The Atchafalaya Basin and google-eye bream just kind of go together — like grits and eggs or beans and rice. I was in the saddle with the old Atchafalaya Basin pro, Jim Looney, the author or four books on fishing bass and an astounding seven books on fishing for bream and sac-a-lait in the huge swamp. After a short jaunt north from the Belle River public landing, Looney took a hard right into the 21-inch pipeline canal, the main thoroughfare to get deeper into the Basin that Looney always refers to as the “Spillway.”
He hung a right into a canal barricaded against large-boat traffic by tall, vertical concrete pilings. The scenic waterway was flanked by huge stumps, the rot-resistant hearts of cypress trees cut long ago during the great cypress lumber boom. The 40-foot second-growth trees now growing in the swamp are mere children compared to the ghosts of the monsters that once dominated this scene.
I imagine a pair of fat-bellied goggle-eyes guarding each stump. But we don’t stop yet.
The classic bass boat coursed down Bayou Long, a famous cool-weather sac-a-lait destination. At its head, the bayou breaks into three lesser waterways: Little Bayou Long, Middle Fork and West Fork. Looney opted for the latter to start fishing.
He stopped along a weedy stretch of bank, littered with stumps and fallen logs, and began flipping a green worm on an Texas rig.
"I’ve been fishing the Spillway 40-something years," the craggy man rumbled, "and it’s always been a good place for goggle-eyes. Till Hurricane Andrew caused a big fish kill.
"It took the google-eye out. Just in the last few years they have come back. I’ve seen times you could just wear your arm out catching huge, huge goggle-eye.
"There’s one," he grunted as he reeled it in.
It was a spectacularly-colored breeding male.
But Looney’s first love is bass fishing, followed closely by sac-a-lait. I asked him if he likes catching gogs.
"Well, they are alright," he answered with a crooked grin. "They just give you a bite and then give up — just skid them along the surface when you reel them in. I call them ‘skid fish’ because they skid along the surface.
"I sometimes fish for goggle-eyes, but usually catch them while fishing for something else. Now if they are really big, we’ll rig up and fish for them, and everything else becomes an incidental catch instead of the other way around.
"A lot of bass fishermen," he went on, "will leave a spot if they are catching them right and left. Goggle-eyes will tear a (plastic) worm up, and then they will have to stop to rerig. They put them in their ice chest, but they are really after bass.
"Now bream fishermen really go for them. They are a good catch and have a lot of meat on them. They are thick fish — a lot of meat across the back. To me, they taste like big bluegill bream."
"Do they really taste as good as bluegills?" I questioned, as if I didn’t know. "Oh, good golly, yes," he replied.
His grin wasn’t crooked anymore; it was just big.
By this time, Looney had caught a bunch on his Texas rig and gotten tired of sliding his worm back up his hook after goggle-eyes have pulled it down. He picked up a spincast rod rigged with a beetle spin, and if anything, he was getting even more bites. He hooked, landed and boxed almost every one of these.
Goggle-eyes are aggressive fish, he explained.
"I’ve seen them hit crankbaits, little spinnerbaits, big spinnerbaits and even slow-moving topwater lures," Looney said. "Worms and crickets — anything that bluegills will hit, will catch goggle-eye too. They will hit shiners too, but they aren’t a real going bait for goggle-eye.
"They seem to really like red. If you fish a dark worm with a red tail, they will tear the tail off of it. If you get those in the 4-inch size, you better bring two bags of them: They will tear them up."
Finding goggle is the key to catching them, the veteran angler explained.
"If you find them you can catch them on anything," he said. "Even if you scare them out of a spot by getting too close with your trolling motor, they will come back in a half hour.
"And they bite all through the summer."
For Looney, water movement is an important factor in finding concentrations of the fish. His favorite spots are the openings of sloughs coming out of back swamps and draining gently into canals and bayous. Goggle-eyes tend to gang up at the mouths of these sloughs.
"Any slough," he said, "has the potential to fill up an ice box with them. I came out here a few years ago, tied up to a limb and filled up two 48-quart boxes with them. I used a black-and-chartreuse crappie jig."
When the Atchafalaya River stops falling during the summer and water flow through the sloughs stops, concentrations of goggle-eyes at slough mouths break up and the fish disperse to begin holding on logs, stumps and tree limb stick-ups.
Live cypress trees standing in a couple feet of water also will often attract goggle-eyes.
Under these conditions, a tube jig fished under a pear-shaped cork is deadly. The most important thing when fishing for goggle-eyes near any type of cover is to get the bait as near to the wood as possible.
Looney especially likes logs extending out into the water.
"Get the bait close to the log, and they will grab it when it hits the water," he said.
Wood works; but grass doesn’t, explained Looney. Grass beds fringing canals hold bream and occasionally sac-a-lait, but very few goggle-eyes — and certainly not the big ones.
Looney completely ignored oil-well guards and pilings set in deep water.
"I fish those for sac-a-lait later in the year, but they aren’t real good for goggle-eye," he said
An important factor to consider in the hunt for big goggle-eyes is water current. Looney calls it "key." While goggle-eyes do love those sloughs gently draining into still water, they are not fans of strong currents.
"Major bayous are not the biggest producers," said Looney. "Goggle-eyes tend to be more common out of main canals and bayous and in dead-end canals and pockets. Places you find bass are where you will find goggle-eyes."
Surprisingly, Looney has not found any connection between bottom type and goggle-eyes.
"I’ve caught them on hard or soft mud or even sand," he said. "It doesn’t seem to make a difference."
His favorite lures for goggle-eye fishing include tube jigs in chartreuse-and-black or blue-and-chartreuse. These are fished under a small pear-shaped cork he retrieves with a bobble-and-pause rhythm.
Gold-bladed beetle spins rigged with either a tube jig or grub tail are also go-to baits for Looney. These are reeled with a slow, steady retrieve after being cast as close to woody cover as possible. A black-and-chartreuse combination is his favorite.
When a gog hits a jig under a cork, you know it. It goes down with an audible "thwap" — none of that shilly-shally picking up of the bait and barely moving the cork like a sac-a-lait, or grabbing the bait and holding it perfectly still like a bull bluegill.
Near lunch, Looney inspected his ice chest. It held a beautiful catch of goggle-eyes, spiced with bluegills and sac-a-lait. He looked up, hazel eyes sparkling behind his glasses and grinned,
"Fishing in the Spillway is like a box of chocolates," he said. "You never know what you are going to get."