Lake Martin is for the birds.
Or so some say — mostly folks with expensive binoculars and life lists of birds they have spotted.
But Butch Ridgedell was at the St. Martin Parish lake located just east of Lafayette for one reason: largemouth bass.
“Lake Martin has some big fish in it,” he said. “Wildlife and Fisheries biologists, I hear, shocked up a 14-pounder a few years ago. I don’t care how big they are, though — I just like catching them. (Officially, the largest bass on record is a 9.1-pound fish.)
“It’s ideal for kayak fishing, too,” he smirked. “The heavy growths of water plants in the lake make it difficult for bass boats to fish.”
The birds were singing like crazy at the small, rudimentary kayak launch off to the side of the lake’s big boat launch. In dawn’s light, the lake was beautiful — open water in the center, fringed by dense to open growths of cypress trees standing in the water around the lake’s perimeter.
“Well, it looks like we will have it to ourselves,” he observed gleefully. “We’ll start right here by the launch and fish through the trees around the lake, starting on the guide trail.”
Three swamp tour companies have taken advantage of the lake’s fame as a bird rookery and for its scenery by offering boat tours to tourists and birders. Their outboard motor-powered boats follow regular routes through the flooded cypress around the perimeter of the lake.
“A lot of fishermen gripe about the tour boats,” he went on. “But they do two good things. They keep the trails through the water plants open, and their motors stir up a lot of things from the bottom that attract bait fish and the bass that follow them.
“During the summer,” he explained, “the open water visible now won’t be open. It’s covered with big lily (lotus) pads. I fish it a lot in the spring and some in the fall. The lilies make it hard to fish in the summer, plus I am usually chasing speckled trout and redfish in the summer.”
He started fishing by weaving counterclockwise through the cypress trees along the lakeshore. This was all paddle work. He was in a pedal-drive kayak, but had the unit pulled up because it would be quickly fouled by the dense vegetation.
“I like pedal drives for saltwater fishing,” he said, “because you can cover a lot of water with them. Plus, they leave both hands free for fishing.”
He began the day with two rods rigged with baits I hadn’t seen before. One was a watermelon seed Senko-type worm called a Trick Worm, rigged wacky style. The other was a watermelon red Tiny Toad frog, fished weightless.
Both lures are made by Fin Collectors Soft Baits, a company owned by his brother Brett and nephew Ridge. The lures, along with flukes — Ridgedell’s favorite spring bass bait — are sold through Facebook and at Pack & Paddle in Lafayette.
“Man, something ought to come up and eat that,” he chortled as he popped his frog through floating duckweeds. But it’s all quiet. By 9:15 a.m., he had produced only three strikes — all misses.
The lake sat under a huge bass-bite-inhibiting dome of high pressure, following a cold front that blew through the day before.
The slow action didn’t phase Ridgedell, though.
“The good thing about the trees in Lake Martin is that it would be way too windy to fish elsewhere today.
“The thing that I find about the lake is that the fish will bite here sometime during the day. The fish will blow up everywhere. You just have to fish until it happens.
“The best bite today is supposed to be at noon, according to the solunar tables,” he predicted. “I’m a big believer in them in tidal waters.
“I’ll find fish,” he confidently predicted several times.
The bite might have been slow, but the scenery was spectacular. The Spanish moss-draped angular limbs of the cypresses lent a cathedral-like quality to the scene.
Even though most of the egrets were on nests in the sanctuary in the southern end of the lake, everything else with wings was out in force. So were the alligators. They were everywhere; some of them were big potatoes.
At 10:30, Ridgedell shifted gears, rigging a watermelon seed worm weedless on an 1/8-ounce weighted hook. At the same time, he shifted his fishing to the outer cypress trees bordering the open water of the lake’s center.
Action picked up immediately and he fulfilled his prediction of catching fish.
But as good as Lake Martin is, it isn’t Ridgedell’s favorite place to kayak for bass. That honor belongs to Toledo Bend, an incongruous choice since tiny kayaks and the almost ocean-like reservoir are seldom thought of in the same breath.
“It’s really good up in the skinny water way up in the protected creek arms of the lake,” he nodded.
Bitten by the kayak bug
The 60-year-old former athlete calls himself “fairly involved” in kayak fishing.
“OK,” I asked, “how many days a year do you kayak fish?”
“Probably 100,” he replied, matter-of-factly.
Butch Ridgedell is also vice-president of the Lafayette Kayak Fishing Club and a member of the Pack & Paddle Fishing Team. Pack & Paddle is the retailer where he buys all of his kayaking equipment, and serves as a sort of social center for lots of Cajun Country ‘yakers. The retailer is also the largest sponsor for the Lafayette Kayak Fishing Club’s Salty Boot Kayak Fishing Series, a six-event saltwater tournament.
“I go in there three days a week for my lunch hour,” he admitted. “Other kayak fishermen come in there, too, and we lie to each other.”
He was working in China as vice-president of the Water Curtain Division of Burner Fire Control, a company that provides fire safety and construction for the oil and gas industry, when he first heard about fishing from a kayak.
“Some guys from Australia were on the rig I was working on and they were watching kayak fishing videos. ‘That’s pretty cool,’ I thought to myself. I asked them if they kayak fished.”
“Yeah, we do it all the time,” they said.
“When I got back, I told my wife I wanted to buy a new boat. She expected me to spend $40,000 on a bay boat. But, I spent $1,000 on a kayak and never looked back. I don’t own a motorboat anymore.”
Ridgedell is able to fish so much because he has a tolerant wife and an agreeable job. “Weekends are mine, plus my office work ends at 4 p.m. That leaves me four hours in the evening.”
Lake Martin is only 20 minutes from his office in Lafayette.