Like a pubescent teenager, 5,000-acre Caney Lake in Jackson Parish went through some changes a few years ago.
The transformation wasn't just physical, however. The lake started questioning authority a bit, and it started to rebel.
And anglers, like disheartened parents, could only watch and wail.
What happened to that sweet little lake we all knew that was pumping out 14- and 15-pound bass every other week? We don't even recognize you anymore!
Already 20 years old, Caney had an inauspicious start because the lake was loaded with bass that had nothing to eat. Four years after the lake opened, bass could be seen schooling on bugs. There was no forage in the lake, and the bass had to take what they could get.
"We stocked it with worlds of bass, and we didn't cull the bass that were already there," said District 2 Fisheries Biologists Mike Wood. "Our stockings had to compete with that, and, as a result, we had an overabundance of fish with no forage around 1991."
The lake was stocked with shad soon thereafter, and the stocked bass began to catch up with the native fish. Ricky Carter, a local angler, caught an 11-pound bass about this time, and the lake quickly became known as a place to catch lunkers.
"The fish were turning into giants," Wood said. "The grass was growing to the optimal level between 15 to 30 percent, which was important because grass was the primary complex cover in the lake. You've got to have complex cover for a lake to reach its full potential."
The only problem was that the complex cover was hydrilla, an exotic grass probably introduced to the lake by well-meaning but uneducated anglers. The very thing that was making the lake so productive would eventually lead to its demise.
Wood explained that, as the hydrilla grew and gave bass a place in which they could grow to the 14- and 15-pound sizes, it also had the potential to grow far beyond the ideal range.
Coping with carp
In 1994, an exotic species was introduced to the lake to reduce the exotic grass. More than 12,000 grass carp quickly and almost completely destroyed the hydrilla, and the lake fell below a 5 percent level of complex cover. There were still big bass in the lake, but they became harder to locate.
The lake lingered for about 10 years.
"I never want to ever hear about grass carp the rest of my life," Wood said. "Thankfully, there aren't many left in the lake because the maximum age of a grass carp is between 10 and 15 years. A lot died with a little help (from bowfishermen), but a lot are starting to die naturally. We're seeing dead carp with no external marks or injuries."
Grass coming back
With the reduction of the carp, the grass is making a comeback. The hydrilla is long gone because it eventually exhausted all its propagules, roots, tubers and seeds as it tried to regenerate on its own. Wood said his department is trying to help bring the grass back.
"We've got the opportunity now to replant with species that we want in the lake," Wood said. "Two of those are eel grass and Sago pondweed. We've also been moving loads of coontail to the lake.
"These are all good types of vegetation to get the lake back to that 15 to 30 percent coverage of complex cover. And they don't have near the potential to overdo it like the exotic grass did."
Wood explained that the planting of grass is considered an enhancement management action rather than corrective management.
"The slot limit was introduced as an enhancement effort, which means we were trying to make something good even better," Wood said. "We went into corrective management when the grass was gone and the lake wasn't as productive. We were trying to protect bass that might have otherwise gone home with an angler.
"The lake has rebounded from those down days, and the reintroduction of good grass will only enhance the lake."
Of course, a future problem may arise when these good grasses get just a little bit too close to somebody's dock. Wood said he could easily predict that somebody will eventually want this good grass gone in the future.
The solution to any potential problems will result from another change the lake is undergoing.
It's not a stretch to say that the LDWF and the Caney Lake Commission haven't always seen eye to eye. The commission is a legislatively appointed body that is the authority over the lake.
Their responsibilities include stuff like boat docks, navigation channel marking, dumping into the lake and a lot of other things — including the fishery. They aren't responsible for the fishery to the extent that the LDWF is, but they are concerned about it.
"We're on track to working with the lake commission," Wood said. "We haven't always worked as closely as we should have. If we don't work closely together, the lake won't get the improvements that it has got to have. They've had some changes in the commission, and we're getting along well right now. My goal is to see that it stays that way."
Staying on the bite
Anglers who have fished Caney Lake through the good times and bad recognize they have had to drastically change how they fish to stay on the bite.
One local guide who used to rabbit hunt the bottom of Caney before it was impounded is Eddie Halbrook of Jonesboro. Halbrook has seen a shift from cover-oriented patterns to open water patterns back to cover patterns.
"Guys had to learn different places to fish after the grass was gone," Halbrook said. "The bass set up shop on the humps and creek channels. Lots of folks started putting out brushpiles to further enhance the structure.
"Now, there's lots of vegetation in the backs of the creeks, and it holds a lot of bass. I'd say the lake has almost come full circle, except that now we can fish cover patterns or structure patterns."
Spring — Anglers waiting on the dogwoods to bloom before fishing Caney in the spring will miss out on a good time to catch a big fish. Bass start moving up once the temperature hits 50 degrees — typically in early February.
Bass will first move up the creek channels and stage on little bends and points all along the way. One of the best situations to look for is an outside channel bend that is near a major point. The first points to turn on will be the main lake points going into the creeks.
The bite will progressively move farther back into the creeks as the water warms. These prespawn bass will readily suck up lipless crankbaits, jigs and slow rolled spinnerbaits, but the most reliable technique is a Carolina rig. Halbrook favors a V&M lizard or finesse worm when Carolina rigging.
"I'll start rigging the points and move right up to the edge of the stickups when I'm looking for early fish," Halbrook said. "The great thing about a Carolina rig is that it targets prespawn, spawn and post-spawn fish. You've got to remember that some of the biggest bass spawn out in 8 feet of water or deeper. That's also the perfect zone for big prespawn females and bass that have already spawned and are moving back to the structure."
There aren't as many anglers sight fishing Caney as there were during its heyday, but visibly targeting bedding bass is still a viable option for anglers wanting to put in the time. Most of the beds have been showing up in the coves that are nearly choked with dollar lilies.
"You can do a lot of things around those pads," Halbrook said. "Rogues work well on the edges, and soft-sinking baits like the V&M Chopstick work well up in the thick stuff. Floating worms, soft jerkbaits and weightless lizards also have a place during the spawn when the male bass are busy protecting the newly hatched fry."
Summer — Halbrook considers the early part of June to still be postspawn at Caney. He believes the real summer patterns begin once the water temperature gets into the mid 80s.
"These fish move out on some of the deeper structures during summer," Halbrook said. "It's not unusual to catch them 35 or 40 feet deep. I've actually caught them suspended about 40 feet in 65 feet of water. Caney has some pits in it, and the bass will suspend around the cliffs around the edges."
Halbrook loves working these vertical edges with a jig or big worm. He positions his boat right at the edge of the drop and vertically jigs both lures in front of the suspended fish he sees on his depthfinder.
"We'll still have some shallow fish during the summer," he said, "but most of the bass will move out searching for cooler water. I've got a temperature gauge on my underwater camera, and I've seen the water temperature drop from 80 degrees on the surface to 60 at 30 feet. They'll go down to this comfort zone waiting to come up to eat. They'll go right back when they're done."
Halbrook identified a few pits averaging 65 feet at the mouth of Smith Branch. There's also a deep pit on the south end of the levee and a couple on the first main lake point up from the levee on the south side of the lake.
"You don't have to vertically fish the pits during the summer," he said. "You can catch fish on any of the deep channel holes, road beds and humps out in the main lake and at the mouths of the creeks."
Halbrook's favorite lure for taking deep fish is a big worm. He was stuck fishing 11- and 12-inch worms for several years, all the while wanting something bigger. He began pouring his own 14-inch worms, and he eventually had a hand in designing the 14-inch V&M Bayou Giant.
"The big worm is great 24 hours a day during the summer," Halbrook said. "I also catch a lot of fish on a big lizard, a heavy Cyclone spinnerbait and a deep-diving crankbait. At night, I rely on a big worm around the lighted piers or a big black buzz bait in the backs of the creeks. There's also a lot of school fish available during the summer."
Fall — October and November are considered the two best months for schooling bass at Caney. The bass are feeding heavily on shad and yellow bass all over the lake, and they'll readily attack anything that looks like a living or dying shad.
"My best tactic for the fall is fishing a Carolina rig with a 4- or 5-foot leader," Halbrook said. "I stick with a finesse worm in Junebug or red shad. A finesse worm has a real subtle action when it falls and looks a lot like a dying shad."
Halbrook will also slow roll a spinnerbait around the banks in 4 to 10 feet of water. A key to this pattern is fishing the south side of the lake during a strong north wind.
"A north wind will push the shad into the coves on the opposite side of the lake," he said. "Bass will be in those coves like crazy eating anything they can find.
"A spinnerbait is great, but they'll also eat small Tennessee shad or white crankbaits — something that runs about 6 feet deep. Walsworth Cove and the old Ebenezer Road are two great places, and the coves around Paradise Point down near the dam are good too."
Winter — The best winter fishing happens from the mid-lake area down to the dam, where bass will move into deep water for the winter. Fifty degrees is the signal for anglers to move deep and pick up the jigging spoons.
"They get right on the bottom, and you've got to get right down there with them," Halbrook said. "A 1/2- to 1-ounce jigging spoon is excellent along with a tail spinner like a Rinky Dink. This is the only time of year I fish braided line. I can feel those deep bites a lot better with it."
An alternative to a jigging spoon is a drop shot. Halbrook has had success fishing shad, Junebug and watermelon-colored finesse worms suspended over a 3/8- to 1/2-ounce weight.
"You can actually see these fish on your depthfinder," he said. "If you'll put in some time learning what your lures look like on the small screen, you'll be able to see your bait working under your boat. I've had plenty of times when I've seen fish move to my lure and eat it."
Halbrook said that bass don't typically show up as fish arches or fish symbols during the winter because they are so close to the bottom. He looks for two or three pixels rising off the bottom. These are often big bass that are almost touching the bottom of the lake.
"The docks can be good during the winter on a warm day," Halbrook added. "Fish them with 1/2-ounce black/blue jigs during stable weather, and you stand to catch a big bass."
Big baits for big bass
The face of Caney Lake may have changed many times since it opened 20 years ago, but one thing hasn't changed the entire time Halbrook has fished the lake — how to catch big bass.
"There's a lot of big bass in this lake," Halbrook said. "They may not be as big as they used to be, but it's still your best chance in Louisiana for a 10-pound fish.
"Just remember, a big bass is subject to eat anything you throw — big or small — but to consistently catch big bass, you've got to throw big baits. This isn't a typical Louisiana lake. If you want to have your picture hanging in Brown's Landing, you've got to think big."