Better Late Than Never

Lacassine Pool will open in late April, and anglers will rediscover a bass fishery that is very much like it used to be.

On Monday, April 26, a new sound will be added to the quiet symphony of the marsh inside Lacassine Pool at Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge. That is the day for the long-awaited opening of fishing in the pool, one that was delayed from the traditional March 15 opener in deference to the recovering largemouth bass population inside the NWR southeast of Lake Charles.

The hum of small outboard motors (25-horsepower or less) will mix with sounds made by various chirpy and sing-songy birds, croaking frogs glad spring has arrived, bleating nutrias oblivious to everything around them, and baritones of alligators.

And many anglers with itchy trigger fingers hope they can add the sounds of bass splashin’ in the livewell to the melodic medley. Based on recommendations from federal and state biologists, fishermen can harvest bass for the first time since the pool was closed following the catastrophic drought of the late 1990s.

Bryan Winton, interim refuge manager since the November 2003 retirement of Vicki Graf, announced the first week of February there will be a five-fish, 14-inch minimum length limit on bass in 2004.

“Both U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries biologists concurred on a conservative harvest again for bass this year,” Winton said in a news release. “If you recall, we did not allow a harvest of bass in 2001 or 2002. In 2003, we allowed catch/keep all species except bass, and this year we will allow some harvest of bass.”

The bottom line is managers who are monitoring the bass fishery closely want to protect one more bass spawn before opening the pool to fishermen, many of whom are ultra-efficient at putting fish in the boat any time of the year.

True, Winton said later during an interview, the agency is being conservative again. The goal, he said, is to return the fishery to “normal” as soon as research shows the bass population has reached a point where it can withstand a normal harvest.

“There are a lot of small fish still out there recovering. We hope anglers will be appreciative in a couple of years,” he said. “The pool’s so big. There’s so much grass. The big fish will be there again.”

And that point may be sooner than people think. Baton Rouge-based federal biologist John Forester said in his Feb. 3 report that state biologist Bobby Reed noted that the grand bass fishery that yielded so many “hawgs” in the hey-days of the 1990s resulted from a single stocking in 1985 of 50,000 Florida bass on top of an existing fishery managed under a 15-fish per day/no minimum length limit regulation.

“Both biologists want to do what’s best for the fishery. They want to get it to fully recover. They want to give it a chance to recover as quickly as possible,” Winton said.

Winton, 39, is hopeful of becoming the full-time successor to Graf. This will be only his third summer at Lacassine NWR, which means he missed the big bass bonanzas before the drought in the pool.

“I’ve only heard stories from anglers and other people and staff about how good it was. I’m looking forward to seeing it back to normal, somewhat, to get it back to where people can keep fish,” he said.

Naturally, the regulations and, even, the delayed opening of the season won’t sit well with each and every angler, particularly those who recall how awesome the fishing was in the second half of 2003. A significant number of anglers, for example, were hoping tournaments would be allowed this year, but tournament’s won’t be permitted mainly because of the presence of the largemouth bass virus (LMBV), according to Forester.

Forester said the biologists — including Roy Walter, fisheries biologist with the Southwest Louisiana NWR Complex (Sabine NWR) — took everything into consideration before choosing their options.

“So, we look at the data, consider public sentiment, consider manpower and sentiment within the refuge/state enforcement program and make a choice among the several possibilities,” Forester wrote in his report.

What did the biologists find in their electrofishing samples taken in January at Lacassine Pool? Reed and his District 5 Inland Fisheries staff went out Jan. 28, a clear day when the water temperature was 54 degrees and water visibility was excellent, and caught 44 bass per hour compared to samples a year before when they got 38 bass per hour.

And, in comparison, before the drought biologists averaged 50-60 bass an hour, according to Winton.

Thirty-three percent of those fish shocked up a few months ago were more than 12 inches long and their health was favorable, he said, noting the relative condition factors (Wr) ranged from 91 to 131 depending on the sex of the fish, general health and season. Ninety-five to 105 is considered good, he explained.

Reed said they saw larger bass this winter than last winter, including five weighing more than 4 pounds and one nearly 7 pounds. They also got their hands on 22 fingerlings, which indicates good reproduction last spring and summer, the veteran biologist said.

Winton reviewed the reports the day they came in and said, “If we were to go with a 14-inch minimum, the public would have been able to keep 13 of 86 bass. If we were to go with a 13-16-inch slot, people would have been able to keep 73 bass. People may not want to keep fish that small.”

The unsettling news from the biologists is the presence of LMBV. Forester sent 16 bass to the lab to be examined last year, he said, and half of them had the virus.

That is one reason tournaments are banned this year at the pool, Winton said. The water-borne virus started in the Southeast in 1991, and spread from Florida to South Carolina and east to and across the Mississippi River. Louisiana and Arkansas bass have carried it.

Forester wrote: “It is manifested mostly during times of stress (high temperatures during the summer months) and death occurs almost exclusively in larger adults (very few below 14-15 inches).”

Fish can carry the virus for years, he said. When he announced the regulations, he wrote that “bass become stressed while in the livewell, can pick up the water-borne virus in dirty livewells, and can transmit the disease to crappie and bluegill (bream). Bass tournaments could promote a higher turnover of bass in livewells (including stress) if permitted.”

Also, Winton said about this year’s tournament ban, Lacassine NWR wants to wait until a federal policy regarding tournaments is in place within the USFWS. A comprehensive conservation plan should be in place by then for the next 10-15 years, he said.

“We’d like to hold off one more year on tournaments until that is done,” he said.

The refuge’s mission statement is to provide habitat and refuge for migratory birds, particularly ducks, he said. But the majority of the pool’s users are fishermen, he said in the next breath.

“We have kind of a challenge for the pool. We have 16,000 acres for waterfowl in season. Forty percent of the refuge is open to hunting — none in the pool. And there is some bowhunting on the perimeter,” Winton said. “Ninety-nine percent of the users in the pool are fishermen. Fishermen and anglers have ideas how we can manage the pool. We try to do the best we can to provide for both (waterfowl and fishermen). We can’t disregard fishing. We can’t go to the public and say, ‘Screw you guys. We’re going to manage for ducks.’”

With that in mind, there were a series of fishing focus group meetings last fall, including one in nearby Lake Charles. Pros and cons to tournament fishing were expressed there, Winton said.

Ray Bustillo of Lake Charles said he is OK with the April 26 opening date and all of the regulations with the exception of the ban on tournaments at Lacassine Pool. Bustillo, who with his wife owns Wendy’s Flower Cart, has been fishing the pool for three decades.

“Those guys (biologists) do a wonderful job. The feds are doing a wonderful job with the amount of money they get from the government,” he said.

“I’m fine with it. I think it’s good that it’s opening up April 26,” he continued.

But, he said, “Most disappointing is that they’re not having tournaments. Half the bass in Toledo Bend have the virus. Half the bass in the (Atchafalaya) Basin have the virus. All the bass in Louisiana, half of them have the virus.

“They want to use that as an excuse to keep bass tournament fishermen out of there. All the tournaments they have in Louisiana … I don’t think it makes a difference. I’m not a biologist, but I read around and see around,” he said.

Bustillo, 46, absolutely adores Lacasssine Pool. That’s why he went to the fishing focus meeting in Lake Charles.

“I love it! It’s wonderful. You can’t fish Toledo Bend and see bass coming after a floating lizard like Lacassine,” he said. “I fish Mexico. I fish Toledo Bend and Sam Rayburn. It’s a treasure.”

Danny Thibodeaux of Moss Bluff feels much the same way about the scenic marsh. The 50-year-old former outdoorsman, who worked for Citgo Petroleum before retiring with a disability, said he wouldn’t have gone in if it had opened March 1, which some anglers lobbied for, or March 15.

Thibodeaux believes April 26 is a good time to open the pool.

“I think it’s great. I think I’ve reached a point in my life where I’m not in there to fish for meat. I’ve gotten more to the conservative side. I’d like to give the fish an undisturbed chance to spawn. It makes good sense for the future,” he said.

Thibodeaux, who estimated taking 40-50 bass fishing trips to the pool last year, also believes the 14-inch minimum-length limit and five-fish creel limit are good ideas, as well.

“Last year it was nothing to go in and catch 50, 70 fish 12 inches and below. Again, the young fish are the future of the pond,” he said.

But Thibodeaux, who is familiar with weekly evening tournaments run by Lake Charles angler Ron Castille, television host of Fishing Southern Style, wonders about the decision to rule out tournaments from Lacassine NWR. Until several years ago, he was strongly anti-bass tournament.

“I think Ron’s tournaments do more good than harm,” he said, noting that part of the entry fees pays for the purchase of Florida bass fingerlings that Castille, Thibodeaux and others stock in Lacassine Pool. “I think he’s putting more in than taking out. As long as Ron’s doing it, it’ll be OK. He’s putting something back.”

Thibodeaux’s biggest bass from Lacassine Pool weighed a little more than 6 pounds. He also fishes Sabine NWR, where he has caught many 5s, 6s and, last year, a 7 1/2-pounder.

He can’t wait to get into the pool in late April. All an angler needs is two artificial lures, he said.

“I carry two baits in the place — a (1/8-ounce) Kipp’s Spinnerbait and a Zoom Super Fluke,” he said.

Top colors in the pool are baby bass for the spinnerbait and watermelon for the Fluke.

Thibodeaux likes fishing with the soft plastics so much he orders 100 bags of 10 apiece before each season begins at Lacassine Pool.

Castille knows how and where to fish the pool as well as anyone. He hopes the marsh might be more open than it has been in the past, something that could only occur with some late winter cold fronts bringing freezing temperatures.

But mostly heavy and persistent rains came in February, which means anglers probably will have to stick to throwing soft plastics and his favorite 1/2-ounce Rex gold spoon.

“If it’s open, a spinnerbait works well,” he said.

Castille advised anglers to pushpole through the marsh and fish thick vegetation with the spoon or go to potholes and fish with a shad-shaped soft plastic such as a baby bass-colored Shad Assassin or U-99. Also try white or alewife soft plastics, he said, and retrieve the soft plastics with an underwater walk-the-dog pattern.

Some likely hotspots this spring include the area west of Lone Cypress, around the Twin Sisters, and the South and North ponds.

Topwaters also are effective, he said, but extremely accurate casts are the rule of the day with them. Days with little wind are best for the topwaters.

Gold/orange Rogues also take their share of bass, he said.

Castille believes the harvest regulations should have included smaller bass because he believes the pool is overrun with undersized fish. Many of them caught last year appeared hungry and malnourished, he said.

Castille also would have liked to see an earlier opening date, as early as Feb. 15 with catch-and-release, he said the first week of February, and, of course, allowing tournaments.

But he and others are biting at the bit to get into the pool later this month.

Dennis Tietje is one of them.

“It’s one of the prettiest areas we have in South Louisiana. The marsh terrain is like being out in the wilderness. It’s big enough to get lost in. It just gives you that different feeling than you get when you’re on the lakes,” the accomplished B.A.S.S. Federation angler and crawfisherman said from his home in Southwest Louisiana.

“I like to fish the shallow vegetation. Sometimes you can see the weeds moving. Then it’s a challenge to see if you can get the fish to bite. Most of the time he wins,” he continued. “There’s something special about catching a 6- or 7-pound fish in 2 feet. You can see it happening. It’s good for the heart.

“The only thing I don’t like is the mosquitoes,” the personable angler said with a chuckle. “If you’re there at first daylight, or dark, you’ve better have protection.”

Perhaps even the buzzing of mosquitoes will be music to anglers’ ears as they join the wilderness symphony starting April 26.

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About Don Shoopman 453 Articles
Don Shoopman fishes for freshwater and saltwater species mostly in and around the Atchafalaya Basin and Vermilion Bay. He moved to the Sportsman’s Paradise in 1976, and he and his wife June live in New Iberia. They have two grown sons.

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