While most Louisiana bass anglers pay close attention to rising and falling water temperatures during the spring, anglers in the Atchafalaya Basin pay far closer attention to rising and falling water levels.
In fact, seasoned bass fishermen on the Atchafalaya Basin will be quick to tell you that the water level is the single most important factor that determines how successful a fishing trip to the basin will be — and how to approach the fish.
The Atchafalaya Basin is not a lake, but a river’s overflow swamp that’s contained between two levees. The levees extend approximately 65 miles in length and are 25 to 30 miles apart. They run from the river-control structure near Simmesport to Atchafalaya Bay.
ABOUT THE BASIN
Through the basin, the Atchafalaya River diverts up to 30 percent of the Mississippi and Red rivers’ combined flow. A river-control structure splits all the water that comes down the Mississippi River and Red River so that 70 percent remains in the Mississippi. Most of the basin is east of the Atchafalaya River channel, making most of the overflow from the basin on the east side of the river channel.
Mike Walker, an inland fisheries biologist supervisor with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, recommended that fishermen check the river stage gauge at Butte La Rose near Interstate 10.
“The river may be as low as 3 feet in the summer and as high as 17 feet in December. The water will often go down during the spring but may stay high until midsummer,” Walker said. “Most of the locals use the river gauge almost exclusively to determine if fishing conditions will be good. Since the flow runs from north to south, there are places you can get in and fish on the northern part of the basin when the gauge reads 11 feet that you will not be able to get back into when the river drops to 9 feet, because there won’t be enough water in the channel. While fishing may be good in the northern part of the basin at 11 feet, if it’s that high on the southern end, the water is all over the woods. When it drops to 7 feet in the lower end, then the fishing will get better.”
According to Walker, during the drought years of 1998, 1999, and 2000 the basin never received a spring run-off flood. “The river stayed low for three consecutive years, with the water staying in the canals and bayous,” he said “This does a number of things, both good and bad. One of the bad things about the drought was that all the fish were trapped in the bayous and canals for three years, making them very accessible to fishermen. This type situation results in an increased harvest that can have a considerable impact on the fish population.”
Another negative impact of low water, according to Walker: Spawning areas are greatly diminished. Fish that would normally spawn after spring floods had dispersed water over the swamp would have less than 10 percent of the spawning area available, when confined to bayous and canals.
“Predation from gars, catfish, and other predatory species also increased because of the reduced number of acres under water,” Walker noted.
When floodwaters finally returned in 2001, the basin experienced a condition similar to the flooding of a new impoundment, Walker pointed out. As the water dispersed into the swamps, bass again had a large area available for spawning and feeding. Survival of young bass increased because of the expansive cover.
Adding to the “new-lake” phenomenon, food from the banks becomes plentiful after a flood. The flood of 2001 resulted in a strong year-class of bass, meaning that there was a good fry hatch for which the survival rate was good, and that an adequate food supply was available for that year’s hatch.
“The fish spawned in 2001 are now 14 to 15 inches or better,” Walker said. “We also had a good year in 2002. These bass are approaching the 14-inch minimum length by now. We also had a good flood in 2003, so we should have good populations of bass due to the past three excellent spring spawns,” said Walker.
Walker says that the basin thrives on alternating drought and flood cycles. The flood cycle increases the amount of forage available to bass and increases spawning habitat. When the river drops, the river exposes the bottom, which is a collection of sediment and organic material deposited by the overflow. Upon oxidizing, this material promotes the growth of vegetation, which in turn decays and contributes its nutrients into the water column. This oxidation also serves to compact the area as it dries out, creating harder substrates.
Droughts usually occur in July and August, but floods occasionally last into August. “The basin has usually received the brunt of upstream run-off by May or June, and the water starts falling,” Walker said.
The basin’s rebirth has produced phenomena much like those typical of the new-reservoir effect. “Any time you build a dam and let the reservoir fill up, you release all the nutrients, and fish have all that space to fill. The predator population is low in relation to the game fish population. The new-reservoir effect can be compared to turning a small herd of cows into a lush green pasture: There is so much food available, they will eat until they almost pop. Fish in a new reservoir experience something very similar.
“When we have the normal drought-flood cycle the basin experiences a ‘mini’ new-reservoir effect every year,” Walker explained. “It’s when things get out of sync and we have a couple years of drought without a flood that has an adverse effect on bass in the basin,”
Adding appeal is the fact that anglers are beginning to catch larger bass from the basin, thanks to the stocking of Florida-strain largemouths. The LDWF began stocking Florida bass after Hurricane Andrew devastated the fish population, killing an estimated 280 million fish, including 5 million bass in the basin in 1993.
“Five years after we stocked the Florida-strain bass an angler caught a 10 1/2-pound bass,” Walker recalled. “We began stocking around 1 million of the Florida strain on an annual basis. Anglers can easily go out and catch and release 25 or 30 bass. Out of this number, they will likely have seven or eight over 14 inches. So one can see the basin has fully recovered from the decimation of the three consecutive years of drought, which had nearly the negative effect as Hurricane Andrew had.”
Walker still considers the basin more of a numbers wa
ter than a trophy destination, even though larger bass are being caught each year because of the introduction of the Florida strain. “Before we started stocking the Florida strain, about the largest I had heard of was an 8 1/2-pound native bass,” he remarked. “Even though we stock 1 million fingerlings each year, they are dispersed over 500 square miles when the basin is at full pool. Add to this wide dispersion of fish fishing pressure and predation, and one can see why a real trophy bass is still somewhat of a rarity on the basin. But one the positive side, we are hearing about more big fish being caught.
“We also have some nice spotted-bass fishing in the basin, with fish getting up to 15 or 16 inches. At present, I’d say the basin is now experiencing one of its better times as far as the overall health of the fisheries.”
CATCHING BASIN BASS
Terry Adams is a charter boat captain and a pro bass fisherman from Patterson who spent 285 days on the water this past year — many of those days spent snatching bass from around cypress knees and out of aquatic vegetation in the Atchafalaya Basin.
Adams agrees with Walker that the basin has rebounded from the previous years of drought. “Since they started stocking these Florida-strain bass, the size is getting better.” he said. “I know of several 10-pound bass that were caught this past year. Although most of the bass caught will weigh from 1 to 5 pounds, it is not uncommon to catch 25 bass in a day, with six or eight fish weighing 4 pounds or better.”
April, Adams offered, is one of his favorite times to fish the basin, because the water level is often ideal for fishing. “The basin is one of the last great floodways that’s free from locks and dams,” he said.
Adams uses 50-pound-test braided line and a medium-heavy flipping stick with little “tip.” “By ‘tip’ I mean a rod that will bend just a little at the tip,” he explained. “We have so much shallow water that we don’t have much finesse fishing on the basin. It’s strictly power-fishing here because of the heavy vegetation such as lily pads, silver dollar pads, coontail and hydrilla.”
Adams’ favorite bait is a half-ounce double willow-leaf Terminator spinnerbait with a blue, white and chartreuse skirt. Jigs are another favorite bait of Adams. He uses half-ounce jigs in black and blue or pumpkinseed. He trails his jigs with a junebug-colored pork chunk.
When it comes to soft plastics, Adams likes creature baits and tubes. “Some days the bass may prefer a black with red flake tube, but more often they hit a black and white or watermelon seed tube,” he said. “I rig Texas style, with a 3/16- to 1/2-ounce bullet weight and use a rattle in it.”
Topwater baits also are a big producer for Adams. “I’ve been using a Zoom Horny Toad Frog lately,” he said. “This thing is pure dynamite on basin bass. I haven’t seen any one bait affect fishing like this Horny Toad Frog has in many years. Buzzbaits are good, too. I use a buzzbait made by Ivy St. Romain called a Hurricane in black or black on white with a gold blade.”
Adams cautioned visitors to the basin to be prepared for changing weather. “During April, it can be jacket weather or short-sleeve weather,” he noted. “Anglers should be sure and bring a good rain suit, as a storm can come in off the Gulf of Mexico in a hurry. Although navigating the basin is not like running a big open lake, the water can get rough in places. A good boat and common sense will keep anglers out of trouble during bad weather. I see people fishing in anything from pirogues to larger bay boats, but a medium-sized bass boat is probably the most popular boat on the basin.”
Ivy St. Romain is a well-known Atchafalaya Basin guide, bait manufacturer and tackle shop owner in Morgan City. He too, feels that the basin has fully recovered from the three-year drought, and contends that fishing is now excellent.
In April, St. Romain says, the water is sometimes too high in the places he normally fishes around Morgan City so he heads to the Lower Atchafalaya Basin. “I concentrate on the grassy areas around Flat Lake, Duck Lake, and American Lake,” he stated. “I start off in the early morning using topwater baits such as a Boy Howdy or Pop-R in gold, with a black back, frog pattern, solid black or bass color.”
Anglers will have to spend some time looking for fish if the water level in the basin is high, St. Romain reports. “Water from the Mississippi River is diverted through the basin to prevent flooding in New Orleans,” he explained. “When the water comes into the basin fast, it spreads out all over the woods, dispersing the fish.”
St. Romain advises newcomers to the basin to launch at Russo’s Landing at the lower end of the basin. “From there go north to Flat Lake and fish the north side of the trees starting with buzzbaits early in the morning,” he said. “From Flat Lake, head to deeper canals in the area and flip a Brush Hog or similar bait. From Flat Lake, go north to Bayou Boutte and do some pitching. Try a 4-inch tube in this area in white, black, fire tiger, and black and blue.”
St. Romain spools his reel with Stren clear blue monofilament in either 14- or 17-pound-test and keeps several rods rigged specifically for flipping, pitching and spinnerbaits, and worm fishing. He also fishes buzzbaits regularly.
Not surprisingly, St. Romain often starts with the same Hurricane buzzbait that Adams mentioned, and which St. Romain himself manufactures. However, he also catches bass on a couple of other buzzbaits.
When it comes to spinnerbaits, St. Romain prefers something in chartreuse. “Chartreuse and white is a good all-around color combination,” he said. “Chartreuse with blue, white, and green is a good color scheme also because it mimics the colors of young bluegills, which are a staple of a bass’ diet on the basin. Later on in the year I go to orange and red colors because the bass are feeding heavily on crawfish.”
Soft plastics are excellent producers on the basin, also. St. Romain prefers 7 1/2-inch Culprit and Zoom worms, his favorite worm colors being black with a blue tail, tequila, junebug, watermelon, and watermelon red. “I use a Texas rig if I’m fishing grass. When I’m fishing structure, I peg a weight because I don’t want my weight moving away from my worm,” he said.
ACCESSING THE BASIN
The Atchafalaya Basin is easy to access via the interstate and state highways. Anglers headed to the basin from the east will come in on Interstate 10 to the Boutte split and take U.S. Highway 90 to Morgan City. Boats can be launched at Doirons Landing or one of the several public boat launches.
Anglers traveling from the west will come in on I-10 and exit onto U.S. Highway 90 and head east. Boat launches are available at Calumet Landing on the Wax Lake outlet.
Coming from northern Louisiana, take I-49 to Highway 90 to access the Calumet landing. Bell River
is another popular boat launch where bass tournaments often launch and weigh in.
Bass fishermen who love to drag scrappy bass out of the salad and from behind cypress knees while enjoying the serenity of a swamp ecosystem with all its wildlife, will be hard pressed to find a better fishing hole than Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
To fish with Terry Adams, call (985) 395-7883. To fish with Ivy St. Romain, call (985) 384-2070.