The Atchafalaya Basin offers consistent sac-a-lait action this time of year to anglers who know how to tightline a jig.
Louisiana has its great and storied winter sac-a-lait fishing holes such as Saline-Larto and the Chicken Coop at Toledo Bend.
Locals and “snowbirds” alike pull slabs from those places with different techniques that are extremely effective.
But you can easily get a tug on your line this time of year when Old Man Winter starts blowing his icy breath into South Louisiana, too. There are several areas where sac-a-lait go to get comfortable and eat as the water temperature drops.
The Atchafalaya Basin is one of them. More specifically, Henderson Lake in St. Martin Parish and, across the West Atchafalaya Basin Protection Levee, Bayou Amy are proven hotspots in colder climes.
While other outdoorsmen are hunting ducks, deer, squirrels and rabbits in and around those areas, fishermen like Glenn Angelle of Cecilia and Laurette Mequet of Cecilia sample the quality sac-a-lait fishing frequently.
Their favorite spot is the long stretch of stanchions holding up Interstate 10, particularly between north and south Lake Bigeux. The deep channel between the twin span is an excellent place to fish most of the time because it runs east-west, which means when the big north (or south) winds blow, the canal is protected by the high mounds on the north and south sides.
Access is via the public landing between the twin spans of Interstate 10 on the east side of the lake and also at private boat landings along the West Atchafalaya Basin Protection Levee near Henderson. There’s sure to be a steady stream of bundled up sac-a-lait fishermen putting their boats down.
“It really starts getting good like the first week of duck season,” Mequet said recently from Cypress Cove Landing, which she and her husband, Mitch, bought over the summer.
Sac-a-lait fishing usually gets even better after that, according to Angelle, who took time out from making homemade duck calls one late afternoon a few weeks ago to share some insight on his other passion.
“My best days are Thanksgiving to Christmas. I’ve really caught some fat, healthy fish along the willow and Christmas trees” that are planted religiously around the pilings each year, he said. He has dropped many of them himself.
Mequet and Angelle agreed that sac-a-lait fishing there should have gotten warmed up around the first of November. She was going to go try at that time. Ditto for Angelle.
“That’s the best time, starting right now (end of October) until about February. If the good Lord’s willing, I’m ready, yes. I’ve got all my poles strung with new lines. I’m ready to go check Amy and Henderson. They’re not quite ready in the trees yet (I-10 stretch in Henderson Lake),” he said.
Actually, Angelle, 55, never stops fishing. He usually fishes three days a week and carves and tunes duck calls the other four days.
He retired for medical reasons in 1989, after a drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico out of Freshwater Bayou blew up under him. The blast knocked him about 150 feet and broke his neck. Surgeons pieced his body back together.
“I’m very fortunate to be alive,” he said.
Sac-a-lait in the area aren’t so fortunate. He’s become a well-polished sac-a-lait fishing machine.
However, he doesn’t take the sport for granted. He works at it. For example, during the winter of 2002-03, he planted about 75 Christmas trees in front of the pilings along I-10.
Angelle said he uses cinder blocks and cement tests in cylinders that cement companies give free to people who go get them, he said from considerable experience. He ties the weights with bailing wire to the Christmas and/or willow trees and sinks them in the muck and mud on the bottom.
He also drops whole trees in front of deadfalls in Bayou Amy, a task that takes a considerable amount of time to accomplish, he said.
Why go through the trouble? For the same reason anglers anywhere plant brushpiles. Sac-a-lait love them and hang around them. Manmade structure is just as good as Mother Nature’s version.
“If you dropped them in June or July, you can start fishing them now. Once you start fishing the trees from now until January, you have to find out what depth they (fish) are. I’ve caught them 9- and 10-feet deep,” Angelle said.
With that in mind, he turns to a heavier leadhead for his artificial jigs. Color, he said, doesn’t really matter.
Herb Boulet of Lafayette, who makes Stumpy Bayou Jigs, makes one that “is a little heavier than 1/16-ounce,” Angelle said. Boulet reportedly designed the heavier leadhead several years ago.
“There are a lot more people tightlining (fishing without a cork). He came out with a heavier jig, and we’ve gotten used to fishing it,” Angelle said.
It works, too. He averages 20 or more keepers when the fishing’s right on an outing to I-10.
“I strictly tightline. I can’t stand a cork. I don’t know, it’s slower fishing with a cork. Tightline and I can fish 6 inches to 9 feet. You can fish faster tightlining,” he said.
He doesn’t know how good or bad the sac-a-lait fishing might be there this winter. Henderson’s sac-a-lait fishing has been “off and on” this year. A drawdown in October coupled with heavy boat traffic while more drilling rigs were pulled from the lake combined to make the fishing pretty spotty going into November.
“It’s been very hard to figure out. But when you can find a good place now (where the water isn’t messed up), you can catch good numbers of fish,” he said.
Angelle usually catches bigger sac-a-lait, anyway, on the other side of the levee in Bayou Amy. A 3-pound, 6-ounce sac-a-lait mounted on the wall of his home came from there, he said.
“I’ve never seen one that big in a while from Henderson,” he said.
Bayou Amy’s lure is twofold, he said. There apparently is less fishing pressure there because people don’t like to fish it, probably because they aren’t familiar with it, and there is a tidal flow caused by the Vermilion River.
He fishes with 8-pound-test line on both sides of the levee. The line might be a little heavier than other anglers prefer, he acknowledged, but it’s necessary to pull slabs out of trees, especially in Bayou Amy, where he has been fishing steadily since 1999.
Fishing often gets red-hot when the water temperature on either side stays between 57 and 62 degrees, he said.
“That’s what I’m looking for,” he said.
Mequet, 41, said low water in the rest of the lake is one reason the sac-a-lait fishing picks up in the channel along Interstate 10. She has been fishing it hard for a decade, so she ought to know.
“When the lake gets low, we’re fishing where the deeper water stays. There’s not enough water in the flats. In between the Interstate, there’s enough water for sac-a-lait to concentrate because the water’s deeper. We call that big-water fishing,” she said.
Fish don’t really gang up around those pilings, she said, like crappie do in the Chicken Coop on the west side of Toledo Bend a few miles north of Pendleton Bridge. But anglers probably pick up more at a spot than the alternative.
“Gang up? No. But they’re not all over the flats. You don’t have to fish stump to stump. They’re more out in the channel. I’d call that more concentrated in that area,” she said.
Mequet, who also works at M&M Fishing Center and as a sales person at Boat CityUSA, both in Henderson, said on her better days on the water there she keeps 30-35 sac-a-lait. She noted that she only keeps fish of fillet-able size.
Like Angelle, Mequet said she tightlines and fishes with 8-pound-test line. She fishes with black/chartreuse, black/red and black/orange tube jigs and hair jigs on 1/48-ounce leadheads (sometimes with a black eye on each side, sometimes plain) and tips the hook with Crappie Nibbles, which some people call “marshmallows,” she said.
It’s important to fish deep, she said.
“They put a lot of downed cypress trees, Christmas trees and fallen branches underneath the Interstate,” she said. But they aren’t right up against the pilings because the pilings stand on a large base.
“You have to go all the way down because when the fish are there in the winter you fish anywhere from 8- to 10-feet deep,” she said. “Between north and south Bigeux, I would fish 14- to 16-feet deep because it’s deeper right there. It’s 18-, 20-feet deep.”
People who can tightline well should enjoy fishing there, she said from experience.
“We have quite a few people who do it (fish the pilings regularly each winter). If they get a chance to go fishing, that’s a good place to send them. If they like tightlining, it’s a good, easy place to go out tightlining,” she said.
But which pilings are best to fish? Which ones are spiced up with sunken trees and branches?
“Most all the double pilings have some kind of structure,” Mequet confided.
Still, it pays to know where to drop the tube jig, hair jig or shiner. She shared her knowledge on placement.
“If there’s a little current in the lake, you want to fish behind the current. It’s like the sac-a-lait are waiting for baitfish to pass by. They wait behind the piling, out of the current. That’s how I decide where to fish,” said the woman who is on the Pro Mercury Team.
Besides the pilings, Mequet said the railroad pilings just north of I-10 hold plenty of sac-a-lait in the winter. And, she said, she likes to fish deadfalls in north Lake Bigeux this time of year.