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Ariba! Sac-a-lait
Cajun French and Expanol form a perfect marriage for anglers who fish the crappie run on Spanish Lake, which is arguably the best in the state.

By DON SHOOPMAN

When the sac-a-lait are biting, the lake can get rather crowded. These boats worked the shallows behind the houses in the front part of the lake last February.
When the sac-a-lait are biting, the lake can get rather crowded. These boats worked the shallows behind the houses in the front part of the lake last February.

When you see hundreds of tow vehicles this month in a parking lot at Spanish Lake, it can only mean one thing: The secret is out on what may be the hottest sac-a-lait fishing hole in Louisiana.

Shiners, tube jigs and hair jigs won’t be safe from the sac-a-lait, known as crappie in other parts of the country, as they make their annual run to their spawning sites that can be as shallow as ankle-deep.

Kerry Badeaux of New Iberia, who owns a bait shop at the lake, has seen it happen the last three springs. She and others in the know can’t wait for it to happen again at the 1,240-acre lake off Louisiana Highway 182 near New Iberia.

Badeaux, 41, expects this year’s sac-a-lait spawn and subsequent feeding frenzy to start happening in mid-January and begin reaching its peak in February, like it did last year.

“It’ll probably be better than last year. Like, right now, if you know where to fish, you can come up with 18, 20, maybe better,” Badeaux said the last week of December.

Terry Cormier of Gueydan can’t wait for that magical run. He fishes the lake perhaps more than any other angler ever since his first trip there in February 1999.

The 51-year-old fisherman, who retired from Chevron for health reasons in 1988, said he brings his boat to the lake two or three times a week, even during the dog days of summer. He usually catches quantity and quality, and doesn’t mind sharing his knowledge about how to do it.

His experience and many hours on the water pay off. Last November, Cormier proudly lifted a 3-pound sac-a-lait out of his livewell after he caught it just before noon one sunny day.

That big fish is the modern lake record, Badeaux said. But it isn’t the only sac-a-lait that size in the lake, she said.

“Actually, I’m waiting for a bigger one to come out. They’re out there, if you can find them,” she said.

Cormier knows first-hand. A few weeks before he caught the 3-pound fish, he missed a 3 1/2-pounder, he said.

Sac-a-lait fishing’s rise is a success story for the little lake that has been plagued by physical problems and numerous other woes over the last three decades. A levee that rings the lake needed repairs constantly, for starters.

The shallow lake, once a swampy lake but enclosed decades ago by a levee, was drained in the mid-1990s as part of a major restoration project by Iberia Parish Government. Three “bird’s-foot” levees were built inside the lake in an effort to reduce wave-wash action that for years eroded the levee. Holes created by digging for the levees created deep spots for fish to go to in extreme hot or cold weather.

After the last project, the lake was allowed to fill up and reopened to fishing in 1997. Sac-a-lait fishing was fair to good the first few years.

“It was good,” said Badeaux, who opened Spanish Lake Baits & Bites in June 1998, “but not as good as it is now. You would come out with 20-25. But now, when they spawn, you come out with your 50. Almost guaranteed.”

The amazing thing about it is the sac-a-lait population grew naturally. Nary a baby sac-a-lait has been stocked in the lake, according to state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries biologist Mike Walker of New Iberia.

On the other hand, thousands and thousands of Florida bass fingerlings have gone into the lake, where the Spanish Lake Commission decided it wanted a lake that produced “trophy” bass and, thus, has an ambitious 16- to 21-inch slot limit.

Walker, District IV supervisor, and his staff caught bass up to 9 pounds in their electrofishing samples two winters ago. But, generally, there has been little bass fishing pressure and bass fishing has been just fair, something that could be attributed in part to a prolonged drought that lowered the water level for several years.

He said he has been pleasantly surprised by the sac-a-lait boom.

Walker said, “I knew there’d be sac-a-lait. I didn’t know they’d be that prolific. It’s been pretty good since about three years after the lake was filled.”

He got an inkling of what was to come when he took his first samples. He was amazed.

“I told somebody in a couple years there was going to be a truckload of sac-a-lait taken out of there. There were so many 4-inch sac-a-lait,” he said.

He said there must have been a few sac-a-lait left in the puddles after the lake was drained. And, he said, all it takes is two.

A soft bottom hurts the sac-a-lait spawn less than other species, he said, because they spawn first when the water’s cooler and before the carp start getting active. Bass reproduction apparently is poor because of the carp’s presence during their spawn and the way the carp vacuum the bottom when feeding.

Richard Broussard of Lafayette caught this sac-a-lait and many others near a tangle of brush on Spanish Lake last February.
Richard Broussard of Lafayette caught this sac-a-lait and many others near a tangle of brush on Spanish Lake last February.

Sac-a-lait thrive because of the number of threadfin shad in the lake, Walker said.

“There’s a lot of food in there, thousands and thousands of little threadfin shad. It’s like a million shiners in there,” he said.

Cormier agreed.

“There’s a lot of feed in there, a lot of grass shrimp. That’s what’s making the sac-a-lait. These fish ain’t skinny,” he said.

Cormier and Badeaux have their own theories on why the little lake’s sac-a-lait are so plentiful, plump and healthy. He believes there are a handful of underground springs continually pumping sweet water into the lake. She said the bedding areas apparently are just right for spawning purposes.

There are nutrients galore in the water, too, Walker said, because the lake is over a massive peat bog.

“It’s like building it over a cow patty,” he said.

His November 2001 survey opened many eyes, including his own. He and his staff averaged 130 sac-a-lait (78 blacks, 52 whites) per hour while electrofishing.

“This is the best crappie sample I’ve ever seen anywhere and that includes the Basin, Verret and Fausse Pointe,” Walker said then.

The 8-to-5 ratio of black crappie over white crappie was surprising, too, because, he said at the time, blacks usually are in the overwhelming majority.

What does the future hold? In December 2001, Walker said, “Crappie tend to be cyclic. There tends to be really high years followed by low years, just the way the crappie population’s been in all the waterbodies,” he said. “I think the population will settle down where we won’t have really, really high years like we had but we won’t have real low years.”

And, he said, the fall 2002 samples weren’t quite as high as the fall samples taken in 2001.

Still, Spanish Lake has been churning out the slabs. Anglers have been reaping the benefits of such a prolific population.

Cormier said he has caught 2,000 sac-a-lait since he started fishing the lake in 1999. He usually limits out when he fishes the lake, he said, and keeps only slabs because, it seems, that’s all that bites.

In fact, he said, the smallest sac-a-lait he ever caught there in three years was a 1/2-pounder. That was the one and only 8-ouncer, he said somewhat incredulously.

The rest, he said, average 1 1/2 to 2 pounds.

“Last year the most I could put in a 48-quart ice chest was 26 or 28. The rest went in the livewell,” he said.

People come from near and far to tap the thriving sac-a-lait population, especially during the spawn. Cormier is one of them.

He knows or has met anglers visiting the lake from Church Point, Lafayette, Rayne, Welsh, Gueydan, Arnaudville, Cecilia and Ville Platte.

“I met a guy the other day from Ville Platte. He had just bought a boat from Cary’s Sporting Goods,” Cormier said.

Naturally, New Iberia-area fishermen frequent the lake, too.

It can get crowded. How crowded?

Badeaux reported the top user-days — based on the number of $2 vehicle passes sold — last spring as Feb. 12 (119), Feb. 16 (140), Feb. 17 (201) and Feb. 24 (243). She estimated that a little more than half of them pulled boats and the others went on the levee to fish from the shoreline.

Those big days apparently were at the peak of the spawning season. But even more people showed up to fish on Saturday, March 16, when 278 vehicles rolled up to Spanish Lake & Bites.

The vehicles often fill the parking lot, then drivers must find parking spaces along the levee.

A whopping majority of them leave happy.

“I know for a fact most of them go home with enough (sac-a-lait) for a meal, plus more than enough,” Badeaux said. “It seems like every year it gets better and better for them.”

Cormier said he usually fishes no more than 10 inches deep, except during the summer when he goes 2- and 3-feet deep in whatever 4- and 5-foot depths he can find.

The key to catching sac-a-lait this month is to learn where the underwater structure is, he said.

“Naturally, that’s where they’ve got to spawn and make their nest. Wherever they have the most cover, that’s where they you catch the big blacks in February and April,” he said.

During one five-day stretch in March 2001, Cormier and his wife, Dorothy, or another fishing partner fished the lake every day and came out with a total of 478 sac-a-lait. That came in real handy for Good Friday, when he and family members enjoy a fish fry and crawfish boil.

Where to go to catch the sac-a-lait this time of year?

“I like to fish the back, by the pump area, along the rocks, along the road, all along up in there. That’s where I’ve been catching most of my fish,” he said. Water temperatures along the rip-rap are warmer than in the middle of the lake because the rocks hold the heat, he explained.

Kerry Badeaux helps Terry Cormier weigh one of his hefty Spanish Lake sac-a-lait.
Kerry Badeaux helps Terry Cormier weigh one of his hefty Spanish Lake sac-a-lait.

Badeaux said many sac-a-lait are caught in the front or, as she likes to say, behind the houses. She also pointed anglers to the copse of cypress trees and duck blinds scattered around the lake as other perennial hotspots.

Anglers can catch their share of sac-a-lait from the bank, she said.

“Oh, yeah, definitely. I’ve caught myself and seen it done, right here in front. The year before last, stand up on the island and you could pull up 50, I’d say within an hour,” she said.

Cormier said, “One guy last year, he caught 119 in front of the bait stand around little broken wharves. Right there!”

Shiners, tube jigs and hair jigs all have their moments, sometimes during the same period.

“They all have their times. Some days it’s shiners. Some days it’s tube jigs. Some days it’s hair jigs. Some days it’s anything you throw out there. It depends on the condition of the water,” Badeaux said.

When the fish are really finicky, she confided, stick a grass shrimp or Crappie Nibble on the hook.

During the summer months, Cormier said, he sticks to tube jigs and hair jigs. But this month and for the rest of the spawn, he won’t go out without both artificials and shiners.

There’s a good reason for that, he theorizes. Would you want a plastic hamburger or a real one?

“Me and a friend of mine were out and our boats were touching. I had shiners. I had my limit. He pulled two out with his jigs,” he said. “Our corks were a foot apart. He don’t want to have shiners in his boat. Well ....”

He usually takes 40-50 shiners with him and fishes with the natural and artificial baits.

“Whatever they hit first, that’s what I use. If you go out there and you’re not prepared, you’re not going to come home with fish,” he said.

His 3-pounder, which he planned to have mounted, hit an orange/chartreuse Becky’s Special Jig.

When Cormier fishes with shiners, he uses 12- or 14-pound-test line and No. 2 gold Tru-Turn hooks. That combination saves him time because, he said, when he gets hung up he can pull hard, the hook will bend and the line won’t break.

“I just bend it back and put a shiner on it again,” he said.

Cormier’s favorite color combinations for his artificials are black/chartreuse, blue/white and red/white glow (good for cloudy days).

He has found that the ideal water temperature for catching sac-a-lait is 65 degrees. Remember, he said, if the water temperature’s in the upper 40s or 50 in the middle of the lake, head for the rocks and the water will be at least three degrees warmer.

For Cormier and hundreds of other fishermen, the sac-a-lait run can’t start soon enough and, after it does, they wish it would never end at Spanish Lake. You can’t keep something like that a secret.