September 28, 2010
Caney Lake has produced 16 of our top 20 largemouths, but recent management efforts have hurt the fishery. Will Caney ever regain its former prestige as a trophy bass lake? (May 2006)
Impounded in 1987 and pooling at 5,000 acres, Caney Lake near Chatham in Jackson Parish set the Louisiana bass world on fire in the early 1990s.
When the state dammed Caney Creek, native fish in the creek and adjacent borrow pits, including some whopper bass, spread into the new habitat created by the rising water and multiplied. Aquatic grass grew rapidly in the clear water of the new lake.
Since the beginning, state biologists intensively managed the new lake to produce big largemouth bass. To augment the native population and grow trophy bass, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries stocked fast-growing Florida-strain largemouths and other fish. Their plans succeeded beyond imagination.
In the early 1990s, anglers fishing Caney Lake set new state records for largemouth bass almost as fast as record-keepers could make updates.
"In 1991, a 13-pound bass came out of Caney, so it had an early reputation for big bass, but the population as a whole was in terrible shape," said Mike Wood, LDWF district fisheries biologist in Monroe. "The creeks had a lot of fish, but the lake was dominated by fish that were 8 inches long. We stocked threadfin shad in the lake, and that's what kicked the bass population off."
But since 1992, the lake has produced 16 of the top 20 bass ever caught in Louisiana, most before 1994. This includes the top four fish and eight of the top 10 lunkers.
In March 1992, Brian Davis landed a 14.31-pound fish. In February 1993, Tommy Foster lipped a 15.54-pound largemouth to establish what was at the time a new state record (and that currently ranks second in the Louisiana book.)
March 1993 produced four fish that still hold top 20 fish spots. They ranged from 14.48 pounds to 15.42 pounds. In October 1993, Fred Kennedy landed a 15.53-pounder, which now holds third place in the state ledger. Finally, in February 1994, Greg Wiggins landed the bigmouth that still holds the record at 15.97 pounds.
These giant fish cemented the lake's reputation as one of the best trophy lakes in the country. Then, boaters who frequented the popular lake complained to state officials that aquatic grasses had ruined some of their favorite water-skiing areas and asked them to do something about it.
In January 1994, officials released 12,000 sterile grass carp-- probably 10 times what was really needed--into the lake. Fishing success dropped drastically as the carp devoured the grassbeds. Eventually, grass became so scarce that some property owners even reported carp gathering like frenzied sharks to slurp up yard clippings blown into the water as residents cut their lawns along the shore.
"It was just a mistake to release that many carp in the lake," Wood said. "I think the people who made that decision overestimated the grass coverage. The carp can't reproduce, but they live a long time. In time, the fishing will return -- when carp numbers dwindle enough to allow grass to sprout again like it was. It will probably never be as good as it once was, but it'll still be a trophy lake."
Officials tried to net carp and killed about 3,000 of them. Wildlife officials encouraged archers to patrol the lake and shoot as many carp as they could. Some groups even staged carp bowfishing tournaments. These measures helped. Other carp died as a result of accidents, predators or other natural causes, but thousands of carp remained.
"When we had grass, all we had to do was pull up to it to find fish," said Tommy Chatham of Tommy's Tournament Guide Service. "For the past several years, we had to readapt to fishing this lake; now we do more drop-shotting and finesse fishing. The key is to watch the presentation and pay attention. Often, by the time people realize they had a bite, the fish has already let go."
Even during the worst of the "carp epidemic," the lake still held enormous bass. As the carp population slowly declined, aquatic grasses sprouted in some coves again. Fishing gradually improved. Then, in March 2001, Kenneth Walker landed a 14.39-pound bass. The fish ranks 18th in the state book, making it the first top 20 bass from Caney since 1996.
"We still catch double-digit bass, but just not in the numbers that we used to catch," said Chatham, who lives in the town named for his great-great grandfather. "It's improving tremendously, but it's still not nearly as good as it was. I know of one 14-pounder that came out of Caney in 2003, and we still get a lot of 10s and 11s."
Because of relatively infertile, acidic water, the lake remains very clear. Anglers need to find Caney bass before they can boat them, and most Caney bass suspend in open water over ledges, humps and dropoffs, making finding them tough.
With so much open water and very little structure to concentrate bass, fish could hide anywhere in the 5,000-acre lake. The lake averages about 14 feet deep, with some old borrow pits dropping to more than 40 feet. A few dredge holes near the dam hold more than 70 feet of water. Many anglers fish the five major fingers that enter the lake from the northeast side. Two more major fingers enter the main lake from the southwest, offering anglers plenty of places to bag big bass.
Without extensive grassbeds, many big bass stay away from the shorelines except during spawning season. In the spring, though, anglers may find fish by combing the banks and flats looking for giant bedding fish. They sight-cast to spawning bass, dragging small jigs, lizards or other soft-plastic baits repeatedly through beds. Some throw buzzbaits, spinnerbaits or jerkbaits to provoke fish into biting. An angler might throw at one single giant bass for several hours until it bites -- or the angler wears an arm out.
"We still have some sight-fishing for spawning bass, but that's tailed off, because fish are spawning deeper," Wood said. "A lot of bass spawn in 10 feet of water or deeper. The real monsters are not going to come shallow where people can see them."
A spawning bass on a bed doesn't eat, and may spook easily. However, it might pick up distracting objects and remove them from the nest. It might strike reactively at annoying objects that repeatedly wobble, buzz or sputter past its nose. Frequently, anglers stand off as far as they can cast from cover to avoid spooking fish when working a bed.
"Without a doubt, fish that people can see are some of the hardest to catch," said Jimmy Houston, a professional bass fisherman and longtime host of his
own national television fishing show. "If you can see the fish, they can see you. If a person spooks a fish off a bed, it's a hard fish to catch until it returns to that bed."
To add more cover to Caney Lake, the state created several artificial reefs made of plastic pallets scattered throughout the lake. The biologists actually established these structures, which somewhat resemble Christmas trees, to attract crappies. Minnows and shad gather in the "branches" of these trees. Crappies move in to feed on the minnows and other baitfish. Bass gather to feed on the minnows and bream that lurk near these reefs, but they also pick off a few crappies if they can catch them. The state has anchored buoys that mark the reefs, so that anglers can find them easily.
Besides fishing near artificial reefs or sight-casting at bedding bass, anglers primarily fish deep structure, such as creek channels, humps and dropoffs, especially in the winter or summer. Points also make good places to look for bass at Caney Lake. Sloping points frequently give bass access to both deep and shallow water. As the mood strikes them, bass rise and descend in the water column to find the depth that offers them the best combination of cover, forage, oxygen and temperature comfort.
To find big bass in creek channels or around other bottom contours, Chatham does what he calls "methodical fishing." First, he scans with electronics to find fish or bait in 20 to 24 feet of water; then he searches with large deep-diving shad-colored crankbaits. After finding fish, he slowly works over the area with soft plastics. He also fishes chunky 10-inch worms or 1/2-ounce jigs sweetened with craw worms or creature baits, barely moving them, as natural water movement causes claws and tentacles to quiver tantalizingly.
"In cold water, I fish bulky jigs, and work them slowly," Chatham said. "I use the biggest lizards, worms or creature baits I can find. My favorite colors for big soft plastics are junebug, redbug and any dark color. In cold water, I throw Texas rigs because I can work them slower, although sometimes I catch fish on Carolina rigs."
Topwater baits can also work well from April through early fall. Fish the major creek channels from where they meet the main lake to about halfway up the creek. Also, fish around the points early in the morning. Shelves often form near points to give bass some structure. If lucky, anglers might find a patch of grass near a point and, with a little effort, find a concentration of bass there as well.
"Later in the spring and summer, I fish the main points with topwater baits," Chatham said. "I like poppers, Spit'n Images and Zara Spooks. It's nothing to catch an 8-pounder in the summer on a topwater bait early in the morning right against the bank."
Bends in creek channels also make excellent places to find summer bass on Caney. These old creek channels sometimes contain fish-holding holes. During extremely cold or hot weather, these holes can offer bass sanctuary and comfortable temperatures. Drop-jigs, drop-shots, Texas-rigged worms or tubes into these holes and around the edges. If that doesn't work, slow-roll spinnerbaits around the edges.
"The two most versatile baits in bass fishing are a spinnerbait and a jig," said Denny Brauer, a former Bassmaster Classic champion. "One of my favorite ways of fishing a bait in the summer and winter on deep structure is worming a spinnerbait. Throw it out and let it fall all the way to the bottom until you see slack in the line. Raise it off the bottom by raising the rod tip to the 11 o'clock or 12 o'clock position. Drop the rod tip back down, letting the bait helicopter down and following it down until it hits the bottom, and do it again."
Fishing becomes tough in the heat of late summer, as most bass stick close to the bottom in daylight hours. At night, however, big bass move into the shallows. On a bright full moon, the light penetrates extremely well in the clear waters of Caney Lake. At night, lunker bass lose a bit of their wariness. Except for the spawning time in the spring, the full moon of late summer probably offers the best time to land a bigmouth lunker.
"During the summer, fishing gets really tough," Chatham said. "Then I use a lot of finesse worms and plastics. I use a small worm with a split-shot about 12 inches above the worm and work it slowly. Quite a few people fish at night. By early November, I start going back to soft plastics. I don't use the big bulky plastics at that time. I'll use smaller plastics, 6- to 8-inch worms. I also use a lot of centipedes on Carolina rigs."
In a clear lake with huge bass, one bite could produce the fish of a lifetime. Big bass want big baits, and often feed on threadfin shad, crappies or bream. In clear water, more realistic baits often work best. For calling lunkers in clear water, a soft-plastic swim bait makes a mighty tempting target.
Essentially large soft-plastic shads with internal weights and single hooks, swim baits closely mimic live baitfish. Storm Wildeye Shads and Calcutta Flash Foil Swim Shads come with soft holographic bodies in several natural colors. Coming in versions up to 6 inches long, they create tempting side-to-side action when cranked and odd wobbles when dropped. To lunker bass, they look and feel like natural baitfish.
"A big swim bait is definitely a bait for big fish, not big numbers," said Jay Yelas, the 2002 FLW Angler or the Year and a Bassmaster Classic champion. "Big fish are drawn to it like a magnet. It's probably the worst lure in my box for catching numbers of fish, but it's probably the best lure for quality bites that I've ever seen. Bigger swim baits work best in lakes with large bass and high populations of large shad or similar forage."
These baits provoke fish by sight, so they work well in clear waters like Caney Lake. Drop them off deep points or along creek channels. Let the bait fall to the bottom and slowly reel it just off the bottom or jig it up and down. Around timber or other cover, work them more briskly. For targeting schooling fish, toss to the school and let the bait drop a few feet before reeling it back to the boat.
"With swim baits, I target long, flat, slowly tapering points," Yelas said. "These usually have a sharp dropoff at the end. Fish meander back and forth across the flat, either deep or shallow. Often, bass suspend just over the dropoff. Around deeper points with no cover, let a swim bait sink to the bottom then crawl it back to the boat extremely slowly, just off the bottom."
The future looks bright for Caney Lake bass angling as grass slowly returns. The state continues to stock more than 250,000 Florida bass fingerlings into the impoundment each year. On this designated "trophy lake," the state allows anglers to keep eight bass per day, but only two fish may exceed 19 inches. Anglers must immediately release all largemouth bass measuring between 15 and 19 inches.
"The grass has not significantly improved, but I can see a difference," Wood said. "I can see grass growing in places where the carp should have eaten it. When the grass comes back, Caney will be somewhere close to its original potential. In the past few years, we've had a few 13-pounders. Catch
es of bass in the 10- to 11-pound range have become relatively frequent. The reefs won't boost the population, but they might bring fish and fishermen together. The hardest thing of all is waiting."
Anglers may stay at the new 4,970-acre Jimmy Davis State Park on the lake about 30 minutes south of Interstate 20. The park offers two boat launches, picnic sites, camping areas, 17 two-bedroom cabins, two four-bedroom lodges and a group camp that can accommodate up to 120 people. Anglers may also launch at Caney Lake Marina near the dam on state Highway 34. Anglers may also launch at Ebenezer Boat Ramp or Brown's Landing on state Highway 4.
To book a trip, call Chatham at (318) 246-5297 or (318) 245-3280. For state park information, call 1-877-226-7652.