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Bayou Bounty: Get Fresh or Salty In SW Louisiana

Freshwater and saltwater species alike beckon anglers to the lakes, rivers and marshes near Lake Charles.

Bayou Bounty: Get Fresh or Salty In SW Louisiana

The fertile mix of sweet and saline waters around Calcasieu Lake provides predatory fish with a plethora of forage to feast on and grow big. (Photo by John Felsher)

Two identical popping corks, each baited with a live shrimp, plopped down in the mouth of a marshy Louisiana drain and immediately disappeared. One reel’s drag sang as a redfish powered away into the shallows. A largemouth did tail-wagging tricks at the end of the other line.

Known locally as Big Lake, Calcasieu Lake near Lake Charles, La., has earned a reputation for producing giant speckled trout and good largemouths when it is fishable. However, the 50,000-acre lake can turn dangerously rough when high winds and whitecaps churn the surface. When seasonal winds make Big Lake unfishable, locals and visiting anglers alike can head for its protected marshes and enjoy the mixed bounty there.

In the marshes between Calcasieu and Sabine lakes, anglers catch both redfish and flounder. Here, fresh water flowing down the rivers mixes with briny waters coming up from the gulf.

This fertile mixing of sweet and saline waters creates a piscatorial gumbo of forage, offering predatory fish a feast from both worlds. The menu includes such freshwater delicacies as sunfish, minnows and crawfish, as well as salty treats like mullet, menhaden, crabs, cocahoes, shrimp and other creatures.

George Melancon, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries marine fisheries manager for Southwest Louisiana, says it’s common for multiple species to intermingle in tidal marshes.

"Both redfish and largemouth bass, as well as other freshwater species, can live in the same areas, depending upon how much rainfall we have," he says. "A largemouth bass can survive in relatively high salinities, up to 10 parts per thousand. A redfish can tolerate salinities almost down to zero, but they try to find salinity levels at least two parts per thousand. It’s this unique mix that offers visiting anglers a wide assortment of angling opportunities."

largemouth bass closeup
The presence of bass and other freshwater species in the marshes hinges on rainfall, though largemouths can withstand salinities up to 10 parts per thousand. (Photo by John Felsher)

MIXED BAG

Tom Adams Jr., of Fishing Tom Guide Service (318-675-9114; fishingtom.net), runs two lodges in Sulphur, La., just outside Lake Charles, and has fished the area extensively for years. "What someone catches in a particular spot on any given day, or even in any hour, largely depends upon tides and the fresh flow coming out of the rivers," he says. "In just a few hours, a bass hole could revert to a prime saltwater spot and back to bass again as the wind, tides and river currents battle for dominance.”

For those targeting bass or redfish, topwater baits provide explosive action from both as the ruckus pulls fish close for vicious strikes. In addition to topwaters, bass and redfish regularly hit spinnerbaits, bladed jigs, spoons, crankbaits, jigs tipped with plastic trailers and various natural enticements.

Although intended to mimic crawfish, a major bass forage, a weedless jig tipped with a craw trailer also simulates a small crab. When fishing brackish marshes, use a black trailer with blue claws since crab claws exhibit bright blue coloration.




Redfish, too, love to eat crabs, and a hungry largemouth living in brackish water won’t hesitate to gulp a small one down. Black drum and sheepshead also like crabs, and while they typically prefer natural baits, they’ll occasionally hit lures.

As many a bass angler has discovered, flounder will attack various largemouth offerings, particularly any bottom-dragging baits such as Texas-rigged worms and jigs. They also hit worms rigged wacky style. Catfish tend to prefer natural baits, but also hunt live prey and occasionally hit lures. Trout also hit many bass lures, and the two species sometimes occupy the same spots, but trout are generally found in saltier water.

"Trout action depends largely on salinity levels," Adams says. "We normally find specks closer to Sabine or Calcasieu lakes. In the marshes, trout average about 12 to 15 inches long, but it’s not uncommon to catch a limit of 15-inch trout."

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SHELLFISH BUFFET

Nothing ignites a multi-species feeding frenzy like a crustacean migration. In the spring, brown shrimp migrate up from the gulf into the estuaries. In the fall, white shrimp leave the estuaries to head for deeper waters. As shrimp move, everything follows, including bass. Anglers regularly catch bass on live or soft-plastic shrimp fished under popping corks.

"Bass absolutely love live shrimp," Adams says. "Most bass in the marsh average about 1 to 2 pounds, but anglers specifically targeting bass sometimes catch 5- to 6-pounders. Several bass clubs fish tournaments in that marsh. Some anglers have caught bass in the 8- to 10-pound range."

During a falling tide, food literally flows to the predators. Dropping water levels flush baitfish, shrimp, crabs and other prey from cover into deeper water. Various species wait at the drain mouths to ambush anything flowing downstream.

At the mouth of a drain, toss a popping cork baited with a live shrimp as far upstream as possible. Let it drift naturally with the tide. Pop it periodically to mimic a fish striking bait. Also float the rig next to grassy shorelines and around points. Predators wait on the downstream side of a point, ready to strike anything that looks tempting.

Anglers can fish soft-plastic shrimp imitations, such as Vudu, D.O.A. or Gulp! baits the same way or without a cork. Without a cork, use the lightest weight possible. If necessary, attach a small split shot about a foot above the shrimp to help with casting. Let the current carry the bait naturally. If the shrimp hits bottom, use the rod to lift it back into the flow. Use the reel only to take in slack.

BLACK BAYOU

Situated between Calcasieu and Sabine lakes, the Black Bayou area is a vast marsh pockmarked by numerous ponds, canals and bayous and offers abundant fishing opportunities. Black Bayou flows through the northwestern portion of those marshes between the lakes. The bayou averages 8 to 10 feet deep, but some holes drop to 14 feet. Sabine National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) conserves nearly 125,000 acres of this pristine wetland habitat between the lakes.

Anglers can also fish the Vinton Drainage Ditch, which crosses the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway and merges into Black Bayou. The East Cut connects the north end of Sabine Lake to Black Bayou. Several pockets and cuts along the Intracoastal are also fishable.

"Most people fish Big Lake, so we typically don’t see the amount of boat traffic in those marshes and bayous as we see in the two lakes," Adams says.

Closer to Big Lake, the Black Lake area produces great fishing action. Several canals and bayous are found in this area. The Salt Ditch runs from the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway to the Black Lake area and regularly produces good trout and redfish action. Kelso Bayou connects Black Lake to the Calcasieu Ship Channel.

"The waters around Black Lake are very good for redfish, trout, flounder and other saltwater species," Adams says. "We catch many flounder in the same places where we catch redfish and bass. In the marshes, we never know what might grab the line, especially when we put a live shrimp on a hook. It’s always a surprise what we bring in. That’s what makes fishing this area so exciting."

LOCAL ACTION

Recreational anglers can fish designated areas of Sabine NWR from March 15 to October 15 each year. The refuge opens for waterfowl hunting during the fall and winter. For more on fishing the refuge, visit fws.gov/refuge/sabine.

Numerous excellent guides operate in the Calcasieu Estuary area; many even clean their anglers’ catch for them. Several guides offer full-service lodges where customers can eat, sleep and fish all for one price. Southwest Louisiana also offers excellent hunting for ducks and geese. Some guides offer cast-and-blast packages during the waterfowl season, in which guests hunt waterfowl in the morning and then go fishing in the afternoon.

Licensing requirements are relatively straightforward here. Anglers must purchase a basic fishing license and a saltwater license to fish these waters. When fishing with a licensed guide, an angler can save money by buying a guide guest license. For more licensing information, visit louisiana.gov.

AREA ATTRACTIONS

  • The Lake Charles area offers pristine natural beauty, well-appointed accomodations, and excellent food and drink.
Lake Charles, Louisiana
Courtesy of Lake Charles/Southwest Louisiana Convention and Visitors Bureau

While visiting southwest Louisiana, take a tour of the national wildlife refuges. Sabine NWR offers an easy-walking nature trail running through the marsh. You can also fish and crab off the banks along Highway 27.

To the east, visitors can stay in the comfort of their cars to navigate the Pintail Wildlife Drive through Cameron Prairie NWR or drive through nearby Lacassine NWR. You can also drive all or a portion of the 180-mile Creole Nature Trail All-American Road, one of only 43 such designated scenic byways in the country.

Depending upon the season, visitors anywhere in southwest Louisiana might spot alligators and some of more than 400 bird species that live at least part of the year in the area. The list includes various waterfowl, herons, egrets, sandhill cranes, pelicans, ibis and roseate spoonbills.

Lake Charles and surrounding towns offer various lodging packages ranging from the luxurious L’Auberge Casino Resort (lakecharles.com) and other casino resorts to more modest digs. Practically anywhere in the area, you’ll find excellent food ranging from po’ boy sandwiches to seafood platters and steaks.

Visitors may also wish to sample some local spirts at Bayou Rum (bayourum.com) made from Louisiana-grown sugarcane. Beer lovers could try some brews at Crying Eagle Brewing (cryingeagle.com) or Rikenjaks Brewing (rikenjaks.com).

For more information on the area, contact the Lake Charles/Southwest Louisiana Convention and Visitors Bureau (800-456-SWLA; visitlakecharles.org).

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