April 26, 2012
At either end of the Sportsman's Paradise, two top honey holes bracket the Louisiana coastline like piscatorial bookends. They look nothing alike and offer completely different fisheries, but they share one prime attribute. They each put multiple fish into the state record book.
When it comes to speckled trout, one lake stands out for consistently producing trophies over several decades. Known locally as Big Lake, Calcasieu Lake south of Lake Charles measures 12 miles long by nine miles wide and covers about 52,700 acres. Surrounded by marshes and studded with oyster reefs, the lake averages less than 6 feet deep, but looms large in the world of speckled trout angling.
Calcasieu Lake produced three of the top 10 trout caught in Louisiana and routinely gives up fish in the 5- to 8-pound range, with an occasional 9- to 11-pounder. Tim Mahoney set the official lake record on May 5, 2002, with an 11.16-pounder that currently holds fourth place on the state list.
Anglers sometimes catch bigger trout, but never submit the paperwork or officially weigh the fish before releasing it. On May 21, 2000, Stuart Roy caught and released a 32-inch trout with a 17-inch girth. A state biologist estimated that the fish possibly weighed between 12 1/2 and 13 pounds.
To keep more big fish in the estuary, the state lowered the daily creel limit on speckled trout in Calcasieu Lake and other waters in southwestern Louisiana from 25 to 15 per day. Anglers can keep no more than two trout 25 inches or longer per day. Many anglers who fish the lake already release larger fish to keep the estuary healthy.
"Calcasieu Lake still produces some big trout, but not like it did seven or eight years ago," advised Capt. Erik Rue. "Trout are cyclic. We've caught some over 8 pounds in the past couple years on my boat, but nothing over 9 pounds in that time. "May is typically one of the key times to catch big trout in Calcasieu Lake. In the summer of 2010, fishing was consistent, but never red hot."
A deeper, wider and straighter version of the old Calcasieu River course, the Calcasieu Ship Channel cuts a swath 40 miles long, 400 feet wide and 40 feet deep from the Port of Lake Charles to the Gulf of Mexico. The ship channel enters Calcasieu Lake at Turner's Bay on the north end. Farther south, several openings connect the channel to the lake, allowing tides to bring in baitfish and game fish from the nearby Gulf.
These cuts serve as choke points, concentrating fish waiting to attack anything entering the system. Several excellent places to look for trout are the Washout, Nine-Mile Cut, and nearby Long Point. Anglers may also try Commissary Point, the old rock jetties in the southern part of the lake and marshy drains along the southern and eastern shorelines.
At the southwest corner, West Cove extends across the channel. The shallow bay filled with oyster reefs averages about three feet deep. Many people fish Cross Reef, Juniors Cut at the south entrance to the cove and around Rabbit Island.
"The shallow areas with oyster reefs on the southern end of the lake and the flats where baitfish accumulate are always good areas to look for big trout," Rue advised. "Go where the bait is. Look for big wads of mullet. That's where the big trout will be."
South of Calcasieu Lake, the ship channel flows through a marshy area until it hits the Gulf at Calcasieu Pass. Two mile-long rows of rock jetties line Calcasieu Pass, creating a magnet for big fish. As the summer progresses, big trout often move from the estuary into cooler Gulf waters. Anglers can catch them near the jetties, under several oil platforms and along the Cameron Parish beaches.
In September 2005, Hurricane Rita churned right up the Calcasieu Estuary, devastating southwest Louisiana. For months, the estuary received very little fishing pressure as people rebuilt their lives.
"Right after Hurricane Rita, the storm surge opened up a lot of impounded marsh," Rue recalled. "That doubled the habitat for production of baitfish, shrimp and other creatures. Right after Hurricane Rita, fishing went through the roof. Since the storm, we haven't had a time when the fish was really slow except during periods of bad weather. The biggest change since the hurricane is the redfish population in the lake. Now, it's astounding how many reds are in the lake."
Many people fish the reefs and cuts with jigheads tipped in soft plastics or use live bait under popping corks. In the summer, look for diving birds that might indicate feeding fish. As trout herd shrimp, mullets and menhaden to the surface, birds dive on them.
"I watch what the birds are doing," Capt. Guy Stansel said. "Birds dive into the water all the time, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're feeding. People can waste a lot of time chasing every bird that splashes the water. If birds hover over one spot and get in a frenzy or all dive at once, they're over fish."
Anglers may catch a 10-pound speck anywhere in the Calcasieu Estuary on any cast, but to consistently catch lunkers, specifically target big trout. To target big trout, first find big bait. Look for mullets jumping or frenzied pogies. Anglers may load an ice chest with tasty small trout under a flock of birds, but probably won't catch too many lunkers around schooling fish feeding upon shrimp.
"Bait is the key to catching big fish," Stansel said. "Look for a reef with good tidal movement and a good supply of bait. I also look for big redfish. I catch plenty big trout mixed with big redfish. If there's a big school of redfish, there might be some big trout hanging around with them. Trout won't necessarily be in with the redfish, but they will be near them."
Once a trout reaches about 3 pounds, it prefers to eat fish instead of shrimp. It feeds primarily upon mullets, menhaden, pinfish and croakers, but may eat just about anything it can catch, including juvenile trout. Since many topwater baits resemble mullets or other baitfish struggling on the surface, they often produce bigger fish.
Anglers might catch big trout on any topwater bait including many specifically designed for largemouth bass, but various "walk-the-dog" baits typically work best. When jerked, they slant from side to side, mimicking the movements of crippled mullets. Interior clackers simulate the sound of croakers. Some hot colors are bone, black and white, chartreuse and white, chartreuse and gold, or clear.
Anglers also catch trophy trout on live bait. Attach a live croaker or mullet about 6 inches long to a circle hook and free line it over a good reef. Anglers can also rig it on a Carolina rig with a slip sinker and a long leader. Some anglers prefer to dangle live baitfish under corks.
For something a little different, hook a fresh finger mullet onto a 1/2-ounce jighead. Rig it just like a plastic bait with, the hook coming out of the fish's head or back. Work this rig just like an artificial bait, running it slowly near the bottom and occasionally popping it or letting it drop. It probably won't catch many trout, but it might entice some monsters in the right area.
To Capt. Erik Rue for a day of fishing on the lake, contact him at Calcasieu Charter Service on (337) 598-4700, or visit www.calcasieucharters.com.
Capt. Guy Stansel of Hackberry Rod and Gun Club can be reached at 1-888-762-3391. The Web site is www.hackberryrodandgun.com.
For area information, contact the Southwest Louisiana Convention and Visitors Bureau at 1-800-456-SWLA or go online to www.visitlakecharles.org.
While anglers run topwaters through the shallows in Calcasieu Lake, sportsmen at the other end of Louisiana toss 5-pound slabs of meat into the depths of the Gulf of Mexico south of Venice.
One of the tallest "mountains" in Louisiana is Sackett Bank, rising from about 400 to 600 feet of water to crest within 190 feet of the surface. It's located about 18 miles south of the Mississippi River mouth and 12 miles east of the extremely deep Mississippi Canyon.
More commonly called the Midnight Lump, the ancient salt dome covers about two square miles and offers some of the best tuna fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. The Lump contributed seven of the top 10 yellowfins landed in the Bayou State including the state record. On March 18, 2005, Anthony Taormina landed a 240.3-pound yellowfin while fishing at the Midnight Lump aboard a charter boat captained by Scott Leger. Taormina's fish beat the existing state record, a 235-pound yellowfin landed by Tom W. Moughon on the Midnight Lump on March 15, 2004.
"Probably 90 percent of the big yellowfins caught off Louisiana are caught on the Midnight Lump," said Capt. Hunter Caballero, who served as the first mate on the boat when his cousin Taormina landed his big fish. "We've had days where we stopped at 18 tuna, but we could have put many more in the boat. We've caught 197-, 194- and 160-pound bigeye tuna on the same day."
When the currents hit the sides of the formation, water pushes plankton toward the surface. Baitfish gather to feast on plankton. Giant yellowfin tuna, numerous blackfin tuna, roving wahoo, toothy king mackerel and other large predators follow the baitfish.
"Fish go where they can eat," said Capt. Peace Marvel. "The lump season usually starts in December and runs through March. The Lump was hammered really hard every day for several years. In the past couple of years, the Lump hasn't produced the numbers of tuna, but it still produces a lot more big tuna. We've caught an insane amount of 200-pound fish. The biggest one to come on my boat since the oil spill weighed 214 pounds. That was in October 2010 right after they reopened the waters to fishing. On that day, we caught six fish. The smallest weighed 162 pounds."
Just as the lump season ended in April 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil well exploded about 70 miles from the Midnight Lump. State and federal authorities shut down fishing in the area for six months. That gave fish a reprieve.
"There was oil throughout the area, but the fishing since the spill has been pretty productive," Capt. Hunter Caballero noted. "We still catch plenty of fish. After March, the fish start migrating back offshore and spread over the continental shelf."
During the season, more than 100 boats might sit atop the Midnight Lump each day tossing pogie or bonito pieces into the water to create a chum slick that attracts fish. At times, tuna gather in such numbers that anglers can target individual fish at close range by swinging their baits out over the water like working a cane pole.
"Chumming is very effective," Marvel said. "Chum brings fish to the surface. Menhaden, or pogies, are very oily fish. Fish start to smell that and come to the surface. We keep up a steady flow of chum to keep them interested. Chumming often brings in the bonito first, which swarm around the boat. After the bonito show up, the big yellowfin tuna show up."
Swarming like sea-going piranhas, bonito can tear baits apart long before the tuna get to them. Many anglers catch bonito to use for bait or chum. Sometimes, anglers need to distract the bonito to get to the tuna.
"When bonito come in thick, it's a good thing, but sometimes we have to use a 5-pound chunk of bait to get through the bonito to the tuna," Marvel advised. "I start catching the bonito and chunking them into fist-size chunks so bonito can't eat it. Those chunks get down to where the yellowfins are and the yellowfins follow the bigger pieces up. When the yellowfins come up to the surface with thousands of bonito, their sense of competition kicks in and they become more aggressive. We can make a big fickle yellowfin bite by getting the bonito fired up."
Marvel uses another trick to fool big finicky yellowfins. If yellowfins appear, but refuse to take baits with hooks on them, the captain fills a 5-gallon bucket of water from the opposite side of the boat and vigorously splashes it into the chum slick.
"I don't just pour it into the water," Marvel said. "I throw it up into the air and let it splash. That gives the illusion of other tuna biting, which makes them more aggressive."
By mid-April, tuna start heading offshore and hang around the floating rigs 10 to 50 miles offshore.
Anglers can chum for tuna around shrimp boats. When shrimpers cull their bycatch, they toss what they cannot sell into the sea. Tuna gather to eat whatever hits the water. Toss some chum next to an anchored shrimp boat to get predators excited. Trolling along the rips can also produce good results.
"From May through August, 95 percent of the big tuna are on the rips, but the floaters hold a lot of tuna up to 60 pounds," Marvel said. "The rip changes from day to day. It might vary from 15 miles out to 50 miles out. I pull live hardtails about 12 inches long along the rip. Pulling small baits catches a lot of dolphin."
Besides yellowfins and blackfins, the area can produce giant bluefins. Each year around Memorial Day, monster bluefins migrate through the northern Gulf. In May 2003 not far from the Midnight Lump, Ron Roland and the crew of the Miss Cathy, landed a 1,152-pound bluefin, the largest non-shark fish ever landed in the Gulf of Mexico.
"On any contour map, people can find various unnamed lumps, reefs, rock piles and other formations in a line from the South Pass of the Mississippi River west-southwest through the Gulf," explained Capt. Tommy Pellegrin. "With good electronics, people can find them if they know where to look. There's a small lump west-southwest of the Midnight Lump about 15 to 20 miles out. The next high lump is about 75 miles due south out of Cat Island Pass."
Along the continental shelf westward, Diaphus Bank rises about 48 miles west of the Mississippi Trough and south of Cocodrie. Diaphus Bank covers about 20 square miles. Water ranges from about 170 feet deep to about 450 feet deep. Anglers can also troll along the deep waters at the edge of the Green Canyon near Grand Isle or Mississippi Canyon off Venice.
Although these two areas produce excellent fishing, anglers don't need to ignore hundreds of places between the bookends. Just about any marsh or lake along coastal Louisiana can offer good fishing for something.
To fish the Midnight Lump contact
Capt. Hunter Caballero of Paradise Outfitters of Louisiana at (504) 610-1686 or 1-888-347-4987. The Web site is www.paradise-outfitters.com.
Capt. Peace Marvel of Peace Keeper Charters is available at (504) 858-TUNA, or visit his Web site at www.peacekeepercharters.com.
To reach Capt. Tommy Pellegrin of Custom Charters in Cocodrie, call (985) 851-3304. On the Web he can be found at www.customchartersllc.com.