Eyebrows were raised this spring and summer as the Calcasieu River coughed up double-digit bass.
Most bass anglers in the area would agree that such huge fish are extreme rarities for the Calcasieu River, a waterbody where taking a 6-pounder occasionally makes Joe Joslin’s excellent fishing report in the local newspaper.
Rarity aside, a lunker that made the most headlines this summer was a10.6-pounder taken June 4 by 36-year-old Johnny Watkins of Lake Charles. It may be the largest bass ever taken on the river.
“I caught the bass on the north end of the river after launching from White Oak Park (Ward 8),” Watkins said. “This bass was taken next to a cypress tree with a good ring of cypress knees around it near a cut.”
Watkins was flipping a ½-ounce, black/blue Stanley flipping jig with a 3 ½-inch black/blue Y-NOT trailer, and he was certainly wasn’t expecting to catch a bass of this size in the Calcasieu River. He had taken four bass over 9 pounds on Toledo Bend earlier in the year, but such a hawg on the Lake Charles-area river was just not something he dreamed of.
“Prior to this fish, my largest bass on the Calcasieu River was a 6-pounder,” Watkins said.
Another double-digit bass — this one weighing in at 10.24 pounds — was taken April 14 by 28-year-old Shane Cormier of Topsy.
“I was flipping Reaction Innovations’ Sweet Beaver and tube jigs in scattered patches of grass and near floating water hyacinths,” Cormier said. “I caught her on about my 10th flip on a ¾-ounce tube jig.
“The water was about 1 ½ feet higher than it normally is, and this happened during a quick afternoon trip (2:30 p.m.to 4:30 p.m.) on the Calcasieu. I was really surprised, and every time I got her close to the boat the fish would go under it.
“I finally got her in, weighed her and measured the bass at 26 inches.”
Cormier is also no stranger to catching big bass: He has taken two fish over 10 pounds at Toledo Bend — an 11-pounder taken on July 15 and another 10.24-pounder taken on Sept. 24, 2012.
And it seems the overall weights of fish have bumped up, allowing anglers to build heavier stringers during tournaments.
Take Cormier and fishing partner Craig Byrley, who weighed in the third-largest three-fish limit ever taken during the Calcasieu River Dogfights — 12.88 pounds of bass.
“Before this year, it would have taken 6 pounds to win this tournament on the Calcasieu River,” tournament sponsor Ron Castille said. “This year that weight has been bumped up to 7 ½ pounds — an improvement.”
Are these lunker bass and improved stringers a sign that anglers can continue to expect consistent increases in size on the Calcasieu River?
The jury is still out on that matter, as many (including Castille) believe Watkins’ and Cormier’s trophies were probably the result of past releases from Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge, where Florida bass have been stocked. Anglers with the best of intentions have been known to release their tournament catches from the Lacassine Pool into the Calcasieu River, even though moving bass taken from one public waterbody to another is prohibited by state regulations aimed at controlling the spread of largemouth bass virus.
But there’s another reason anglers can’t count on huge catches to continue: The vast majority of bass taken during electrofishing sampling conducted by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries range from 6 to 12 inches.
Eric Shanks, biologist manager at LDWF’s District V in Lake Charles, said the Calcasieu River follows the “boom and bust” cycle of other Louisiana rivers, where bass populations fluctate because of good or bad years of recruitment.
“It’s all dependent upon spring flooding,” Shanks said. “During years of good spring rains, the backwaters are flooded, and this provides nursery habitat for bass. If you get a couple of these springs in a row, good recruitment can result.”
Despite the unpredictably of the habitat, the river is far from struggling to sustain the fishery.
“The Calcasieu River is a very healthy bass fishery,” Shanks said. “It is productive enough to produce larger fish — just not on a consistent basis.
“If you get good recruitment in a given year, certainly more bass will live longer.”
Shanks said analysis of a 9 1/2-pounder caught on the Calcasieu River proved to be a native, northern largemouth.
“We are also in the process of conducting a three-year age/growth/mortality study on the Calcasieu River,” Shanks said. “We’ll have a lot more information on growth rates, Florida bass influence, etc., after that.”
Sampling for the study will be completed in the fall of 2015, with analysis conducted sometime after that.
But biologist Shanks said he expected this fall to be about normal in terms of bass availability.
“Our 2012 sampling numbers were basically par for the course (49.9 bass per hour in the spring and 83.2 bass per hour in the fall),” Shanks said. ”Our spring 2013 sample was reduced from previous years (33.9 bass per hour), but this number is similar to most of the 1990s spring samples.
“Because we had adequate rainfall this spring, recruitment on the Calcasieu River was not negatively impacted. Based on this information, I would project this to be a normal year for Calcasieu River largemouth bass.”
While the Calcasieu River runs some 202 miles beginning at its source in Vernon Parish and coursing through Rapides, Allen, Jefferson Davis, Calcasieu and Cameron Parishes, most of the bass fishing is conducted near and above the saltwater barrier north of Lake Charles.
As anglers move into stretches north of Highway 190 in Allen Parish, the river transforms to a narrow waterway with sandy beaches, and spotted bass make up a majority of the catch.