This group spearfishes in the catfish-rich waters of Lakes Maurepas and Pontchartrain.
“Go jump in the lake.”Usually, if someone makes that remark to you, it isn’t meant in a good way. However, if you’re told that by a certain group of catfishermen, you should take their advice.
What they have in mind is an exciting and unique sport that involves swimming around in Lake Maurepas or Lake Pontchartrain spearfishing some big Louisiana catfish.
While traditional Louisiana catfishing involves a canepole or trotline and some nightcrawlers, the way these guys do it is a little out of the ordinary, and a whole bunch of fun. Basically what they do is shallow-water diving, probing the stumps looking for cats hiding out in all the little holes and hollows in the submerged logs.
This adventurous method of taking catfish is growing in popularity with several dedicated groups of fishermen. These guys are not content to have the fish come to them — they go to the fish.
Seeking out these fish where they live makes for some exciting face-to-face meetings.
“I love it,” said Darren Barringer, one of the group’s participants. “There’s nothing like looking eyeball to eyeball with a big cat.”
Barringer has been spearfishing for catfish for a little over three years, but he’s totally hooked. In affirmation of his affinity for this sport, Barringer recently got a colorful tattoo on his arm of what he calls a “monster catfish.” The mythical-looking creature has claws and is all tangled up in the speargun line. Fortunately, the fish they seek are a bit tamer and have no teeth or claws.
On a hot July day last year, Barringer and the rest of the group headed out from Manchac in a variety of boats. Their exact destination would be dictated by the day’s wind conditions and water clarity.
“We look for an area that has a lot of stumps and clear water,” Barringer said.
After a short ride to the west side of Lake Maurepas, the boats anchored up at a favorite shoreline location that is filled with submerged cypress stumps. While some stumps were obviously visible as they protruded above the water’s surface, there were countless others that lied beneath.
Cody Hano, who has been spearfishing catfish for many years, volunteered to go in first to check out the conditions. Due to strong winds over the prior few days, the water was pretty stirred up, and from the surface, the visibility didn’t look too good.
Hano made several ventures through the stumps with his trademark green fins flapping above the surface and splashing water everywhere. No luck. The visibility was poor and no fish could be located.
The group then opted to head to a more-protected area in hopes of finding clearer water. It proved to be a good decision. Without even getting in, it was readily apparent that the water was much cleaner in this area.
The first order of business was to deploy the universally recognized red-and-white dive flag. The flag is used to alert others that there are divers in the area.
While dive flags are common at Gulf oil rigs, seeing one along the stump-filled shorelines of Lake Maurepas has caused many a curious stare. Instead of prowling the legs of huge oil-production platforms in crystal-blue Gulf waters, this group crawls through the centuries-old cypress stumps in brown water with visibilities sometimes less than 2 feet.
Confirming the novelty of this sport, numerous boats filled with traditional fishermen passed by gawking in amazement at the group of flipper-clad fish hunters who have chosen to jump out of perfectly good boats.
The group prepared for its first dive by donning various equipment. There were no uniforms or fancy fishing shirts. One diver was in camo shorts, another in a floral bathing suit and yet another in a short-sleeved and legged wetsuit.
However, standard equipment for each diver is a good-quality mask, gloves, flippers and a dive knife. There are numerous trotlines in the area, and the dive knife can be a lifesaver if you inadvertently get tangled or hooked in one. Gear cost for each diver is about $300 with the majority of that being spent on the speargun and mask.
While some simply free dive and can stay under only as long as holding their breath allows, others will opt to use a snorkel.
“When the water is really clear, the snorkel allows me to skim the surface while keeping my face in the water. This lets me easily locate stumps that are completely submerged,” said John Allen, who has been spearfishing for catfish for 15 years.
Another item Allen carries is a small waterproof flashlight that he will shine into a hole to look for fish.
The divers’ flippers enable them to maintain an inverted position while locating fish and steadying themselves for a shot.
Instead of the long rifle-type spear guns typically used in scuba diving, the group generally uses shorter, pistol-like guns such as the Mares Cyrano. These guns are deadly accurate, and have plenty enough power for the short-range shooting encountered in catfish spearing.
These pneumatic guns are also unique in that they use a combination of sealed springs and compressed air to propel the spear instead of the traditional surgical tubing. The gun is preloaded with air by means of a small pump. The guns generally need no air refill during an entire season or more.
The gun is loaded by using a cocking handle to compress the internal spring. The cocking handle fits over the tip of the spear, and the gun can even be cocked while in the water.
The spear is tipped with a screw-on barb, and is tethered to the gun with 10 feet of line. Several of the spearfishermen will also tether the gun to a small boat fender used as a float.
“The float serves the dual purpose of allowing you to drop your gun (either necessarily or accidentally) and also serves as a flotation aid for taking a break while diving in water too deep to stand,” said Troy Robert, another long-term participant with over 15 years’ experience. “The float also acts as a location device so someone can tell where you are when you are under the water.”
With their spearguns cocked and gear on, the group jumped in and headed out in several different directions looking like a bunch of unsynchronized Olympic swimmers. However, they were not looking for gold, silver or bronze; they were after blue and yellow catfish.
Water clarity was only fair, so it took a lot of diving to look much closer into the stumps and root structures for the fish.
“We mainly look for the eyes or lips,” said Barringer. “The lips are white and are much easier to spot.”
While not always the case, the blue cats generally back into the holes, while the yellows will generally opt to go in head first.
The group of floating fish-seekers milled around the shoreline probing every stump they came across. With air blowing through their snorkels and their flippers slapping the water, it looked like a rogue band of unusual whales had invaded Lake Maurepas.
Logan Barringer, who was on only his fourth dive, quickly rose to the surface and yelled “shot.” Almost immediately after, Allen also surfaced and asked, “Who shot?” Next, Cody Hano popped up near a large cypress stump with a 5-pound blue cat flailing at the business end of his spear.
Hano is one of the more-experienced spear fishermen of the group.
“I’ve been doing this for about 16 years,” he said.
Like the deer hunter who is somehow always successful, Hano clearly has a knack for locating and shooting catfish under a variety of conditions. It was no surprise to the others in the group that he was the first of the day to put some meat in the box.
When someone shoots, the sound travels through the water. All nearby divers can easily hear the shot if they are under the water. When a shot is taken, the guys will surface and yell “shot,” and wait to see who’s been successful.
“Cody won’t tell you when he’s got one; he’ll just smile at you,” Barringer said.
Once a fish is shot, the diver will swim with it back to the boat. The barb is unscrewed off the shaft, allowing the fish to be removed and placed in an ice chest. The preferred shot is through the head, which quickly dispatches the fish. This also makes the fish easier to retrieve and bring to the boat.
As the group continued to spread down the bank, Allen was the next to surface with a nice blue cat. Soon the boxes started to fill up with cats ranging from 2 to 15 pounds.
Darren Barringer was next to stick a nice blue. As he surfaced, one side of his mask was all fogged up. Their masks will regularly fog, and have to be rinsed to clear them up.
Hano has a secret he uses to keep his mask clear.
“I rub a little spit from my Grizzly chewing tobacco on the inside of my mask, and it doesn’t fog up,” he said.
During the next few hours, all of the divers were successful in adding several fish each to the haul. On this day it was all blues. Allen then added in a sheepshead and a gar for a little variety.
“We see all kinds of fish while diving — cats, bass, bream, drum, sheepshead and gars,” said Darren Barringer. “It’s amazing: The bass and bream will sometimes swim right up to you. It’s like they know they’re illegal to shoot.”
Sometimes when a fish is located, it will take several dives to get in the right position for a shot. Oftentimes, the divers will pair up and take turns going down to assess the situation. Also, the diving will stir up sediment from the bottom and decrease the visibility, which causes the divers to have to wait a few minutes for it to clear up.
“Many times, you’ll see a fish in a hole and can’t figure out how he got in there,” said Barringer.
It may take several looks to figure an angle that will provide for a clean shot and allow enough space to retrieve the fish out of the stump.
While the fish certainly can be spooked and will swim off, that seldom happens to experienced divers.
“If you dive smoothly with a fluid motion, you can get right on them without them spooking,” Hano said.
GlennThomas, assistant professor with LSU Sea Grant/Ag Center, explains that this behavior is likely due to the fact that these larger catfish have no natural predators to fear.
“The diver is likely the only threat these fish face, and they are not even aware of it,” he said.
While catfish are available for spearfishing all year long, the group prefers to go only in the warm months when the water temperature is more comfortable for diving. They generally make their dives from early spring through late summer.
“We like to get out there as soon as the water temperature allows,” said Barringer. “However, you need to remember that we are diving in freshwater areas that have a lot of alligators. The mating season is in early spring, so we wait until later in the year when the gators are less likely to be aggressive.”
For safety reasons, the group will always have at least one person stay in a nearby boat to act as a spotter who can alert them in case an alligator appears in the area. As the group works their way down a shore line, the spotter will move the boat along with them.
The catfish are spread throughout the lakes. However, an area that is full of fish one day can be completely empty the next.
“It’s amazing. You can be in an area and not see a single fish, and then all of a sudden they will move in all around you,” Barringer said.
According to Thomas, as the daylight gets brighter, the catfish will move toward the stumps to take refuge in the cavities.
“These fish are not very agile, so they will hunt for food during the night and low light hours, and then move into the stumps to lie up during the day,” he said.
In addition to blue cats, the group also harvests some flatheads.
“Lake Pontchartrain in the late summer is when we really get into some big yellow cats,” Hano said.
Under the right conditions, the waters of lakes Maurepas and Pontchartrain can be amazingly clear.
“There are ideal days out here where you can see forever. The fish are easy to locate, and it’s like being in a stump-filled swimming pool,” said Barringer.
Usually, the dog days of summer where there has been a stretch of no rain and little wind will set up conditions for optimum water clarity.
“Bright sun and clear water allow you to more easily see the fish hiding up in the stumps,” he added.
By taking reasonable safety precautions, shallow-water diving for catfish is very safe. Although the warm water temperature does not warrant the need for a wetsuit, Barringer prefers to wear a “shorty” suit to help protect him from the sharp and scratchy stumps.
“The wetsuit is hot in the summer, but it protects me from getting scratched or cut on the stumps,” he said. “It’s really helpful when you have to wrestle a big cat out of a stump.”
Though no one sustained any major injuries, by the end of the day, a couple of the divers did have some minor scrapes and scratches that were clearly irritated by some type of bacteria from the underwater structures. Thomas says the irritation of the divers’ scratches is likely the result of bryozoan dermatitis.
“Bryozoans are tiny animals that live in colonies and attach to the hard substrates such as the stumps,” he said. “They form hard calcium skeletons that can scratch and cause the allergic responses that irritate the skin.”
Though not dangerous, these cuts can cause redness and itching, and washing with an anti-bacterial soap is recommended.
With two solid boxes of catfish, the day ended with the makings for a great Louisiana fish fry. If you’re looking for a different type of fishing that offers excitement along with a little exercise, you may want to give catfish spearing a try. It will give you a whole new perspective the next time someone tells you to “go jump in the lake.”
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