Now’s a good time to call in sick and hit the creek channels in Lake D’Arbonne, where crappie will do their best to pull your rod from your hand.
My grandfather used to have a plaque at the end of his hall that read, “If fishing interferes with work, quit work!”
Next to it was another that read, “A bad day of fishing is better than a good day at work!”
This was a man who had his priorities straight — at least in theory. The problem was that he never actually heeded the advice in his own hall.
How many of you dream of fishing while looking out the office window? Give up work to go fishing? I’ve got a family to support.
Wouldn’t it be a hoot if somebody actually took some of those old fishing sayings to heart?
In the off chance that you’ve never heard of him, Bobby Phillips, the one-time owner of The Honey Hole tackle shop in West Monroe, is that hoot. He used to have some of those old fishing sayings on little wooden plaques in his store.
Maybe he saw his plaques more frequently than my grandfather saw his. Maybe he realized that when you make fishing your business, you seldom have the chance to fish. Or maybe he just finally listened to the pearls of wisdom those little plaques kept screaming to him every day when he opened his store.
Phillips quit work so he could go fishing. He sold his business to David Owen, who in turn hired Phillips to work a few days a week. I guess even Phillips couldn’t stay on the water all the time.
And there’s no water Phillips would rather be on than Lake D’Arbonne during the winter when the crappie are stacked in the channel like FEMA trailers in Arkansas.
The D’Arbonne channel
It’s easy to tell when the crappie start biting in the D’Arbonne channel. A quick trip across any of the bridges will provide all the evidence you need in lines of boats as far as the eye can see. If you have time to slow down a little, watch their rod tips. You can bet many of them will be bent.
Although I don’t live in North Louisiana anymore, I have enough friendly sets of eyeballs that keep me abreast of what’s happening around that part of the state. Of course, it doesn’t take much investigation to know when the crappie start biting, but I was just a little bit surprised that my call came so early this year.
“They’re on,” said the raspy voice on the other end of the line. “When you coming up?”
My informant and I couldn’t find a date that fit both our schedules, so I decided to call Phillips instead. He was feeling a little under the weather, but he just couldn’t resist. The good thing was that he didn’t have to call in sick.
I met Phillips the following weekend at the Stowe Creek Bridge off LA 15. The day that dawned so clearly in West Monroe became wispy and gray the closer I got to the lake. By the time I reached the landing, I couldn’t see Phillips, who was already fishing under the bridge, but I could hear his gravely North Louisiana twang.
“Chris?” he asked as he saw my form approaching the ramp. “Get your stuff and get in. I got five good ones in the box already, and I don’t want to leave them too long. We’re going to sit here and catch these fish until the wind blows the fog off the lake. Then we’ll run out there by the Highway 33 Bridge with everybody else.”
And when Phillips said everybody else, he meant nearly every crappie angler in North Louisiana along with even a few out-of-towners. It happens the same every year. Once the lake water cools down, the crappie begin a mass migration to the channel, where they find everything they need to withstand the winter.
According to Region 2 LDWF biologist Mike Wood, the crappie simply follow their food source. Threadfin shad and inland silversides are sensitive to cold weather, which is why they move to the vicinity of deeper water in winter. Not wanting to be very far from their groceries, the crappie follow.
As Phillips and I trolled back over to the creek side of the Stowe Creek Bridge, he handed me two long fly rods with “Bobby Phillips” emblazoned in gold along their butt sections — rods of his own design. A blue/white tube jig was dangling from the hook keeper on one, and a blue/white hair jig was on the other.
“Grab one in each hand,” he instructed. “This water is about 11 feet deep here, and I caught these fish about 10 feet. These rods are 11-foot long. Strip out enough line so that the jig is hanging about a foot above the reel. Put them in the water, and keep your rod top near the surface — you’ll be in the right depth.”
Berkley Crappie Nibble
Before I could slip the jigs in the shimmering water, Phillips grabbed my arm.
“Hold on a minute there,” he scolded. “You can’t put those jigs in the water without a Berkley Crappie Nibble.”
He tossed me a small jar full of shimmering pellets that looked like dough balls, and told me to thread one onto each hook.
Apparently Phillips gave me the rods he was using earlier because I started steadily adding slabs to those already in the box, while his rods remained motionless.
“Same poles, same baits, same Nibbles — must be beginner’s luck,” he chided.
It didn’t take Phillips long to get back in his groove, though. You might say it’s as difficult for Phillips to not catch crappie as it is for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to not turn left. The fog eventually lifted, and we headed out to the main channel to join the crowds.
On the way out to the channel, I couldn’t help but take advantage of the experience that sat behind the steering wheel. I began peppering Phillips with questions intended to bring some of that experience to light.
“They actually started a little early this year,” Phillips said over the whine of his 40-horse motor. “They started biting up Little D’Arbonne back in late September because the water temperature up there was unnaturally cool. They were draining Lake Claiborne, and that water was coming from the bottom of the lake and coming right down into D’Arbonne.”
The crappie up the Little D’Arbonne didn’t care what it was making the water temperature fall. All they knew was that the water was getting cold, and it was time for them to start biting. What anglers saw when they traveled up D’Arbonne shocked them. There were dead fish everywhere.
“The Little D’Arbonne fish kill was reported to us on Sept. 25,” said Wood. “It was significant with over 100,000 fish involved. However, the area of the kill was limited to a relatively small stretch (of D’Arbonne Bayou) below the Lake Claiborne dam. Dead fish were observed for miles downstream, but those were fish that drifted down with the current.”
Wood suspects that the poor water quality with low dissolved oxygen was what caused the kill. The time of the kill directly corresponded with the release of water from Lake Claiborne, which was water from the bottom of the lake.
This poor water combined with water below the dam that wasn’t very good either because of the hot, dry weather. The mix of the two waters resulted in a localized environment in which fish could not survive.
However as this water flowed downstream, it diluted and soon reached a level that was suitable for fish. Below the point of the kill, Wood explained that no fish were lost. Therefore, crappie anglers up Little D’Arbonne were catching fish while watching dead fish float by.
“Our investigation concluded that the Claiborne drawdown was conducted as per recommendations,” Wood said. “The water release was no different than many that have occurred in the past with no kill. Unfortunately, this time the conditions were just right to be wrong.”
The good news for Phillips and other anglers is that the crappie population of Lake D’Arbonne was not adversely affected. Wood and his crew were at Gill’s Ferry up the D’Arbonne arm doing some electofishing sampling on the night after they investigated the kill. There were dead fish in the area, but the sample was the best Wood had seen there in a long time.
“The crappie population of D’Arbonne Lake could hardly be described in any way other than excellent,” Wood insisted.
As we made our way toward the Highway 33 bridge, Phillips informed me that a lot of his fishing buddies had limited out the day before in the channel in front of Jake’s Landing, which is basically the area in front of the D’Arbonne Lake Marina. As we swerved through the crowd to take our place in the flotilla, Phillips began calling out those he knew and some he didn’t.
“You need a rear-view mirror out here to make sure you don’t back into somebody,” Phillips joked as he tried to turn his boat to talk to a friend. “There’s a reason they’re all out here, though. Watch all these rod tips start bouncing down.”
The channel in the main lake is a lot deeper than those up the three main arms. Therefore, Phillips told me to set my jigs at 17 feet deep by stripping enough line to allow the jig to hang at the reel then pulling out two more strips to the first rod eye — a 3-foot distance. We gave the line another 1-foot pull for good measure, and started fishing.
“Get up here and look at this fish finder,” Phillips said. “See how all these fish are at 17 to 20 feet deep? By setting our lines at 17 feet, we can catch any of these fish at that depth because crappie feed up. Those down at 20 feet will come up to 17 to grab a bite.”
While he was showing me the fish on his LCD, Phillips informed me that one of the reasons he catches so many fish from the channel during the winter is because he doesn’t stay long in one area if he isn’t spotting fish on the screen. He admits he can’t tell what kind of fish they are on the screen, but if they are suspended in the channel, they are probably crappie.
Phillips also credits a relatively new tube jig on the market for his success in the crowded channel. He called it a Slab Buster, and new Honey Hole owner David Owen said it has become his best-selling jig since Phillips started fishing it.
“It’s been around a couple years, but it’s only been in this area since last spring,” said Owen. “We stocked 10 colors late last year after the season was essentially over, and it sold well enough that I put in every color they make. Besides the unique tail on this jig, it’s the only one I know of that comes pre-scented with garlic.”
While Phillips admits that color is more for the angler than it is for the fish, he does believe that color can make a big difference when times get tough. The front deck of his boat is scattered with the tattered remains of out-of-work tubes that didn’t perform. His two best performers remain the blue/white Slab Buster and a No. 180 pale-blue/white Black Lake hair jig.
After realizing the bite was off in front of Jakes, Phillips just couldn’t sit still any longer. His influence in the crappie world was evident as several hands simultaneous turned their ignition keys with his. As he moved, they moved.
“The good thing about fishing the channel during the winter is that there are several miles of channel to try if the fish aren’t biting where you are,” Phillips explained. “The general rule is that they bite better up the creeks in late fall and early winter, and they bite best down by the dam the colder it gets.”
When the bite is fast, Phillips prefers to hand-hold a pole in each hand. When it slows down and when he is trying to figure out the bite, he puts his poles in rod holders on each front corner of his boat to form a spider rig. Each pole is set at different depths, and each has a different bait or color. Once he figures them out, he switches all to the same depth and lure.
“The funny thing is up here the bite can get so fast that the spider rig will drive you crazy,” Phillips said. “It can get a little wild when you get a fish on three or four different poles at the same time.”
Catching crappie three or four at a time? Now that’s some good fishing — the kind of fishing that will make a man quit work, or at least call in sick a time or two.