Folks living in the northern portion of the state don't have far to look when seeking good fishing waters.

Granted, we're not as water-logged up this way as the folks down south with their marshes and coastal bays, lakes and bayous. Even so, we have plenty of prime fishing waters in North Louisiana.

Some of the better known lakes and streams, such as Toledo Bend, the Red River, Lakes D'Arbonne, Caney and Poverty Point, usually garner the majority of the publicity because they're great fish-producers that folks have come to appreciate.

There are others, though, that have become rather well-kept secrets, and to unwrap these surprise packages on the pages of Louisiana Sportsman could cause this writer to wake up one morning to find my yard has been "rolled."

At the risk of having to watch strands of toilet tissue blowing in the wind from the trees in my yard for the next year, I'll let you in on a secret crappie fishing spot you may not know about.

Tucked away amid the cypresses just outside the city limits of West Monroe is 3,600-acre Cheniere Lake, a tree-studded little water body that is teeming with crappie. Granted, fishermen in North Louisiana know all about this lake, but most drive right on past it headed for D'Arbonne, Caney, Claiborne or any of a dozen other prime crappie lakes.

They are missing some good fishing close to home.

Why do most pass up Cheniere in favor of other better-known crappie lakes?

"Cheniere Lake can be intimidating," said Bobby Phillips, owner of the Honey Hole Tackle Shop in West Monroe and one of the area's best-known crappie experts.

Phillips fishes his local lake as often as he can with great success. He realizes, however, that the lake can be a tough nut to crack for the first-time visitor to Cheniere.

"There are so many cypress and tupelo gum trees in Cheniere that it all looks alike. They don't know where to start," Phillips added.

Cheniere Lake was impounded in 1946, and until 1968, the Ouachita River annually pushed backwater into the lake when the river was at a high-water stage. This influx of water produced results normally attributed to lakes that receive overflow waters.

In short, the lake benefited by being periodically flushed out with an infusion of forage fish, crawfish and game fish migrating in from the river.

However, for a 10-year period from 1958-1968, river waters did not enter the lake because drainage and flood control measures had been introduced along the Ouachita River to keep the city of Monroe from being inundated with flood waters. As a result, there was a gradual decline in fish populations in Cheniere, which no longer received the benefits of natural water level fluctuation.

The lake was taken into a five-year management program beginning in 1965 that included an annual water level fluctuation. By 1971, the total poundage of fish per acre had ballooned from 50.5 to 117.9. No doubt, the fisheries management plan for Cheniere Lake was a whopping success as fishing on the lake continues to be excellent today.

Having fished the lake since he was a youngster, Phillips, 60, knows Cheniere as well as anyone.

"I grew up in Chatham, and I'd gather up my fishing pole and can of worms and catch the bus that ran to Monroe," he reminisced. "I'd get off at the bus station and walk to Cheniere, and fish for bream all day, returning home on the bus late in the afternoon."

Years later, his fishing preference turned decidedly to crappie, which gave Phillips an advantage because he already knew the lake.

"Cheniere is such a good crappie lake because of structure. It is literally full of cypress and tupelo gum trees, but can be intimidating if you don't know where to go. Once you learn your way around the lake, it's easy to catch fish here.

"For the past several years, Cheniere has had a drawdown to help eliminate the mat of leaves that has built up on the lake bottom over the years. While the lake has a sandy bottom over most of its area, the heavy build-up of leaves on the bottom is a problem.

"By lowering the lake during fall and winter, the leaves are exposed to air, causing them to deteriorate. Then when the lake is allowed to fill, there is a lot of sandy bottom area available for fish to spawn.

"Actually, in the spring, it's easy to catch crappie on Cheniere once the lake fills again; all you have to do is work the shallows, fishing around the roots of trees with a jig or shiner. By concentrating on fishing the 2- to 3-foot shallow trees, you eliminate a lot of unproductive water."

Crappie on Cheniere Lake grow fat and large, and because of the tannic acid caused by decaying vegetation in the water, Cheniere crappie have a beautiful golden hue instead of the stark black and white usually associated with crappie.

In order to catch a cooler of Cheniere slabs in spring, it is necessary to pattern the fish, although it's a relatively simple procedure, according to Phillips.

"You have to pattern the fish every time you go out. One day, they're in 2-foot water; the next, they may be in 3-foot water. You just have to experiment to see where they're located on a given day," he said.

"Weather changes affect the fish and determine where they'll be. A period of stable weather where the water temperatures rise pushes the fish to the shallows.

A spring cold front comes through and they move. They don't leave the area; they just push back to deeper water. The spawning urge is on, and they're not going to move very far from where they want to spawn. Once the water temperature approaches 58 degrees, you might find them in a foot of water.

"The spawn on Cheniere usually doesn't last as long as it does on big reservoirs. On larger lakes, there are all sorts of water types and depths where spawning may begin in the shallow portions today and it may be several weeks before conditions get right in deeper areas for the spawn.

"Since Cheniere is a shallow lake, conditions hit a peak at about the same time so the spawn can begin and end over a three-week period. You may not have as long to catch spawning crappie on Cheniere, but while the spawn is on, it can be fast and furious," said Phillips.

There are several methods for catching crappie on Cheniere that will work, says Phillips.

"Because the water is so clear, you have to be quiet and not bang around the boat. It all depends on which type of bait/lure the angler prefers. If you like to fish minnows, they'll work on Cheniere. However, jig fishermen like me really love to feel that 'thump' when a crappie hits a jig," he said.

Because of the profusion of trees in the lake with overhanging limbs, it can be frustrating to fish without getting your lure entangled in the limbs.

"I sometimes use a jig beneath a cork," Phillips said. "That way, you can hold the pole with one hand while you pull the line up with the other until just the cork and jig below it are exposed. The cork lets you fish vertically right where you want your jig to be. Whether fishing a jig under a cork or just a jig alone, I hold the pole in my right hand and actually set the hook by snatching on the line in my left hand.

"If you try to jerk up on your pole when you get a bite, you'll spend the next five minutes getting your line untangled from the limbs. If you try to sweep it to the side to set the hook, the fish has time to spit out the bait.

"However, by setting the hook with the line in your hand, the pole remains stationary, and once the fish is hooked, then you can move the tip of the pole from beneath the limbs and release the line gradually when the fish is in open water."

Phillips noted that crappie tend to bite differently while the spawn is going on than at other times of the year.

"During the spawn, the fish are finicky and are not really wanting to eat the bait; they're just moving it out of the spawning area. They don't flare their gills and suck it in like they do when they're feeding. Because of this, you have to set the hook quickly once you feel the slightest 'tick' on the line or see it twitch or move," he said.

According to this crappie fishing expert, there is no magic date for the spawn to begin on Cheniere.

"It all depends on Mother Nature. Five days before and after a full moon in early spring is a great time to find them spawning. However, the water temperature has to be right. Catch the full moon, and water temperature around 58 degrees and you're in business.

"The spawn on Cheniere can take place the latter part of March or early April, depending on how the jet stream is working."

Once the spawn is over and the crappie retreat from the shallows, locating and catching Cheniere Lake crappie can be more challenging. However, according to Phillips, anglers who have taken time to learn the lake can find them in deeper areas around the trees, where jigs and shiners will continue to work. The action, though, may not be as fast and furious as it can be during the spawn.

Although Cheniere can be intimidating because of the thick stand of timber in the lake, Phillips has found a fairly simple way to locate the openings and boat runs.

"I go to the lake in winter when the leaves have fallen. In spring, you can't see 10 feet in front of you, but once the leaves fall, you'll see open areas and runs you didn't know were there," said Phillips.

He noted that spending hours locating and marking these runs and openings takes away from fishing time, but in the long run, it can pay dividends for serious crappie anglers.

Phillips added that once the leaves are back on the trees, you'll have the edge on fishermen who failed to spend time finding these subtle little openings. He suggests leaving some sort of marker that only you can recognize as well as making notes of the location of these areas to help you locate the runs and openings once they're hidden when trees become leafed out in spring.

"If I had to suggest to a first-time visitor to the lake where to fish for crappie," Phillips noted, "I'd tell him to put in at any of the several boat launches and start fishing around the trees in the shallows and gradually move to deeper trees until fish are located. It's a pretty good bet he'll find some of those pretty golden crappie."

No doubt, this lake can be intimidating, but if you'll follow the advice of Bobby Phillips, one of the most experienced crappie anglers in North Louisiana, you can catch a box of butter-colored Cheniere crappie this year.


AUTHOR'S NOTE: For a map of Cheniere Lake with boat runs and lanes marked, contact Bobby Phillips at the Honey Hole, 2916 N. 7th St., West Monroe, LA 71291, telephone 318/323-8707.