Map Feature: Sabine Lake
Think you can’t catch fish in Sabine in the springtime? Think again. Follow this guide to all the specks, reds, and flounder you can handle.
At least that’s what the fish seemed like it was aiming for.
Suddenly, it became perfectly clear why I have come to enjoy fishing with jerkbaits such as the Catch 2000 every bit as much as watching speckled trout and redfish explode on topwater plugs. The washtub-sized boil left by the thick red’s tail became visible just as the rod loaded, and anything seemed possible.
I was admittedly a little disappointed a few minutes later when it became evident that it wasn’t a trout, but Capt. Kent Carlson was upbeat about our chances.
“It’s time for these fish to show up,” said Carlson, who runs Cameron Meadows Guide Service in Johnson Bayou. “If this wind will stay down, we’ve got a good chance to hang a good one.”
As it often does, the wind did indeed kick up soon after several more stout redfish were landed, driving us to the middle of the lake to give chase of our own, as gulls and terns dove on some of the season’s first shrimp.
As we boxed trout on a variety of soft plastics, Carlson spoke about the intricacies of the sprawling estuary bordering the Texas/Louisiana state line.
“In the spring and again in the fall, the extreme southern end of the lake is one of the better areas to fish,” said Carlson. “It’s what we call ‘The Reef,’ and it stretches from the causeway (where vehicles cross from Louisiana to Texas and vice versa) to Garrison Ridge.”
Carlson says the entire area is one big oyster reef, though there is no commercial dredging. Despite an adequate harbor on the Texas side below the causeway, for some reason the area is not harvested.
“It may be that the oysters are too small. It’s maybe not worth the money for them,” said Carlson. “What happens is that fish coming up the pass, and the resident fish in the lake meet up on “The Reef” in the spring and fall when the bait moves up there.”
Moving north on the Louisiana side north of Garrison Ridge is basically featureless terrain aside from a few thin patches of oysters. The marsh on the Louisiana side serves as the nursery grounds for all things marine, however, and is also the only place on the lake where water is salty enough to support trout when rainwater from the Sabine and Neches rivers sweetens the lake.
“When you look at the flow charts from the Corps of Engineers, you can see that the fresh water kicks over to the western (Texas) shoreline when it’s pumping down the rivers,” said Sabine Lake guide Skip James. “That’s not to say that the fishing is always outstanding there when the rivers are high, but it does present the best water when it does happen.”
The entire Louisiana shoreline, Carlson and James agree, is outstanding for flounder fishing in the spring, but James said the shallow mud flats on the southeastern shore are also among the prime areas to catch some of the lake’s famed monster specks.
For the most part, structure is sparse save for a few humps that Carlson believes are remnants of old wellheads. Shell pads laid prior to construction of these wells, of course, provide good cover for baitfish and attract game fish.
“There are a few new rigs out there, and they’re holding fish,” said Carlson. “Sabine is basically a flat-bottomed lake, so any kind of structure on this lake is going to hold fish.”
Among some of the newer structure that has been productive is the trio of narrow (40-foot-wide) trenches dug by oil companies very recently. The channels, which run east-west from the old shipping channel, provide relatively deep water (8 to 9 foot) in an area of the lake where gently sloping mud banks are the rule.
“The oil companies dug them to service something over there. There’s one in front of what we call the Game Warden Cove, there’s one in between the Pines and Whiskey Bayou and one right out from the Pines,” said Carlson.
The Pines and the bayous mentioned above provide access to the interior marsh as well as serving as staging points for the lake’s outstanding spring flounder run. The trench beginning just offshore of the Pines, a manmade canal, is marked in its route from close to the shore to the old channel connecting Johnson Bayou and what is known as Barrel Channel on the lake’s northwestern end.
Though Carlson says the trenches are beginning to be used by fish as they transition from deeper mid-lake areas to the shallow flats, the real bonuses provided by the manmade structure are the unintentional depressions and high spots now dotting the lake bottom.
“What happens is, those tugs and other boats have to turn around at some point and only have around 40 feet to do it,” he said. “When they miss a little bit, they’re going to scour out an area and create a hump. The lake bottom they move is going to be mud, but just underneath that mud is a layer of sand, which is a good contrast for the fish.”
Carlson says the new humps can be found by anglers paying attention to their depth finders and easing their way along the new trenches.
“Of course, it’ll all end one of these days when we have a dry winter and the white shrimp come into the lake strong,” said Carlson. “The last time that happened was about eight years ago. The big shrimp boats with the 50-foot nets and 6-foot boards came in here and pretty much knocked everything flat. It’ll happen again, especially with these humps, but it’s going to be good fishing until it does.”
Much of this area is bordered by the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge located on the northern Louisiana side. Carlson says the exact borders are actually around 100 feet offshore.
“The shoreline has eroded that much over the years,” said Carlson.
Steps to preserve the land have recently been taken with the addition of a rock wall protecting Willow Bayou. The jetty begins at the mouth of Willow Bayou and extends north about a mile.
This area of the lake is also where Carlson has recently found several new live oyster beds. He was cruising the lake one day and saw a slick pop up from feeding fish. While fishing it, he hung up on some shells on the bottom, and began probing.
“There are a few smaller beds and one larger one. The bigger one is maybe 200 yards long by 80 yards wide. I’m pretty sure it is the remnant of an old three-well system that was pulled out of here around 14 years ago. Some of the small ones are as small as a living room,” says Carlson. “The small ones are holding fish the best.”
The extreme northeast side of the lake holds an area known as Coffee Ground Cove, a shallow flat with clam beds. Carlson says a rain-free winter serves to stack fish on the clam beds.
Moving toward the northwest side of the lake, there are three islands separating the lake from the Intracoastal Waterway, which separates the tow rivers feeding the lake.
The lake side of the islands, James says, is outstanding for wade fishing for big trout provided one has the patience for such pursuits.
“The flats in front of those islands extend a long ways, up to half a mile,” says James. “That’s where the Troutmasters guys hang out when they come here to fish.”
The islands are named Sydneys, Bird and Stewts, with Stewts Island providing the most extended flat. Scattered shell pads also provide cover for the fish, but the real draw is the tremendous volume of food delivered by the Sabine (from the east ) and Neches (from the west).
Carlson says because of frequent spring floods, the Neches River basin is generally the first to release the spring shrimp crop into the lake. This, in turn, provides some of the earliest bird action for the lake.
“The Louisiana side (from the bayous) generally dumps more shrimp into the lake, but they’re almost always a little behind the Neches shrimp,” said Carlson.
With Port Arthur to the west, the only nursery ground on the Texas side besides the Neches River is Keith Lake on the extreme southwestern side of the lake.
Two rigs provide good fishing on the north end of the lake, the “Mother Rig” situated just off of East Pass (where the Sabine River empties) and the “New Rig” sitting just to the south of Stewts Island. James says the summertime deepwater pattern can be outstanding on these structures.
James says the north end of the lake provides outstanding action toward the middle and at the end of May most years, as well as bird fishing in the fall up until around Christmas.
Bird fishing on both Big Lake and Sabine Lake, mind you, is much different than that found to the east. The trout are much bigger, and there’s often the possibility of redfish cruising the open water in search of a school of shrimp or baitfish to harass.
Carlson and James agree on one of the best areas to fish in the late summer. The submerged concrete wall off the north end of Pleasure Island is extremely dangerous, but the area beckons because of the outstanding sand flat, which attracts waders and anglers fishing from boats alike.
“There is a pocket just north of Pleasure Island that is just outstanding, and is very easy on the people who prefer to wade fish,” says James.
Also on the west side of the lake — the Texas side, which is dominated by the industry-laden town of Port Arthur — is an old sunken rock jetty. Carlson says that it is sunken deep enough to provide no navigational hazard, but still holds fish consistently in the summer months.
“The rocks are pretty much on the bottom. There’s not really a whole lot left of it,” said Carlson. “The only way you’ll really know it’s there is by hanging up on the rocks.”
Of course, baitfish will often relate to the rocks, especially early in the morning, providing good opportunities for topwater action.
The threat of spring storms muddying and freshening the water gives Sabine Lake a prickly personality, but it can be a generous one with the right game plan relative to location. With the price of gas forecast for this summer, a good plan could mean more trips in the budget as well.
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