Pushepatapa Pumpkinseeds

Ever fish for trout in the quiet of a scenic stream? Well, in this Florida Parish creek, you won’t catch trout, but everything else is the same, and the pumpkinseeds more than take up the slack.

Pushepatapa Creek has been designated a wild and scenic river by the state of Louisiana. I now know why. The first time its cool, clear water swirled around my feet, I found that I had entered a completely different world.

Accustomed to fishing for redfish under the relentless glare of the sun, I found welcome sanctuary in the shade under the overhanging boughs. My fly line was protected from the wind, and my ankles were surrounded by cool water instead of biting sandflies. What a pleasant place to fish.

The sunfish that live in the Pushepatapa are bright and colorful, not at all like the darkly colored bream that inhabit the tannin-stained waters in the swamps that I usually fish. The male longear sunfish are as pretty as any fish that swims. Their bellies are brilliant red, and their heads and backs are decorated with an electrified shade of turquoise.

The Pushepatapa is also home to some respectable bluegills, green sunfish and spotted bass. The bluegills are thick-bodied and beautifully marked. The spotted bass swim at mach 2 and shoot out of the water like rockets when they feel the hook. But it’s the longear sunfish that make this stream special.

These little guys dart out of nowhere to strike your popper as it races along with the current. They are small but have big hearts. The larger longears can really put a bend a 0-weight fly rod. The sunfish are the reason I drive 90 miles one way to fish in shin-deep water.

The Pushepatapa begins in Mississippi, and winds its way on a southeasterly course through the pines and dogwoods in Washington Parish and spills into the Pearl River north of Bogalusa. Its clear water is cool even in the middle of August. Pushepatapa Creek is narrow enough that the trees along its banks provide shade for the angler on a hot summer’s day. It’s a little narrow for a fly fisherman, but using care and a short rod, back casts are generally safe from the trees. The creek bottom is sand and gravel, providing good footing for a wading angler.

Fishing for sunfish means flyfishing. Light fly rods are a better match for these small fish. Rods of 5-weight and lighter are ideal for the sunfish that swim in this little river. I fish with an 8-foot, 0-weight Sage. A palm-sized sunfish can bend it nearly double.

This rod can cast a size 8 popper about 40 feet. The creek doesn’t have many places with enough room for a long cast. A short fly rod is easier to manage under all the branches and brush that droop down from the high banks.

The easiest fly to use is the standard size 8 perch popper with rubber legs. It’s simple and effective. The sunfish and the shiners love it. The Pushepatapa has a healthy population of striped shiners. These fish grow to about 7 inches long, and take a fly as readily as the sunfish.

A No. 8 popper is a little small for fishing spotted bass, but if you want plenty of action on sunfish, this fly is hard to beat. Black and white is my favorite color combination.

The New Orleans Fly Fishers journey to this creek several times every year. Some of the club members are displaced cold-water fishers of rainbows and browns who have relocated to the Big Easy. They fish with the flies they use for trout — Madam X’s, dry flies and bead head nymphs. These flies all catch fish, but its much easier for old eyes to keep track of a cork-bodied popper that is bobbing along in the current under overhanging branches.

Susan Adams and John Prickett, both cold-water fishers and N.O.F.F. members, fish the Pushepatapa because it is the closest thing to trout fishing near New Orleans.

“I fish with a size 10 or 12 elk hair caddis. It catches fish, and I like to fish on top,” Prickett said.

Adams has a different opinion.

“A size 10 bead head prince nymph gets down to where the fish are and produces a lot of nice-sized sunfish,” she said.

Eight-pound tippet is about right for this stream, and will not overpower a size 8 popper. These sunfish are not leader-shy. Lighter tippets leave too many flies up in the branches. Heavier line makes it easier to pull your fly out of a tree. When fishing with smaller flies, lighter tippets are required for the fly to appear natural as it drifts in the current. I drop down to 4-pound tippet when using dry flies and small nymphs.

Wading the Pushepatapa requires carrying everything you might need with you. Bare minimum needed is water, a good assortment of flies, spare leaders, pliers, a knife, eyeglasses for tying small flies on thin monofilament, and a good pair of polarized sunglasses. A camera is always a good idea on this beautiful river.

Carrying this gear is not hard. Getting it in and out of a backpack can be difficult when knee-deep water is swirling around you. Take a lesson from the cold-water fishermen, and buy a vest. A good fishing vest has lots of pockets and pouches to hold your gear within easy reach. There are also a number of fly fishing bags on the market that are designed for anglers who like to carry more gear than a vest can hold. Good equipment makes life easier on the fisherman.

The first time I was invited to fish the Pushepatapa with the NOFF, I stuffed my gear into my backpack and stepped into the water. Several hundred yards downstream I tried to get my digital camera out of the bag. Balancing a fly rod while removing the backpack wasn’t easy. Getting the camera safely in and out of the bag required wading to an exposed gravel bar and putting everything down on a dry spot.

For short trips, I use an insulated bag to carry my stuff. It has a shoulder strap and hangs at my side just below my left arm. The bag doesn’t interfere with my casting. It has a separate pouch to store a bottle of water. Getting a drink doesn’t require opening the bag, and my camera is safe and within easy reach.

Shorts and an old pair of running shoes do just fine in warm weather. I wear a pair of saltwater flats boots that protect my ankles and keep gravel from getting inside. These neoprene boots are easy to wash and don’t soak up water like running shoes. Sandals don’t offer enough protection from gravel and submerged branches.

Casting ability is important to catch fish on the Pushepatapa. The closer you get your fly to the cover, the more fish you will catch. The challenge is presented by overhanging branches that protect the fish holding against the bank from your fly.

Casting at a slight downstream angle makes it easier to get a fly into the cover. Place the fly a little upcurrent of the cover, and allow it to drift as close as possible to your target. There are two advantages to this tactic. The current where the fish are holding is moving much slower than the current where your fly line is floating. This causes the fly line to move downstream faster than the fly. On a cross-stream cast, the current sweeps the fly line downstream, pulling the fly across the current and away from the cover. A downstream cast allows the fly to drift without drag and appear more natural to the fish.

Casting at an angle also gives the caster a little more room for the back cast. This creek is narrow, and the overhanging branches will snag your fly if you don’t pay careful attention to your back cast. A quick glance over your shoulder before casting will reduce the time you spend picking flies out of branches.

Sunfish will be wherever they can find protection from the current. Logs and submerged branches provide some cover. Many fish hold tightly against a steep bank. Tree roots protruding into the water from a steep bank provide ideal cover for the longear sunfish.

These fish will not move far from their lair to eat a fly. The fly must float right over their heads to draw a strike. Drifting a fly 2 inches from the bank will catch four times as many fish as a fly drifting 6 inches from the bank.

My favorite time of the year to fish the Pushepatapa is the last week of August through October. Kids are back in school, and the dove hunters have put their fishing poles in the corner. The river sees less fishing pressure, and the fish are less wary. The creek is almost deserted, leaving me to fish in seclusion.

There are several places to access the Pushepatapa. Highway 21 crosses it about a dozen miles north of Bogalusa, a little south of Varnado. Just north of the Highway 21 bridge is Seal Road. The intersection of Highway 21 and Seal Road is marked by a blinking yellow traffic light. Turn east at the light, go over the tracks and take a right on 436. That road crosses the creek about three quarters of a mile south of this intersection. The water is deeper here, and the banks steep, so be careful.

Other options are to turn west at Seal Road and take a left at the first blacktop road a little more than a half mile down. About half a mile farther down Seal Road, a second blacktop road to the left also leads to the Pushepatapa. Seal Road crosses the creek about five and a half miles past the second blacktop road.

Little bonuses for fishing this creek pop up from time to time. The first time I fished the Pushepatapa, I was not set up to carry gear properly, and inadvertently left my water in the truck. It was the first of June and pretty warm. Luckily I stumbled upon some dewberry vines hanging from the bank loaded with berries. One thirsty fisherman got a break that day.

As summer ends, wild muscadine grapes start to ripen along the creek. They have leathery skins and large pits, but are a tasty treat when you find yourself too far from your truck.

The Pushepatapa is always changing. Time and current are relentless. A good spot last month may be only a memory this month. Logs come and go, pressed on to their destination by the forces of nature. The sunfish go with the flow. They will take up residence behind a newly deposited log, and find new cover when the current eventually carries it downstream.

One of my favorite spots by an old magnolia tree was unfishable on my last trip. It was shielded from my fly line by a massive branch that was broken from the old tree and hanging down into the current. The branch will be gone next trip or next year, and I’ll be able to get that black and white popper against the roots once again. Wherever that old magnolia branch happens to come to rest, a bunch of longear sunfish will adopt it as their new home, and some fly fisherman will be casting a fly against it in pursuit of these bright little fish.

The Pushepatapa is a small piece of water with little sanctuary for the fish. I practice catch and release on this creek. I just doesn’t seem right to remove these beautiful fish from such a wonderful creek. Taking these fish from the Pushepatapa is kind of like stealing from a church. Put them back for next Saturday; that’s the day I’ll be fishing there.