Battered, Bruised, and Beautiful

Drought, high temperatures and salty water have battered this south-central Louisiana playground, but it’s still one of the most productive bass fisheries around.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the 11th installment of a 12-part series exploring the best bass-fishing areas in the Bayou State.

While watching the TV announcers trying to fill time during the lightning delay in the LSU-Mississippi State game, I heard one of them say, “Things aren’t quite the same around these parts, but you can tell it’s coming back because you can see these people doing what they do.” That got me to wondering, “What do Louisianans do?” Shooting bluewing teal over a rice field — people are doing that. Tailgating before an LSU game — people are doing that. Watching the Saints rout the Falcons in the Superdome — although it’s a new phenomenon, people are doing that too.

If that announcer could have been here within days after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, he would have seen hundreds of us not only doing what we do, but doing what we love to do — fishing.

Of course, the saltwater anglers had it a lot easier than the freshwater folks did. The storms seemed to breathe life into the coastal fisheries, and the fishing was as good as many anglers could ever remember. They got back to “doing what they do” within days.

Unfortunately, the storms seemed to suck the life out of the inland freshwater fisheries like the Atchafalaya Basin. An increase in salt content and depleted oxygen levels caused by decomposing organic matter caused fish kills in some of the best bass fisheries below I-10. Bass anglers had to travel north to fish unaffected water if they wanted to get bit.

As if the battering of the storms wasn’t enough, the freshwater fisheries below I-10 then suffered through an extended drought that only exacerbated the problem. Fishery biologists agreed that the main thing needed for these fisheries to rebound was the passage of time.

One year has passed, and some of the freshwater fisheries are starting to rebound, none more so than the Atchafalaya Basin. It’s still got a long way to go, but it is at least productive enough that bass anglers can get back to “doing what they do.”

Basin Background

The Atchafalaya Basin is actually made up of several features that give it its overall charm and mystique. The Lower Atchafalaya River, the Wax Lake Outlet, Atchafalaya Bay and Bayous Chene, Boeuf, and Black navigation channels combine with the Mississippi River flood control system, including the Old River complex and the Atchafalaya Basin Floodway system to form one of the most historic swamps in the country.

It might surprise some folks to know that the Atchafalaya Basin is the largest active river delta in North America. Spring floods send tons and tons of silt into the Basin, thus creating new land and changing the topography of the swamp. The Atchafalaya Basin is unique in that it has a growing delta system with nearly stable wetlands. Wetland loss here is minimal compared to the other basins.

And while numerous fables and stories have Cajuns living primarily in swamps like the Atchafalaya Basin, the area is largely uninhabited, except by wildlife, fish and the occasional “swamp tour” boat out looking for alligators.

The Basin also sees an influx of bass anglers after springtime floodwaters recede enough to bring the bass back out of the flooded woods to the numerous bayous and canals, where they will set up in predictable places. Of course, the main problem other than the effects of Hurricane Rita is that there hasn’t been very much high water the past few springs.

Courtesy Flush

“The storms caused a few fish kills, and the water has been pretty low since then,” said District 9 Biologist Mike Walker. “There weren’t too many successful trips as of this past summer. It’s not that I think they were all killed. The low water and hot weather we had during the summer kind of put a damper on success.”

Walker said he can’t be sure of what the future holds, but his best guess is that if the Basin doesn’t get a good spring flood in 2007, it’s not going to get much better.

“There should be a boost in the fall once the water cools down,” he said. “The bass should get a little more active and stay that way until it gets really cold. It’s going to take a spring flood, though, for the Basin to get a big bounce.”

Walker explained that the high-water periods during the spring are necessary for the future of the fishery because they allow the bass to spawn in protected areas, which allows the fingerlings to survive. However, even with high water in the spring of 2007, Walker cautioned that it would still take a couple of years for those fingerlings to grow to harvestable size.

“Drought has nearly as much effect on the fish population as a big natural fish kill,” he said. “It reduces the spawn area and the survival of the fish because it exposes the fingerlings to predators. It also concentrates the bass in particular areas that also concentrate the anglers.”

Lay of the Land

Cliff Crochet has been fishing the Atchafalaya Basin long enough to know where to go when faced with a certain set of conditions. This Louisiana Bass Federation State Team member from Pierre Part explained that the primary bass cover varies from north to south.

“The primary cover the farther north you go above Highway 90 to as far as you want to go is cypress trees and other forms of wood cover,” he said. “As you move south, you run into more willow trees and grass. It’s been kind of hard to find good grass this year, but in a regular year you can find the best grass anywhere from the bottom part of Bayou Long to Flat Lake.”

Crochet further explained that it’s important to keep an eye on the gauge at Morgan City to get a feel for when to go fishing. Bass anglers might say there isn’t a bad time to go fishing, but certain levels and conditions can produce a better bite for educated anglers.

“The best fishing in the Basin is when it’s between 3 and 3.5 at the Morgan City gauge,” Crochet said. “Of course, this year it’s been as low as .9, and it’s probably been no higher than 3. Water movement is one of the strongest keys to catching bass. That’s why I look for a slow fall.”

Crochet believes a slow fall is best because it pulls fish out of flooded cover and sets them up on predictable locations. A slow fall gives bass time to react and change with the water, whereas a fast fall seems to shock the fish because there isn’t any middle ground — it’s high one day and low the next. A rise can be kind of tough too because it swells everything and pushes the bass farther back into inaccessible cover.

Seasonal Patterns

Spring — Crochet said one of the most important things to do during the spring is to fish the dead-end canals lined with cypress trees. He usually heads to Shell Field and gets as close to the bank as he can.

“The big thing for me is to throw a jig or soft plastic all the way up on the bank and ease it into the water,” Crochet said. “I’m basically targeting spawning fish this way. Sometimes you can get a little hint where they are when you see a little boil or some water movement, but most of the time, you’re just pulling it into an area where you think a bass may be on a bed.”

Crochet revealed two of his most productive spring baits are a Texas-rigged tube and a Zoom Brush Hog. He also included a black/blue jig in his list of “must-have” spring baits because “nobody goes fishing on the Basin without a black/blue jig tied on,” he said.

Another killer pattern during the spring is fishing a gold/black Rattlin’ Rogue around the trees. Like the jig, Crochet fishes the Rogue as tight to the bank as he can.

“A dead-sticking retrieve works best most of the time,” he said. “And you can usually catch some fish by ripping a 1/4-ounce spinnerbait with willow blades around some of the same shallow cover.”

Summer — One of the biggest keys to catching fish during the summer is to get out of the dead-end canals and move out to the main bayous because that’s where the water movement is best.

Crochet pointed out areas like Little Pigeon, Big Pigeon, Old River, West Fork, Bayou Sorrel, Bayou Jesse and Bayou Joe as being summertime hotspots. These areas are more affected by the natural north-to-south current than they are tidal movement.

“They’ll set up on trees out in the main bayous,” Crochet said. “They’ll also get in the mouths of sloughs that drain out of the woods into the bayous. Any kind of isolated cover like trees and wellheads are good options. Grass is also important during the summer.”

Crochet makes it a point to fish minor, isolated pieces of cover that don’t seem worth the trouble to fish. It could be something as insignificant as a small log stuck on a mud flat or one tree 200 yards away from any other cover.

“I approach a summer day by starting with topwaters around the grass,” Crochet said. “Lunker Lures work well, and I’ve been getting lots of bites on top with a SPRO Bronze Eye Frog.

“When the topwater bite stops, I’ll start hitting that isolated stuff with a Texas-rigged Red Shad worm. Sometimes, though, you can keep the topwater bite going if you find a thick mat of duckweed with fish underneath it.”

Anglers also enjoy success cranking points and canal intersections with a medium-diving crankbait like a Bandit 200 Series. Crawfish and shad work well in decent-looking water, but it’s hard to beat a chartreuse/blue or chartreuse/green if the water is off color a little.

Fall — Bass kind of revert to more of a spring pattern during the fall by moving back into the dead-end canals again. Crochet believes fall is one of the best times to fish the Basin because bass will actually be pretty much anywhere. Some will be in the dead-end canals, and some will stay out in the main bayous.

“When they get like that you just have to keep fishing until you find a good concentration of fish,” he said. “They can be anywhere, but they also tend to be grouped up more in the fall. You’ll eventually come across a little spot that produces several good fish in a relatively small zone. And once the water temperature drops into the 80s, you can catch them all day long.”

Crochet loves slinging a blade during the fall because it allows him to quickly cover large expanses of water. He sticks with willow blades if the water is clear, but he switches to an Indiana or Colorado blade in murky water.

“Pay attention to the fronts during the fall,” he cautioned. “A strong north wind will blow the water out in a hurry, whereas a strong south wind will swell it up in a hurry. I’ve found that the best time to fish during the fall is when it would be a lot easier to stay home in bed — the nastier the weather the better.”

Winter — Crochet believes there is no better time to catch quality bass than during the winter. He’s not sure if it’s because the winter offers a better big fish bite, or if it’s because he slowly fishes a jig all winter long.

“I like staying up north during the winter,” he said. “Anything north of Old River and Big Pigeon is good because there are a bunch of dead-end canals up there with lots of trees and laydowns. I think it’s more a matter of that area just offering a lot more targets. That area puts the odds in your favor.”

Crochet sticks with a 1/2-ounce jig if he’s on them pretty good, but he’ll go down to a 1/4-ounce if he has to make them bite by fishing slow. The heavier jig produces more of a reaction bite, while the lighter jig kind of force-feeds them.

“I stick with black/blue 90 percent of the time,” he said, “but I’ll try a black/red or a black/chartreuse jig if the water gets a little dirty.

“A lot of guys like to flip a jig with a craw worm, but I stick with a blue sapphire or a flippin’ blue Zoom Super Chunk trailer. I may go to a green pumpkin or watermelon trailer in clearer water. This is a great time and a great way to catch some good 3-pound chunks.”

Let Them Grow

A 5-pounder would have been considered a good “kicker” fish before Hurricane Katrina, but it’s now more common for a 3-pounder to take big-bass honors at a tournament held on the Basin. It’s going to take a little effort and a little common sense on the part of anglers for that 5-pounder to become more common.

“I personally think the Basin is hurt right now because of the storm and the low water,” Crochet said. “I think it’s on the rebound, but I strongly believe that catch-and-release is going to be one of the most important things we can do to help the Basin bounce back to doing what it does best.”

Then all us anglers can really get back to “doing what we do.”

About Chris Ginn 778 Articles
Chris Ginn has been covering hunting and fishing in Louisiana since 1998. He lives with his wife Jennifer and children Matthew and Rebecca along the Bogue Chitto River in rural Washington Parish. His blog can be found at