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Overlooked Opportunity
Looking for a double-digit trout? You want to try this largely ignored lake on the Louisiana/Texas border.

BY ANDY CRAWFORD

The numbers of fish in Sabine Lake aren’t as high as in nearby Lake Calcasieu, but guide Jerry Norris believes there are more big fish in the border waterway. He put Barry Partos on this 30-inch, 10-pound speck back in January. The fish was released after a few pictures.
The numbers of fish in Sabine Lake aren’t as high as in nearby Lake Calcasieu, but guide Jerry Norris believes there are more big fish in the border waterway. He put Barry Partos on this 30-inch, 10-pound speck back in January. The fish was released after a few pictures.

The big Parker slid smoothly under the bridge, and the south end of Sabine Lake spread out before the anglers.

The waterbody was absolutely featureless, with not a hint of structure anywhere to be seen.

Guide Jerry Norris, however, knew better.

“There’s oyster shells as far as you can see,” Norris said over the engine noise. “A lot of times, the fish will be all over those reefs.”

The wind was humming hard out of the southeast, so Norris hugged the eastern shoreline and headed to waters in the mid-lake area that he knew to hold big trout.

The water had been putrid, churned up by regular fronts that had blown through the area. A shift in the wind, however, had pushed clean, salty water back into the lake, and Norris was excited.

“This water is beautiful,” the Texas guide said. “We should be able to catch some fish in this.”

As the anglers moved north of Garrison’s Ridge, Norris explained that the bottom structure changed from solid oyster shells to mainly the remnants of freshwater mussels.

“There are a few oyster shells, but it’s mostly mussels because this lake used to be fresh,” Norris said.

Ten minutes later, the anglers were drifting a cut, throwing soft-plastics in hopes of snagging a fish.

It didn’t take long.

One of Norris’ clients, Justin Ward of Colorado, was the first to hook up. Ward’s rod bowed sharply as a large fish tugged on the end of the line.

“That might be a redfish,” Norris said, but when the fish rolled on the water’s surface, everyone could see the silver sides of a big trout.

The fish was scooped out of the water, and Ward grabbed a trout that would tip the scales at about 5 pounds.

That turned out to be only the first sow trout pulled from Sabine Lake by Norris’ boat that day. The heaviest fish topped out at 6 pounds.

That is what Sabine Lake offers Louisiana anglers — the potential to catch monster speckled trout.

In fact, the lake is almost an identical twin to Calcasieu Lake, which is renowned for its big-trout production.

“Sabine and Calcasieu are almost identical,” Norris said. “But Calcasieu doesn’t have Toledo Bend and Sam Rayburn dumping fresh water into it.

Plastics produce numbers of bites during the spring.  Ward snagged this 5-pounder with a Riverside Samuri Shad.
Plastics produce numbers of bites during the spring. Ward snagged this 5-pounder with a Riverside Samuri Shad.

“That’s why Calcasieu has more fish — the salinities are higher.”

But anglers should not interpret this to mean that Sabine Lake’s trout population is not worth fishing.

“I think Sabine has more big fish than Calcasieu, it just doesn’t have the (total) numbers,” Norris explained.

What this border lake does is it pulls fish from the same Gulf waters as Calcasieu.

“The water from High Island over to Calcasieu is shallow. That’s a whole other bay system that never gets fished,” Norris explained. “I think Sabine trades fish with Calcasieu. They don’t know whether they’re going into Sabine or Calcasieu.”

One of the guide’s customers discovered just how big the trout can grow in Sabine Lake when he sank the hooks into a 10-pounder in January.

The difficulty with Sabine is that salinities vary widely over the course of the year.

The reason is fairly simple — the lake drains two major freshwater reservoirs, and the deep-water channel of the lake skirts its western edge and is separated in large part from the main lake by a barrier of land.

The fresh water spilling into the lake from the north might make for varying conditions, but it’s also one of the reasons big fish prowl the waterbody.

“You’ve got two rivers coming in, and that adds a lot of fertility to the lake,” Norris said. “The amount of bait that’s produced out here is unbelievable. The food source is so great.”

The key to the lake’s trout-producing potential is how much salt water flows up the ship channel from the Gulf of Mexico.

As in Calcasieu Lake, saltwater surges northward through Sabine’s ship channel and spreads out into the lake.

But Calcasieu’s ship channel transects the southern part of that lake, allowing salt water direct access to the waterbody.

In Sabine, salt water has to bleed out of the channel and push through a fairly narrow pass at the southern end of the lake, or salinities have to push far enough north to spill out of the northern portion of the ship channel.

This unpredictability means that anglers have to be willing to adjust on a day-to-day basis in search of fish.

“You just have to come out and see,” Norris said.

Land-bound anglers even get in on the Sabine Lake big-trout action by driving along the revetments on the west side of the lake looking for bait. Then they hop out of their cars and work topwaters through the baitfish.
Land-bound anglers even get in on the Sabine Lake big-trout action by driving along the revetments on the west side of the lake looking for bait. Then they hop out of their cars and work topwaters through the baitfish.

But springtime is the one period of the year in which salinities are fairly predictable because of the lake’s proximity to the open Gulf.

Norris said that even when heavy rains fall or the two reservoirs feeding the lake dump a lot of fresh water down the Sabine and Neches rivers, the lake quickly purges itself.

“What happens is, the Gulf sucks it all out,” Norris said. “That salt water will come right back in.”

And even in the transitionary period, anglers can catch fish.

“These trout will feed in the freshest of fresh water and the saltiest of salt water,” Norris said.

The veteran guide’s April strategy centers around baitfish.

“You get these big pods, rafts of mullet pushed in with the south winds,” he said.

So he cruises about on the lake, looking for these pods of mullet, knowing that trout will be in close proximity.

“I don’t have a general spot in mind most of the time. I just cruise around looking for bait,” Norris said. “When you have a featureless lake like this, there’s nothing for them to be on.”

Many times, mullet can be found because the vegetarians are nervously jumping out of the water.

When Norris spots jumping mullet, he throttles back, gets upwind of the apparent baitfish school and drifts the area.

Other times, however, Norris has to look more carefully.

“Mullet graze (on algae) on the bottom, and a lot of times you won’t see fish jumping because (trout) are not actively feeding,” he said.

This is when fishing might mean a little more work.

Jerry Norris caught this sow just on the outside of a flat. Norris said the trout travel from point to point in the deeper water, moving into the shallows to feed.
Jerry Norris caught this sow just on the outside of a flat. Norris said the trout travel from point to point in the deeper water, moving into the shallows to feed.

Norris will simply move from area to area, drifting or trolling while he fishes. The entire time, he’s looking for schools of mullet swimming around.

When he finds mullet, he knows his odds of landing sow trout have just increased.

“The trout will be mixed in with the mullet,” Norris said. “Even when the trout aren’t active and the fish aren’t feeding, your best chances will be to fish around those mullet.

“Those trout will get in with the mullet and swim along.”

While some anglers won’t hang around if all they see are large mullet, Norris said he fishes any baitfish school hard.

“I don’t pay any attention to that. If there’s big mullet, there’s little mullet,” he said.

Besides, trout are notorious gluttons.

“A little trout will try to eat a big mullet,” Norris explained.

Norris rarely resorts to live bait, preferring to stay with his tried-and-true soft plastics.

His two baits of choice are Bass Assassins and Riverside Samuri Shad, with a bent toward the former during the springtime run of mule trout.

“Later in the year when the water warms up, you need a bait that swims,” Norris said. “That’s when I get on that Samuri Shad.”

Bass Assassins work well in the spring because they mimic crippled baitfish.

“It’s a do-nothing bait, but it’s proven to me it will catch fish. It’s like a topwater bait under water,” he said.

Unless fish are stacked up on the oyster reefs on the southern end of the lake, Norris is mainly working the flats along the eastern shoreline.

The lake’s topography on that side is typified by a flat holding a few feet of water before the bottom drops into deeper water.

“See that point?” Norris asked, pointing to a protrusion of marsh about a half mile away. “The flat runs from that point to that one north of us.”

He said trout usually won’t be ganged up in the flats, but will instead be making feeding forays into the shallow water from deeper water.

“What the trout will do is travel out here in about 5 feet of water from point to point,” Norris said. “The majority of the time, they will be out deeper.

“They’ll move in and out of the shallow flats.”

So what he does is drift away from the bank with the wind, working his bait through the congregated mullet. He extends his drifts well into the deeper water to pick up any fish that are staging for a run to the buffet.

Once it warms up and the reds begin feeding heavily, Norris loves to work a Heddon Sonar on the banks. The bait has an aggressive wiggle that drives Sabine Lake redfish nuts.
Once it warms up and the reds begin feeding heavily, Norris loves to work a Heddon Sonar on the banks. The bait has an aggressive wiggle that drives Sabine Lake redfish nuts.

When there is tidal movement, either incoming or outgoing, Norris focuses his efforts around cuts in the lake.

“I want to fish the downside of where the current is moving,” he said. “Anywhere there’s a cut like that, I want to be where the current is breaking on the bank.

“It’s a defining feature.”

On an outgoing tide, his preference, that means drifting past the bank on the southern side of the cut.

“I want to be on the shoreline where the water’s coming out of a bayou and running down the bank I’m fishing,” he said. “There will be an eddy on the other side of that point.

“You’ll notice the mullet will be balled up next to the bank in that eddy.”

But the same can be true on an incoming tide, although it requires a slight change of location.

An incoming tide will produce an eddy on the inside of the southernmost point of the cut, he said.

If salinities in the northern end of the lake are low and the trout begin to gang up on the southern oyster flats, Norris joins the crowds there.

“The mullet will get over the oyster shells,” he explained.

This is when the soft plastics are replaced by Heddon Super Spooks.

“That’s my favorite,” Norris said. “I fish it slow, fast, whatever they want.”

The southern half of the lake is most targeted by Norris, but if salinities skyrocket, he’ll head north.

“As the salinity moves up, the fish will move farther north,” he explained. “It’s all dictated by the salinity.”

When conditions permit, Norris will fish the spoil islands north of the Neches River.

“They get on the flats in front of those islands,” he said.

High salinity in the lake also opens the possibility of fishing the western side of the lake, which is completely different from the eastern side.

“It’s all revetment. It’s like one big, long jetty,” Norris said.

An east or southeast wind can make that side unfishable, but when conditions allow, big trout can be yanked from the rocks.

“We go along those rocks throwing topwaters,” he explained.

In fact, those without boats get in on the action along the revetment.

“It’s got a road on top of it, and people will drive along it and look for bait,” Norris said. “When they see some bait, they get out and throw topwaters.

“They’ve caught a lot of good trout like that.”

Capt. Jerry Norris can be reached at (877) 258-5288 or by logging onto his Web site at sabinelakefishing.com.