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Fisherman's Log
Fishing the Atchafalaya Basin can be tricky in April because of the unpredictable nature of the river. Follow this veteran angler's advice to be sure you're in the right areas to catch fish no matter how high the river is.

BY ANDY CRAWFORD

Rome regularly looks over his logs to get tips about where he can find a few fish under specific conditions. He always has more spots to try than time.
Rome regularly looks over his logs to get tips about where he can find a few fish under specific conditions. He always has more spots to try than time.

Gerald Rome has seen it all in the 45-plus years he’s been fishing the Atchafalaya Basin.

He was there when the vast waterway was a true wilderness, unmapped and largely unexplored, when there were so few anglers it was easy to find solitude.

“You’d go out in the middle of the week and never see a boat,” Rome said. “If you broke down, you were in trouble.”

The Donaldsonville fisherman also was there when there more bass swimming the fertile waters than anglers could catch.

“If I knew then what I know now, and had the equipment I have now, boy the fish I could have caught,” Rome said. “That was the good old days.”

He watched as oil companies dredged numerous location canals in search of black gold, and Rome was there to see the fishing absolutely explode.

“It definitely improved fishing,” he said. “Whenever we got a new canal, boy all those new, high banks and all those stumps in there and the fish would get to spawning.

“Aw man, it was incredible.”

Rome also watched as management schemes changed over the years and bass weights moved up the scale.

“I don’t think we caught as many big fish back then, just plenty of fish,” he said.

Rome was also there when Hurricane Andrew blasted through the Basin in 1992 and killed most of the fish, and he was involved in the stocking that turned the situation around in a few years.

“In November of 1994, my son Michael, my grandson Ryan and I pulled up on a corner where they had stocked some fish, and we caught 225 bass on crankbaits,” Rome reminisced. “Only six were over 14 inches, but we had the time of our lives.”

In the last 10 years, he’s been there to see fishing pressure increase to unbelievable levels.

“At one time, we didn’t have a map. Now everybody’s got a map, and they can get around,” Rome said.

Most recently, he watched as the two-year drought pummeled the fishery, making it difficult for anglers to bring much in the way of weight to the scales during tournaments.

“You couldn’t catch a fish in the lower Basin; there was just too much hydrilla and the water was terrible,” he said.

And through most of it all, Rome kept logs of his fishing trips. Every success and every failure are written down in a foot-high stack of documents.

“I’ve never missed a trip since 1968,” the 67-year-old angler said. “I’ve been true to it.”

Some might chuckle at an angler so dedicated to keeping up with his (and others) successes, but Rome said he’s found them useful over the years.

“I review them periodically. I look at what was happening last year, what was happening at certain water elevations,” he explained.

And that can be important in a system that can, and often does, change drastically overnight.

If Rome finds himself struggling to catch fish, he refers back to the logs to refresh his memory about what he should be doing under the conditions facing him.

And he usually gets back in the groove and begins putting fish in his boat again.

“My wife tells me that when I die, she’s going to auction them off,” Rome laughed.

Rome prefers to be in the woods during April, but he doesn’t complain too loudly when water levels fall and the fish pull back into the main canals. He simply follows them back out.
Rome prefers to be in the woods during April, but he doesn’t complain too loudly when water levels fall and the fish pull back into the main canals. He simply follows them back out.

The facts that have gathered in the ledgers over the last 34 years helped him snag the biggest bass he put in the boat last February.

The 10.17-pounder was caught where Rome’s ledgers said a lot of fish should be — Flat Lake.

So what does the angler’s books say about where fish will be in April?

Well, that’s pretty easy. They’ll be in the numerous canals and cuts on the south end of the Basin, Rome said.

“You can circle all of those canals,” he said, as he pointed to the Shell Cuts off of Little Bayou Sorrel on a map.

He also pointed out several other potential hotspots, all of which should be productive no matter the water elevation.

By this time, the spawn should be over, although cold fronts pushed through well into March to prevent masses of fish from pulling up to the banks.

But Rome said he expected the majority of the fish to have spawned out by the time March ended.

The key to exactly where they will be in relation to these canals is the height of the Atchafalaya River.

If the river is high, which is traditionally the case in April, the fish will be scattered in the flooded woods. If the river is low, the fish will be pulled out of the woods and can be found inside the canals.

“Personally, I love the high water,” Rome said in mid March. “The fish can get back in the woods away from the fishermen.”

Well, not away from all the fishermen.

While many anglers will avoid the Basin during high-water periods, Rome sticks with it.

He simply does what the crawfishermen do — he moves back into the woods.

“I know a lot of places in the woods I can get, the sloughs and lakes,” he said. “If you’ve got (enough) water, they’re going to be in the woods.”

A quick review of his fishing logs shows that he’s able to get into these fish-filled waters any time the Atchafalaya River gauge at Morgan City reads at least 5 feet. At that level, there is about 3 or 4 feet of water in the woods.

“The fish are scattered, but for me, I like it,” Rome said.

But he doesn’t head for the woods as soon as the trees are flooded.

“The water needs to be in the woods for a couple of weeks,” he said.

But once the water has stayed high for two or three weeks, Rome knows the bass will be foraging for crawfish in the trees.

He also knows that the water conditions will suit his preference.

“I’m a clear-water fisherman,” Rome said. “I think fish like that clear water.”

By this, he doesn’t mean gin-clear water, but he wants his lure to be clearly visible to bass.

Even when the water is low, Rome believes Basin bass can be caught shallow. He works the banks with Red Fins, jigs or lizards, concentrating on any stumps, laydowns or trees.
Even when the water is low, Rome believes Basin bass can be caught shallow. He works the banks with Red Fins, jigs or lizards, concentrating on any stumps, laydowns or trees.

When the conditions get right, he doesn’t just pick a spot and troll into the woods — he finds sloughs used by crawfishermen and eases his boat into these tree-lined lanes.

First, he works the trees along the sloughs, and then he begins to work his way into the woods.

To many, Rome’s technique might seem as effective as searching for a needle in a haystack because the entire southern end of the Basin is sheeted with water. Fish, after all, could be anywhere.

But the veteran fisherman said he actually does have a strategy.

“They seem to be not very far from the main canal where you go in (the woods),” Rome explained.

In other words, anglers can narrow down significantly the amount of water that needs to be covered by understanding that the fish hang close enough to the deeper canals to find refuge if the river falls out.

Early in the morning, topwaters or buzz baits can produce explosive strikes.

But his personal go-to bait, as everyone who has known Rome more than five minutes will attest, is a Red Fin.

“I love throwing that Red Fin,” he said.

Rome eases through the woods, tossing the high-floating stickbait right next to cypress trees and twitching the lure seductively.

“The fish love to get on the cypress trees,” he explained.

If a Red Fin doesn’t produce, he’ll grudgingly pick up a spinnerbait, lizard or jig.

These last lures are best during the middle of the day, Rome admitted.

The list of prime canals is enough to keep any angler busy for days.

The Shell Cuts area, also known as the Checkerboard for its distinct pattern on a map, and a couple of canals off Big Fork Bayou are foremost in Rome’s mind.

“Any of those canals are likely to be good,” he said.

To this, he adds the the dead-end canals off of Bayous May, April and Sorrel; a couple of canals off of Little Jessie; the single, long dead-end protruding into the woods off of Bear Bayou; and the Gate Canal on the southern side of Duck Lake.

A little farther east can be found more fish factories.

In particular, Rome likes to focus his attention on Bayou Long.

He makes sure to hit the first two long location canals to the left on Bayou Long, the Wash Machine Canal (where he caught a 7 1/2-pounder), Lorio’s Slough between Bayou Long and the Flare Canal.

But what about if the water is so low that there’s not enough water to float a boat in the woods?

No problem — Rome simply pulls back into the main canals.

Other than that, nothing changes. He still looks for clear water in these dead-ends, and he continues to throw Red Fins, spinnerbaits, lizards and jigs.

And just like when he fishes in the woods, Rome is targeting hard cover.

“Any time you can find a cypress tree, hit it,” Rome explained.

Many anglers make the mistake of fishing too far off the banks during this post-spawn period, he said.

“These fish are supposed to pull back and suspend, but these shallow-water fish always do the same thing,” he said. “Look for them to be shallow.”