Flushed and Refreshed

High water in the Atchafalaya Basin should lead to a good spawn and great bites for bass anglers.

One of the reasons Bill McCarty has been successful on the bass tournament trail is the same reason he catches bass more often than not in the Atchafalaya Basin in March, a time when the nation’s last great overflow swamp is high and some anglers go elsewhere.

McCarty keeps it simple, and feeds the bass a steady diet of soft plastics and crankbaits. He pitches to the bases of cypress trees and deadfalls, bumps the stumps and rakes grass beds.

“We don’t get too fancy,” McCarty said while fishing one of his favorite canals from his 18-foot Express, powered by a 115-horsepower Yamaha outboard motor, during a recent trip.

It’s been that way ever since he grew up fishing with his uncle, Al Belaire of Morgan City. Belaire had a boat, unlike the McCartys.

“We’d spend time on the water. He would go because I liked to go, you know?” McCarty said.

If they weren’t fishing around Stephensville, they were wetting a line most of the time in one of two places in the Atchafalaya Basin — Flat Lake or Bear Bayou. There were no long boat rides to out-of-the-way fishin’ holes.

“We never got too exotic. We didn’t have to,” McCarty said.

If uncle and nephew weren’t bass fishing, they were taking advantage of the great chinquapin bite in Flat Lake.

“We’d be out there … something to tighten your line,” he said.

He started targeting bass more and more as he got older, and continued to stick to the basics, although he did learn to finesse fish one spring in nearby Bayou Teche, where he was assured of getting bit by a bass, even if many of the bass on the business end of the finesse bait were on the small side.

Like hundreds of other anglers on both sides of the Spillway, McCarty can’t wait to fish this spring in the expansive area between the protection levees. He’ll look for areas with high banks, of which he talked about later as he retrieved first a 200-series spring crawfish-colored Bandit crankbait and then a watermelon seed Zoom Ultra Vibe.

He wonders aloud if bass fishing success will be better this March than it was at the same time in 2006.

For that matter, he said, he wonders if bassin’ overall will be better than it was last year, an all-around subpar year for what typically has been one of the reliable bass fishing meccas in the South.

The last keeper bass he caught in the Atchafalaya Basin was last September during the two-day Super Tournament that wrapped up the Wal-Mart Bass Fishing League circuit in 2006. It was tough for him and everyone else in the field, he said, remembering that he had three keepers to show for two days of fishing, and finished 10th.

For many, 2006 was a year to forget about bass fishing in the Spillway. Apparently, Hurricane Rita did more damage to the gamefish population than people realized. For sure, the storm’s surge brought high-salinity water into many areas and killed the grass, like it did in Flat Lake.

“I think it’s a combination of Rita and probably the drought, in my opinion,” McCarty said. “This was one of the worst years since Andrew came through (in 1992). It’s been so dry for a couple of years, and then we had a couple hurricanes, especially Rita.”

Before Hurricane Rita, he said, he could get off work at 4:30 p.m. and be ought on the water by 5:15. He’d often catch 15, 20 bass, a lot of them quality fish, before calling it a day.

“We couldn’t do that last year. At least I couldn’t,” said the soft-spoken, personable bass angler.

He caught bass “right after Rita,” he said, in places where the fish probably moved to as a safe haven.

“After we caught those, that was it,” he said.

Rain was pouring over him as he spoke on a chilly, wet, miserable day. Still, he found something to smile about, and that was the water level. It was higher than he’d seen it in a long time, he said. That development might help bass fishing in the future, hopefully as soon as this year, he said while noting the Atchafalaya River stage at Morgan City that day was 5.1.

Higher water levels than were experienced the last two years should help flush out and invigorate the swamp. Perhaps underwater vegetation will come back strong in some of the critical areas, he said wistfully.

This month he plans to check out Spillway fishing spots like American Lake, Shell Cut and along Bayou Sorrell if the river stage is 4.5 to 5.0 feet at Morgan City, and Flat Lake if it’s below 4.0 feet. Some of his other hotspots for March in the Basin include Williams Pipeline, Bayou Cowan and the Zigzag Canal.

“It all depends on the water level,” he said. “When it’s 4 1/2-5 down we fish from the Logan Canal area on south. When it’s above that, Bayou Pigeon, Zigzag, Williams Canal, toward Belle River.

“Just because the water’s up above the ramp at Russo’s (popular Morgan City area boat ramp) doesn’t mean you can’t catch fish.”

How good can it be in March?

In 2003, McCarty won the state B.A.S.S. Federation tournament here with a dominating catch the second day from American Lake. The first day he went in the marsh, along Bayou Penchant south of Intracoastal Canal, but finished the event in American Lake, where he and his partner each caught 15 pounds on Zoom Brush Hogs.

“It can be good,” he said in an understatement.

No one knows that better than McCarty’s bass fishing partner, Kevin Voisin of Morgan City. Voisin, who owns Atchafalaya Bonding Service and has established himself as an accomplished bass angler locally and abroad, fishes as a boater with McCarty as his co-angler in the BFL.

Voisin’s approach to catching bass in the Spillway in March is different than McCarty’s. He admitted sometimes it isn’t easy to find and catch bass when the water’s up and in the woods in early spring.

“I’m going to try to get into some landlocked holes. You can’t get in there until about 5 feet,” Voisin said a few days after McCarty’s outing in the heavy rain.

Specifically, Voisin aims for some prime areas around Three Island, which seems to be the focal point for the potential honeyholes.

“I try the Tugboat Hole, Square Hole next to it, and Beaver Pond,” he said.

Other late winter or early spring spots he likes when the water’s high are Kamikaze Hole, which is near The Mugger, and way back at the end of Joubert’s Hole. Boaters beware, however, because access to those areas requires navigating ditches.

“That’s some spots I go fish because they’ve got high banks. I like to check out all these holes you can’t get into except during high water,” Voisin said. “One other one is all the way at the back end of American Bayou. They’ve got a little trail.”

Voisin, 40, doesn’t always go off the beaten path. He has caught tons of bass — up to 5 1/2 pounds regularly — in waters off Bear Bayou, particularly some of the flooded ponds off the forks.

When he goes to any of those aforementioned areas, he has tied on a watermelon/red Zoom Brush Hog or a gold/orange Redfin. The latter is dynamite in clear water, he said.

Most of the time, that clear water can be found, too, in the Shell Field and the three borrow pits along the levee near Morgan City, he said. Duck Lake and Mystic Crew are other areas that usually have clear water and bass.

As for McCarty, Voisin acknowledged that he is an up-and-coming bass angler.

“He’s doing pretty good. He likes the back of the boat. He’s a good fishermen. We do good together as a team,” he said.

The 37-year-old McCarty, an avid deer hunter, has made a name for himself in a short time while fishing from the back of the boat in the Wal-Mart Bass Fishing League circuit in and around Louisiana. He started in 2002 as a co-angler, and has won three of 28 tournaments while pulling in clutch bass as well as $8,285.

“I didn’t know what to expect. There are a lot of good fishermen,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate. It’s all about getting good partners and being around fish.”

While the Spillway is his home water and favorite place to fish in Louisiana, he has taken a liking to the Red River. He has been successful in tournaments on the waterway that was segmented by locks from Alexandria to Shreveport in the early 1990s.

“Talk about a fun place to fish. It’s not like when the water in the Basin rises. When the water’s high (at Red River), you’re still going to catch fish. It’s like fishing salt water. When you put a shrimp in the water, you’re going to catch something,” he said.

McCarty attended McNeese State University one year and graduated with a degree in business law from Nicholls State University. He realized after graduation that to work as a corporate lawyer, he’d have to move to a larger city.

“I realized it’d be hard to make a career of it and stay in a small town like this,” he said.

The lure of fishing in Cajun Country played a big part in his decision.

So he turned to the oilfield, after a stint as a blackjack dealer at Cypress Bayou Casino in Charenton.

He has been with Ocean Marine Contractors Inc. for 10 years, and serves as vice president of operations for the oilfield-related firm that deals in barge repair, new fabrication and salvage. Ocean Marine has been busy, naturally, since the hurricanes — Katrina in August 2005 and Rita in September 2005.

“We’ve got so much work now. We’re getting hurricane-damaged material in. It really just started. At first (soon after the hurricanes smashed the state’s coast), everybody was worried about production and oil,” he said.

He also noted that the price of scrap metal has skyrocketed, and can’t believe the number of zeroes in some of the figures he deals with now.

The Morgan City native is the son of Mr. and Mrs. Philip McCarty. His father, an eighth-grade teacher for 30 years, is a native of Roanoke (near Lake Charles) who moved to Morgan City.

McCarty, who was elected last fall to the St. Mary Parish School Board, and his wife Julie Cortez McCarty, a teacher at Franklin Junior High, have a daughter, Jill, who will tell you she’s 6 1/2, not 6. Jill often goes fishing with him, he said, but likes to play with the fish after she catches them. The first-grade student cleans the fish, too, he said proudly.

He enjoys fishing for redfish more than he does fishing speckled trout, he said. But his main passion is bass fishing, and at the moment he was fishing hard just to get a bite in the rain.

McCarty hooked one, which looked like a 1 1/2-pound bass, on an Ultra Vibe, but it shook off just before he got it to the boat. It was only his third bite in 1 1/2 hours.

Still, he kept the baitcasting rig going in and out with smooth, deft casts. The artificial lure, either a crankbait or soft plastic, always landed on the surface with a soft plip rather than a plop.

That’s the way he plans to fish the Spillway in March. He’ll use a 3/16-ounce worm weight when he throws a watermelon seed, watermelon/red or junebug Zoom Brush Hog or Ultra Vibe.

He also likes to throw a black/blue or black/red jig-n-pig combination, or a 3/8-ounce chartreuse/white/blue spinnerbait with a double Colorado blade combination, which he considers a “change-up” bait. And when the water’s clear, it’s hard to beat a gold/orange Redfin, he said.

But he emphasizes the green pumpkin Ultra Vibe he’s using is his bread and butter, his confidence bait. He was fishing it under a 3/8-ounce worm weight rather than a 3/16-ounce worm weight.

“I normally use a 3/16. With the rain and everything, I want to try to feel something,” he explained.

In March, he would be searching for the warmest water he could find as bass get into their prespawn or spawn mode.

“As long as it’s above 50. It gets (below) 50, it gets really tough down here. You have to slow down so much. I’m really bad about that,” he said.

While he fished in the canal that rainy day, the water temperature was 54 degrees.

“I like March. Generally, from about the last week of February to the end of March. The water starts to warm up and the fish get more active,” he said.

McCarty got his hands on a 12 1/2-inch bass, and smiled in the rain. He unhooked the Ultra Vibe from its mouth, and released it. It was the fourth of half-a-dozen bites on that raw winter day.

He was enjoying himself, despite the wet stuff, but counting the days before March. He simply can’t wait to set the hook then.

About Don Shoopman 519 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.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply