Kirk Stansel was worried when he finally made it back to his lodge after Hurricane Rita tore through Southwest Louisiana in September. His facilities were a wreck, and the lake resembled a rich latte.

Did the big trout for which Calcasieu Lake has become known survive?

The answer came within weeks, as Stansel and his fellow guides worked to get the wreckage of Hackberry Rod & Gun Club cleaned up.

"About three to four weeks after the storm, the lake sort of got flushed out, and man, the fish turned on," Stansel said. "There was a lot of fish everywhere."

The trout weren't huge, but limits were easy for those anglers who managed to get on the water.

"There was just a ton of shrimp in the lake," Stansel said. "You could fish birds, you could fish reefs: It didn't matter. There were fish everywhere."

Frenetic fishing throughout the winter has given this veteran Big Lake guide a lot of optimism about the health of the fishery.

"I feel like it's going to be a good year," he said. "I feel like (the storm) is going to benefit the system."

Of course, it still won't be as easy as just showing up. The key is to understand how trout move around the lake as they gear up for the spawn, and focusing fishing time on those areas.


March through mid April

Stansel said he's got one thing on his mind during the early spring, when water temperatures are still cool and the fish are lethargic.

"My first option is going to be looking for big trout in the shallows," he said.

That might seem the wrong thing to do in cold water, but Stansel explained that shallow waters actually warm up a bit between fronts, and that concentrates the lake's baitfish and provides a buffet for hungry sow trout.

"The bait will move up, and you just have to work the bait," Stansel said.

The veteran guide cruises the shorelines looking for bait, mainly mullet. However, the cool water often keeps the baitfish away from the surface.

"A lot of times, you're going to have to just stop and fish an area," he said.

The northern end of the lake is generally best during this time of year because the water usually stays clean. The area is protected from the northerly winds accompanying the frequent fronts.

"I fish everything from Turner's Bay to Commissary Point, on both sides of the lake," Stansel said.

Calcasieu Charter Service's Erik Rue said that's a fairly recent change in the pattern of the lake.

"When I started guiding, in March and April we spent more time down south in the bayous: Grand Bayou, Lambert Bayou," Rue said. "In the last eight to 10 years, those bayous have been closed off.

"When we lost those, we started catching a lot more fish up north."

There's a lot of water north of Commissary Point, but Stansel narrows his search by looking for just the right bottom composition along the shoreline anywhere on that section of the lake.

"I'm mainly looking for sandy bottom," he said.

Rue, on the other hand, usually ignores the western side of the lake.

"The water on the east and north sides of the lake tends to stay cleaner," he said.

The protection from northerly winds offered by the northern banks is one reason for this, but Rue said small bayous and drains on the eastern side of the waterway provide a flow of clean water from the marshes.

"It's kind of brackish, blacker water," he said.

While there are certainly fish to be caught in Turner's Bay and points north of Commissary Point, Rue still finds himself heading back to the old haunts south of that landmark when the winds allow and the water is clean enough.

"You have some good fishing from Commissary Point to Grand Bayou," he said.

But he doesn't even hang around unless there's clean water and bait present.

Stansel's favored bait this time of year is MirrOlure's Catch 2000.

"I just fan cast, and keep my eyes open," Stansel said. "If I see something (move), I'll throw to it."

There are times, however, when explosive strikes can be experienced.

"On a really warm, nice day, you can catch them on topwater," he said.

Rue generally fishes soft plastics on ¼-ounce jigheads when he finds bait in water depths of 4 to 6 feet. If he has to fish deeper than that and needs to get to the bottom, however, Rue will move to a heavier weight.

He likes the Norton Sand Eel, but said it probably doesn't matter greatly.

"I think whichever plastic you like will work," he said. "I don't think any one is better than another."

Colors are much more important to him

"I think white is always a good color because the fish are feeding on mullet," he said.

Glow and chartreuse also work well, however.

If he's in water shallower than 4 feet, suspending jerkbaits like Catch 2000s come out of the box.

"I don't know what it is about that action, but they like it," Rue said. "It's amazing as lethargic as those fish are how hard they hit it."

The key is to work an area thoroughly, as long as bait is present.

"That time of year, you have to be patient," Stansel said. "I may work an area for two or three hours. If you're going to fish for big trout, you're going to have to be patient.

"You're not going to get a lot of bites, but when you get one, it's going to be a good one."

Rue agreed.

"If you pull up at a spot and the water's clean and there's bait and you catch one or two fish, there are other fish around," he said. "If you find some fish, you need to stick with them."

Of course, stealth also is necessary.

"You want to find areas where there isn't anybody else fishing, if you can," he said. "The key to big fish is to stay quiet."

Stansel is fanatical about minimizing noise, so he rarely even uses his trolling motor.

"I use the trolling motor just enough to position the boat," he said. "A trolling motor will spook fish just like an outboard will. These fish are very wary.

"I will mainly drift."

Rue added that the bite generally is very subtle.

"Many times you feel those little ticks on your line," he explained. "That's trout. That's worth going back and sticking around."

And in contrast to when the heat of the summer sets in, those little nibbles aren't necessarily schoolies.

"Whereas in the summer when you get those little ticks that indicates little fish, that's not so in the winter," Rue said. "Those little ticks are big trout."

The one potential complication this month will be rain, which can cause salinities to plummet in the northern end of the lake as fresh water pours out of the ship channel and into the lake.

"The water also will have a tendency to muddy up," Stansel said.

However, Stansel is still prone to fish the area.

"I've caught fish up there when the salinities were fairly low," he said. "And don't let muddy water run you off: I've caught a lot of big fish in muddy water.

"You're going to have to just slow down your presentation."

He sticks with his Catch 2000s, unless the weather turns warm.

"If it's a warm day, I may try a topwater because it makes so much noise," Stansel said.


Mid April through June

If Stansel hopes to track down sow trout in March and early April, such fish are the expectation once the weather begins to consistently warm up.

"Fish will school up and get ready to spawn as soon as the water temperatures get into the 70s," he said.

This is really when it doesn't matter where you fish.

"You're going get more fish at the reefs, but there'll be fish pretty much all over the lake."

Rue agreed, pointing out that the rains have generally moved past and the water really cleans up across the lake.

"The tides are coming in, pushing cleaner water and bait into the lake," he said.

And that bait remains the key to a successful trip.

"You just drift the reefs looking for mullet," Stansel said.

Locating pods of bait is a day-by-day proposition.

"The fish move, following the bait," Rue said. "You have to find them every day."

Although trout are likely to be anywhere on the lake at this point, Rue said the easiest way to locate them is to concentrate on the reefs.

"Isolating the fish on the reefs is the easiest way for fishermen to find them," he said.

Those along the southern shoreline, in West Bay and around Long Point are prime targets.

Stansel agreed, pointing out that those reefs are the first to get a push of big fish.

"You'll get big fish start moving in and out of the ship channel to feed and spawn," he explained.

There are really only two bait choices during these months: soft plastics and topwaters.

Stansel said productive plastics include black/chartreuse and purple/chartreuse Stanley Wedgetails; smoke/glitter and avocado Bass Assassins; and pearl/black flake and chartreuse Mr. Twister Slimy Slugs.

"That Slimy Slug is a good bait," he said.

He rigs his plastics on jigs ranging from ¼ to ½ ounce, depending upon the weather and tide.

"I go with the lightest jighead the wind and tide will allow me to fish," Stansel said.

His choice also depends on where the trout are in the water column.

"These fish will feed up in the water column," he said. "You have to figure that out. They might be on top. They might be suspended halfway down. They may be on the bottom.

"If they're on the bottom, you might have to go heavier."

It's the topwater bite that every angler hopes for, however.

Rue said there's a great way to know when to drop the soft plastics and pick up the Top Dogs, Zara Spooks and other topwaters.

"To me, the real clue for when the bait changes from suspending baits to topwaters is when the mullet start sticking their heads out of the water," he said.

Once he sees pods of mullet cruising about looking as if they're sucking air, he concentrates on topwaters.

"Topwaters catch bigger fish," Rue said.

While Stansel will continue tossing soft plastics, he also moves more to topwaters, with a MirrOlure She Dog being on the top of his list. His favorite She Dog is pearl/chartreuse back/orange throat/orange belly.

Convincing those big trout to smack that big, loud bait is a matter of experimentation.

"Sometimes they want a continuous retrieve. Sometimes you'll have to twitch it three or four times and let it sit," he said.

While the entire lake really turns on, Stansel said he doesn't just leave the dock and start fishing anywhere. Instead, he pays close attention to the conditions on the water.

"I let the wind first and the tide second dictate where I'm going to fish every day," he said. "I always want to find clean water."

That's particularly important when the wind kicks up.

"Any wind over about 15 m.p.h. will muddy your water," Stansel said. "You have to find a lee shore, and you have to move closer to the shore."

Strong incoming tides, which can churn up the bottom, also allow him to narrow his search for clean water.

"The stronger the incoming tide, the farther from the ship channel you have to get," he said.

Rue said he also is looking for clean water, in which baitfish will concentrate.

"Every day when I leave the dock, I'm riding around looking for something I like," he said. "If the main concentrations of bait are on the east side, I move to the east side. If they're on the west side, I move there.

"You have to always be aware of what's going on around you."

That means Rue also begins watching for slicks.

"I'm looking for small slicks," he said. "The small slicks are the newest ones."

When he sees one of these slicks, caused by fish regurgitating baitfish during feeding frenzies, Rue doesn't head straight for it.

"You always want to be upcurrent (of the slick) because those fish will probably be moving into the current," he explained.

Direction of movement can be verified if more than on slick pops up in the same proximity.

"If you see two or three, you know which way the fish are moving," Rue said.

Multiple slicks also help verify that there really are feeding fish nearby.

"If you see more than one, you know they're feeding and it wasn't a croaker fart or something," he chuckled.

Rue also watches the waters around a slick to be sure it wasn't caused by redfish.

"If there's redfish causing the slick, you're likely to see fish turning," Rue said.

As the season ages, shrimp begin showing up in the lake, and flocks of birds begin congregating.

"The week before shrimp season opens, 10 days before the shrimp season opens in May, you better have your eyes open for birds," Rue said.

That changes the dynamics of fishing, with trout chasing shrimp all over the lake.

"When the birds are working, that's typically the time when you're not catching as many fish on those reefs," Rue said. "Those fish don't have to go to the reefs: There's bait everywhere."

There is a compromise for catching the sure limits found under birds.

"The fish under these birds are usually smaller," Stansel said.

So if he's looking to round out a limit, that's where he heads.

But if he's fishing for big trout, he'll often ignore the birds and stay over the reefs and in the shallows in search of the sows feeding on mullet and pogies.