Marsh Maggots

Use these lily pad grubs to put more summertime bream in the boat.

“You’re not going to believe this,” said Bryce Michel as we sped across Lake Decade. “I don’t know how much they told you about this deal, but it really is unbelievable.”

Strong words from someone I’d met just minutes before at Falgout Canal in the southern Terrebonne Parish fishing village known as Theriot. And even more pronounced since the subject was a bait used to catch Louisiana’s smallest, though arguably most popular, game fish.

Self-sufficiency and bream-fishing go hand in hand for many anglers. Whether it be tiny plastic tails hand-poured in garages to popping bugs carefully trimmed and painted at a fly-tier’s vice, panfish lure-making is a labor of love for the angler whose passions run deep for the succulent, bite-sized fillets or “on the bone” bodies of bluegill, redear sunfish and other members of the bream family.

Even those who favor natural bait get into the act. Anglers stomp around on moist soil in the dark with flashlights, trying to drive earthworms to the surface, hence the name “nightcrawlers.” Wasp larvae are — incredibly and unthinkably to many terrified by the evil-looking insects — plucked from their nests in the predawn hours. Ambitious and brave anglers swear by the larvae as bait and take advantage of dewy sweet southern air before the sun dries the wings of its parents, giving them the painful quick strike capability that drives fear into the hearts of those who suffer allergic reactions from their sting.

There is another option to gathering bait that doesn’t include neighbors having a reason to complain about your behavior after dark or risking bodily harm from angry insects. The stems of those big, leafy lily pads — commonly called gran voilais — hold the key to the ultimate perch bait.

The offspring of a certain insect spends its larval stage on the stem of the plant, commonly found in shallow south Louisiana lakes.

The grubs take the appearance of a white worm about the length of a person’s thumbnail. The similarity to a maggot is no coincidence since these creatures are in the same stage of metamorphosis.

Michel entered picturesque Lake Penchant and hung a hard left toward a group of large lilies, and killed the big engine just outside the perimeter of watery growths in various stages of vitality.

“At times, the dead-looking ones are just as good,” said Michel. “I’ve found that the best ones are the medium-sized ones, but sometimes you have to go through a bunch to get some bait going.”

The sounds of an early morning freshwater marsh quickly took over our senses as Michel waited patiently for the boat to glide in range of the closest pad. Grackles and red-winged blackbirds flitted about on the pads’ thick stems, and gallinules, both the purple and commonly colored species, bobbed about in the thick growth. No alligators were evident, but both of us were intimately aware of how many this body of water was known to hold.

LSU Ag Center biologist Jerald Horst and I enjoyed the serenity of the marsh dawn. Horst’s area of expertise deals primarily with those inhabiting saline waters, but he is a staunch admirer of bluegills, redbreasts, redears and the many other species of panfish.

Though these marsh fish don’t come close to the size Horst is used to in his beloved Atchafalaya Basin, he couldn’t resist an invitation to experience this “lily grub” phenomenon and the astounding numbers of fish populating this region.

There was little need for being quiet in our initial quest, and impatience quickly took over. With a much practiced snap of shoulder and elbow, Michel jerked the trolling motor off the mount. Twisting the handle to high quickly brought us to the platter-sized growth.

Michel then took the posture of a competitive bass angler attempting to free a tangled fish from a tree limb or mat of grass in an effort for prize money. Laying down on the bay boat’s front deck, he reached as far down into the dark water as his arms would go, and grasped the stem of the lily pad.

“You’re going to get a little dirty doing this, but the rewards are worth it,” said Michel as he pulled as steadily as his vessel would allow. “You want to pull these pads up real easy.”

The Houma native gently strained to loose the root system from the bottom’s gumbo mud, and then suddenly recoiled as the stem broke short of its bounty.

“You’ve got to go through a few of these somedays,” said Michel moving a short distance to the next target. Success was achieved with the next pad, but no grubs were attached to the stem.

“They’ll be on the brown part of the stem,” said Michel, pointing to the bottom section discolored by the mud.

We went through a few more pads before our quest was fulfilled with the motherlode. Dozens of grubs lined the length of the stem. Some grubs protruded from their cocoon, exposing their milky white color and their enticing, pendulum-like side-to-side motion. I could see why pint-sized game fish would attack them, but I would soon find out that even the skin of this creature would cause pint-sized battlers to strike.

Thrusting one’s arm into the water around such obvious forms of life of all shapes and sizes is not the most comfortable feeling, but it does help that the vast growth of aquatic vegetation filters away most all of the sediment in the water, rendering the water a beautiful, tea-colored clearness in all but the strongest of blows or rainfalls.

Theriot stands proud as one of the state’s most versatile fishing towns. Access to the Houma Navigational Canal grants opportunity to all things offshore below Cocodrie, while the waterways to the north and west boast some of the finest freshwater fishing in the state, not to mention the outstanding inshore saltwater action enjoyed by anglers much of the year.

The freshwater areas — also accessed by facilities to the west of Houma — have experienced a strong comeback with the return of regular rainfall the past year. The Bayou Black area was hit hard by the drought, and kept many anglers from repeating the strong catches seen in the 1999 Bassmasters Classic.

With a 5-gallon bucket holding our baits in a shallow layer of water, we were ready to fish. Michel rigged out lines first with mico-jigheads with clear/sparkle tube baits situated under a small cigar-shaped float.

“Everything in the marsh will eat these things,” said Michel. “Sac-a-lait go crazy for them, and they really help out when it gets into the summer like this.”

We worked the edge of a grass bed along the shoreline and predictably watched our corks mostly dance when the sun went behind wind-driven clouds. Our grub-tipped jigs didn’t make arguably the water’s tastiest fish any less prickly about showing that they really wanted the bait. Our practiced hook-setting technique from the spring quickly came back, and we boated several keepers among some small fish.

The building breeze made us thankful that we weren’t out amongst the big water to the south for the area’s outstanding inshore saltwater fishing. Michel pointed the bay boat toward an area on the adjacent shoreline known as the Shell Pit, and distributed split shot and small perch hooks to replace the mini jigs on our ultra-light spinning outfits.

“I’ve always experienced that jigging poles and ultra-lights don’t go together when fishing at the same time,” said Horst, who had brought both.

Michel uses 4-pound line in his early spring sac-a-lait angling, and continues with it throughout the bream season. Though it certainly casts well, 4-pound does tend to tangle easily — at least for me — and 6-pound-test makes a world of difference in getting back in action following a missed fish, when line, sinker, cork and hook come flying back at you.

The grubs were instantly attacked by the wide variety of panfish species taking a liking to the squirming motion of the bait. What was amazing was the resiliency of the bait after a fish was added to the ice chest. The tough outer body acted much like squid in staying on the hook. Even small fish, renowned for their bait-stealing acumen were mostly unsuccessful in stripping our hooks. Unsuccessful hooksets were soon struck again.

Though replacing a used bait was a fresh one did draw strikes during the lulls in action, when the fish were hot, four or five perch were common on the same bait.

“These baits are like crack for bream,” said Michel. “It’s like they have to eat them.”

Because the grub comes from below the water bottom, it’s unlikely that the bait is a natural food for the fish, but it does bear a resemblance to that of many other natural foods.

The run of perch from the Terrebonne Parish grapevine had the number of boats in the small cove reaching double digits, but it was apparent that we were the ones enjoying the best action.

These grubs are usually found along the stems of the lilies from May to August in the lower Terrebonne area. Curiously, Horst reported that he could not find any grubs in his home water in the Basin.

Unfortunately, Michel reports that the lilies are not present in Lake Penchant this year, but says they are out there somewhere and wherever they are, it’s worth it to check out the stems.

“It’s just the natural cycle of things,” said Michel of the lilies’ disappearing act.

Baits such as crickets, worms and grass shrimp are effective for the fish in this region, as they are in any other area where bream inhabit.

The other thing to not forget is the adventuresome spirit of sticking a hand as far to the bottom of a shallow lake as possible and gently pulling on a lily pad stem. It could make you forget the bait-purchasing routine forever.