Go Big Or Go Home
September 28, 2010
Known affectionately to locals as 'Big Lake,' southwest Louisiana's Calcasieu Lake hosts some of the Bayou State's finest speckled trout fishing. We'll show you where to tap into the action. (May 2008)
The southwest Louisiana ecosystem, dominated by Calcasieu Lake, Sabine Lake and the marshes in between, produces first-quality fishing for speckled trout like this one caught by Chris Kent.
Photo by Chester Moore Jr.
"There are more fish in one acre of Big Lake than there are in most other entire lakes."
Passionate about the speckled trout fishing on Big Lake, known officially as Calcasieu Lake, my father used this line -- and variations on it -- prodigiously often. As our home virtually straddled the Texas-Louisiana border, Calcasieu was only a half-hour's drive away, just south of Lake Charles. The days we spent there were some of the most productive of my young angling career.
Over the years I've come to believe that Calcasieu, the Cameron and Sabine jetties and the marshes surrounding that ecosystem are second to none on the entire Louisiana coast when it comes to pursuing trophy trout from spring through summer. The key is learning what signs to look for and how to approach these productive ecosystems.
Among the telltale signs of trout action on the main body of Calcasieu are oily slicks, caused by the feeding of predatory fish, that you can see on the surface. Fish, especially speckled trout, often regurgitate when feeding aggressively. When the prey is something oily -- menhaden, for instance -- this can result in one of the slicks appearing atop the water.
On the main body of Lake Calcasieu, slicks can indicate feeding speckled trout -- but you'll have to pay strict attention to detail or you'll be wasting your time. The first obstacle to overcome: crab traps, which are increasingly common the closer you to get to shore. Crabbers bait these traps with menhaden, which is very oily and produces slicks as soon as they put it in the water. Running across the lake and blindly targeting slicks can test an angler's sanity, as thousands of crab traps are out there, all prone to producing slicks.
The most obvious way to tell if a slick comes from a crab trap or from a feeding speck is to scout for crab traps nearby. If it's coming directly from a trap, don't bother fishing there; chances are good that you're not going to catch anything.
It depends on a fortuitous encounter, granted -- but yet another way to determine the source of a slick is to stumble on one as it actually appears. Emerging slicks are small, and usually round. If you encounter one about the size of a garbage can lid, it probably just formed, and your chances of connecting with fish there are excellent. That's the ideal condition -- but slicks can be worth trying if they're well formed and no more than 10 feet across. Nonetheless, by focusing on the smallest, best-formed slicks, anglers can increase their odds of catching speckled trout.
"Emerging slicks can lead to good catches of trout on Calcasieu," said Capt. Buddy Oakes of the Hackberry Rod and Gun Club. "You just have to be careful not to waste your time fishing the wrong kinds of slicks, which can get tricky."
Some anglers claim they can tell if a slick is fresh by smelling it. Slick-savvy anglers often compare the odor of a slick generated by a speckled trout to that of fresh mowed grass or watermelon rinds. Once you're on the slick, target the speckled trout underneath by throwing a soft plastic such as a Bass Assassin with pumpkinseed, glow or chartreuse coloration, or Oake's locally produced recommendation, the Hackberry Hustler.
Boasting a fair population of oysters, Calcasieu is home to several reefs that hold solid numbers of fish throughout the year. Some of the best are off Commissary Point or off the Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge at Lambert's Bayou and Grand Bayou.
When fishing these areas, a Gulp! Shrimp rigged under a Paradise Popper cork rig is hard to beat. Try using a windsock or driftsock to slow boat movement. A slower drift will make for fewer hangups and improve bite detection.
"Drifting helps you cover a lot of ground, which is why it's such an effective method," said professional angler Ted Takasaki, who produces his own line of driftsocks. "However, if you are moving too fast, you will miss many of the fish. Your bait has to stay in the bite window long enough for the fish to respond. If you have a big south wind and an incoming tide, for example, you might need two socks to slow you down enough."
At Calcasieu, big winds are common well into summer, and the anglers who seem to catch the most fish are the ones who can find a way to work around it by using a driftsock, by anchoring or by finding a hotspot protected from the gusts.
If you're determined to catch the bigger specks haunting Calcasieu's reefs, let your lure reach the bottom. The smaller fish are much more likely to be up top, while the big ones will lie on the bottom -- and tend to be a little lazier. Let whatever shrimp imitation you're fishing hit the bottom and slowly drag it across.
When using the trusted tactic that is dead-sticking, you throw the lure out, let it hit the bottom -- and do nothing. Simply let it drift along the bottom, letting currents and bottom structure enhance the lure's appeal. This technique requires patience, but it can catch those trout that few other anglers get.
Though many anglers use jigheads to set up and sink their bait, an alternative possibility is a Carolina rig. This consists of an egg weight rigged above a swivel and attached to an 18-inch leader. The weight will disturb the bottom and get the trout's attention, while the shrimp will appear to be swimming freely. Too little employed in salt water, this kind of rig can be a valuable addition to your repertoire.
If it's super-sized specks you want, cruise the shorelines of West Cove or target the waters on the edge of the ship channel and look for mullet. As studies have shown, the largest specks prefer fish like mullet -- hence trophy-trout purists' looking for any concentration of them in order to find their quarry. Too many anglers (myself included) look at what is on the surface and pay insufficient attention to what lies beneath.
Learning about the happenings below and searching for baitfish and game fish are crucial to finding specks in the channels, and a number of visible hints can point you in the right direction. First, if you spot "nervous" water or mullet near the surface, you've likely found a good place to start.
In addition, any area near a cut, or that has some kind of water flow into a marsh or lake, is definitely worth trying.
It doesn't take a genius to figure out that the exchange of water from shallow to deep makes for a prime spot for predators to catch their prey. Deer hunters often refer to "edges," -- where a thicket meets an open field -- as prime spots for ambushing deer. These edges are also present in water, and although they may appear different, the effect is the same.
POINTS AND DROPOFFS
Likewise, pay special attention to points. If a major point is coming off an island or extends from the shoreline into the channel, chances are good that it'll hold mullet and, therefore, will have the potential to harbor trout as well. If the water looks nervous over a deep area, fish with something you can rip noisily through the water. My first choice is Rat-L-Trap, particularly in chrome with a black back for clearer water or a chartreuse version when it's murky, as it often is until midsummer.
Make pattern casts parallel to the shoreline, as these schools of bait typically stretch out along them. The Rat-L-Trap is a good choice because you can cast it in the wind -- which is usually strong this time of year -- and get some distance out of it. Covering lots of water is essential.
You'll want to pay attention not necessarily to the point itself but to the "secondary" point, which only your electronics can reveal. The main point might extend out to 3 feet of water, whereas the point below it might be sitting out in 10 feet of water on a shelf. Baitfish will gather around these points, as will specks using them as transition zones from shallow to deep water. This is a prime spot at which to try trolling for trout.
Trolling is a popular method on Lake Pontchartrain outside of New Orleans; I've been doing it for the last few years. Tie on a deep diving crankbait like a Bomber 9A or a Fat Free Shad and slowly troll over these secondary points. It's important when the fish aren't actively feeding to cover lots of water -- and that's exactly what trolling allows you to do. I caught a massive trout while I was trolling a chartreuse-colored Fat Free Shad over the secondary point of an island. No signs of any feeding activity were visible, but the graph showed plenty of baitfish about 10 feet down, and some larger fish suspended just below them. The Fat Free Shad will dive up to 18 feet but seems to cruise right at around 14 feet. In this case, that's where the action was.
If the water is nervous over a dropoff or a shallow flat, fish a topwater plug. Many good ones are out there, but my favorite is the Skitter Walk. Last spring, my father and I stopped at one such spot, and I had a Skitter Walk blown 2 feet out of the water on the first cast. I never did catch that fish, but fortunately for us, it was among friends. When using topwater lures, start fishing parallel to the shore and move back, so you can fish the plug from the shallows out past the dropoff, which very often will be where the trout are located.
Where the water flow enters a channel -- as it does on a number of points along Calcasieu's western edge -- speckled trout often will hold right along the edge of the dropoff, where they can hammer baitfish and feed along the "color lines" formed when clear water meets murky. These are great spots for fishing topwaters, or slow-sinking plugs like a Catch 2000. If you do use a slow-sinker, make sure you let it work the shallows first and then fall over the edge of the dropoff. It's not necessary for the drops to be extreme, since most of Calcasieu is shallow. Some of the most productive dropoffs are found simply where 3 feet of water drops into 6.
"IT GETS WEIRD OUT THERE"
Anglers wanting to venture outside of Calcasieu itself should target the Sabine jetties, which start to turn on in May and improve throughout the summer. Keep in mind that one day of excellent fishing can be followed by a day of poor fishing, even when conditions appear to be virtually the same.
"It gets weird out there with the trout getting into that summer bite pattern," said angler Kelly Tanner, who frequents the Louisiana rocks. Last year, Tanner caught limits of trout in the washouts on the Gulf of Mexico side of the Louisiana rocks from 30 minutes before dawn until about 15 minutes after first light.
"I catch most of them throwing a silver/blue Skitter Pop right against the rocks," said the angler from Beaumont, Texas. "Most of the time, the strikes are on the very first twitch of the lure and they are hitting hard. But then when they decide to stop biting, they just quit altogether."
Newly formed islands produced by spoils of the LNG plant north of the jetties have produced some phenomenal fishing beginning about half-mile east of the northern tier of the jetties. Local anglers are calling them the "Little Chandeleurs," as they appear similar to the barrier islands along the Louisiana/Mississippi border and produce similar large catches of trout.
I've personally had some success fishing this area by wading and throwing topwater lures like the Skitter Walk and soft plastics like a Killer Diller shrimp from Creme. The fish feed aggressively here, and they seem to bite best right at dawn or during peak tidal movements. Make sure to keep an eye out for stingrays and sharks. Many bull sharks swim the area, and as anyone knows, they're the kind of creature that can spoil your trout fishing for a lifetime.