15-Minute Advantage

You don’t have to run far to catch bass in this productive area of Southcentral Louisiana.

Webster defines “advantage” as a more favorable position or superiority.

In the world of tennis, it’s the first point scored after deuce. But for bass anglers, both tournament and recreational, it’s knowing the where and the how, when the field happens to be your own backyard.

Much of the Southcentral Louisiana region surrounding Berwick Bay, between Morgan City and Berwick, for the past year and a half, has been in a state of recovery from Hurricane Rita’s storm surge and eight months of drought that subsequently followed.

In April 2006, when I had a hankering for a mess of tasty bass fillets, I headed to my canal-infested stomping grounds, south of the Intracoastal Waterway, around Cote Blanche Bay.

To my amazement, my partner and I fished all day without so much as a strike. It had become quite clear this region had fallen on hard times.

Downriver below Morgan City, areas normally teeming with fish like Bateman Lake, Deer Island Bayou, Belle Isle and westward to Cote Blanche Bay, reports were coming in that the fishing was tough. Above Morgan City, even Flat Lake, a tried and true favorite fishery for locals looking to fry a mess of chinquapin, goggle-eye and bass, wasn’t up to par.

For tournament fishermen, catching a 14-inch fish had proven difficult. When Rocky Roussel of Morgan City won the FLW Bass Fishing League-Louisiana Division Super Tournament held out of Jesse Fontenot Landing in Berwick on Sept. 28, he did it with a two-day total of eight fish weighing 15 pounds, 9 ounces. What’s more, the two-day co-angler winning total, caught by Henry Warthen III of St. Gabriel, was 9 pounds, 3 ounces.

The quantity and quality just wasn’t there a year after the storm. Fishermen used to catching high numbers of bass at the mouth of a little trenasse emptying into a bayou on a falling tide were now having to burn gas. Moreover, record high gas prices only added insult to injury.

Just the same, some fishermen were consistently having success employing the “15-Minute Advantage” — the advantage of knowing where to go 15 minutes from local landings and what tactics to employ when times are tough and the competition even tougher.

Area locals Gary Blanco, Howard Hartley, Ray Beadle and Gerald Foulcard may not always be at the top of weigh-in leader boards, but week in and week out, no one can say they don’t compete — especially, when the tournament is held near Berwick Bay.

Gary Blanco is a former BFL and Bassmaster angler who currently fishes the Media Bass circuit.

“With Hurricane Andrew it took 1 1/2 to 2 years before you actually started seeing the numbers again,” he said. “This past year has been tough for everybody, and if people were catching fish they weren’t saying anything. When you go north, up in the Sorrel, and catch a flounder, something’s changed.”

This year, Blanco feels a lot depends on finding aquatic vegetation and quality water.

“The storm did a lot of damage and devastated the fishing,” he said. “You can’t find the grass like you used to.

“But fishermen who find grass and clear water will catch fish. I tend to fish down south — downriver. For tournaments, I’ll fish the Wax, Spanish Lake, the Bull and Lake Salve.”

When fishing above Morgan City, Blanco recommends Old River and Grand Lake along with the Bayou Pigeon area.

“I’ll look for water quality and some good banks — particularly flooded banks — and if I’ve got to take my boat up in the woods, I’ll do it.

“Under these conditions, 90 percent of the time I’ll use a chartreuse/white 3/8- to ½-ounce spinnerbait with a gold Colorado blade. When that doesn’t work, I’ll go to flipping a jig.”

Howard Hartley fishes the Media Bass and Fishers of Men circuits. Additionally, just to stay in tournament shape, he participates and directs the local weeknight fish-off. According to Hartley, things are improving locally.

“There are some fish starting to show on the lower end of the Atchafalaya River,” he said. “It’s not as bad as right after Hurricane Rita, but from Flat Lake to the Wax area south, it was hit pretty hard. What I believe is going to help out this year is the high water.

“A lot of people don’t understand how important the rise is to fish. Though fishing in high water is tough, it’s good for the fish. When the water comes up and overflows the wooded areas, it provides protection for the fingerlings and young fish, giving them a place to hide from fishermen and predators.

“Last September it was hard to find a 14-inch fish. This year is going to be better than last year.”

Within 15 to 20 minutes, Hartley says he prefers fishing the Wax, Bayou Teche and the Spillway.

“The water will be high in the Spillway, but if I had to pick a spot, it would be there,” he said. “You might have to fish 2 miles of bayou, but you’ll find fish stacked in 2 to 3 feet of water along wooded areas.

“I’d fish the Wax around a full moon between the Atchafalaya River and Calumet Spillway. If you find some clear water and grass, you’ll catch fish.”

Llike many bass anglers, Hartley will sometimes use a spinner.

“When I do throw a spinnerbait, most of the time it will be a ¼- to ½-ounce chartreuse/white bait with gold Colorado and willowleaf blades,” he said. “But if you’re a tournament fisherman, you can’t beat a jig. I like to flip up close and personal.”

When Hartley decides to get personal, the conditions will dictate the size jig he uses.

“I prefer to use a black/blue/purple Slam Dunk jig with a Zoom Big Chunk trailer in the flipping blue color,” he said. “In shallow water, when fish are closer to the bank, I’ll use a ¼-ounce size. When they are farther from the bank, I’ll use a 3/8-ounce particularly in post-frontal conditions when they have moved off the bank and closer to the boat. Your bites might slow down, but what you catch will be quality.”

Hartley enjoys the challenges bass present.

“I can’t think of another animal, other than a human, that will kill when aggravated,” he said. “You can aggravate a bass that’s full from eating, and he will kill. You can make a bass bite if you take the time to do it. That’s what I love about bass fishing. I like to make it a game. I know that I can make him bite, even if he’s not willing.”

Bullet Bass Club President Gerald Foulcard recently won his club’s monthly tournament, landing a fish that weighed 4 pounds, 8 ounces on a spinnerbait fishing the Quintana Garden City field area.

“Believe it or not, I’ve caught three limits of bass in the Quintana field,” he said. “There is some grass in Quintana right now.”

According to Foulcard, the area seems to be recovering.

“This year has improved over last year, but it’s not up to standard,” he said. “The quantity is there, but not the quality yet. Last year we didn’t have hardly any grass, but I see a comeback this year.”

Within 15 minutes, Foulcard will put in at the Burguieres Memorial boat launch on Highway 317, near Cabot on the Intracoastal Waterway.

“I’ll run to Quintana, and fish dead-end canals,” he said. “I’ll catch fish on Smithwick Rogues, spinnerbaits and Mann’s Baby 1-Minuses; that thing really catches fish.”

Foulcard recommends fishing the backend of canals.

“Fish will move toward the back of the canals in Quintana because the water near the front end is colder near the bayou,” he said. “The fish also like to spawn in the grass that tends to be in the back end of the canals too.”

Foulcard and I fished Quintana’s canals one afternoon prior to the spawn, and found fish setting under wood along shallow banks. What’s more, that pattern held true for every fish we happened to land.

“I’ll look for patterns when I fish for bass,” Foulcard said. “Sometimes they will be in the grass, and other times you’ll find them sitting around stumps and logs. Finding what bait they are biting on is important, but other times it may be the rate you retrieve your bait.

“Fish grow accustomed to seeing the same thing when there is lots of fishing pressure. I like to change up from the fast, steady retrieve that most guys use. I’ll slow down and speed up my retrieve just to let them see something different.”

Local angler Ray Beadle is always willing to help out a fisherman by sharing the knowledge he has garnered from years of fishing the region.

“I love it,” Beadle says. “I want others to know the joy I get from setting a hook. I want them to say, ‘YEAH!’ and feel that joy.

“Last year we could cover a 100 miles and burn 50 gallons of fuel running from the Amelia/Stephensville area to Bateman Lake, the Wax and then all the way up to American and Duck Lake to catch one or two knotheads. But the biggest heartbreak was seeing all of the grass gone.”

This spring, Beadle has been encouraged about the region’s recovery.

“The water has been on the way up, and our fish are replenished by the river,” he said. “I can go to Bear Bayou, across Flat Lake and the Amelia area and catch fish. In the lower Stephensville area and Bayou Louise area, you’ll catch some fish; there are a few bites out there right now on a jig-andpig.”

The 15-Minute Advantage for Beadle is a run to the north.

“I’ll fish the little island humps around American Lake, watching the depth finder and fishing points — the bait is hiding up in there,” he said. “The Duck Lake area has a tremendous number of humps and stumps. I’ll fish a purple/black/blue Stanley flipping jig with a pork rind. I’ll also use a green pumpkinseed jig with a green crawl worm as a trailer.

“When I fish these areas upriver, I’m going to throw a jig-and-pig at the base of trees in 1 1/2 to 3 feet of water. But bear in mind, fish go through moods. For example, I can’t eat spaghetti every day.

“The fish are the same way. Sometimes they’ll eat shad, another day bugs and still other days, crustaceans.

“Weather affects their moods too. Often, the weather changes, and they suspend. If a front comes through, they’ll go deep. One of the hardest days I’ve ever fished in a tournament was out of Doiron’s Landing, where it was a bluebird sky after a mega-front.”

When it comes to water quality, Beadle, like most bass anglers, looks for clear water. However, Beadle also says that not all muddy water is muddy below the surface, just on top. He points out that predator fish will get up in that top 1 1/2 feet of water to hide.

Additionally, Beadle recommends fishing a black/blue 4-inch Renegade worm with a 1/0 hook when fishing runoffs upriver. Beadle says fishermen need to go to the baits they’re confident with when fishing upriver.

During a late February trip I made with Beadle to Bear Bayou, we spent little time looking for clear water and more time throwing lizards, jigs and occasionally a spinnerbait at the bases of cypress trees and along logs and stumps. What we found was water temperatures in the high 60s and 2- to 3-pound fish staging up prior to the spawn.

With favorable reports coming in frequently, the region is rapidly recovering. Tournament anglers from out of town beware — locals have “The 15-minute Advantage.”