Louisiana's Big-Water Bass
September 28, 2010
While no one truly knows where the next state-record largemouth will come from, these waters are as good a place to start as any in the Bayou State.
Covington resident Sam Swett used a soft-plastic jerkbait to catch this 6-pound bigmouth at Lake Lery, part of the Caernarvon Project.
Photo by Ronell Smith
Full disclosure: I've never caught what could be considered a really large bass. I've been fortunate to bag a buck with a spread bumping 20 inches, and I have the four fans of my wild turkey Grand Slam on my wall. But I've never caught a bass weighing over 7 pounds. Given that Louisiana abounds in big-water bass venues of world-beating quality, it's enough to make a fella wonder -- but not about those big waters, whose considerable merits will be our theme here.
Living as close as I do to fabulous Caney Lake, the home of three state-record bass, you'd think my big-bass production would be higher. It never happened for me during Caney's heyday, when double-digit bass were coming out of the lake on practically a weekly basis.
As a whole, bassers around the state realize that Caney Lake, the 5,000-acre jewel of Jackson Parish, is no longer the big-bass factory of a decade ago. However, if the dream of one fisheries biologist comes true, I still may be able to tie into a wallhanger bass before my chunkin'-and-windin' days are through.
From his headquarters in Monroe, Mike Wood, fisheries biologist manager for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries District 2, oversees Caney Lake. He readily admits that Caney Lake's story is one fraught with intrigue, excitement and disappointment.
"Caney Lake has been the source of a lot of excitement for a bunch of bass fishermen over the years," he said. "This lake has produced three state records and is still the current record holder with a 15.97-pound bass caught a decade ago. In recent years, however, the production of big bass has slowed down."
In order to help me get a handle on what happened to Caney Lake, Wood listed three factors that any lake must have in play if it's to yield up trophy-quality bass with regularity. "It's like a three-legged stool," he said. "Remove one leg and the stool falls.
"The first essential element required to grow big bass is genetics -- you just have to have good genes there. And when you're talking about bass, this means the Florida gene must be predominant.
"The second leg of the stool is age: A bass has to survive long enough to make it to trophy proportions. I'm talking about from hatch to maturity. We have seen significant mortality in Caney Lake bass because of predation due to the lack of cover. The little fish get eaten before they have a chance to grow because there's nowhere for them to hide.
"Thirdly, there must be adequate habitat. When there was plenty of cover on Caney Lake, we saw state records being set and bass weighing over 10 pounds regularly brought to the scales. Once we lost the aquatic vegetation, bass production diminished along with the habitat."
A bit of background for those of you new to the Bayou State bassin' scene: In the early 1990s, Caney Lake developed a serious problem with the runaway proliferation of aquatic vegetation, primarily in the form of the exotic species hydrilla. After several failed attempts to reduce the grass, the decision was made to introduce an exotic animal species to control the hydrilla: sterile triploid carp, more commonly known as "white amur" or "grass carp."
Released into the lake in 1994, the carp did their job efficiently -- arguably, too efficiently. A couple of years after 12,500 grass carp were released into Caney Lake, the hydrilla was essentially gone; so too, however, were native species such as coontail grass. Subsurface plant growth had given bass plentiful habitat in a lake devoid of standing timber, and once that was gone, the fish had no place to hide.
It wasn't long before numbers of big bass began to decline, and as they disappeared, so did the fishermen. Second-guessing about the prudence of having used an exotic species of fish to curtail the submerged vegetation (at least as regards the number of carp deployed) has gone on for a decade, but the blame game helps nothing: The damage is done.
Said Wood, "That was a major problem for us: not having fishermen on the lake to help us meet our goals within our bass management plan. Angler harvest is a key to making the plan work, and when they abandoned the lake for better fishing on other lakes, a key ingredient to bass management disappeared."
But with a bit of luck, Caney Lake could be well on the road to a recovery that could reestablish it as one of the premier trophy bass lakes in the state, if not the in the entire South. "The carp are dying out," stated Wood. "Whereas over 12,000 were released into the lake in 1994, a conservative estimate is there are no more than 200 to 300 grass carp there now."
That's great -- but does this mean that vegetation will return to the lake of its own accord?
"Not necessarily," Wood said. "Our research has shown us that the carp were very effective in knocking back the vegetation, especially the hydrilla and coontail. Every time a little sprig would reseed and start to grow, it was nibbled away by a carp. As a result, the seedbed for these species is gone; it's just not there. What is growing are plants such as dollar pads, bladderwort and peppergrass -- vegetation not preferred by grass carp.
"We have begun a program of reintroducing desirable plants, specifically coontail, to the lake. We have brought in boat loads of coontail, which will grow from a sprig, and have introduced it to the coves and shorelines with the idea that now that grass carp are no longer a problem, the grass, once established, will soon provide the cover that has been so sorely lacking on Caney.
"I see no reason why the good grass won't come back," Wood continued. "One thing we're sincerely hoping is that some well-meaning angler, knowing that the carp are all but gone, sneaks in some hydrilla. That would be disastrous, and would put us back with some of the same problems we had before.
"There are still big bass in Caney Lake, but because of the absence of cover, they are scattered, and anglers have a hard time locating them. After the new growth of submerged vegetation takes hold, I would think that fishermen will begin to see a significant difference. The lake should have natural cover in the form of desirable aquatic vegetation growing again, giving young fish a place to hide and serving as ideal ambush points for foraging bass.
"Once this happens and the word gets out, anglers will return to Caney Lake and our bass management plan, in which we encourage fishermen keeping fish under the slot" -- 15 to 19 inches -- "and releasing fish in the slot, should begin working.
"I see the future as being indeed bright for Caney Lake," Wood said, "and I wouldn't be surprised to see the state record broken here again in the future."
Caney Lake has two public launch facilities: one at the Caney Lake State Park off Highway 4, the other, also off Highway 4, at Ebenezer Landing.
A lake that has all three legs of Wood's stool in place is Lake D'Arbonne. This 12,500-acre lake near Farmerville has been around for several decades, and it's aging gracefully.
"Lake D'Arbonne has a bright future," noted the LDWF's Wood, who's in charge of this lake too. "Since D'Arbonne is not one of our designated 'trophy' lakes, we can't put as many Florida bass fingerlings in here as we can the lakes that qualify as 'trophy' lakes. However, we're releasing some 125,000 Florida bass fingerlings into the lake every year, and because of the other two elements, age and habitat, the bass fishery is steadily improving."
The fish ranking seventh in the state's big bass records is a 15.31-pound D'Arbonne bass caught in February 2000 by Ed Stellner. Reports of big bass -- double-digit specimens -- being caught at D'Arbonne are more common than they once were.
"The lake has an abundance of aquatic vegetation," said Wood, "and added to that, much of the lake is timbered, with cypress trees and button willows, giving the fish excellent cover for avoiding being eaten and as ambush points for foraging bass.
"Our department has an excellent working relationship with the Lake D'Arbonne Watershed Commission, and because we're able to work together, we're seeing lots of positive things taking place on D'Arbonne."
Lake D'Arbonne has several public launch ramps, including Stowe Creek, the ramp adjacent to the Highway 33 bridge, the D'Arbonne State Park landing and the Corney Creek landing off Highway 2.
As popular as these north Louisiana lakes are with largemouth fans, bodies of water in the southern tier of parishes vie for top positions as well. One prime area that bass anglers will be visiting this spring is a complex collage of water-diversion canals, lagoons and ponds called Caernarvon.
The Caernarvon Project lies east of the Mississippi River and south of New Orleans along the St. Bernard/Plaquemines parish lines. Completed in 1991, the project involved building structures to divert fresh water from the Mississippi River into low-lying lands to the east of the river. As a result of this introduction of fresh water, nutrients and sediment from the river flow over the marshlands and into the bays, serving as a shot in the arm to this area once threatened by loss of habitat and saltwater intrusion.
The project controls the salinity of over 16,000 acres of marshland; in total, 77,000 acres of marshes and bays benefit. According to reports by fisheries biologists, largemouth bass production has almost doubled since the project's inception. Of interest to anglers is that largemouths here tend to be heavy, with some catches in the 11-pound range reported.
There's nothing conjectural about Caernarvon's weighty bigmouths -- just ask Covington resident and professional angler Sam Swett. He's caught plenty of big bass there by targeting the numerous canals along Lake Lery with jigs, spinnerbaits and buzzbaits. "It's one of the best places for big fish," he said.
Howard Rogillio, the LDWF District 8 Inland Fisheries supervisor working out of the La Combe fish hatchery, reports that Caernarvon's bass fishing has really taken off. "Prior to the implementation of this project, bass fishing here was just fair," he observed. "There was rather high mortality in bass because of relative high temperatures, which results in high metabolism of bass. This, plus the low oxygen levels typically seen in warm months here, resulted in a short life span for bass here. They didn't live long enough to grow to trophy size.
"Once fresh water was introduced to the marsh, water temperatures cooled and oxygen was replenished. As a result, these fish have taken off, and should provide some of the best bass fishing in the country in years ahead.
"By late spring and early summer, the waters here should be in good shape," continued Rogillio. "Where water is flowing, there will be current, and the water could be stained. However, the canals are usually clearer. Anglers often fish the canals, especially where there is flow in or out of the canal into or out of cuts. Plastic worms, spinnerbaits, crankbaits and topwater lures all work good here. The water is not deep here -- probably 5 to 6 feet being the deepest water. There is marginal tidal influence in the project area, and it is possible to not only catch bass but the occasional speckled trout, redfish or flounder."
A public launch giving access to the area will be found at Braithwaite. Another is at Delacroix, which leads into Lake Lery and the heart of the project area.
Rogillio cautions first-time visitors to contact area mapping companies to secure a map of the area. "The profusion of canals, lagoons and ponds can be confusing unless you use a map to maneuver around the area," he said.
DAVIS PROJECT POND
Practically a mirror image of Caernarvon, this new project -- a freshwater diversion area some 23 miles upriver from New Orleans on the west side of the Mississippi -- was completed in March 2002.
"It's the same type habitat as Caernarvon," said Rogillio, "except it's much larger."
According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Davis Pond affects 10,084 acres directly, indirectly influences 33,000 acres of marsh, and ultimately benefits another 77,000 acres. In fact, the Davis Pond project is the world's largest freshwater diversion project. "This is a spot anglers should check out," Rogillio said, "and it will only get better in years to come."
Launch sites include the public ramp at Pier 90 near Lafitte and a launch on the west side of the area near Boutte.
Valuable as these four big-bass hotspots will be for anglers looking for a trophy in 2005, other areas deserve mention as well. Mammoth Toledo Bend -- all 186,000 acres of it -- can claim at least one of the state's heaviest largemouths: a 14.68-pound bass, caught in 1998, that currently occupies the 13th slot in Bayou State bass records.
"Toledo Bend already has all the ingredients necessary to consistently produce big bass," said Mike Wood. "The genetics are there; age diversity is present, along with a variety of aquatic habitat. Because the lake is so huge, it is not as easy to dissect the impoundment as it is on a smaller lake such as 5,000-acre Caney Lake. Still, anglers who take the time to learn the patterns on Toledo Bend and become famil
iar with the lake stand an excellent chance of putting a trophy bass in the net this spring."
GRAND BAYOU RESERVOIR
Another lake with potential for yielding a trophy this spring is 2,500-acre Grand Bayou Reservoir. Near Coushatta in Red River Parish, this fairly new lake is a miniature version of Caney Lake when the latter was first filled. A couple of summers ago, I fished Grand Bayou with bass guide and friend Eddie Halbrook, of Jonesboro. Smallish schooling bass were breaking the surface over much of the lake; Halbrook was after something bigger.
"The bigger bass are holding in the channel," observed Halbrook. "They'll just sort of hang out there and wait until a school of big shad moves over the channel. Then they'll come up and bust 'em."
The two of us caught a lot of bass on that warm June day, with most taken on plastic grubs, spinnerbaits and plastic worms. However, the heftiest of the bunch succumbed to our oversized topwater lures.
"Bigger bass just like a bigger lure," Halbrook reflected. "I guess they're sort of like we are: Instead of nibbling on a little crumb when we're hungry, we want something we can bite into."
Looking to try for a trophy largemouth this year? Whether it's the small waters of Caney Lake or the big waters of Toledo Bend that can rev up your engines, it's hard to go wrong with either this month.