Steve Lahare can make a sandwich better than Emeril Lagasse and complete an income-tax return faster than H&R Block, but when it comes to fishing, he's no Bill Dance.

In fact, Lahare, a certified public accountant turned Quizno's franchisee, probably wouldn't even rank in the fishing arena with Bill Gates, Bill Clinton, Bill Bennett or any other famous Bill.

But on a trip to a group of shallow-water gas rigs off the Louisiana coast last summer, Lahare didn't need a deep well of fishing knowledge to draw from to give him an edge over his prey.

His friends had already done that for him when they stopped that morning to fill a baitwell with live croakers.

Now, one of the cacophonous creatures was swimming with a hook through its lips at the end of Lahare's line.

Lahare did as instructed, and let the egg sinker that made up the weight of his Carolina rig settle to the sandy bottom. But he kept wanting to set the hook when the bigger-than-usual croaker darted back and forth in vain attempts to regain freedom.

"That's not a fish, Steve," his friends told him. "When a trout hits, you'll know it — especially considering the size of that croaker.

"But even when one does hit, don't set the hook on the first tap. Wait until he runs with the bait."

Lahare is smarter than the average bear, so he forced himself to ignore the dull tugging of the doomed croaker. He kept tension on the line, waiting to feel what his friends told him would be unmistakable.

He didn't have to wait long.

"Something's happening," he said. "My croaker's going craz..."

He stopped in mid sentence, and the jolt on the end of his rod tip showed why. Some unseen fish had been fooled into thinking that there was, in fact, such a thing as a free lunch.

"Just wait, Steve. That's just the kill shot. He'll come back and get it," his friends told him.

Lahare waited with perfect patience, and he would have endured even longer, but the fish never gave him a chance. It came back and sucked the croaker down, and then headed fast toward the gas rig. Lahare's rod bowed like whittled, polished wood in the hands of Robin Hood.

"There you go, Steve-O!" his friends chided. "Told you you'd be able to tell when it was a trout."

Lahare cranked the wailing spinning reel like a born-yesterday, wet-behind-the-ears rookie. The cadence didn't change whether the fish was resting or running. Any veteran angler trying such techniques would have lost this fish, but God frequently uses the rookies to humble the proud.

Lahare's constant cranking eventually paid dividends, and one of his buddies scooped the 5-pound trout — by about 4 pounds the largest of Lahare's career — with a black, rubber-coated landing net.

It — and Lahare — graced the cover of the April 2003 issue of Louisiana Sportsman magazine. That was just one fish of a stringer full on that warm, still July day. Casts with live shrimp delivered catfish; those with soft-plastics came up empty; but a live croaker didn't stand a chance in the salty waters of Breton Sound.

Biologists aren't sure exactly why croakers are so productive for speckled trout during the summer months, but Jerald Horst, a biologist with the LSU AgCenter, has a few theories.

"There are three possibilities: 1) It tastes good; 2) It's common and easy to catch; and 3), and this is the most likely scenario, it contains a concentration of the specific nutrients that trout need for this time of year," he said.

Horst explained that most animals alter their diets according to their seasonal nutritional needs. For instance, he said, bears eat large amounts of grasses immediately after coming out of hibernation in order to cleanse their digestive tracts of parasites.

So trout are probably eating the croakers to give extra oil to their eggs or increase their milt production, or for some other nutritional reason.

But exactly why trout love croakers isn't terribly crucial to understand, Horst emphasized.

"The important thing for sportsmen to realize is that there are preferences. I don't have scientific evidence to back it up, but from my own experiences, a trout will certainly hit a croaker before it hits a cocaho," said Horst, an avid angler.

And it's not just any ol' trout that'll hit a croaker. Breton Sound guide Capt. Stan Cuquet loves croakers because they consistently deliver bigger trout than shrimp, cocahoes or artificial baits.

"There's no doubt about it. If you want a big fish in the summertime, you need to be fishing a live croaker," he said.

As an example, Cuquet pointed to a four-day stretch in June in which he and his clients fished a gas rig. The first three days, Cuquet accessed the rig from the Chandeleur Islander, so he pulled a trawl for live bait, and caught mostly croakers. Each of those days, 45 to 50 of the trout he and his clients caught filled a 160-quart ice chest with no ice.

On the fourth day, Cuquet returned to the rig from his home port of Delacroix with live shrimp because the local marina was out of live croakers.

"We still caught a lot of fish, but it took 70 to fill the same ice chest," Cuquet said.

The veteran guide has found that croakers will deliver trout on every type of fish-holding structure, but the most productive, by far, is rocky cover.

"It doesn't matter if it's a shell pad at the base of a platform, rocks along a jetty, or a submerged oyster reef, those croakers work best on rocky terrain," he said.

Cuquet rigs his summertime bait of choice three ways: under a popping cork, under a sliding cork or, his favorite way, on a Carolina rig.

The latter is most productive when currents are strong.

Cuquet will start with a 1/2- to 3/4-ounce egg sinker threaded on 8/30 Powerpro line tied to a swivel. For a leader, he uses 2 feet of 25-pound Big Game monofilament, and he impales the croaker on a No. 4 kahle hook or treble hook.

"I prefer the kahle hook, but for some of my inexperienced clients, the treble hook works better," he said.

Cuquet always casts his Carolina-rigged live croakers with the current.

"If you cast against the current, that current's going to move your weight back toward your boat, and a lot of times it's going to end up getting hung up in the rocks or oysters," he said.

As the tide begins to let up, Cuquet will downsize the weights on his Carolina rigs to 3/8- or 1/4-ounce.

After the tide lets up considerably, he'll abandon the Carolina rigs altogether and use popping corks if he's at a reef or island or sliding corks if he's at a rig.

"The fish also move when the current lightens up. They always seem to go to the upcurrent point when the tide is strong and then gets light," he said.

Cuquet explained that, whether they're fishing corks or Carolina rigs, the toughest thing for many croaker rookies to learn is to delay hooksets when they're fishing with the irresistible baitfish.

"After I feel the hit, I give it at least four seconds before I set the hook," he said. "I had a bunch of guys the other day who just couldn't wait. They'd feel that fish, and they couldn't imagine that he didn't have the hook. They'd set the hook, and bring back nothing but a scaled croaker."

Cuquet said that trout will hit a croaker first to kill it. Sometimes they hit the baitfish, and then return to engulf it. Other times, they'll hit it and swim off with it for a couple of seconds before repositioning the baitfish to get it going down head-first.

For Cuquet, like other anglers, one of the greatest challenges of croaker fishing begins before a line is even placed in the water — and that's simply acquiring the croakers.

As he indicated, Cuquet will get his croakers either by dragging a trawl or by purchasing them at a marina. The latter option, however, is unreliable, and it can get costly.

Most marinas sell croakers for 25 cents apiece, and since Cuquet believes in taking 50 per angler, the price tag is a whopping $50 for a boat with four anglers.

Also, marinas frequently stock croakers that are too small in the early season and too large late in the year.

"I like a croaker that's about 3 inches," Cuquet said. "You can catch trout on those 6-, 7-inch croakers, but more than likely what you're going to catch is a big bull red."

So that means Cuquet will often catch his own croakers. He pulls a shrimp test trawl for about 8 minutes per drag, and he pulls it a good bit faster than a shrimper would in order to keep the net slightly higher in the water column.

"Since you're pulling so fast, you really can't drag long at all or you'll pull up a bunch of dead croakers," he said.

The great thing about croakers an angler catches himself is that they're generally in much better shape than those that have been competing for space in a marina bait well.

But Cuquet has found that even croakers purchased from a marina are hardier than live shrimp, as long as they're getting good aeration.

"If you're heading out in a chop, croakers will do much better than live shrimp," he said. "A chop just destroys those shrimp."

Kind of similar to the way a big trout destroys those croakers.

 

Capt. Stan Cuquet can be reached at (504) 884-3474.