Swamper on the Trail

James Fredieu makes his living in the Atchafalaya Basin, but he’s made a name for himself with strong showings on the BFL tour.

Bass can run but they can’t hide from a Teche area angler who stays on the water most of his waking hours.James Fredieu’s knack for pulling bass out of thick, heavy cover has served him well in Wal-Mart Bass Fishing League tournaments this year in Louisiana. So well, in fact, that he could possibly finish first in the overall standings after the season finale in his backyard — the Atchafalaya Basin — in October.

The 35-year-old crawfisherman, alligator skinner and garfish hunter was in third place (tied with two other anglers) heading into the last tournament, a lofty position gained on the strength of a first-place finish in the series opener out of Belle River Landing and a fourth-place showing in the fourth stop on the tour at Lock No. 3 on the Red River.

Bass he weighed in for three of the first four tournaments came from under matted vegetation after biting soft plastics, mostly tube jigs, which he loves to send down through the cover.

“I mean, the fish are going to be under that stuff. On the Red River, they had fish under the mats but not the day of the tournament. It was cloudy, so I picked up a buzz bait,” Fredieu recalled.

Showing his versatility, he picked off three keepers on the sputtering topwater lure to go with one he caught on a soft-plastic creature bait.

His main goal this year is to finish in the Top 30, which gives him an automatic berth on the Wal-Mart EverStart series next year and, more importantly, sends him to the regionals with no entry fee at Toledo Bend in October. The Top Six anglers from regionals qualify for the prestigious Wal-Mart All-American, where they have a shot at $100,000.

But deep down, Fredieu wants to be the Wal-Mart BFL Louisiana Division’s Angler of the Year in 2004. He trails pacesetter Jody Floyd of Zachary and Kevin Lasyone of Dry Prong.

The Zachary angler has 751 points to Fredieu’s 693.

“He’s got a little lead on me. He’s a good fisherman because he keeps catching fish,” Fredieu said last month while fishing Henderson Lake, unwinding after a full day of running crawfish traps in the heart of the Atchafalaya Basin west of the Atchafalaya River and east of the G.A. Cut (also known as Lake Fausse Pointe Cut).

Fredieu — who is married to Sonja Babin Fredieu and lives on the St. Martin Parish-Iberia Parish line near the Bayou Teche with their three sons (Tori, 17, Brodie, 7, and Justin, 4) — is pointing for the Wal-Mart BFL Super Tournament, a two-day event Oct. 2-3 out of Morgan City in the nation’s last great overflow swamp that he knows so well.

“Man-to-man, I sure would like to win that Angler of the Year,” he said with a determined glint in his eyes. “I will do my homework for that one. I know the other guys at the top; they’re some good fishermen, too.”

He’s got his eye on qualifying for next year’s regional EverStart circuit because he heard through the grapevine that the opener would be at Lake Sam Rayburn in Texas and, imagine this, the second stop in the Atchafalaya Basin.

A few weeks later, after the Super Tournament, Fredieu (providing he’s still ranked in the Top 30) and the other qualifiers head for Toledo Bend for the Wal-Mart BFL Regional on Oct. 14-16.

“All I want to do is finish in the Top 30. That’s my main goal. I’ll have a guaranteed spot in EverStart, which is the next level,” he said.

Dan Grimes of Murray, Ky., was the tournament director for the Louisiana division of the Wal-Mart BFL circuit until earlier this summer when he was named director of saltwater operations. (Can you say redfish and/or king mackerel tournaments along the Gulf Coast?) Grimes got to see Fredieu in action in three out of the first four tournaments in the Sportsman’s Paradise, which, by the way, he loves.

“I always bring a sack or two (of crawfish) back and have a boil. Kentucky people like them as much as you do,” Grimes said.

Besides developing an appreciation for boiled crawfish and other delicacies over the three years Wal-Mart events have been in Louisiana, Grimes, 54, developed an appreciation for the hard-working Fredieu.

“I really like James. James is one of those quiet time fishermen that’s all business. He conducts himself as a real professional, in his appearance and everything about him,” Grimes said. “When it comes time to weigh in, he’s action, too.”

Fredieu won the first tournament of the season on a late winter day out of Belle River Landing. He took a long boat ride west to fish the marsh in the Bayou Sale area.

Bassin’ was tough as a high pressure had moved in following a cold front. The bass had lockjaw where he was fishing until 12:15 p.m.

But he stuck with it, overcoming urges to leave for potential greener pastures.

“I almost left,” he confided.

“The fish were shut down. But when there’s high pressure and it’s cold like that, the sun warms up those mats (around midday),” Fredieu said. “Fish get in there and soak up the heat. That’s when I punched the mats. They were just all over … but cast out of the mats and you wouldn’t get a bite.”

Fredieu’s five-fish limit hardly impressed him, despite the fact the emcee called out “16 pounds, and we have a new leader.”

“At first I didn’t think I had enough weight to win it. I figured I’d be somewhere near the top,” Fredieu recalled.

But he won it, and cashed in handsomely. First place was worth $4,317. He also got $1,000 from Ranger Boats, $500 from Yamaha outboard motors and $1,000 from Garmin electronics for using their products on the way to victory.

Grimes took note.

“It was tough conditions. He figured it out. He did a great job,” he said. “James won against the best guys down there in South Louisiana. You’ve got to give him credit for that.”

Fredieu chalked it up to patience that he learned while fishing with pros on the EverStart circuit. He finished eighth in the Central Division overall standings in 2002, and said the experience was invaluable as he built on it going into the 2004 season in the Wal-Mart BFL.

However, Fredieu stumbled the next time out in a tournament out of Bayou Segnette State Park. He didn’t scratch, but he did finish far off the pace.

He’s still kicking himself for choosing to fish the Bayou Black area to the west instead of making the long boat ride to Venice. But he was unsure he could navigate the marsh correctly in his Ranger 518VX Commanche, powered by a 200-horsepower Yamaha, because he was unfamiliar with the Mississippi River Delta.

Grimes believes Fredieu didn’t make a big gaffe by going to Bayou Black.

“I really don’t think it was a mistake. To run from Bayou Segnette to Venice is a long run, especially when you’re in a points championship race,” Grimes said. “You don’t want to take chances like that. Had he run down there and not caught fish, he would have been completely out of it. As it was, he stayed closer, caught some fish and he’s still in the race.”

Fredieu followed up by finishing in the 30s in a tournament out of Bayou Black, and then cashed in again with a fourth-place finish on the Red River to set the stage for the early October showdown in the Spillway.

He may ride back to his neck of the woods — Myette Point to Bayou Benoit, he said.

“Probably so. I’ll try to stay where I have a lot of confidence. I know the boys will beat it up down there (around Morgan City),” he said.

Grimes said it isn’t improbable for Fredieu to win the title, particularly in a tournament where points are doubled. Plus, he agreed, the event is in his backyard.

“The way to look at that, the guy in front now has got a sizable lead. If you don’t catch fish, you can lose it real quick,” Grimes said.

“James is smart. He realizes a limit of fish is more important than swinging for the fence. He’ll be there at the end,” he said.

Fredieu’s bass fishing “smarts” can be traced to many things, including the way he makes a living. For the last six years, ever since Fruit of the Loom’s Martin Mills shut its doors for good in St. Martinville, he has worked full time as a crawfisherman, alligator skinner and a commercial fisherman for garfish. While he worked for FOL, he was in the crawfishing business part time for about a dozen years.

So he’s no stranger to running traps in the swamp. That morning, before hitching up his Ranger for an afternoon trip to Henderson Lake, which was high and rising, Fredieu ran two boxes of bait and came back with 15 sacks of crawfish from Red Eye Swamp, which is just north of Ceabon Canal.

He’ll skin alligators Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at Pelts and Skins in St. Martinville, where farm-raised alligators from Lockport, Galliano and Abbeville and as far away as Arkansas and Mississippi are shipped for processing. That’ll take him through the “wild season” in September.

Fredieu warms up to the subject of fishing for alligator gar in bays around Vermilion Bay. What excitement!

“They get pretty big, man,” he said.

How big? Last year he and his fishing partner hauled a 170-pounder into the boat. Their best night last year was 371 heads and 880 pounds of dressed garfish meat.

“We have some good nights and we have some bad nights,” Fredieu said about fishing with the jugs that are baited before dark and checked the next morning.

“Sometimes we do 150-200 a night. If you’re by yourself — 100,” he said.

He has learned and still learns the feeding habits of crawfish and alligator gar, which he sometimes can relate to bass fishing. He’s out there in the environment daily and what he knows enhances his livelihood on and off the circuit.

“Gar, I think they have habits just like those bass do. They get up on those flats and feed. Then they go back in their holes. You’ve just got to learn where they feed,” he said as he fished the south flats of Henderson Lake, thunderstorms all around.

He pulled a 1 1/2-pound bass out with a Denny Brauer Strike King Flippin’ Tube from some bushes crowded with lilies, and missed another one, probably bigger, minutes later.

“I’ll give you an example … right now the fish (bass) are on the flats eating crawfish. They’ve got shade and all the crawfish they can eat,” he said. “I just think it takes a lot of time on the water. Even pros don’t know everything about bass fishing. You learn something all the time.”

What Fredieu has learned to do in competitive bass fishing is to keep his approach as simple and versatile as possible.

“There are so many baits on the market. You can get caught up. I try to stick to the basics and basic colors (black/red glitter and june bug are his favorites for tube jigs and other soft plastics). I try to keep it simple and fish, keep my line wet. Try not to ride around too much,” he said. “A lot of co-anglers who fish with me change their bait and keep changing their bait instead of picking it up and just fishing with it.”

He has learned to ask questions on the water, something some bass anglers fail to do when scouting. For example, he said, they might catch a 3-pounder while prefishing and leave so as not to give fish sore mouths.

But …

“You’ve got to be in sync with the fish. Was the fish on a bed? Was the fish guarding fry?” he asked rhetorically. “(If you leave), you don’t really know why you caught it. You might have caught it on a Brush Hog. Was the fish on grass? Was it on wood with grass? You need to catch enough fish to know what’s going on.”

And, when possible, target the mats.

“With a sunny day, bright sky, they’ll be under the mat. About 11, 12 o’clock, they’ll be all underneath there,” he said from experience. “The bigger fish get farther back in the stuff. The hotter it gets, the thicker the fish go hide there. You’ve got to go in with a heavier weight.”

Fredieu realizes he isn’t the only one from the Teche Area who can figure out how, when and where to get bass to bite. Several of them try of have tried their hands at the Wal-Mart BFL, including Randy Durand of St. Martinville, Tommy Lipari of New Iberia, Craig Frilot of Breaux Bridge, Andre Cazelot of Lafayette and Wrenwick Drexler of Jeanerette.

Others could hang, too, he said.

“There are a lot of great fishermen around here who probably could be successful,” he said, adding it does involve “a little bit of travel,” time and money, of which one or a combination of those factors discourage some of those top anglers from going on any of the Wal-Mar tours.

Fredieu, who doesn’t have a sponsor, is already there and poised to make a run at Angler of the Year.

“I think all James needs to do is look at the next level. He’ll qualify for the next level, where he’ll get more exposure, which will lead to bigger and better things for James because he’s certainly got the talent. He’s well respected down there. He certainly is,” Grimes said. “If James keeps going the way he is, he’s got a lot of potential to be a full-time pro fisherman, if that’s what he wants to do.”

About Don Shoopman 563 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.