Flat-Out Fantastic

Now that the grass is coming back, bream action is picking up big-time in this overlooked lake.

To the east, an orange ball glowed just above the horizon through the cypress and tupelo trees in the backwater areas of the basin. As expected, a light steamy mist — not even close to being a fog — gently kissed the water of Flat Lake as we crossed it heading north.

It’s like that in June. The surface temperature cools just enough to where evapotranspiration lifts moisture into the air. The effect is a cool morning ride and a welcomed reprieve from a muggy predawn start where there’s not a breath of air outside.

If it weren’t for palm-sized chinquapin, bluegills and the possibility of a few crappie, perhaps it wouldn’t be worth the discomfort. But therein is the draw of Flat Lake — chunky panfish and a whole lot of light-tackle fun.

One problem I couldn’t help but think about, as my spouse and I headed across the lake, was no one had a decent report in quite some time from what was a renowned bream location. Hurricanes dating back to 2005 had taken their toll on the lake. Just maybe it was some form of penitence owed Mother Nature that came due for the bounty removed.

My last trips to the region, prior to Gustav, had produced several good fishing days.

Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries biologist Mike Walker was singing the Atchafalaya Basin’s praises that year.

“We were just about to start seeing the results of a good year in 2008 — after the die-off in 2005 — and then the hurricanes came and changed all that. I was telling everybody, ‘You need be fishing in the basin this year,’ and then Gustav and Ike both came in and ruined all those good plans, setting us back another two years.”

Because of Flat Lake’s location upriver above Morgan City, storm surge, turbidity and debris denude the water’s oxygen supply and freshness, destroying plant life and killing fish that can’t escape.

“We’ve had two hurricanes a few years apart,” Walker said. “And Flat Lake is always impacted because it drains a large area of the cypress tupelo swamp in which the water quality goes bad on that end. It all drains through Flat Lake. That has a tendency to push fish out into the Intracoastal or kill them outright.”

Houma resident, Mike Rome, who admits to being a tournament fisherman, often fishes the area on his days off.

“I think the storms messed things up quite a bit,” he said. “My dad and I used to fish it all the time. But I see now where some of the grass beds are coming back. Most people usually pass through the lake and just keep right on going.”

When we ran into Rome at the north end of Flat Lake, he was concentrating on sac-a-lait in the cypress trees and managing to put some pretty fish in the livewell. Those who are just using the lake as a thoroughfare, heading up Bear Bayou and Big Bayou Jesse, will find as time goes by, they’re missing out.

The trick to locating bream in Flat Lake is to concentrate on finding those thick wooly beds of aquatic grass. Those beds hold small baitfish and other bio-life such as tiny freshwater snails, which chinquapins particularly like — hence, the name “shellcracker” given to the redeared sunfish in other locations of the South.

Using my trolling motor to quietly sneak within casting distance of some thick submerged grass beds in clear water, I set the anchor gently to hold our position.

Tapering away from the bank, the water became a rich black color the deeper it got. The spot had a few submerged logs mixed in. I could actually see small bass under the wood that looked more like a pack of wolves.

Whenever fishing bream with my spouse, our styles and methods — even tackle — are as different as night and day. I like to troll and toss baits along grassy edges and in cypress knees. She prefers to sit on anchor. I like to use ultra-light tackle such as a Buck’s Best crappie pole. She in turn uses her favorite Abu Garcia Vendetta medium-action rod and 170i reel combo. I use 6-pound-test. Her reel is loaded with 12-pound. I like to use a 1/8-ounce hair jig with a split shot under a 2-inch slip float. She likes a little 1-inch bobber, panfish hook and real worms — the small trout-size ones.

These differences aren’t mentioned to indicate grounds for a pending divorce, but to simply show that there are a lot of ways to fish for bream in Flat Lake.

Nearly every cast, we caught bream — as well as bunches of undersized bass we kept tossing back. Atchafalaya Basin bass must be 14 inches to keep.

The shear number of fish we caught bodes well going forward.

“We did some sampling last fall and this spring, and what we are seeing is a tremendous amount of young-of-the-year bass and crappie,” Walker said. “It takes about two years for a place to recover, whether or not in size but definitely in numbers. And then the third year is when you want to be bass fishing.

“The bream are 2 years old, and they are harvestable; some crappie at 2 years old are marginally harvestable. There’ll be a few in 2010. But in 2011, now you’re talking about a lot of 3-year-old fish, and that’s a lot of good size fish — bream, crappie and bass.”

There is a clear line of delineation in the lake that is influenced by the Atchafalaya River. The better and clearer water is on the northern end of the lake as it flows out of the swamp. In fact, it’s common to go from muddy water near the landing to stained water to clear water as you make your way across.

It’s the rivers influence that has been silting in the western side of Flat Lake that could change the dynamic of the lake at some point.

“The basin is ever-changing everywhere, and I know that the lake has experienced a great deal of filling in,” Walker said. “In other words, we’ve lost some portions of that lake to land that’s visible above the waterline now over on the western side. Also, when you have high water for extended periods of time, the cold turbid water will clear out a lot of hydrilla growth in there. And that may be what harbored a lot of bream that occupied the area.

“Additionally, with a lot of soft sediment — for bream — it’s not really a good spawning area anymore. If there’s soft sediment, they can’t build and fan out a nest.”

For now, there still remains a vast area of Flat Lake to fish for bream, bass and sac-a-lait. Anglers interested in fishing the lake should concentrate on the wooded northern end and look for grass beds in clear water for bream.

Crappie can be had in the cypress trees, and bass are always lurking about, particularly above Flat Lake in Bear Bayou.

From the number of boats that passed us by heading north into the basin, the secret’s not entirely out yet that there are chinquapin and bluegill to be caught in the grass beds rebounding in Flat Lake. That’s OK with me because the future looks really bright — if we can keep the hurricanes away this summer.

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