By TODD MASSON
|Photo by SOC CLAY
|Caernarvon is one of the marsh areas
that biologist Gary Tilyou thinks could grow a state-record
Lunker bass fever” excitement has faded since the glory years
of the 1990s in Louisiana.
Remember the roll Caney Lake was on? State-record bass after
state-record bass came from the lake in North Louisiana, including
the current bass to beat, a 15.97-pounder that was hooked and
landed by Greg Wiggins in February 1994.
That “hawg” unseated a 15.54-pound bass that topped the state
record books kept diligently by the Louisiana Outdoor Writers
Association. That fish was caught in the same month a year earlier
at Caney Lake by Tommy Foster.
Caney Lake, in its heyday, accounted for seven of the Top 10
bass in the Sportsman’s Paradise. The last one to brag about was
caught in July 1996, a 15.33-pounder boated by Johnny Harper.
But that ended a run of big bass from Caney Lake that began
in March 1992. After carp were introduced into the lake to control
the grass problem, that was all she wrote for lunker hunting there,
except for prime times in the spring.
Wiggins’ state record fish still stands at No. 1. It has been
almost a decade since anyone has caught one bigger in Louisiana.
Will the magic happen again at Caney Lake? Or anywhere else
in the state, for that matter? Probably not, biologically speaking,
at Grand Bayou Reservoir, even at Providence Point.
State Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Inland Fisheries
Division administrative assistant Gary Tilyou of Denham Springs
said as much recently when he fielded questions about what happened
to the state-record blitz last decade and what’s in store for
the future. The 23-year department veteran and highly respected
biologist rose through the department ranks after distinguishing
himself in the field in the district based in Opelousas.
“I’m not saying we don’t have one bigger than 16 pounds. We
don’t have them in enough numbers where we can say they’re in
extensive numbers. I don’t believe we’ve caught the biggest fish
in Louisiana,” Tilyou said.
|Photo by TODD MASSON
|After several years of decline, bass
seem to be making a comeback in the upper Barataria Basin.
With the continued stockings of Florida bass in the area and
the potential influx of nutrient-rich fresh water from the
Davis Pond Diversion, the area could be set to explode.
Louisiana isn’t alone in what amounts to a long dry spell between
new state-record bass. Neighboring Texas has an 18.18-pounder
at the top of the chart that was caught 11 years ago by Barry
St. Clair at Lake Fork. Sam Rayburn Reservoir’s last big bass
was Tommy Shelton’s 16.68-pounder in 1997, which holds down No.
9 in the Texas Top 10.
Lake Fork, Texas’ heavily pressured answer to Caney Lake, last
gave up a hawg-sized fish last March when Johnny Six hauled in
a 15.65-pound bass that settled in at No. 28.
Six’s bass would have been No. 2 in Louisiana.
Is Tilyou disappointed?
“Yeah. With the combination of the Louisiana climate with the
fertility of the water, I thought we’d have bigger bass. We’re
not continuing to break the record like we were hoping to do.
I think it’s just genetics,” the biologist said.
“But I am pleased we got the record up to 16, and many people
are catching more 10-pound-plus fish than ever before. We’re stuck
at 16 pounds right now, but we have quite a few fish in the 12-
to 15-pound range. There are a lot of big fish coming out of Louisiana
“That brings up an interesting question: Can we raise fish over
15 pounds? We think we can. You know, 12 pounds (a native bass)
was the state record forever and ever,” he said.
Tilyou believes it’s all a matter of genes. The state is striving
to introduce the exact Florida genes to grow monstrous bass that
one day might rival those in Texas, California and Florida.
The Sportsman’s Paradise is banking in part on a Lunker Bass
Program in which 12-pound-plus female bass are caught and donated
in order to spawn under controlled conditions at the state fish
hatchery and then returned to the water.
“As far as genetically improving the stock, that’s all we’re
doing right now,” Tilyou said. “Some people think ‘yes, we have
Florida bass.’ But it just isn’t that simple. We are anxiously
watching some states taking genetics a little farther. Texas is
one,” he said.
Texas biologists are doing whatever they can genetically to
get bigger bass, he said. Some of their scientific experiments,
however, have been blunted by the federal government, he said.
Louisiana, he said, goes back to Florida from time to time to
get new blood.
“We’re going to keep getting. We’ll go back and get brood bass
and maybe we’ll find the right one, maybe rival California,” he
Who knows? There may be another Caney Lake in the future of
Caney Lake, he explained, was the benefactor of several factors
that caused it to explode with bass of sizable proportions.
“It got just like Toledo Bend was in its heyday,” Tilyou said.
|Photo by TODD MASSON
|Louisiana’s summers are stifling,
which has led some biologists to theorize that bass are stressed
too much to grow to gargantuan sizes. Tilyou disagrees with
It wasn’t long after the Sabine River was dammed that a bass-fishing
bonanza was enjoyed at Toledo Bend, he pointed out.
However, Caney Lake had even more going for it than Toledo Bend
because, he said, the department stocked Florida bass in farm
ponds that were inundated when the lake was filled. Later, Caney
Lake got more and more Floridas.
“We gave it about as much effort as we can give a lake from
the word go,” he said. “So what we had at Caney was the Florida
gene. It was not tremendous at first ... but we have a good percentage
right now, 40- to 50-percent, some hybrid, some pure Floridas.
“So we had the Florida gene working before it was a lake and
we also had ‘new lake vigor,’ which basically means there were
not a lot of rough fish in it, and there were quite a few nutrients
in the lake. There was a vast expanse of water with no predators
“The fish were very competitive. They tried to fill the void
with themselves, which is why we got tremendous growth production
the first few years. That’s probably why we got so many records
out of Caney — the Florida gene and new lake effect.
“We took advantage of the situation at Caney, I’m not ashamed
to admit it. We had a new lake and we stocked Caney even before
it was a lake.”
Bass anglers took advantage of the situation, and probed the
miles of grass beds to extract state records. People came from
near and far to tap the big-bass factory.
“What happened to Caney? Everybody knows it lost the grass.
But did the bass disappear? No. I think they’re just harder to
catch, harder to locate,” the biologist said.
“Do I even think Caney will be back to where it was? No. It’s
no longer a ‘new’ lake ... unless they drain it and start over.”
What about Grand Bayou Reservoir? Isn’t it a prime candidate
to give up huge bass? It could be, considering what happened at
Caney Lake, according to Tilyou.
“Look at Grand Bayou. We tried the same thing with it, and it
never did produce numbers of trophy fish, not like Caney did.
I don’t know why. We protected it from the word go ... no fishing,
then the slot limit,” he said. “What is it now? Six years old?
Right now it should be coming into its own as a new lake.”
With that in mind, he said, “Grand Bayou is a hope since it
is a new lake. And Poverty Point is a new lake we’re trying to
get the (Florida) gene in.
“Spanish Lake is the one we’re really hoping for. I’m not going
to say it’s not going to happen, either. It is a fertile system.”
University Lake, Toledo Bend, D’Arbonne Lake and Chicot Lake
all have bass in the Top 20. Lake D’Arbonne was the last to yield
a state-record bass at No. 7 when Ed Stellner reeled in a 15.31-pounder
in February 2000.
|Photo by ANDY CRAWFORD
|Lake D’Arbonne is a productive fishery,
and it may hold the potential to produce a new state-record.
Toledo Bend and Miller’s Lake both had state-record bass caught
in March 1998. Miller’s Lake’s was a 15.05-pound beauty landed
by Brett Fontenot, while Toledo Bend’s was a 14.68-pounder caught
by Kraig Welborn. (Texas, which shares Toledo Bend with Louisiana,
has a 15.32-pounder ranked No. 48. It was caught in 2000 by Eric
University Lake hit the limelight in June 1992 when Thomas Robertson
got his hands on a 15.38-pound bass that sits at No. 5.
“We had some that usually don’t get (bass) over the 13-, 14-pound
range,” Tiiyou said about those waterbodies.
Tilyou said at one time, False River, that old oxbow of the
Mississippi River, looked like a great place to grow trophy fish.
Siltation, however, dashed those dreams in the 1990s, and LMBV
(largemouth bass virus) took a toll on heavy bass there several
years ago to give it a double whammy.
False River burst onto the scene in a positive way in 1989 when
a 12.97-pound bass from there broke a state record that stood
for years and years.
Some observers say the state’s oppressive heat and other factors
cause stressful conditions that might discourage growth of Florida
bass in Louisiana. Tilyou isn’t one of them.
“I don’t believe that. Florida bass in our rivers ought to do
excellent,” he said.
Don’t expect a state-record bass to be found in the marsh, with
the possible exception of Caernarvon or Davis Pond, he said. Conditions
may be more favorable for the latter if the Mississippi River
water diversion is consistent as planned, according to Tilyou.
Marshes adjacent to major rivers have potential, he said, and
those two areas are stocked with Floridas.
Louisiana’s bass population in several regions of the state
was impacted severely by LMBV, which also set back the state-record
bass hunt. The Atchafalaya Basin, Concordia Lake and Lake Bruin
bass numbers suffered the effects that hit larger fish hard.
But from all indications most of the affected areas have rebounded.
The bottom line, said Tilyou, is there is a state-record bass
swimming in the waters of the state somewhere. The state is trying
to grow some more that stretch lines and leap to the top of the
Perhaps that state-record bass is waiting for the next time
you cast your favorite artificial lure. It’s about time, isn’t