Mike Wood is a biologist by profession. But when you boil it all down, he’s a fisherman first.
That was apparent when a bass tapped my 6-inch black grape worm and I set the hook, only to reel up an empty hook.
No worm. No bass.
“Here, I’ll get him for you,” Mike said, casting his soft-plastic critter bait to the same spot.
About 15 seconds later, he swung that same hefty 4-pound largemouth into the boat.
Thanks, Mike. We both laughed. That’s what fishing is supposed to be: Fun.
We won’t even mention a few minutes later when I caught one about an inch shorter than the worm itself.
“I didn’t even know they had any that small in the lake,” Wood said. “You must be really good to catch one that small.”
That kind of camaraderie is a big part of fishing for this angler.
“It’s important to pay attention to things when you are fishing and to catch fish, but catching fish isn’t the most-important thing,” Wood said. “I just like to go fishing, and I like to share it with other people who enjoy it.
“It’s not just about the fish you catch.”
From his childhood days of paddling a 10-foot aluminum rental boat around the cypress brakes of Cheniere Lake to posh settings in front of politicians explaining his sometimes unpopular beliefs about what needed to be done to improve fishing, the biologist has been around.
The West Monroe resident recently retired as Inland Fisheries director for the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries after 37 years with the agency. He spent his career helping others have better fish populations and better fish habitat.
Now he’s going to enjoy more of that for himself.
“I’ve had the opportunity to fish in a lot of places across the state, but most of my favorite lakes to fish are my old home lakes,” Wood said. “They are where I learned to fish; they hold a lot of memories.”
He has access to many private lakes he helps manage, but he also loves the thousands of acres of public fishing waters in Northeast Louisiana.
First on the list would have to be Ouachita Parish’s Cheniere Lake, a 3,600 acre flooded swamp lake created back in the 1940s. Not because it’s the biggest or the best, but it’s “home.”
Wood’s grandfather, Irby Jackson, ran a small country grocery store and used to rent aluminum boats there.
A lot of people won’t fish Cheniere because they are afraid they’ll get lost or that they won’t catch fish. But it is loaded with big bluegill and chinquapin bream, and it also has good bass and crappie fishing, Wood said.
To fish there, he recommended starting out for bream and using worms to fish around the edges of the lake, where you don’t have to go too far out in the cypress brakes.
Shiners also work great on the crappie here, and spring is an ideal time to find them seeking shallow spawning grounds in the clearer areas of the lake.
Next on Wood’s list of favorite public waters would be the Ouachita River. It’s where he not only loves to fish, but it is where he learned about the ebb and flow of a river system and it’s lakes.
And more importantly, how it affects fish and fish populations.
“The Ouachita (River) taught me a lot, and I love the diversity of fishing there,” Wood said. “In the spring, when the water is high, the fish will move back into the backwater and the river lakes to spawn. As the water falls, the fish will follow the forage fish out to the runouts and bayous, and that’s where you will find them.
“One thing I know for a fact is that when the water starts falling, the fish will get out of there. No matter what time of year it is. Their instincts won’t let them get caught high and dry.”
For Wood, fishing the river means throwing spinnerbaits in the backwater lakes and switching to plastics and crankbaits in the cuts and runouts when the river is falling.
Not much separates the top two from Wood’s third pick: Lake D’Arbonne, the largest of his home lakes.
Wood bass fished there when the lake was relatively new, when he was in high school and college. He also started working there as a student assistant with the LDWF.
He also fished his first tournaments there.
“Like most other youngsters, I was influenced by heavily known anglers of the day like Bill Dance and Roland Martin,” Wood said. “I loved those bass boats and B.A.S.S. and Ray Scott, and everything they represented. I said, ‘Hey, I can do that,’ and I decided I knew enough about fishing to join the Ouachita Bass Club.
“My first tournament was in January, and it was cold and raining sideways. I managed to catch a pretty good bass and was happy, but when they had the weigh-in and they started dragging strings of 5-pounders up there, I knew I had a long way to go.”
Mike has learned a lot about the lake. He recommended fishing around the cypress tree lines or banks with boathouses for spring bass using shallow divers like Rapalas, spinnerbaits or lizards and creature baits.
Caney Lake also has a special place on Mike’s list.
Big bass there are hard to catch, but if it’s a real trophy you are after, it’s a good place to start.
And those 10- to 15-pound bass are also more than fish to him. As a former hatchery manager and biologist involved with the lake, Wood feels a special satisfaction when he sees one of them caught.
Making the most of Louisiana’s freshwater fishing habitat has been a lifelong pursuit for this biologist. It hasn’t always been as easy as just going fishing: Some of the decisions regarding fish habitat, populations and recommendations for rules and regulations haven’t been well received.
In fact, early in his career he found himself invited to a big meeting in Shreveport at a fancy restaurant to talk about fishing. Several leading anglers and political figures, as well as the owners of a well-known bait company, where there.
Wood was awed by the fancy restaurant and huge spread of food. He filled up his plate and sat at the head table.
Before he got to even take a bite, he was under fire.
“Mike, let’s not beat around the bush,” Wood was told. “We don’t like this bass management plan you are talking about. Can you explain yourself to the group?”
So he made his case, although not many agreed.
And he missed out on that fancy dinner, too, since by the time he finished answering questions and made the decision that it was time to leave, he was in no mood to eat.
“That was the best/worst dinner I ever had,” Mike said with the same smile he gave me when he helped catch my missed fish.
It’s all part of a day-in-the-life of the former Inland Fisheries director.