Hit as many of them as you can. There are a lot of piers, too, but stick to the cypress trees for the bigger fish. Find an area where there are fish and work it well. Keep moving. Once you find them, stay there.
The best advice for fishing the cypress trees is to work them really slowly. “Pitch a jig out and let it sit there until you get tired of letting it sit there. Fish slow. A lot of times you won’t feel the bite, you’ll just feel it get mushy. Sometimes they’ll swim off with it a little, but most of the time it’s just that mushy feeling. It’s usually like a heavy weight.”
This kind of fishing takes patience, but it isn’t unusual to toss your offering right into the roots and let it sit for longer than a minute. One of the keys here: picking the cypress trees with knees. These seem to be more popular with the bass. The root system offers great cover for fish getting ready to spawn. Bill’s favorite color for jigs is black or black-and-blue. Fish all the way around the trees and all through the root systems. Don’t give up on a good-looking tree until you’ve fished every possible spot.
Big Colorado-bladed spinnerbaits are also good on Lake Providence. To catch five fish that weight over 15 pounds is not unusual in January.
You might well think that Bill needs to move to south Louisiana by now. But the deal is that he likes where he lives – he just loves to fish south Louisiana’s waters. And Bayou Black, near Houma, is more than just a big bayou. It’s a complex of bayous and canals, many of them artificial, most of them with fish.
“It’s just amazing the number of 3- to 5-pound bass that you can catch down there,” he said. “You won’t catch a 10-pounder, but the numbers of good fish are hard to match.”
One of the biggest launch areas for this body of water is Bayou Black Marina at Houma. “Many of the areas here take a 20- to 30-minute boat run to get to, but the fishing is worth it,” he said. “One thing that’s going on down there is there are a lot of posted canals. There are even some that aren’t posted that people feel are private property. It’s a big controversy. You just have to use your judgment. I fished in one of the best areas I’ve ever fished in down there and caught good fish one day, and then the next day somebody came and ran me out. It isn’t worth getting in a fight over. I hope the state addresses it. If you can get there by water, it should be open to the public.”
The key to finding the good fish here lies in finding clear water at this time of the year. Many of the bayous and cuts are close to the Intracoastal canal, and it’s usually spilling over muddy water. Get away from that, and then look for the vegetation or good cover along the canal banks and points. The closer to salt water you get, the clearer the water usually is.
“I love to fish tube baits in black neon or watermelon red lizards at this time of year,” Bill said. “The spinnerbait is probably the most popular lure. There are two color combinations that work best – chartreuse and white … or white and chartreuse. Either way, keep the size of the blade down and fish it slow.
“This is an area that not a lot of people from around the state would go out of their way to fish, but in recent years some big-name tournaments and pro fishermen have made a name for the area. One thing’s for sure: The quality of fish is amazing. And there are lots of gators. Maybe you won’t see them in January – but there are lots of gators!”
Bill wasn’t sure that he could spell “Atchafalaya,” but he knows how to catch bass there. The Basin is one of Louisiana’s largest, most versatile fishing areas. The thing that Bill likes about it? “You can catch fish just about any way you want to,” he offered. So many areas, and so many lures and presentations that will work. It’s just a really fun place to fish.
Actually, the Atchafalaya Basin is on the Atchafalaya River side of the levee in south-central Louisiana. Many people refer to the eastern side, including Belle River, Lake Verret, Lake Palourde and Lake Fausse Point, as part of the basin, too. In fishing terms they are, even though in reality the “basin” is really the part on the western side.
“I guess that’s a little confusing,” Bill said. “My favorite area to fish is out of the Belle River Landing on the Atchafalaya side. Adam’s Landing is also a good choice. “There are just so many choices of where to go. And you can really catch fish just about any way you want to. You can throw spinnerbaits. You can fish a worm or other plastics. You can flip a jig. Or you can fish a crankbait.
“In January, usually the key is finding areas that aren’t as affected by high water. This time of the year, water is generally high. Clear water is the key. In the basin, I look for water and then decide what kind of structure to fish. Obviously the banks of the canals and bayous offer boundaries and are easier to fish, but they aren’t the only areas.
“Fish relate to mats of grass, especially in clearer water. Crash the grass. Flip creature baits,” he said. “Sometimes you have to run through the hyacinths in the canals to get to the open water. Just be careful that you don’t hit a log.”
The best baits for Bill are mostly plastic at this time of year. Tubes, crawfish-like baits and creature baits are best. Anything that sports a crawfish’s colors will work. Dark colors also produce.
“The thing that you have to remember on the basin side is there’s a 14-inch limit on largemouth bass,” Bill said. “There was some talk of changing that limit, so make sure you check before you go for the
The Red River has several popular pools (areas between the dams). Bill’s favorite is the one nearest to Shreveport – Pool No. 5. This pool has lots of backwater lakes and areas where you can get pretty far off the river. That’s especially important this time of the year if the water in the river is high or muddy. The further from the river, the clearer the water usually is, especially in the massive backwater lakes. Pool No. 5 is accessible in several areas. Bill usually goes to Clark’s Marina down Highway 71 south of Bossier City.
“You can literally run a 30-mile section of the river from here. Look for backwater with grass. It’s not hard to find plenty of places to fish. The big fish are usually scattered, but you can find them getting into the edge of the grass or around standing timber close to the bank. Many of the areas haven’t been flooded for that long, and they still have lots of standing timber,” he said.
Fish it the same way as other areas. Creature baits and lizards work well. Black neon and watermelon colors are best. Crankbaits produce when the water is clearer, but the water is usually cold, and they won’t chase them at this time of year unless it is unseasonably warm.
There are a lot of lakes off the river. You can catch plenty of fish in White House, Shaw, and Port Lake or any of the oxbows. They can be easily found on a map. Pick one out and learn it as best you can. If the water looks good, stick with it and find the fish. It takes some time, but it’s better to spend your time fishing than running up and down the river.
“One thing you have to be careful with here is learning your way in and out of these areas. A lot of them are shallow and it has some of the hardest stumps in the world. There aren’t a lot of boat lanes, so you have to just idle your way along and not get impatient,” he said. There are also rocks around the jetties and points to keep down erosion in the river. The main river isn’t very good this time of the year, although it does produce when the weather warms up.
We had one final question for Bill: “Come January, are you going to be watching the Super Bowl or bass fishing?” His answer? “I’ll be fishing.”
What will you be doing?
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