Slight increases in air and water temperature this month mean that lunker largemouths are on the prowl in the Sportsman's Paradise. (January 2006)
As bass across Louisiana move into spawning mode this month, anglers are in a great position for pulling in big largemouths. Pro basser Jim Nolan worked the wintertime waters of the Ouachita River near Monroe to bag this bodacious bucketmouth.
Photo by John N. Felsher
In winter, Louisiana bass anglers might not load a boat, but they certainly can land some lunkers. In January, female largemouth bass begin to swell with roe, waiting for water to warm sufficiently so they can spawn.
Cold temperatures make bass lethargic. Not feeding as often, they might not chase fast-moving baits, but they might grab something passing close to them. Sometimes, anglers almost need to hit bass on the nose to make them bite, so many choose to use slow and subtle bottom-bouncing baits.
"I use a jig in the colder months until fish go to the spawning beds," says pro angler Denny Brauer, a former Bassmaster Classic champion. "Sometimes, I alternate between a tube and a jig to see which one they want."
A slight rise in temperature of water or air can make fish more active. A difference of one or two degrees can make a huge difference in the catch rate. Hard objects radiate heat. For example, concrete blocks or rocks along a riprap shoreline radiate heat into the surrounding water, attracting bass. Wood and grass also absorb heat.
"In winter, I fish areas that are a bit warmer or that have darker bottoms to hold heat a little better," says pro angler Kevin VanDam, the reigning Bassmaster Classic champion. "Where a warm wind blows water into an area could be a good place to look for early season bass. Sunshine is key. Direct sunshine, even on cold days, helps pull fish up toward the surface and makes them more aggressive. In the afternoon, I'll fish riprap, rocky channel swing banks, fallen trees and other dark objects."
In winter, deep water can hold good concentrations of fish. Temperatures in deep holes remain relatively stable all year long. Bass often congregate in deep water with access to shallows where they can feed more easily or rise into the sunshine. Points or creek channels in reservoirs allow bass to rise or descend in the water column as they choose. In the right hole, anglers can find plenty of action without moving the boat.
LOUISIANA'S BIG BASS LAKES FOR WINTER
No other lake in Louisiana offers more places to tempt bass than the 65-mile-long Toledo Bend Reservoir, located along the Sabine River channel that straddles the southern boundary between Texas and Louisiana. With more than 186,000 acres and 1,264 miles of shoreline, the lake averages about 60 feet deep. Some holes drop to more than 110 feet deep, but most anglers fish for bass in water less than 40 feet deep.
One bitterly cold day, bass guide Joe Joslin of DeRidder and I didn't leave his camp at the south end of Toledo Bend until about 9 a.m. Burning only 2 gallons of gas, we caught nearly all of our fish from one hole in Indian Creek. By noon, we headed for camp after catching and releasing more than 40 largemouths and a few yellow bass on jigging spoons.
"On Toledo Bend, I would never leave the launch without some slab spoons," Joslin says. "It's a significant part of how I fish from September through late January. Not many people fish with them because they don't have confidence in that style of fishing. Once someone realizes its capabilities, a vertical spoon opens up a totally new part of the lake to fishing."
Anglers also might consider using a drop-shot rig to "finesse" bass in deep water. Some anglers use lines as light as 4-pound-test, but on Toledo Bend, anglers might want something more substantial because of all the snags on the bottom and the lunker bass that hunt near them.
To build a drop-shot rig, tie a size 1, 2 or 1/0 hook directly to the line about 12 to 36 inches above a simple 1/4- to 1/8-ounce lead bell sinker. Some companies now make "drop-shot sinkers," but any weight that holds bait near the bottom can work. On the hook, Texas-rig a small soft plastic grub or worm.
At the southwest end of the Toledo Bend, Hausen Bay and Six-Mile Creek produce some of the biggest bass on Toledo Bend. Texas heavily stocks these large creeks with Florida-strain largemouths. Other top big-bass areas include the "1215 Area" just north of Pendleton Bridge, the Indian Mounds, the Bubbling Wells, Sandy Creek and the area near the dam.
At the north end of Toledo Bend, the Sabine River runs through islands and shallow coves. Some holes along old river channel provide deep water. Fish where the channels hit the main lake. Tenaha Creek enters the Sabine River from the Texas side. Across the lake, Cow Bayou enters Toledo Bend from the Louisiana side. In places, the river drops to about 35 feet deep near here.
"Fish around the mouth of the creek where it dumps into the river," says Greg Crafts of Toledo Bend Guide Service. "Fish the shelves along the river. Concentrate on bends and points or areas with old structure. Fish the mouth of the creek and any ditches that enter it."
For booking guided fishing trips with Joslin, call (337) 463-3848 or (409) 565-1288. Guided fishing trips with Crafts can be booked by calling (409) 368-7151.
Just north of Toledo Bend, Caddo Lake also spans the line between Texas and Louisiana. A 26,810-acre natural lake, Caddo actually produced a bass larger than the Louisiana state record, but the angler weighed it in Texas. On April 13, 1992, Bobby Shaver landed a 16.01-pound largemouth. In contrast, Greg Wiggins landed a 15.97-pound fish at Caney Lake in February 1994 to set the Louisiana standard.
Caddo Lake averages about 6 feet deep, but some holes drop to near 20 feet deep. Many anglers fish the bayous and sloughs on the Texas side. Some of these channels run 8 to 12 feet deep. Drop jigs or other soft-plastic baits along the channel edges or slow-roll spinnerbaits near wood structure.
Anglers can fish anywhere on Caddo Lake with either a Texas or a Louisiana fishing license. However, fishing regulations differ between the states. In Texas waters, anglers may only keep five largemouths per day, but none can measure between 14 and 18 inches long. In Louisiana waters, anglers may keep up to 10 bass per day, but only four may exceed 17 inches long. Louisiana anglers must return any bass measuring between 14 and 17 inches. The state line runs north to south through the lake in the vicinity of Big Green Brake in Caddo's main pool area.
Like Caddo, Lake Bistineau looks more lik
e a flooded swamp than a lake. Five main creeks and several smaller tributaries enter Bistineau, a 17,200-acre lake east of Bossier City. Lake Bistineau typically produces more fish, but Caddo Lake generally produces bigger fish.
"Caddo Lake has the best potential for a trophy bass in northwest Louisiana," says fisheries biologist James Seales of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries in Minden. "People catch bass up to 10 pounds fairly often and numerous 8-pound fish. Bistineau produces a lot of 3- to 5-pound bass, with some up to 8 pounds."
Although Lake Bistineau averages 8 feet deep, holes in the old Bayou Dorcheat channel drop to more than 18 feet deep in places. The Rock, at a big, deep bend in the channel south of Lake Bistineau State Park, holds fish in winter.
"In January and February, it's jig season," says Russell McVey of Southpaw Guide Service in Doyline. "We don't catch as many fish in the winter, but we catch bigger fish. A jig-and-craw-worm produces fish all year long, but it works best in January through March. Black, brown and amber jigs or black-and-blue jigs are among the best baits to use on the lake."
For booking guided fishing trips with McVey, call (318) 987-3833. For lake information, call Seales at (318) 371-3050.
Near Coushatta, John K. Kelly Grand Bayou Reservoir, better known simply as Grand Bayou, reached pool stage in August 1996. Today, the 2,500-acre reservoir averages 9 feet deep, but some holes drop to more than 30 feet deep. Flats and flooded brush dominate the lake's upper end. Near the dam, anglers find deep water and gravel bottoms. Points, drop-offs, docks and shorelines provide the dominant cover. Many anglers drop Carolina rigs around main-lake points or creek channels.
"In the winter, fishing slows down, but we still catch some good fish on Carolina rigs in deep water close to the channels," says local fishing guide Brantley Salter. "On cold winter days, I throw deep-running crankbaits. The lake has a lot of grass beds, some gravel beds and points. It doesn't have a lot of timber. It has one main channel, but it also has several feeder creeks and pockets with flats."
Each year, the state stocks it with Florida bass fingerlings. The lake record stands at about 13 pounds. With a 14- to 17-inch slot-length limit and an eight-fish daily creel limit, anglers may only keep four bass per day longer than 17 inches.
For booking guided fishing trips with Salter, call (318) 382-1312.
For putting big bass in the record book, nothing comes close to Caney Lake, a 5,000-acre impoundment near Chatham in north-central Louisiana. The lake has placed seven bass in the Louisiana Top 10, including the four largest fish. However, the lake hasn't added a top-10 bass to the book since July 1996, when Johnny Harper landed a 15.33-pound bucketmouth.
While the lake still harbors huge fish, anglers need to work harder to find them. With the bottom clear-cut before the lake filled, bass find little cover. In recent years, the lake produced several bass in the 10- to 12-pound range and a few largemouths heavier than 13 pounds. In March 2001 Kenneth Walker landed a 14.39-pound bass.
Five major creeks enter the lake from the northeast and two more from the southwest. These channels form structure that attracts fish. The lake averages about 14 feet deep, but some old borrow pits drop to more than 40 feet deep. A few dredged holes near the dam hold 70 feet of water.
"My favorite time to catch big, heavy bass on Caney Lake is from the end of January through the first week of March," says Tommy Chatham, of Tommy's Tournament Guide Service, who lives in Chatham, the town named for his great-great-grandfather. "In late winter, I fish bulky jigs and work them slowly. I use the biggest Texas-rigged lizards, worms or creature baits I can find. My favorite colors for soft-plastics are June bug, red bug and any dark color. Sometimes, I catch fish on Carolina rigs."
Bass anglers at Caney Lake must release all fish measuring between 15 and 19 inches. They may keep up to eight bass per day, but only two may be longer than 19 inches. To book guided fishing trips with Chatham, call (318) 246-5297 or (318) 245-3280.
While some of the luster faded from Caney, Lake D'Arbonne near Farmerville increased in stature among bass anglers in recent years. In February 2000 Ed Stellner established a new lake record at 15.31 pounds, almost 2 pounds heavier than the previous record of 13.60 pounds.
Impounded in 1964, the 15,000-acre lake in Union and Lincoln parishes averages about 8 feet deep. Several creek arms pull water from a huge drainage system. Little Corney Creek and Little D'Arbonne Bayou create channels that drop to 30 feet deep, but considerable portions of the lake resemble a shallow flooded cypress swamp.
In late winter, rivers in north Louisiana generally run at their lowest point of the year. The Ouachita River runs southward from Arkansas through Monroe. Several oxbow lakes off this stretch of the river can provide excellent winter fishing. Look for deep channels that connect oxbows to the main channel. In the main channel, fish the outside bends.
Five water-control structures stand along the course of the Red River, once a muddy torrent slashing southward through the Piney Woods from Shreveport to the Mississippi River. Now, these structures make pool conditions similar to reservoirs. The river's historically dark water cleared up, and its backwaters were inundated. The structures hold the channel at a minimum of 9 feet deep, but some "scour holes" may drop to more than 60 feet deep.
Along the river, numerous rock jetties redirect water flow. Bass stack up behind points and jetties that break the current while they wait to ambush shad flowing downstream. In winter, these rocky jetties can absorb heat produced by sunlight and hold bass. Typically, swirling currents scour holes at the end of jetties. Fish drop into these holes to get out of current or wait behind the rocks.
"In the winter, rocks are always a good place for bass," says bass pro Alton Jones. "In the winter, I run a flat-sided crankbait parallel to, and as close to, the rocks as I possibly can. I put my boat right up against the rocks and make long casts parallel to the rocks. The bait runs about 2 to 3 feet deep. Oddly, at that time of year I make a really fast retrieve along those rocks. That usually makes for some arm-jarring strikes."
Ancient oxbows along the Mississippi River also can hold big bass. Looking more like the old rivers channels they once were, these lakes usually consist of flats at either end, with deeper water in the middle. Some holes, which eroded where the Mississippi River once flowed, can provide deep winter sanctuary for bass. Some better oxbows include lakes Concordia, St. John and Bruin.
In central Louisiana, anglers might fish Lake Kincaid, a 2,000-acre lake west of Alexandria. It can produce double-digit fish, with some tipping the scales beyond 12 pounds. Lake Kincaid drops to 25 feet deep
in places. Several islands provide access to both shallow and deep water.
A powerplant uses Rodemacher Lake, also known as Cleco Lake, for cooling. The hot-water discharge acts as a bass magnet in late winter or early spring. The lake also can produce some bass breaking the 10-pound plateau.
Near Leesville, Lake Vernon can produce double-digit bass. The state stocked this 4,600-acre impoundment with Florida bass for more than a decade. Although it averages about 10 feet deep, Lake Vernon drops to 55 feet in places. Anglers may keep eight largemouths per day. Each must measure less than 14 inches or more than 17 inches. And each angler may only keep four largemouths longer than 17 inches.
Under Interstate 10, between Lafayette and Baton Rouge, a canal created to help in the highway construction holds deep water adjacent to the Atchafalaya Basin. This canal can provide good big-bass fishing in wintertime on occasion, if anglers can stand the rumble of traffic passing overhead. Lake Pelba and Lake Bigeaux, two deep natural water bodies that intersect with the highway canal, also hold some water that drops to more than 30 feet in places. These lakes provide a much quieter setting for fishing in the Atchafalaya Basin.
Following the wrath of Hurricane Katrina, it might be some time still before bass anglers return to much of the southwest Louisiana marshland, but when they do anglers can expect to find a mix of both deep and shallow waters created by the storm's flooding passage. Flats in the marshes usually run less than 3 feet deep, but the canals that carried away much Katrina's flooding rainfall should offer deeper water in general, and, perhaps, some very deep holes were carved by eddies in the storm flows. Around Houma, many anglers fish the canals near Bayou Black. The canals in the Lac des Allemands area also provide good action, depending upon tides. Southeast of New Orleans, many bass anglers fished the old canals near Caernarvon, but the status of access into that area, post-Katrina, was not clear at press time.
Just about anywhere in Louisiana, anglers can find big bass that snatch their lures. But during the wintertime, sleep late. Fish in the afternoon and bring more patience than lures. Bass anglers this time of year might only feel one or two bites in a day, but those could be the bites of year's largest bass.