Once an outlaw hideaway, Caddo Lake has become a haven for serious fishermen and filmmakers.
Caddo Lake, a 26,800-acre unspoiled treasure shared equally by Texas and Louisiana, has been called “the most beautiful lake in America” as well as “the best big-bass secret in the South.” Once a remote hideaway for outlaws near Old Monterey where brothels, rooster fights, saloons and a racetrack flourished in the early 1800s, Caddo’s primitive splendor now attracts filmmakers and fishermen to its rugged creeks and eerie bayous.Harboring massive cypress trees draped in Spanish moss, Caddo Lake is so stunning that it’s provided scenes for “Gatorbait,” “U.S. Marshals,” “Universal Soldier II: Brother in Arms,” “The Legend of Boggy Creek,” and “The Long Hot Summer.”
In July 2001, bass pro Kevin VanDam made a TV commercial there. Country singer George Strait has visited Caddo Lake, and singer Don Henley of The Eagles, who grew up on its shores, has taken part in conservation efforts to preserve the lake’s natural state.
At times, Caddo’s mysterious beauty overshadows its spectacular largemouth bass fishery.
“It’s hard to get some people to fish they’re so taken in by the scenery and wildlife,” said Paul Keith, a licensed fishing guide who was raised on the lake. “All they want to do is take pictures.”
In 1993 when Caddo Lake was added to the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance, U.S. Fish & Wildlife biologist Tom Cloud identified 189 species of trees and shrubs, 42 weedy vines, 75 grasses, 216 kinds of birds, 47 mammals and 90 fish and reptiles. Though all of these findings have not been confirmed, they illustrate why so many fishermen become shutterbugs upon visiting the lake.
Half of Caddo Lake rests in Texas, the other half in Louisiana, a geographical quirk that keeps residents of both states from claiming this fishing paradise as their own, much to their chagrin.
Texans point out that Caddo is the only natural lake in their state, while Louisianians boast that the current largemouth bass lake record of 16.01 pounds came from their side of the lake. Texans counter that Bobby Shaver, one of their own, caught the fish.
Fortunately for anglers, the friendly rivalry stops there as both states have a reciprocal license agreement, wherein a fishing license from either state is valid on Caddo. However, the size and creel requirements of the two states differ.
On the Texas side of the lake, there’s a 14- to 18-inch slot regulation that prohibits the taking of fish within the slot and a five-fish creel limit; on the Louisiana side, there’s a 14- to 17-inch slot regulation and a 10-fish creel limit, but only four fish over 17 inches may be part of the creel.
“A fisherman must be within the limits wherever he fishes,” Keith said. “The regulations are a little confusing, and I wish the fish and game departments in the two states would straighten them out.
“It’s to the fisherman’s advantage, if he intends to keep his fish, to begin on the Texas side and catch his five-fish limit, then go to the Louisiana side, where he can catch five more fish and still be legal.”
Last August, my daughter Sheena and I got to visit this outdoor wonderland, situated about 20 miles north of Shreveport, where we stayed.
Keith served as our guide.
Mid-August is not the ideal time for bass fishing in Texas or Louisiana, but as fishermen know, the best time to go fishing is whenever you can go.
Since my daughter only had a short break between the end of college summer classes and the beginning of the fall semester, we made the 889-mile drive from Lexington, N.C., to Shreveport to fish Caddo Lake, even though temperatures in Louisiana had been a scorching 95 to 100 degrees just prior to our departure.
Through the Shreveport-Bossier Convention & Tourist Bureau, I had arranged to meet Keith at Earl G. Williamson Park on Caddo Lake at 6:30 a.m., but a heavy rain forced the 37-year-old guide to take Sheena and me to another launch site closer to the area where we would fish.
Once on the water, Keith maneuvered his bass boat through a maze of narrow rows that cut through overhanging cypress trees and stump-infested waters.
Tall poles with metal tags marked the channels, the only avenues of safe passage through a labyrinth of watery twists and turns and configurations.
“As a youngster I spent many days running the lake to learn my way about,” Keith said. “At times, I had to call my mom to pick me up at a marina because I couldn’t find my way back.
“Newcomers should have someone guide them around the lake, or they’ll spend their day running in circles or looking at a lake map in hopes of finding their way back.”
The scenery on the way to our guide’s fishing hole was probably breathtaking, but neither my daughter nor I witnessed much of it as we kept our heads bowed to avoid the pelting rain.
The day before, however, we got a sneak preview of Caddo Lake when I drove to Earl G. Williamson Park to be certain I could find it for the next day’s outing with Keith.
From Highway 1, Caddo Lake resembled a majestic Christmas tree farm flooded with water. Only after my eye wandered from the top of the greenery down to the bulky tree trunks was the illusion broken. The width of those cypress trees wouldn’t fit into any Christmas tree stand that I knew of.
One of Keith’s first stops was at Alligator Bayou, and yes, there are ‘gators in Caddo, though Sheena and I didn’t see any.
Keith said he’s accidentally caught some small ‘gators while fishing.
“If you happen to hook one, hand your fishing rod to our guide,” I told Sheena. “It’s his job to take whatever we catch off the hook.”
No ‘gators bit, but a good number of largemouth bass did.
Keith instructed us to fish the edge of the grassline after handing us 10-inch, camo-colored (green/red flake) plastic worms, Texas-rigged. He said there were plenty of bass big enough in Caddo Lake to inhale worms that size.
Keith spoke from experience. He holds the Caddo Lake record for the most bass caught over 8 pounds, including two 12-pounders.
“Fish weighing 14 and 15 pounds have come from Caddo,” he said. “The lake was stocked with Florida-strain bass in 1981 and again in 1982, and restocked in the mid-’90s with 6 million Florida fingerlings. It’s about to explode as a trophy-bass lake.”
As with most waters, the trophy fish are caught at Caddo in the early spring.
“In the heat of the summer, most of the fish will run under 3 pounds, but an occasional big fish will be caught,” Keith said. “The creeks and bayous on the Texas side are best in the summer because the fish hold in the grass that’s widespread there.
“Productive summer holes include Alligator Bayou, Stumpy Slough, Kitchen Creek and Jackson Arm.”
Besides the camo-colored worms we were fishing, Keith recommended 7- to 10-inch plastic worms or 4- to 6-inch tube worms in plum and watermelon. He Texas-rigs the plastics using 3/16- or 1/4-ounce worm weights.
“I stay with plastics for summer fishing,” he said. “I might toss a buzz bait in the grass in the morning and evening. On rainy days like today, I’ll try a spinnerbait or topwater bait.
“We have problems fishing diving baits with treble hooks because of the grass and stumps in the lake.”
As the rain continued, Keith kept us moving along the grassline with his trolling motor.
“I always thought I fished rather fast,” he said. “But when Kevin VanDam came here to film a commercial, I had a chance to fish with him, and he’s a fishing machine in constant motion.
“I move quickly along the grasslines in the summer because the fish are spread out.”
The three of us fished a grassy stretch without a hit; then I got the first bite of the morning, a feisty 2-pounder that I swung on board.
“That fish is about typical for a summer bass,” Keith said.
If I got another strike, I thought of handing my fishing rod over to my daughter because she had never fished with a plastic worm before, and I didn’t know if she could detect a bite.
But I never got the chance.
“Hey! I’ve got one,” Sheena yelled as she brought in the first fish she had ever hooked on a worm, a chunky bass of about 3 pounds.
Ten minutes later, Sheena had another one, then after about 15 minutes, she hooked another.
“Women are very good at fishing a plastic worm because they can feel a strike better than most men,” Keith said rather sheepishly after my daughter stuck another fish, only this one was a goggle-eye.
Keith and I finally got some bites of our own before streaks of lightning brightened the silky moss on the cypress trees.
Keith sought shelter by motoring us to Shady Glade, a marina, cafe and motel situated lakeside in Uncertain, Texas.
No one knows for certain how Uncertain, with a population of 196, got its name. Some say it was named after Uncertain Landing, a place where steamboats had trouble mooring many years ago when Caddo was subject to river traffic.
One thing was for certain — we weren’t going fishing for awhile as the rain and lightning intensified.
“We’ve been out about three hours and caught 15 largemouth and a few goggle-eye,” Keith said in response to one rain-soaked fisherman who asked if we had caught anything as the three of us took seats in the cafe.
Keith then passed the time by giving me a seasonal rundown on how to catch fish on Caddo.
Early in January, Keith said bass will be around the cypress trees. Jigs should be fished slowly at the base of the trees because of the cold water.
“Later in January and in February, the bass will stay off the bottom over submerged hydrilla that grows higher in the summer,” he said. “They’re caught by retrieving red or crawdad-colored Rat-L-Traps over the top of the submerged grass.”
This period occurs, Keith said, when the water warms but still hasn’t reached the 60-degree mark, and the fish are staging in preparation for the spawn.
“During the pre-spring, Rat-L-Traps and jigs fished along bank lines and islands will take some large female bass that are the first to gang up at these places as they get ready to spawn,” he said.
Once the water reaches 60 degrees, the time is right for big bass.
“The biggest bass are caught from isolated cypress trees on the main lake,” Keith said. “The mistake that many fishermen make is to fish cypress trees huddled close together. The more isolated the tree, the better.
“Bass spawn around the tree roots, which can be quite extensive. Most spring fishing takes place in 4 to 5 feet of water.”
To fish the roots, Keith tosses Texas-rigged plastic lizards and 10- to 12-inch plastic worms in black neon, black/blue, and Junebug.
“Darker colors work best in the spring,” he said.
Keith’s favorite spring fishing holes include Old Folks Playground, Big Green Break, Bird Island, Whatley Island and Sand Island.
“There’s more fishing pressure on Caddo in the spring, but there’s a lot of places to fish,” Keith said. “With the irregular layout of the lake and the tall trees, you won’t see many of the boats that are out there.”
Keith said bass school up in the fall with some quality fish in the schools.
“Anglers should focus on flats in 3 to 4 feet of water that are adjacent to main channels,” he said. “They should look for white cranes on lily pads because the birds congregate where there’s baitfish.”
For fall, Keith chooses plastic twitch baits in silver or white. He fishes them Texas-rigged without weights just below the surface.
Caddo’s snag-filled waters require stout tackle year-round.
“A good number of the big bass that are hooked get away,” Keith said. “Most locals won’t use less than 20-pound-test line.
“I use baitcasting reels spooled with 17- or 18-pound-test line and 6 1/2-foot medium/heavy action rods for worm fishing. Occasionally, I’ll fish spinning tackle with buzz baits and spinnerbaits.”
Bass Life Trophy Program
Caddo Lake has a unique catch-and-release program, Keith said.
If an angler catches a fish 8 pounds or over, the fisherman can take it to one of two weigh-in stations on the lake, one on the Texas side and one on the Louisiana side, and have the fish weighed, measured, and photographed for a plastic replica, if the fish is released.
If the fish is 8 pounds or over, the program pays for 50 percent of the cost of the plastic replica; if 9 pounds or over, 75 percent of the cost; and if 10 pounds or over, the replica is free.
Eventually, the rain stopped and the sun broke through the clouds, so Keith, Sheena and I went back on Caddo and fished until noon, getting bites from only several small bass.
“Lightning shuts the fishing down,” Keith said. “In a few hours, they’ll start to bite again. The rain and cloud cover helped the fishing this morning, and the cooler temperatures kept the fish from moving deep into the grass.”
Soon, Sheena and I had to return to Shreveport, so we thanked Keith for his hospitality and for his insights on Caddo Lake.
But as I was about to leave these ghostly waters behind, I couldn’t resist snapping several more pictures. I could now understand why even die-hard fishermen might first focus on Caddo Lake with their lens before they focus on its waters for largemouth bass.