Louisiana’s No. 1 bass lake is also known across the South as a monster shellcracker machine.
If you look at Louisiana’s state records, you’ll find that anglers catch most of the big shellcrackers (chinquapin) in Caney Lake near Chatham.What makes Caney one of the best shellcracker lakes in the nation? Louisiana outdoorsman Mike Wood knows the answer. He is also the district fisheries manager for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
“It’s not uncommon to see 2-pound shellcrackers in Caney Lake,” Wood said.
The Louisiana state-record list consists almost entirely of shellcrackers caught in Caney Lake. As with any other fish, the redear sunfish needs good habitat, an abundance of food and very little fishing mortality to grow to the older-age classes and larger sizes. Redears like wide-open spaces. They’re not cover-oriented fish.
The state impounded 5,000-acre Caney Lake, located in Jackson Parish, in 1987 to increase the recreational opportunities in the area. Caney didn’t fully fill up for 3 years, because even today plenty of rain has to fall for Caney Lake to rise. Other impoundments in this same region will have an 8-inch rise with a 1-inch rain. Caney Lake has a big watershed. Small creeks feed the lake, including Caney Creek, Smith Branch, Clear Creek, Cypress Creek and Boggy Bayou.
“I didn’t think Caney would be Louisiana’s No. 1 shellcracker lake when it was first built,” Wood said. “Shellcrackers feed differently from other sunfish. The shellcrackers actually pull up mud off the bottom into their mouths and then filter the mud back out when they expel it. They eat little invertebrates in the mud and midge fly larvae.”
Caney Lake homes a tremendous amount of midge fly larvae.
“Midge flies are bugs that resemble mosquitoes that swarm all over you at night,” he said. “You may think they’re mosquitoes, but if you notice, they don’t bite. On Caney Lake, you’ll see millions of them at dark. We do a lot of night work on Caney Lake, so when those midge flies start forming, there’ll be a ton of them all around you. You end up breathing them in and having them all over you.
“Although Caney Lake has millions of midge flies, anglers swarm in at night on Caney for the shellcrackers feeding on the larvae located on the bottom of the lake, and there are billions of the larvae. These immature midge flies look like small red worms. If you dig in the mud on Caney Lake, you’ll see large numbers of these 1/2-inch-long red worms, which is one of the shellcracker’s favorite foods.”
Shells to crack
Other lakes in Louisiana also have healthy populations of midge flies, but the Asian clams in Caney also put poundage on the shellcrackers there.
“The combination of Asian clams and the abundance of midge fly larvae produce a unique situation of an abundance of food in the habitat at Caney,” Wood said. “Anywhere you find Asian clams, you’ll find shellcrackers.
“But the problem with Asian clams is they live and create their beds on the bottom, and they’ll often be found in open water where no one can see them. Because Caney Lake has plenty of open water and Asian clam beds, there’s lots of habitat for the shellcracker. But people can’t find habitat they can’t see.
“Therefore, shellcrackers are harder to fish for at Caney than in some other lakes. For this reason, the shellcrackers here live longer and grow bigger than they do in most Louisiana lakes.
“Most anglers are structure-oriented, including myself. I like to know what I’m fishing around, like a log or a cypress tree.
“However, when you’re fishing on Caney Lake, you have to fish on wide-open water to catch shellcrackers. To make things even more complicated, the shellcrackers frequently move from place to place. When you don’t know where to fish for these shellcrackers, they have a survival advantage.”
If Caney shellcrackers live in open water and mainly stay around invisible clam beds, how does anyone ever find and catch them?
“Look for humps, beds, shallow areas and drop-offs,” Wood said. “Once you locate these types of areas, then you have to pinpoint the clam beds if you’re going to find the shellcrackers.
“These fish are called shellcrackers because they crack the shells of clams to eat them. My mental picture of a clam is a shellfish that’s smaller than an oyster, but about the size of an overgrown 50-cent piece, served steaming hot on a seafood buffet.
“But that’s not the same kind of clam that shellcrackers eat. These Asian clams are fairly small, even as adults, so we can’t even see them.”
Asian clams can’t survive in very deep water but live in 15-foot-or-less depths.
“On the depth finder, these clam beds are found on a hard bottom,” Wood said. “However, serious fishermen use a small camera like the Aqua-Vu to find the shell beds. An Aqua-Vu can be let down on a wire cable. Then the camera sends back a picture of the bottom like a video camera. So, if you have an Aqua-Vu in your boat, you can let the camera down to the bottom and actually see the shellcracker beds.
“The really high-tech fishermen on Caney are using GPS receivers to mark the sites of the shell beds they find with their Aqua-Vus. With this system, after they’ve located the shell beds, they can use their GPS receivers to return to these Asian clam beds and fish for the biggest shellcrackers in Caney.”
You can catch Caney Lake shellcrackers in the winter months as well as in the spring or summer months.
“During the winter months, the redears school-up in some of the deepest waters in Caney down by the dam,” Wood said. “You can find large schools of shellcrackers during the winter easily. There’ll be plenty of boats fishing in the areas where these big schools congregate.
“A high-tech angler can easily locate these schools. You can use your depth finder to identify the schools in that open water. Then let down your Aqua-Vu to make sure the school you’ve located is a shellcracker bed.”
We now know why big shellcrackers live in Caney Lake and where to find them in the spring, the summer and the winter. So what do we use to catch them?
“Cold worms,” Wood said. “Cold worms are big nightcrawlers. Serious shellcracker fishermen at Caney Lake have named them cold worms because they’re kept in the refrigerator at bait stores.
“In researching cold worms, I’ve learned there are only about 10 to 20 worms in a tub, but these worms may be 4- to 8-inches-long each. A fisherman will cut off an inch of the worm and put it on his hook when fishing for shellcrackers. Often an angler will use even a bigger glob of cold worms on his hook, but never the entire worm.
“While an angler may balance a cork with lead so the cork has very little resistance when the shellcracker takes it, other fishermen won’t use any corks at all up the line from their hooks. Instead they’ll let the weight of the worms carry their hooks and lines down to the waiting shellcrackers.”
Wood explains that you don’t want much resistance on the line when the shellcracker picks up the worm to eat it because the shellcracker will let go if it feels even the slightest amount of resistance.
To catch a really big shellcracker from Caney Lake, you need to fish in the late winter or the early spring, when you’ll find the shellcrackers full of eggs.
“Consistently catching shellcrackers at Caney is tied to the moon phase,” Wood said. “If the weather’s warm in March, and there’s a full moon during that warm period, the shellcrackers will start spawning. During the full moon in April, they’ll begin spawning again. They’ll continue to spawn through May and into June. However, there seems to be a decrease in their spawning activity during the hottest part of the summer.”
Shellcrackers in many Louisiana lakes generally will follow this same pattern. But Wood doesn’t know any other lake in Louisiana where shellcrackers actually have a fall spawn.
“We’ve seen shellcrackers spawning in September and October around the time of the full moon in Caney, and I really can’t believe it,” he said. “But we’ve documented that shellcrackers do go to their beds in the fall of the year on Caney.”
With this much spawning activity and the spawning in the fall months, you can start to understand why Caney Lake produces so many shellcrackers and particularly big shellcrackers. Many fishermen rank Caney Lake as not only the biggest shellcracker lake in Louisiana but possibly in the nation. Besides Wood, only a few local anglers know about this fall spawn, and they’re not telling anybody.