Lake Verret is known for its finicky bass fishing, but this 13-time King Fisherman says December can be one of the most-exciting months to be on the waterbody.
A cold front had pushed through the night before, and the sun threw light over cypress trees and turned the skies from black to burnt orange to sapphire blue. Donaldsonville angler Richard Sherman already was on the water, working a stretch of bank in search for his first bite. But he didn’t expect much for an hour or so.
“As the sun gets up, the light penetrates the water a lot better, and that’s when that clear water warms up,” Sherman said. “So the early morning bite usually isn’t as good. During the wintertime, I sometimes don’t put in until 7 or 8 o’clock.”
Sure enough, by 8 a.m., only one small fish had been swung into the boat. By this time, the angler had moved to the southern end of the lake to work his way into another canal.
Sherman started on the end of a dock situated at the mouth of Crab Bayou, slowly working a spinnerbait around the pilings until he reached a seawall at the edge of the lake.
The chartreuse lure streaked out, quietly splitting the water. Sherman made about five turns of the reel handle, and grunted softly as a fish waked the water as it left the wall.
The bass then swirled and charged Sherman’s bait, engulfing it.
The rod tip snapped high as if of its own volition, and soon the day’s first keeper was put into the livewell.
“I saw the fish run from the bait, and I thought it wasn’t going to bite,” Sherman said. “But it turned and grabbed it, like it had it cornered by the wall and wasn’t going to let it get away.”
As the day aged, a second keeper fell for a worm, and Sherman lost a 4-pounder at the boat on a jig. That was about it for the day, but the angler wasn’t disappointed.
It was just another day on Lake Verret, which is known for being a hit-and-miss proposition.
But unlike many who would throw up their hands and head for easier pickings, Sherman said he’d be back that weekend for a club tournament, even though he could fish inside the Atchafalaya Basin levees.
“Yeah, the lake is either on or off: If you know some spots, it won’t take long before you knock them out or you get knocked out,” he chuckled. “But the quality is better than in the Basin.
“Also, to me, it’s easier to fish the lake: There’s not as much variation as in the Basin.”
That philosophy has helped Sherman become one of the top anglers on the lake, as evidenced by his 13 King Fisherman titles as a member of the Sunshine Bass Club. Every club member knows where the Arkansas native will be fishing, if given the chance.
“There aren’t too many people who know that lake better than Richard,” fellow club member Gerald Rome said. “He’s fixing to put No. 14 (titles as King Fisherman) on the board
“He’s definitely got his stuff together.”
Sherman said his preference wasn’t difficult to figure out.
“The numbers might not be like in the Basin, but when you catch them, they’re good fish,” he said.
Sherman has made a name for himself by plucking tournament-winning stringers from the flooded cypress trees that extend into the lake, but he looks elsewhere during the winter.
“The winter pattern starts forming in September and October,” he said. “The fish are on the main bodies of water, and they start moving to the canals.”
That migration from the summertime haunts to the relative stability in the canals isn’t a single movement, however.
“They go there in a staging period, I call it,” Sherman said. “They start staging in those areas that have a little water on them but are close to the canals.”
Sherman simply follows them to the canals surrounding the main lake, knowing that as the weather continues to cool, the bass will finally move into the canals.
“They’re looking at a long-range plan where they end up in the spring (spawn) spots,” he said.
That makes areas such as the Michelle Canal, Bayou Tranquile, the Willow Tree Canal, the Cracker Head complex, Cancienne Canal and Bay Alcide prime targets this month.
However, it’s not as easy as waiting for December and heading for a canal. It’s critical to know what to look for and to understand how fish will position during any given weather condition.
The first key is to know if there’s any bait in a canal.
“They’re not going to move into areas with no food,” Sherman explained. “I want to see some movement, some shad flipping.”
That usually means he fishes clear water because all fish prefer cleaner water, he said.
“If you give a bass a choice, he’s going to come to this clean water,” Sherman said. “The shad like that cleaner water, too, and will gang up in it.
“If this canal is muddy on one end and clean on the other, you know where he’s going to be. It’s sort of like you eating supper in the dark every night: You’re going to turn a light on if you can.”
If Sherman doesn’t find clean water and bait in a canal, he doesn’t hang around long.
“I move to the next canal,” he said. “They’re looking mainly to feed. They’re looking to get fat and happy.”
But many anglers find bait and simply run the banks of a canal, giving up if they don’t catch any fish on the first pass. Sherman, however, knows bass will be found where there’s food: It’s just a matter of figuring out exactly where they are and what baits will provoke strikes.
“Where the shad are, the fish aren’t going to be too far from it,” he said.
Weather is the most-important factor for understanding where bass will be positioned in the winter. While they often will pull up into the shallower portions of the banks to feed when temperatures rise a bit and warm the water, cold spells will push them back to deeper water.
“If you get a real cold spell, they’ll move out deep and just sit there,” Sherman said. “The temperatures are more stable in that deeper water. They will be off the banks, where most anglers’ boats are.
“When it warms up, they’ll move back up.”
So he pays close attention to the weather, not only on the day he fishes, but also for the few days prior to his trip.
During warming spells, he concentrates on seawalls, docks and flooded cypress trees.
When the weather turns cold, his focus switches to drop-offs on canals, even though these bottom features aren’t as pronounced on Lake Verret as they once were.
“All of these canals once had a shallow slope and then a sharp drop, but over the years, that’s eroded and now there’s just a gradual drop to the middle,” he said. “But the fish still orient to that.”
So if he doesn’t find success along the banks of a shad-filled, clear-water canal, Sherman backs off and works that slope.
“When I find a pocket with clear water, I’ll spend a lot of time in there,” he said.
However, cold-front-associated winds often can negatively impact this pattern. Whereas in the summer, wind-swept banks and trees can be productive, Sherman said canals through which the wind is whipping are not as productive in the winter.
“A strong wind will churn the water, and the temperature will get to be the same, top to bottom,” he explained. “The fish will scatter, and you can’t develop a pattern or find an area fish want to be.”
Sherman said his preference is actually not for a dead-calm day.
“I like a little breeze because it creates gentle water movement,” he explained. “You don’t want dead water.”
As he fishes a canal, Sherman also pays close attention to his depth finder as he trolls along, as well as to what his baits hit during the retrieve. The goal is to note trash piles and tree tops.
“I have a good memory, and I know where people have put tree tops out,” Sherman said.
When he finds a top or trash pile, Sherman often positions his boat so his lure can be retrieved parallel to the banks, pulled between the bank and the top.
“Fish will get on those tree tops, and that bass will get anything that comes between the top and the seawall,” he said.
Tidal flow is yet another consideration. The lake is located well north of Highway 90, but is connected with the coast via Bayou Boeuf.
“The tide gives you a lot of water movement,” Sherman said. “Those fish learn to use that to feed.”
That helps narrow down likely haunts on which to focus.
“Instead of being like reservoir fish and having to sit on a point and run down its food, a bass here can sit in this canal on a dock or tree and let the tide push the bait to it,” he said. “If he can sit there and have dinner brought to him, he’s going to do that.”
Sherman believes tides are much more important in the lake than such factors as lunar cycles.
“You go in a reservoir, and the fish still function off the lunar cycle: You can look at a chart and find out when the major and minor feeding times are,” he said. “These fish do that, too, but the tidal influence throws that out of whack.
“Those tides are going to be a little off the major and minor lunar periods.”
His preference is a falling tide, but he said bass still can be caught when the water’s rising.
“If I’ve got to choose between no tide and a rising tide, I’ll take the rising tide,” he chuckled.
However, there are no tidal charts for the Verret area, and that can make it difficult to pin down just when the fish should be active.
“The tide will move up here several hours later than on the coast,” Sherman said. “You just have to know that and try to be on the water when it happens.”
However, cold fronts can give bass lockjaw.
“When a really hard cold spell hits, the bass get really hard to catch that first day or two,” Sherman said.
So, unless he’s fishing a tournament, he stays home. But he doesn’t wait too long because he knows bass will be voracious when they adjust to the weather.
“When they come back on, most all of them will be back on at the same time,” Sherman said. “You can come out one day and not catch anything, and the following day catch a pile of fish.
“It’s a bonanza: That’s the days you look for.”
In the fall, fronts move through every few weeks, and that can make fishing difficult because they shut down for the fronts and then eat hard for a day or two before settling back down.
Sherman said December and January normally provide better fishing because, ironically, the fronts are closer together.
“You get those little fronts every few days, so your odds get even better of hitting those good days when the bass turn on after the fronts,” he said. “There are more fronts, so there are more of those bonanza days.”
Sherman’s favored wintertime baits are basic: jigs, worms, crankbaits and spinnerbaits. However, he uses each to mimic very specific forage.
“Dark colors are always going to work for jigs and worms because they look like your dark crawfish,” he explained. “When I fish spinnerbaits and crankbaits, though, I want them to look like shad, so I choose shad patterns.”
A major wintertime mistake many anglers make when fishing deeper fish is to pull back and work a worm or jig along the bottom of a canal, trying to get deeper fish to bite.
And Sherman might also try this tactic, but he said he’s prepared to make another pass in the canal using a different tactic if he doesn’t catch any fish.
“The fish might be right on the bottom, but they might not necessarily feed on the bottom,” he said.
At this point, Sherman turns to crankbaits and spinnerbaits to see if that will trigger a bite.
“A bait 2 to 3 feet off the bottom might be better suited to catch that fish,” he explained. “If that bass isn’t looking for a crawfish, you’re not going to catch him with a jig or worm.
“You’re more apt to catch him with a shad-like bait swimming by it.”
The faster baits also help trigger reaction strikes when bass are “just sitting there” on the slopes and not actively feeding.
“If you can get it there and kind of surprise him, you’ve got a good chance to catch that fish,” Sherman said.
However, slowing all of these baits down is very important as water temperatures drop.
“Bass are not as active in 40-degree water,” Sherman said. “Their metabolism slows down, so you need to slow down. I still do some spinnerbait and crankbait stuff, but I slow everything down.”
Another key factor to his success, however, has been changing his fishing tackle for modern-day conditions, which have changed significantly on Verret over the past decade.
“Pressure has increased dramatically, and the fishing conditions have declined,” Sherman said. “Our fishery is not nearly what it was 15 to 20 years ago.
“We don’t have the conditions to produce the fish; we don’t have the numbers we once had. That drought in the late ’90s really hurt us.”
Most Verret anglers have made no adjustments for these changes, and their fishing success has lagged.
“People still fish with heavy lines,” he said. “They’ll come out with 20- or 25-pound line and expect to catch fish.
“The fish are so heavily pressured now you can’t get away with that anymore.”
That has meant a dramatic change for an angler known as a power fisherman.
“The smallest line I used to use was 17- to 20-pound test,” Sherman said. “Now the heaviest line I use is 17.
“I’ve got five rods out on the deck right now, and they’re all rigged with 10- and 12-pound line.”
That draws more strikes because the fish can’t see the line as easily, but Sherman said he has had to make adjustments to effectively use those light lines.
“You need a little bit lighter rod action so you don’t shock your line,” he said. “And you have to adjust your drag: You can’t lock it down.”
When Sherman decided that was a move he needed to make, he headed for the coast to shorten his learning curve.
“I went and caught redfish with light line,” he said. “What that does is teach you how to hook a fish and handle him with lighter line.”
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