This guide spends three seasons of the year following sac-a-lait and other panfish in the canals, bayous and lakes of the Bayou Black area.
Bigger is better, right?
Not in Capt. Bryce Michel’s estimation.
Michel has weathered 6-foot seas to do battle with triple-digit yellowfin tuna.
He’s baited 9/0 hooks with cracked crab and teamed them with 2-ounce weights to target knuckle-busting bull reds in swift-current passes.
He’s set alligator traps in the late summer and has dispatched 11-footers at point-blank range with a single shot from a handgun.
But there’s no event in Michel’s year, no experience in the outdoors that thrills his soul more than casting a 1/32-ounce micro-jig and Tootsie Roll-sized cork next to a grass bed in hopes of luring a strike from a fish that would hardly be big enough to use for bait on his tuna, redfish and alligator excursions.
“This is the most relaxing kind of fishing you can do,” Michel said while watching his cork on a recent trip to one of his favorite destinations, a series of canals near Houma called Orange Grove.
Michel had cast his Bass Assassin Tiny Shad between two grass beds that had grown in tangled mats from the bank out about 5 feet. His cast had placed the jig on the mucky bottom, as evidenced by the cork lying flat on the surface, so Michel twitched his ultralight rod tip a couple of times, and reeled in the slack.
“There’s a shelf that falls into a dropoff right along that bank,” he said. “That’s where the fish hold — right along that shelf.”
As Michel worked the cork, the unseen jig followed along, and eventually fell off the shelf. The cork stood upright for a brief moment, then almost on cue, disappeared.
Michel gently set the hook, held the rod high and cranked on his tiny spinning reel. Within seconds, the Houma native hoisted over the gunwale a 1/2-pound of the best-tasting fillets in the piscatorial kingdom.
Like most anglers, when Michel looks at a sac-a-lait, he doesn’t see a silver spotted fish with a downturned mouth and oversized fins. He sees egg wash, corn meal and Crisco.
“That’s some good eating right there, boss,” he said as he unhooked the panfish and tossed it in his aft livewell.
That being the case, Michel eats extremely well this time of year.
From January through August, Michel follows sac-a-lait and other panfish on a cycle that is as predictable as an atomic clock. His boat is a 24-foot Blazer Bay, a craft more suited for the open waters of the Louisiana coast, but as often as not, it’s floating on the sweet waters of the Bayou Black area with its livewells full of sac-a-lait, bream and even a stray bass or two.
Michel begins his pursuit of his beloved sac-a-lait as soon as Jack Frost takes a couple days off during the year’s first month.
“When you get two or three warm days back-to-back in January, that’s when the really big sac-a-lait move onto the beds,” Michel said. “You won’t catch a lot of fish, but they’ll all be 1 1/2 to 2 pounds.
“Even though it’s January, and the water temperature is still cold, those fish’ll be right on the banks. There’s no doubt in my mind that they’re spawning then. I think they’re like bass. The big bass are going to spawn first no matter what the temperature is.”
The more-typical weather conditions of January — cold air temperatures, hellacious winds, heavy rains — conspire against Michel in his quest for crappie.
“The fish are probably still there, but it’s tough to get them to bite, so I’ll only fish them in January when the conditions are right,” he said.
Michel can bide his down time in January with a smile on his face because he knows the peak of the sac-a-lait activity is just around the corner.
“I’ve been doing this all my life, and I’ve found that the prime time is Mardi Gras,” he said. “The moon is always right then. Ten days before (Mardi Gras) through 10 days after is the absolute peak.”
Michel’s technique this time of year is to team 1/32-ounce Jenny’s Jigs with Bass Assassin Tiny Shads about 14 inches below a pegged cork. He throws the rig as close to the bank as possible and pops it back toward the boat.
This tactic will deliver a few sac-a-lait from virtually every Orange Grove-area canal, but Michel is very particular in selecting a canal to fish so that he maximizes his time on the water.
First off, the canal has to have an abundance of submergent vegetation, and it’ll be even more productive if the grass is thick near the bank and then has a gap between that bed and another secondary bed.
“I’ll catch 95 percent of my fish between those two beds,” he said.
Such a terrain feature is a good indicator of another of Michel’s musts for a productive sac-a-lait canal — a shelf and drop-off very near the bank.
“If the canal has filled in, and you have one of those shallow, slow-sloping banks, you may catch a few bass in there, but you’re not going to catch many sac-a-lait,” he said. “You’ve got to have that shelf.”
The sac-a-lait seem to sit with their noses against that drop-off, just waiting for any unsuspecting baitfish to happen along. Consequently, Michel will cast his jig, and if the cork lies flat, he’ll twitch it until the bait falls off the drop-off and hangs suspended just off the shelf. Then he waits several seconds to see if there are any takers.
“A lot of times the fish will just stare at your bait for a while before it decides to hit it,” Michel said. “When they do that, they seem to all do that, so you have to be patient all day.”
On other days, the fish feed aggressively, and they don’t give Michel the time to let his bait sit still after coming off the shelf.
“People make a big deal about selecting the right color (bait) to fish, but if you’re there and the fish are on the (spawning) beds, it doesn’t matter what color you fish,” he said. “The sac-a-lait aren’t hitting your bait to eat it; they’re hitting it to kill it. That’s when the strikes are really strong.”
When the fish are spawning, Michel will often catch dozens from one spot without moving the boat.
“Normally, during the spawn, the first fish you pull off the bed is the male,” he said. “But you might catch four or five males before you catch the female. Many times I catch 25 fish off a bed. Just as fast as you can throw in there, you’re going to catch one.”
Such action usually occurs when the water has warmed into the upper 50s or low 60s.
“You have to watch the nighttime (air) temperatures,” Michel said. “If it’s staying in the 50s or 60s, that water’s going to stay warm all night. The fish will probably be on the spawning beds in the morning.”
But the sac-a-lait spawn in the Orange Grove canals can be somewhat capricious. Michel has seen things change from day to day and then change back again, often without any discernible reason.
“These fish we’re catching today seem to be all spawned out,” he said the first week of March. “But I could come in here this weekend and catch nothing but spawning fish, or I might not catch another spawning fish until next year. You just don’t know.”
But typically by mid March, the sac-a-lait are done spawning, and goggle-eye and chinquapin are moving up to inhabit the same bedding areas.
Michel has two delightful options at that point — target the other panfish up on the spawning beds or the sac-a-lait in their springtime holding areas.
“The sac-a-lait move to the second grass line in late March and April,” Michel said. “You need to look for those big mounds of hydrilla about 10 feet off the bank. You need those really big patches. You’ll catch one or two on the small pieces, but those big mats of hydrilla will hold most of the fish.”
Michel will fish them either his traditional way — with a cork and jig — or tightlined without a cork. The latter method is often more effective because the fish tend to hold deeper, and the bait can be jigged up and down when the line is cast over a stalk of vegetation.
Though many anglers have given up on sac-a-lait by April, Michel says it can actually be one of the most productive times of the year.
“The fish are very aggressive because they’re holding there feeding on all the fry from the bass, sac-a-lait and bream spawns that are moving off the bank,” he said.
The spawning goggle-eye and chinquapin get just as thick near the bank, but Michel said there’s a small window to fish them in the canals because the grass grows rapidly, and often by the end of April, it’s too thick to effectively work a bait around.
In fact, it’s this very grass, the same vegetation that Michel targets in the late winter, that becomes his bane in the late spring.
“In a canal, you might have a little boat lane, and that’s it. There’s no way to fish it,” he said.
So Michel shifts his focus to the mouths of the canals, where currents keep water temperatures down and the grass in check.
“That time of year, the mouths of the canals get pretty because all the grass in the canals filters the water,” he said. “The backs of the canals will be unfishable (because of the vegetation), but the mouths will be open.
“You’ll catch some giant sac-a-lait that time of year, and they’ll be mixed in with 3- or 4-inchers. If you run across a spot where you’re catching nothing but small fish, stay there and keep fishing because you’re going to catch some big ones.”
Beginning around May, Michel will also begin to target the lakes, particularly Lake Penchant.
“I think those fish are probably in Lake Penchant year-round, but they’re scattered because the grass hasn’t grown yet; they don’t have anything to hold to,” he said. “But in the summer, that grass comes in, and the fish move right away to those grass lines.”
Whether in the lakes or the canals, the summertime fishing is not without its limitations. Most importantly, the action is strictly an early morning event.
“You need to get there before sunrise, and you won’t catch a fish after 9 (a.m.). When the (air) temperature gets above 85 degrees, they’re done,” he said. “I think they’d still bite, but they move into the grass and you can’t get to them.
“If we could figure out a way to punch that grass with a sac-a-lait jig, I think we could catch them.”
The only time the fish will stay accessible throughout the day, Michel said, is on grey, drizzly days when the temperature doesn’t get out of the low 80s. Then, he said, the fish will feed all day.
Michel’s favorite summertime bait, by far, is a clear tube jig.
“It looks just like a grass shrimp,” he said, “especially after you’ve used it a little while and it gets kind of cloudy.”
In addition to Lake Penchant and Orange Grove, he also likes to work it in 70-mile Canal, Crawford Canal, Lake Hackberry, Stump Canal, Hutch Canal, Dogleg Canal, Schoolboard Canal and Bayou Copasaw.
You won’t find any tuna or bull reds there, and most of the year, the gators are off-limits, but you can almost always find Michel there. He knows well that bigger isn’t always better.