Yesterday’s Trophies

Louisiana’s trophy bass fishing has fallen on hard times in recent years.

“Lunker bass fever” excitement has faded since the glory years of the 1990s in Louisiana.Remember the roll Caney Lake was on? State-record bass after state-record bass came from the lake in North Louisiana, including the current bass to beat, a 15.97-pounder that was hooked and landed by Greg Wiggins in February 1994.

That “hawg” unseated a 15.54-pound bass that topped the state record books kept diligently by the Louisiana Outdoor Writers Association. That fish was caught in the same month a year earlier at Caney Lake by Tommy Foster.

Caney Lake, in its heyday, accounted for seven of the Top 10 bass in the Sportsman’s Paradise. The last one to brag about was caught in July 1996, a 15.33-pounder boated by Johnny Harper.

But that ended a run of big bass from Caney Lake that began in March 1992. After carp were introduced into the lake to control the grass problem, that was all she wrote for lunker hunting there, except for prime times in the spring.

Wiggins’ state record fish still stands at No. 1. It has been almost a decade since anyone has caught one bigger in Louisiana.

Will the magic happen again at Caney Lake? Or anywhere else in the state, for that matter? Probably not, biologically speaking, at Grand Bayou Reservoir, even at Providence Point.

State Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Inland Fisheries Division administrative assistant Gary Tilyou of Denham Springs said as much recently when he fielded questions about what happened to the state-record blitz last decade and what’s in store for the future. The 23-year department veteran and highly respected biologist rose through the department ranks after distinguishing himself in the field in the district based in Opelousas.

“I’m not saying we don’t have one bigger than 16 pounds. We don’t have them in enough numbers where we can say they’re in extensive numbers. I don’t believe we’ve caught the biggest fish in Louisiana,” Tilyou said.

Louisiana isn’t alone in what amounts to a long dry spell between new state-record bass. Neighboring Texas has an 18.18-pounder at the top of the chart that was caught 11 years ago by Barry St. Clair at Lake Fork. Sam Rayburn Reservoir’s last big bass was Tommy Shelton’s 16.68-pounder in 1997, which holds down No. 9 in the Texas Top 10.

Lake Fork, Texas’ heavily pressured answer to Caney Lake, last gave up a hawg-sized fish last March when Johnny Six hauled in a 15.65-pound bass that settled in at No. 28.

Six’s bass would have been No. 2 in Louisiana.

Is Tilyou disappointed?

“Yeah. With the combination of the Louisiana climate with the fertility of the water, I thought we’d have bigger bass. We’re not continuing to break the record like we were hoping to do. I think it’s just genetics,” the biologist said.

“But I am pleased we got the record up to 16, and many people are catching more 10-pound-plus fish than ever before. We’re stuck at 16 pounds right now, but we have quite a few fish in the 12- to 15-pound range. There are a lot of big fish coming out of Louisiana waters.

“That brings up an interesting question: Can we raise fish over 15 pounds? We think we can. You know, 12 pounds (a native bass) was the state record forever and ever,” he said.

Tilyou believes it’s all a matter of genes. The state is striving to introduce the exact Florida genes to grow monstrous bass that one day might rival those in Texas, California and Florida.

The Sportsman’s Paradise is banking in part on a Lunker Bass Program in which 12-pound-plus female bass are caught and donated in order to spawn under controlled conditions at the state fish hatchery and then returned to the water.

“As far as genetically improving the stock, that’s all we’re doing right now,” Tilyou said. “Some people think ‘yes, we have Florida bass.’ But it just isn’t that simple. We are anxiously watching some states taking genetics a little farther. Texas is one,” he said.

Texas biologists are doing whatever they can genetically to get bigger bass, he said. Some of their scientific experiments, however, have been blunted by the federal government, he said.

Louisiana, he said, goes back to Florida from time to time to get new blood.

“We’re going to keep getting. We’ll go back and get brood bass and maybe we’ll find the right one, maybe rival California,” he said.

Who knows? There may be another Caney Lake in the future of Louisiana.

Caney Lake, he explained, was the benefactor of several factors that caused it to explode with bass of sizable proportions.

“It got just like Toledo Bend was in its heyday,” Tilyou said.

It wasn’t long after the Sabine River was dammed that a bass-fishing bonanza was enjoyed at Toledo Bend, he pointed out.

However, Caney Lake had even more going for it than Toledo Bend because, he said, the department stocked Florida bass in farm ponds that were inundated when the lake was filled. Later, Caney Lake got more and more Floridas.

“We gave it about as much effort as we can give a lake from the word go,” he said. “So what we had at Caney was the Florida gene. It was not tremendous at first … but we have a good percentage right now, 40- to 50-percent, some hybrid, some pure Floridas.

“So we had the Florida gene working before it was a lake and we also had ‘new lake vigor,’ which basically means there were not a lot of rough fish in it, and there were quite a few nutrients in the lake. There was a vast expanse of water with no predators in it.

“The fish were very competitive. They tried to fill the void with themselves, which is why we got tremendous growth production the first few years. That’s probably why we got so many records out of Caney — the Florida gene and new lake effect.

“We took advantage of the situation at Caney, I’m not ashamed to admit it. We had a new lake and we stocked Caney even before it was a lake.”

Bass anglers took advantage of the situation, and probed the miles of grass beds to extract state records. People came from near and far to tap the big-bass factory.

“What happened to Caney? Everybody knows it lost the grass. But did the bass disappear? No. I think they’re just harder to catch, harder to locate,” the biologist said.

“Do I even think Caney will be back to where it was? No. It’s no longer a ‘new’ lake … unless they drain it and start over.”

What about Grand Bayou Reservoir? Isn’t it a prime candidate to give up huge bass? It could be, considering what happened at Caney Lake, according to Tilyou.

“Look at Grand Bayou. We tried the same thing with it, and it never did produce numbers of trophy fish, not like Caney did. I don’t know why. We protected it from the word go … no fishing, then the slot limit,” he said. “What is it now? Six years old? Right now it should be coming into its own as a new lake.”

With that in mind, he said, “Grand Bayou is a hope since it is a new lake. And Poverty Point is a new lake we’re trying to get the (Florida) gene in.

“Spanish Lake is the one we’re really hoping for. I’m not going to say it’s not going to happen, either. It is a fertile system.”

University Lake, Toledo Bend, D’Arbonne Lake and Chicot Lake all have bass in the Top 20. Lake D’Arbonne was the last to yield a state-record bass at No. 7 when Ed Stellner reeled in a 15.31-pounder in February 2000.

Toledo Bend and Miller’s Lake both had state-record bass caught in March 1998. Miller’s Lake’s was a 15.05-pound beauty landed by Brett Fontenot, while Toledo Bend’s was a 14.68-pounder caught by Kraig Welborn. (Texas, which shares Toledo Bend with Louisiana, has a 15.32-pounder ranked No. 48. It was caught in 2000 by Eric Weems.)

University Lake hit the limelight in June 1992 when Thomas Robertson got his hands on a 15.38-pound bass that sits at No. 5.

“We had some that usually don’t get (bass) over the 13-, 14-pound range,” Tiiyou said about those waterbodies.

Tilyou said at one time, False River, that old oxbow of the Mississippi River, looked like a great place to grow trophy fish. Siltation, however, dashed those dreams in the 1990s, and LMBV (largemouth bass virus) took a toll on heavy bass there several years ago to give it a double whammy.

False River burst onto the scene in a positive way in 1989 when a 12.97-pound bass from there broke a state record that stood for years and years.

Some observers say the state’s oppressive heat and other factors cause stressful conditions that might discourage growth of Florida bass in Louisiana. Tilyou isn’t one of them.

“I don’t believe that. Florida bass in our rivers ought to do excellent,” he said.

Don’t expect a state-record bass to be found in the marsh, with the possible exception of Caernarvon or Davis Pond, he said. Conditions may be more favorable for the latter if the Mississippi River water diversion is consistent as planned, according to Tilyou.

Marshes adjacent to major rivers have potential, he said, and those two areas are stocked with Floridas.

Louisiana’s bass population in several regions of the state was impacted severely by LMBV, which also set back the state-record bass hunt. The Atchafalaya Basin, Concordia Lake and Lake Bruin bass numbers suffered the effects that hit larger fish hard.

But from all indications most of the affected areas have rebounded.

The bottom line, said Tilyou, is there is a state-record bass swimming in the waters of the state somewhere. The state is trying to grow some more that stretch lines and leap to the top of the state records.

Perhaps that state-record bass is waiting for the next time you cast your favorite artificial lure. It’s about time, isn’t it?

About Don Shoopman 559 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.