Do only 10 percent of fishing spots hold 90 percent of bass? Do anglers pick up every fish in a given location? We pitted an accomplished Louisiana angler against an electroshocking crew to find out.
It didn’t take five minutes to get the first bite.
The jig was pitched to a cypress tree in the dead-end canal, and the angler’s line moved about 6 inches to the side.
A hard hook set boated a 2 1/2-pound fish, which was quickly unhooked and dropped back into the water.
The jig zipped to its next target, and its next and its next.
Three fish between 1 and 3 1/2 pounds were pulled into the boat during the first 15 minutes. One strike was missed.
The count of fish stuck was doubled and four more bites were missed in the following 20 minutes.
One of the bass hauled over the gunwale of the white Bullet weighed 4 1/4 pounds.
The angler pitching the jig was enjoying himself immensely, but he had his game face on. He wasn’t tournament fishing, but he wasn’t out fun-fishing, either.
You see, Prairieville’s Ken Sherman was fishing against a machine — literally.
Waiting at the mouth of the canal was one of the Department of Wildlife & Fisheries’ electroshocking boats, armed with a generator and two probes that would be used to see what the Prairieville angler missed.
“I feel pretty good right now, but we’ll know what’s in here in a little while,” Sherman said.
As he made a pass along the back end of the Grassy Lake-area canal, the DWF crew cranked up their outboard and generator, and began probing the exact stretch of bank Sherman worked 30 minutes earlier.
Sherman looked over his shoulder as a loud beeping cut through the early morning haze.
The DWF boys were using their outboard to push the electroshocking probes that hung from two long poles into brush and around cypress trees.
The beeping indicated that the switch had been thrown to electrify the probes and, thus, the surrounding water.
“That noise would drive me nuts,” Sherman said, as he pitched his Slam Dunk jig back out.
The bite continued for Sherman, with two or three more nice bass crossing the gunwale.
But it was what had been missed that amazed him.
When the boats met, fishery biologist Mike Walker reached into a holding tank and pulled out a bass that tipped the scales at 6.7 pounds.
“Where’d you shock that one up?” Sherman immediately asked.
Walker pointed to a laydown under a small patch of water penny wort.
Sherman grinned and shook his head.
“We both fished that,” he said to me. “We pitched baits there five or six times.”
And so we had, discussing how it was a prime area.
The tank on the shock boat also held a 4-pounder that we had missed, along with several 1- to 2 1/2-pound bass.
Sherman and I (although mostly Sherman) had held our own against a machine designed to turn up anything in the water, but we definitely hadn’t caught anywhere close to every fish in the canal.
However, we hadn’t been trounced as badly as expected.
Walker, who supervises fisheries work in the Atchafalaya Basin, said he wasn’t surprised.
“This thing doesn’t get all fish,” he said. “We don’t turn up hundreds of fish.”
The insinuation was that we had missed even more fish than we thought, since even the shocking boat hadn’t turned up everything.
It didn’t really make sense at first that Walker and his crew, Scott Breaux and Mitch Hoffpauir, had missed fish. After all, introducing electricity to water should — on the face of things — turn any fish around belly up for a few minutes.
Walker said that’s not really the case, however.
First, the electrical field of the probes is relatively confined.
“I’ve got a 10- to 12-foot radius,” Walker said.
OK, so that should be enough to paralyze a lot of fish, right?
Well, not necessarily.
Walker said it’s important to first understand how the electrical field works.
The field is formed by the probes, which are basically four wires hanging from two poles. Each wire is known as an anode, and they are separated from each other by a collapsible basket.
Electricity is pushed through the anodes at varied levels, depending upon the conductivity of the water.
The electrified probes form a sphere of electrified water, but it’s a sphere that bends back toward the aluminum boat being used.
“The boat is what completes the circuit,” Walker said.
But whether fish float to the top or not depends upon their location within this electrified sphere.
“Fish inside 3 to 4 feet of this strong field are going to pop up,” Walker said.
After that, the efficacy of the machine gets a little more unpredictable.
“Fish 5 to 6 feet (away) may come to the anodes if they’re facing the probe,” he explained. “If they’re facing away from the anodes, they’re going to shoot away from the probes.”
The reason is pretty simple.
“The electricity stimulates their tail muscles, and that pushes them the way they’re facing,” Walker said. “When I hit that switch, a lot of times I’ve seen them jump (out of the water) 25 feet,” he said.
Beyond 6 feet, things really break down.
Walker said fish 6 to 8 feet away might get a good pop of electricity and turn over, but they often stay deep enough that they can’t be retrieved.
“I can see their bellies, but I can’t reach them,” he said.
Knowing how much electrical current to use is also important.
“When the water has high conductivity, the more electricity wants to follow the path of least resistance around the fish,” Walker said.
In other words, fish in highly conductive water won’t be phased by a weak current — Walker and his crew have to step up the charge to zap these fish.
Therefore, a hydrolab is used to determine conductivity of the water being shocked.
On top of all of these technical variables is the noise required to get the probes in position.
“The generator’s running and the main motor’s running,” Walker said.
The commotion usually doesn’t bother the smaller fish, but Walker said the bigger fish seldom hang around.
“A big, wary fish, it’s coming out here (in deeper water), and you won’t get it,” he said. “It’s rare for us to get big fish like this.
“He’s got himself an escape route and everything.”
Occasionally, as with the 6-pounder Walker and his crew shocked up on this day, a bass backs into a root system or treetop and thinks it’s safe.
“If he’s got him a good spot, he’ll suck up in there and hide,” Walker said.
Finally, the decision was made to hit another couple of areas, just to see if Sherman’s luck held out against Walker’s generator.
Sherman had chosen the first canal, so it was Walker’s turn to pick.
A map of the canal field east of Grassy Lake was placed on the deck of the DWF boat, and Walker dropped a quarter on it.
The canal that was the most covered by the coin was the one we headed to next.
It might sound ridiculous to choose a sampling site by using a coin, but Walker said that’s pretty much how sampling sites are chosen.
“We just pick a place at random and go shock,” he said. “I don’t change it; we’ll keep coming back year after year.”
Sherman got to that second canal first, and he quickly set about working the banks with his favored jig.
The canal appeared to be one that should have fish — the water was a beautiful green, and the shallows were lined with cypress trees.
“I know this canal holds fish,” said Sherman, who regularly fishes the complex.
It was soon clear that if bass were holding around the trees, they weren’t interested in Sherman’s jig.
Only one bass — an undersized knothead — accepted his offer. Another hit or two was missed, but it was far from spectacular fishing.
Walker then kicked his generator into action, and worked the entire bank, only to find four small fish.
“We hit a lot of places like this,” the biologist said.
Sherman was flummoxed, having had success in the canal in years past.
But Walker said he wasn’t surprised.
“If there’s a long, slope before (the bank) drops off, and there’s no structure on it, then we don’t get anything,” Walker said.
In other words, the cypress trees just weren’t enough to hold bass — there needed to be additional structure along the bank.
The last stretch to be tested was chosen by consensus.
Walker wanted to hit a main-bayou area, and Sherman suggested Bayou Cheramie close to its junction with Grassy Lake.
The fishing was even tougher for Sherman there, with only one fish tapping and letting go of his jig.
Walker and his crew, meanwhile, turned up a small number of bass that Sherman missed, but the largest was about 1 1/2 pounds.
So what did the test prove? Sherman certainly didn’t do badly against an instrument designed to bring everything within its reach to the surface.
But look at the results closely.
Sure, Sherman put together 11 to 12 pounds in the first canal, and his weight included a 4-pounder.
But he missed at least one other 4-pounder, and his lure hadn’t even been touched by that 6-pounder. Catching those fish would have pushed his five-bass stringer closer to 18 pounds.
Even in the least-productive canals, he missed bass.
Walker said this should be a lesson to all in the fishing community.
“Fishermen go out and fish an area, and if they don’t catch anything they think the fish are all gone,” he said. “You have to realize that (if) you throw a lure into a pile of fish, you might have one fish interested.”
Sherman agreed, pointing to the 6-pounder as proof.
“This shows me that just because you don’t get a bite don’t give up,” he said.
Walker also said the second canal was a good lesson.
“A fisherman has a tendency of going back to where he caught fish before, and if conditions change, the fish might not be there anymore,” he said.
Sherman expected to catch a few fish in the canal, knowing it had been productive in the past. What he found was a veritable aquatic desert.
Sherman said the experience bolstered his belief that only 10 percent of the available waters hold most of the fish.
But there were other, more important lessons that he said will help him in his tournament fishing.
“If you ain’t getting bit in a canal, there most probably isn’t a lot of fish in there,” he said. “If there’s a population in there at all, you’re going to get bite.
“That fish is a predator.”
This is instructive for scouting purposes, he said.
“If you catch some fish in a canal, you probably have (a good number of) fish in there. You probably have a honeyhole, and you need to remember that canal,” Sherman said.
By the same token, he said weeding out canals will be easier now.
“If I don’t catch three or four fish and get bit a few times, I won’t worry about going back there,” Sherman said.
Walker cautioned that an unsuccessful trip doesn’t necessarily mean there are no bass in a given area, and he pointed to the three-year drought in the late 1990s as proof.
“No one was catching bass in the Basin, and everybody was complaining that all the fish were gone,” he said. “But that was the most successful shocking I’ve ever seen.”
One of the most humbling lessons Sherman learned was how finicky big bass can be.
“That fish heard something and tucked back under that log,” Sherman said of the 6-pounder that had snubbed successive casts that morning. “You’ll catch those small fish, but those big fish are wary.”
Even while admitting that he had unknowingly made a mistake, the angler said he learned a couple of important lessons from that bass.
“I learned I have to go to more finesse fishing to catch those fish,” Sherman said. “That big fish is going to be more skittish.”
That’s a tough statement from someone who stakes his reputation on knocking bass in the head with his jig.
The second lesson learned from that 6-pounder came after questioning Walker about where that bass would go when released.
“It’ll go right back to that same spot,” Walker said.
He explained that it was not uncommon for the same fish to be shocked up time and time again around the same stump, log or tree.
“If that fish is caught, another fish will take it’s place,” Walker said.
Sherman said that was a crucial piece of information.
“I learned that because you caught one on this stump, you’ll catch another one on it. That fish wasn’t there on accident,” he said.