I learned that when Vic Raxsdale of Lafayette led me to Cow Island Lake. Raxsdale, a computer engineer in Lafayette, is as technical in front of an advanced system design as he is over his fishing gear and the river stage at Butte La Rose.
He represents the new guard of Basin bass fishing. Using the tales and tips from the old guard, Raxsdale has become a student of fishing there. Most importantly, he has learned that when the bite is tough elsewhere, Cow Island Lake is where he should go.
He did not have to twist my arm to go. He was careful, though, to warn that this was to be like no other fishing trip. It was going to be a workout.
"You really have to be motivated to go fishing back there," Raxsdale said while idling his Lowe johnboat up to the weir on Cow Island.
Water was rushing over the man-made control structure that regulates the lake's level. On our trip, the Atchafalaya River stage at Butte La Rose was at 10.7 feet. This was well below the lake's current level, but because of the rapid fall of the river in recent weeks, the lake was still leveling out and spilling over the dam.
"When the water is high enough, you can manhandle the boat over the weir there. Once it drops below the top, you have to go over land," Raxsdale said.
"Over land" for bass. No trailer, no hoist. No road for hauling the boat. Upon entering the outflow bayou that meets the weir, a well-worn path to the right awaits the portage. Like something out of Meriwether Lewis' journal, man would have to overcome nature to reap some great and unknown reward.
The Atchafalaya River flushes and cleanses the lake. The main channel and Little Atchafalaya wrap their arms around the island, and in the spring, flood waters above 14 feet flow back into the lake.
On the fall, water pours out until it levels, sealing its secrets within, challenging all comers to test nature. Prior to man's hand, the lake would completely drain, leaving only a pasture during the summer.
Is the fishing worth the effort? According to Raxsdale, the answer is an emphatic "yes."
"It just depends on the person. First of all, you have to have the right kind of boat to get in," he said.
The trail around the weir is littered with precisely cut pieces of timber set there by fishermen and hunters to help pull flat-bottomed boats over. The select cuts of wood, all about the same diameter and length, prove that people who really love this lake have taken good care to make access relatively easy.
Raxsdale ran the boat up onto the trail, and the bow bumped roughly up the path until gravity stopped it. The first stage seemed the most difficult. The first pull is about 7 feet up a 45-degree vertical incline. Once on top, the drag continues up a slight 40-foot incline then back down again for another 40 feet.
Light, flat-bottomed boats are essential for Cow Island. Raxsdale's boat is as simple as it gets. A trolling motor and battery, 15-horsepower Yamaha engine, two rods, an ice chest, safety gear and one tackle box are all Raxsdale keeps on board. Elbow grease and determination make up the bulk of the needed assets.
With just the two of us, it took about 15 minutes to pull the boat over to the lakeside. That included two breaks, some pictures and a glance at two whitetail deer that we spooked.
Overgrown oaks and cypresses shrouded the opening, but once we passed through, the beautiful lake appeared. Wood ducks suddenly busted out of some hidden hole, and white egrets awkwardly bounded into the swamp. An alligator spun down and away from us splashing water into the boat in the process. It was as if we had disturbed Eden.
No other boats could be seen. It was a warm and clear Sunday morning, and not a soul was sharing this lake with us.
Raxsdale revved the engine across the lake, and then took a 90-degree turn along an old pipeline canal that was dug many decades ago. Without advanced GPS and sonar equipment, an angler can identify the underwater line by looking for the gap in between trees on the north and south banks. The pipeline cuts the lake right down the middle.
Raxsdale pulled back on the power right before a small island and an immense spread of thick aquatic grasses and duck weed that stretched across the entire northwest edge of the lake.
"This is all we do," he said. "We'll work these grass mats and troll along. I'll have to stop a lot and pull the grass out of the trolling motor, and sometimes we'll just motor up to the next opening.
"Just don't give up on the bait. Keep working it all the way to the boat. I've seen the bass follow the bait right up to the boat before they even know we're here."
In the early morning or late afternoon during the heat of summer, Raxsdale works the grass mats with alewife-colored Slug-Go soft plastic stickbaits. He rigs them weightless on offset bass hooks tied to 17-pound-test Berkley Trilene XL Smooth Casting.
"There are a lot of grass and stickups for the fish to get tangled in, so I prefer a heavier line," said Raxsdale. "The 20-pound line is a little too stiff for me and causes more backlashes. I find the 17-pound XL Smooth Casting line provides the best of strength as well as smooth casting."
He will also supplement the Slug-Go with a Zoom Super Salty Fluke in the albino, Arkansas shiner and golden bream colors.
The Slug-Gos and Flukes work so well because minnows and fingerlings are everywhere in the lake. The match is perfect, and when the plastics are rigged properly, they easily glide through the thickest mats, darting effortlessly, just daring a hungry largemouth to devour them.
During the midday summer heat, YUM Dingers and Yamamoto Senkos work better because they fall slowly while penetrating the grass to the cooler bottom water. Their erratic wobbling ends drive bass crazy.
"I made the mistake of using the Slug-Go first while it was hot. I wasn't getting them to take it because the bait was too high in the water. The YUM Dinger worked well on our trip because the midday heat was baking the surface water, and the worm would just fall slowly to the bottom where the bass were holding in the cooler water," he said.
It only took minutes to set a hook on the first hungry bass. The 12-inch meatball had obviously been feeding well. He was below the legal 14-inch minimum for the Basin, but he was thick and strong, and made for good pictures.
The trolling motor fought through the sheets of dense grass while we steadily felt the bass bite that morning. In the cool of the morning, the dancing plastic minnow sticks whipped over and through grass clumps. Solid "thumps" and awkwardly bent rods pulling keeper bass signaled success.
Later as the sun climbed farther overhead, the YUM Dingers gave a slower approach and fell deeper, where the bass were hiding. Although the fish were in the cool shade, they were still feisty, busting the slinky 5-inch junebug-colored worm. Still, Raxsdale felt the action was slow. He is a big fan of late-afternoon fishing.
"I think the evening time is better," he said. "We've come out here before late in the afternoon and just nailed the fish. I think the bass will feed more around dawn and dusk, especially when that coincides with the lunar/feeding time peaks."
Besides the healthy grass mats, there is also suitable cover scattered throughout the shallow lake. Live cypress trees dot the lake, as do old duck blinds.
The pipeline canal cannot be avoided either. It runs south to north directly through the middle of the lake. It can be seen on a Standard Mapping Service aerial photo of Henderson (No. 24). There is also a main channel running east to west across the pipeline. The average depth of the entire lake is 5 feet, and the canals drop to 10-15. During the dog days, that is where the fish will hold.
Vaughn Landry has hunted and fished the Basin for decades. He believes the key to fishing and catching in Cow Island Lake is persistence.
"The way to fish it is to just pound it hard," said Landry. "You've got to find the fish, and like the old saying, 90 percent of the fish will be in 10 percent of the water.
"I've gone out there and fished and caught only two fish. I would go back there the next day and catch 15 to 20 bass. You can't give up."
He increases his odds by focusing on the live cypress trees in the lake.
"Live trees hold fish, and they love live cypress," he said.
Landry believes that sustained success over many months is directly related to how long the Atchafalaya stays above the dam.
"It has to get washed out," he said. "The water has to stay high enough to be able to do that and not just for two or three days, but a good while."
In regards to getting to the lake, Raxsdale likes to watch the river stage at Butte La Rose. He has successfully "pushed" into the lake over the weir when the water level was at 14 feet and above. Any lower, and its portage time.
The water stage also plays a key role in knowing how best to get to the lake. Two paths can get you there: the wide and rapidly moving Atchafalaya or the Little (Li'l) Atchafalaya, which is more suited for light boats like Raxsdale's. At 10 feet, Raxsdale's boat can easily get through the smaller path. It is possible, though, that anglers might encounter fallen trees from the high waters of late winter.
The other alternative is the main channel. Early spring means high, fast-moving water. This could spell trouble for small boats. By summer, the river slows to a pace agreeable with small rigs.
And what is the physical price for a taste of the famed St. Martin Parish lake? On our trip it was a set of busted knuckles and shins, a cracked weld that nearly sank the boat, a chewed-up prop and untold wear on the Minn Kota trolling motor. The payoff? Incredible bass fishing and a first-hand glimpse of a little piece of heaven crafted by the hand of God that only a few ever get to see.
Make no mistake, getting into Cow Island Lake is not easy when the water is below the weir. With the right equipment though, anglers can tap into some of the finest bass fishing in the Basin. Going light and going weedless is the key to the exciting fishing there.