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Tour of the South
These two South Louisiana residents fight Kentucky bass on Florida Parish rivers that look like Tennessee streams.

BY TODD MASSON

Lavigne and Arnone frequently stop their boat to wade-fish backwater areas. This can be a chilly experience in October, but it’s worth it to reach water that most anglers pass up.
Lavigne and Arnone frequently stop their boat to wade-fish backwater areas. This can be a chilly experience in October, but it’s worth it to reach water that most anglers pass up.

You might have thought Joe Lavigne and Pete Arnone were fishing in the mountains of eastern Tennessee.

A fast-flowing river, complete with high bluff banks, water-worn gravel flats and white-water rapids, carried them through the hair-pin turns and lazy straight-aways deep in its gut.

There wasn’t another soul around — not a house, not a camp, not a car, not a cell phone, not a radio.

Given the surroundings, it wouldn’t have seemed strange for Lavigne or Arnone to have whipped out a fly rod and cast a Woolly Bugger to a fat rainbow holding below one of the riffles.

But the two Independence anglers had in mind a foe that is much more ferocious than a sissified Tennessee rainbow. Their baits were intended for a fish whose namesake is just a tad farther north.

As the Tangipahoa River pushed the 12-foot flat on a course that would have eventually taken it to Lake Pontchartrain, Lavigne pitched his Snagless Sally behind a blowdown at the edge of a deep bank.

The in-line spinner hit the water and instantly began its course downstream — until Lavigne reeled it behind the blowdown. At that point, the back-current pushed the lure toward the eroding stump, which, it became apparent, was where a feisty fish was waiting for an easy meal.

Lavigne set the hook hard and rocked the small flat. The fish responded by going berserk, testing the drag on Lavigne’s baitcaster.

The river veteran relented, allowing the fish to run downcurrent. This meant an even-tougher fight pulling the furious bass back upcurrent, but Lavigne had no choice.

A 16-inch bass puts up a tough fight. A 16-inch Kentucky bass puts up a much tougher fight. But a 16-inch Kentucky bass in a raging current fights like a tarpon on amphetamines.

But Lavigne, a native of Tangipahoa Parish who has fished the river for more than 25 years, was equal to the challenge. He skillfully fought the fish around roots, stumps and rocks while the boat he was sitting in was being pushed down the river like someone downstream had pulled an enormous plug.

Finally, Lavigne lipped the fish and brought it aboard. The 2 1/2-pound Kentucky was beautiful with mottled bars down its sides and a belly whiter than a Cloroxed T-shirt.

“Bo, look at this fish. That’s the size we came for,” he said.

Indeed it was. Lavigne has caught Kentuckys up to 4 pounds, 6 ounces and largemouths up to 6 pounds, 8 ounces on the Tangipahoa River, but it’s the consistent 2 1/2-pound Kentuckys that bring him back time and time again.

“This river used to be 50/50 Kentuckys to largemouths. Now it’s 90/10 Kentuckys to largemouths,” he said.

Lavigne and Arnone drag their aluminum bateau into the Tangipahoa River near the Highway 1057 bridge in the town of Tangipahoa. They’ve already left a truck at the Highway 10 bridge near Arcola.
Lavigne and Arnone drag their aluminum bateau into the Tangipahoa River near the Highway 1057 bridge in the town of Tangipahoa. They’ve already left a truck at the Highway 10 bridge near Arcola.

And that’s just fine with Lavigne, because, although they don’t grow as big as the largemouths, Kentuckys are more aggressive and fight harder.

And like his prey, Lavigne is also aggressive, which is a good thing because, believe it or not, drifting a river isn’t exactly a piece of cake.

On their recent trip, Lavigne and Arnone met near their homes in Independence, and each drove their respective pickup truck up Highway 51 to the town of Arcola. There, they dropped off Lavigne’s truck, and rode together in Arnone’s truck — with the 12-foot flat sticking out the bed of the pickup — to the town of Tangipahoa.

They parked the truck on the side of Highway 1057, and carried the boat — loaded down with gear — through brush and tangled vines to the riverbank below. They pushed the boat into the river and hopped in, with only the force of the current to propel them and nothing more than two paddles to guide them.

Less than three minutes into the drift, they had to deftly maneuver the boat around a recently blown-down tree.

On these river trips, however, the only true paddling is done in moments like these, when currents are swift and obstructions must be avoided. Most of the rest of the time, Lavigne uses one arm to skull a short paddle that he sticks into the water in front of the boat. With this action, he keeps the small aluminum flat close to the bank he wants to fish and heading down the river bow-first.

This is important because the fish show a definite preference about which side of the river they like to frequent.

“I love the cut banks,” Lavigne said.

By cut banks, he means the ones where the river has “cut” into the bank, leaving either a bluff or overhanging tree limbs. These are most often found on the outsides of the bends.

“The curves can be hard to fish sometimes because of the current, but that’s where the fish are,” he said.

Kentucky bass, which love moving water, hold in any current breaks in the swift river bends, especially the ones along the bank but also some of those out in the middle of the river.

“They wait there to ambush bait that’s getting pushed along by the current,” Lavigne said.

But even if they have current breaks, Lavigne avoids fishing the inside bends almost entirely because they’re shallow and unattractive to bass. The outside bends are always deeper.

These fast-moving turns become even more important in the summertime, according to Lavigne.

“As it warms up, the fish move more to the current because it’s cooler and has more oxygen. You’d think you’d catch fish in those deep, slow-moving pools (between the turns), but you’re just wasting your time,” he said. “You’ll catch your largemouths in the still water, but not the Kentuckys.”

Kentucky bass love the swift-moving water of the river’s sharp turns. These fish get even more aggressive during the autumn months of October and November.
Kentucky bass love the swift-moving water of the river’s sharp turns. These fish get even more aggressive during the autumn months of October and November.

The fast-moving turns are still the best place to be this month, but aggressive bass can be found along the banks in the straight-aways because the waters of the river have begun to cool.

“The fall is my favorite time to float the river, no doubt about it,” Lavigne said. “The air’s cool, the water’s a little cooler, and those bass notice. They bite a whole lot better.”

Also, the fall is South Louisiana’s driest season, and lack of heavy rain is crucial for the river’s productivity, Lavigne said.

“Clarity of the water is the most important factor for good river fishing,” he said. “The river can take more than a week to clean up after a rain.”

The ideal time to fish it is several days after a good rain shower, when the river is falling and clearing up.

“The river can get gin-clear when it’s low, low, but the fishing’s not as good,” Lavigne said.

Being residents of Tangipahoa Parish, Lavigne and Arnone monitor conditions on the river and have a network of friends with whom they share fishing information. This allows them to make the most of their time on the river.

“We try to establish a pattern each time out, but there’s also a general pattern of when and where the fish are biting,” Lavigne said. “There have been times when I’ll fish in the morning and I won’t do well, and then someone will make a float in the evening and kill them. Sometimes if you throw your bait 6 inches shy of the bank, (the bass) won’t touch it. Other times, they’ll hit it no matter where you throw it.

“So it’s good to have an idea of the general pattern going in, but then try to narrow that pattern down while you’re out there.”

Good casting ability is also important because many times a bait must be placed under overhanging limbs or immediately adjacent to an in-water blow-down. Miss the target the first time, and you may not get a second chance.

“It’s very rare that we go back and fish a spot a second time. It’s just too hard to get the boat back to that spot,” Lavigne said. “You hit each spot only once, so make your casts count.”

Lavigne said, however, that on occasion he’ll grab a limb to hold himself in position to make multiple casts to a spot that looks like it should be exceptionally productive.

What he throws depends on the situation, but 90 percent of the time, Lavigne has a Snagless Sally tied to the end of the rod in his hands.

“That’s an old bait that not too many people fish anymore, but it’s perfect for that river. We just haven’t found anything that works as well,” he said.

Lavigne uses a short paddle to “skull” the boat in the scenic river.
Lavigne uses a short paddle to “skull” the boat in the scenic river.

Lavigne and his buddies most often fish black/white or chartreuse/blue Snagless Sallies with No. 3 1/2 or 4 gold spinners.

“I’ve seen times when the size of the blade makes a big difference,” he said.

They team the Sallies with No. 11 or 101 green Uncle Josh pork frogs.

“They won’t touch it without the (pork frog),” Lavigne said.

The trailer adds buoyancy to the bait, and keeps it from falling too quickly through the strike zone.

Because the Kentucky bass are so aggressive, Lavigne and Arnone like to rip the Sallies through the water.

“There’s no slow-rolling going on,” Lavigne said.

They also like to retrieve the bait as soon as it hits the water, saying they’ve seen bass jump out the water to intercept baits before they had even splashed down.

When working slow, deep straight-aways along bluff banks, Lavigne and Arnone will also throw blue/chartreuse Bandit crankbaits, white Baby N’s, white or chartreuse buzz baits or tiger-striped Devil’s Horses.

The crankbaits are very productive, but if you intend to fish them, bring plenty, Lavigne advised, because snags are frequent.

In addition to the 5-hour drift they made that day from Tangipahoa to Arcola, Lavigne and Arnone also like to float the Tangipahoa from Greenlaw to Kentwood, Kentwood to Tangipahoa, Arcola to Amite, Amite to Independence, Independence to Tickfaw, Tickfaw to Dunnington and Dunnington to Suntimers.

They also frequently float the Bogue Chitto, which holds lots and lots of smaller fish, the Amite, which holds fewer but bigger fish, and the Tickfaw and the Tchefuncte, both of which have decent fish but are typically tough.

“This is my getaway,” Lavigne said. “Where can you go where you don’t see people anymore?”

South of the streams of Tennessee? The Florida Parish rivers may be it.